The Persistence of the Classical: Essays on Architecture presented to David Watkin

February 19, 2009

This beautiful book is a tribute to a distinguished architectural historian on the occasion of his retirement from the University of Cambridge, and includes a useful bibliography of David Watkin's writings published between 1961 and 2008. The authors were connected in some way with Cambridge and were at various times pupils, teachers or colleagues of the great man: persons of quality all, they are Barry Bergdoll, Anthony Geraghty, Manolo Guerci, John Harris, Richard John, Robin Middleton, Roderick O'Donnell, Alan Powers, John Martin Robinson, Frank Salmon, Charles Saumarez Smith, Roger Scruton, Gavin Stamp, John Wilton-Ely and Christopher Woodward.

Watkin's eminence as a scholar needs no emphasis, for his contributions on aspects of Classicism, notably his work on Thomas Hope (1769-1831), Charles Robert Cockerell (1788-1863) and Sir John Soane (1753-1837) have vastly increased our understanding of a remarkable period in the history of taste.

His splendid German Architecture and the Classical Ideal 1740-1840 (1987, with Tilman Mellinghoff) revealed the glories of German Classicism to an anglophone readership. There were many other fine works of scholarship, but in 1977 he took on the Lib-Lab gerontocracy with his Morality and Architecture, which the admirable Denys Miller Sutton reviewed favourably in Apollo, thereby prompting torrents of vitriolic abuse, notably a vile piece by Reyner Banham in The Times Literary Supplement.

Watkin had exposed the fallacies, cant, humbug and sheer dishonesty of the collectivists who did so much to destroy the language of architecture: he lambasted the "loose language and slipshod scholarship, which everywhere goes with vulgar Marxism" and attacked "populistic chauvinism" with rigour and good sense. He also exposed the malignancy of certain entrenched positions, pointing out that morality is one thing and style another.

The viciousness of the attacks on Watkin (who was perceived in some quarters as an enemy of "progressive" forces) included a disgraceful day-long session at University College London (where the works of Watkin and Scruton were denounced for their supposedly politically suspect stances) to which neither Watkin nor Scruton was invited: this says much about the value placed on academic freedom and open discussion by totalitarians who prefer vulgar abuse to civilised debate.

Watkin has been a champion of the Classical tradition in the widest sense. His support for certain practitioners earned him the enmity of a Modernist establishment that promotes energy-guzzling, badly performing, uncomfortable and unsustainable buildings, and goes to outrageous lengths to block designs by architects working in that Classical tradition. The recent saga of Quinlan Terry's designs for the Royal Hospital at Chelsea is only one such example of the machinations that go on: one is reminded of photographs of worthies in totalitarian countries from which no-longer-acceptable faces have been expunged.

The point about the Classical tradition inherited from Greco-Roman Antiquity is that it is infinitely capable of being reinterpreted by competent designers: it is, in fact, a great and expressive civilised language with a mighty vocabulary, yet it has been rejected by those who favour an architectural patois of monosyllabic grunts, sociological twaddle and empty slogans.

Salmon's team has produced an elegant tribute: we have Geraghty on Wren, Eliot and Summerson; John on Vitruvius; O'Donnell on Classical Roman Catholic churches; Powers illuminating Hope Bagenal; Scruton affectionately recalling Watkin when young; Middleton returning to French Neoclassicism; Harris on Hope's celebrated house in Surrey; Salmon on entasis; Saumarez Smith on the National Gallery; Guerci on Barry and Northumberland House; Robinson de-Gothicising Wilton House; Wilton-Ely reassessing Sir Albert Richardson; Stamp on astylar Classicism; Bergdoll recalling the Museum of Modern Art's 1975 exhibition on Postmodernist Classicism; and Woodward on the English Picturesque. All in all, it is a satisfying read and a fine tribute to a great historian who has had the guts to stick his neck out on more than one occasion.

Watkin's championship of Classicism is not about style: it concerns, among other things, profound human responses to the nature of public spaces and the need for order if we are to enjoy civilised life and freedom.

A free-for-all, the ghastly housing estates promoted by Modernists and the ruination by them of virtually every town and city in these islands, have been disasters of the greatest magnitude: they are about coercion, totalitarianism and the crushing of the human spirit; they are not about freedom, but about dire impoverishment.

Watkin's defence and promotion of the Classical idea is concerned with liberty, not individual licence, and civilised values rather than those of the oik. His stance, as Scruton points out, is "rooted in the moral sense". It is also based on compassion (something singularly lacking among his opponents), for Watkin is a profoundly compassionate man and has been well served by the contributors to this marvellous Festschrift.

The Persistence of the Classical: Essays on Architecture presented to David Watkin

Edited by Frank Salmon. Philip Wilson, 256pp, £30.00. ISBN 9780856676611. Published 30 November 2008

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