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English Conservatism and the Aesthetics of Architecture

English Conservatism and the
Aesthetics of Architecture
Michael Rustin
Architecture seems a ‘natural’ subject for conservatives,
and it is therefore fitting that it has become one of the
maill t·:!rrains for the advocacy of the intellectual perspectives of the New Right. Particularly, that is, of the New
Right in England, where organic and traditionalist ideas
have remained more influential than in the more individualist stream of neo-conservative thought in the United
States. The critique of ‘modernism’ has been a major theme
of t l1e architectural journals in England for several years.

Some months ago the Prince ‘of Wales, probably by no
means a ‘new rightist’ in general outlook, chose to launch
an attack on the sins of modern architecture, and on the
National Gallery Extension plans and the proposed Mies van
der Rohe skyscraper in the City of London in particular.

Two important books on the aesthetics of architecture have
recently been produced by English conservative writers,
David Watkin and Roger Scruton . A third member
of the ‘Salisbury Review’ group, John Casey , also
writes about aesthetics. It is with the most substantial of
these books, Roger Scruton’s The Aesthetics of Architecture, that this article is mainly concerned.

– – Buildings, more than most human artifacts, are made to
last. They thus physically preserve the spirit of the past.

They are conspicuous markers of authority, of values, and
of social relationships. The relative size of buildings – the
preeminence of cathedrals or castles in one society, of skyscrapers or government offices in another – are one obvious
index of the power of dominant institutions . The relationship between buildings – in a town square, or around a
village green – can signify more equal relationships, perhaps within a single social class in the way that the British
Parliament in the eighteenth century represented a degree
of equality within a narrow landed class, and the exclusion
of those without. 1unicipal housing can encode an impersonal and massified view of citizens, or something more
differentiated and human. Sometimes the symbolic form of
buildings represents religious or social values in a kind of
metaphoric translation. Wittkower’s Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism , cited as an exemplary
work by Scruton,emphasises the Christian Platonism which
underlay much Renaissance building, ideas of mathematical
proportion being associated with divine harmony, and giving
rise to the characteristic order liness and proportions of
Renaissance church architecture. A similar point is made
by Von Simson , writing about the Christian symbolism
of Gothic cathedrals. The ideas of illumination and structure are linked by him to Christian conceptions of proportion and ‘harmony. This conception of buildings bearing
social meanings raises the issue for socialists of what
meanings they would want buildings to have, and poses the
question of whether the much-criticised aesthetic of ‘modernism’ has given a human form to contemporary architecture, or has failed to do so as its cr i tics assert. Buildings
preserve and continue the cultural forms of the past. Not
least in England, where visiting ‘stately homes’ is a mass,
leisure pursuit, especially of the middle class (the National
Trust has over a million members), and where the qualities
of old country towns and country houses are celebrated
with loving care in fact and in fiction on television in

many weeks of the year. If one wants to ~ake an argument
for the importance of tradition in social life, architecture
seems to be the prototypical place to do so.

Yet the ideological need for this arises paradoxically
because the intellectual field of architecture has been
dominated until recently in England by the protagonists of
the Modern. A generation of architectural writers and historians, which included Nicholas Pevsner, James Richards,
Herbert Read and even John Summerson, argued for the
proper linkage of a new architecture with a more democratic and egalitarian society. While the advocacy and
practice of ‘modernism’ in England has taken the evolutionary and mild form that one might expect from other aspects of British social development, nevertheless it has
been allied with historical progressivism since the First
World War. Where in America, the principal patrons of
modern architecture have been corporations and rich private individuals, in England it has depended on public bodies, such as local authority housing and education departments (such as the L.C.C. and Hertfordshire County Council), the London Transport Executive, the universities (including not least Oxford and Cambridge), and the municipal
patrons of public buildings such as the -South Bank site.

There have been important industrial and commercial commissions of ‘modernist’ buildings, but not on the scale found
in the great cities of the United States, in Manhattan or
Chicago. The Festival of Britain in 1951, much derided by
conservatives then and since, was an attempt symbolically
to link the cause of modernism with Britain’s post-war reconstruction under a Labour government. Whilst Nicholas
Pevsner has traced a distinctively ‘vernacular’ course of
development of modern architecture in Britain , and has
created what is virtually a national cultural institution to
compare with the Ordnance Survey in its implicit celebration of British topography (in his Penguin Buildings of England series), there was )10 contradiction for him, as there is
now for conservative writers, in linking this development to
the ideal of a more democratic and egalitarian society.

The recent repudiation of and challenge to ‘modernism’

has taken somewhat different forms in Imerica and in
3ritain. In the United States, the most influential direction
has been that of ‘Post-Modernism’. It has been based on a
cr i tique of the rational ist impersonality and auster i ty of
modernism, and of its more grandiose technocratic aspirations to transform the world. Ventury in his influential
Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966)
argued against the false simplicity of ‘Orthodox Modernism’.

In their attempt to break with tradition and start
all over again, they idealised the primitive and elementary at the expense of the diverse and sophisticated.

As participants in a revolution, they
acclaimed the newness of modern functions, ignoring their complications. In their role as reformers,
they puritanically advocated the separation and
exclusion of elements, rather than the inclusion of
various elements and their juxtapositions.

But arguments like this are, as Charles Jencks has
pointed out in qualification of the English anti-modernist
critiques, a development of modernism itself, not a repudia-

tion of it. Ventury advocated ‘a complex and contradictury
architecture based on the richness and ambiguity of modern
experience, including the experience which is inherent in
art’. He characterised an architectural tradition which he
identified with ‘Mannerist’ periods, and found exemplars of
its distinctive complexity and ambiguity not only in
Baroque and Gothic buildings, but also more immediately in
:nanYNorks of modern masters, including Le Cor busier ,
Aalto, and Kahn. This is less a return to tradition (meaning
pre-modern building styles) than an active re-interpretation
of it, drawing distinctions which transcend any simplifying
polarity of ancient and modern.

Modernism saw itself as a revolutionary cultural force,
seeking transcendence of the given world. Ventury, Scott
and Izenour’s Learning from Las Vegas (1972), on the other
hand, is an exuberant populist text, even though its authors
are in the last resort ambiguous and ironic about populism.

‘Main Street is almost all right,’ Ventury says in his first
book; ‘Billboards are almost all right,’ says Learning from
Las Vegas. But the main point of this book is a provocative
architectural thesis, making an intriguing analogy between
the communication most important on the Las Vegas Strip electronic signs on and around the buildings – and the ornamentation of much classical architecture. This is in praise
of a ‘decorated shed’ concept of architecture, contrasted
with ‘ducks’ or buildings that signHy directly through their
structural form, like the Dallas hamburger stand that looks
like a hamburger. This pr inciple of expression through
structure was important in the early modern movement.

Ventury and his colleagues enjoyed the brashness and vitality of Las Vegas commercialism, and claim to be on the
side of suburbanites and other ordinary users of buildings,
and against the professional arbiters of taste to whom they
assign the responsibility for much deadening urban improvement. Like Reyner Banham in Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971), they see that the view from
the motor car has its own aesthetic pleasures. But theirs is
a complex position. On the one hand, they endorse the
democracy of the market, and see that contemporary architecture can draw inspiration from ‘post-industrial’ technologies as early modernism borrowed from the iconography
of the first industrial revolution. On the other hand, ‘complexity and contradiction’ is hardly a populist rallying cry,
and its main intended audience was the architectural profession. Ventury’s work, both in writing and in design, is a
defence of architecture against the more grandiose ambitions of architects as utopian planners.

Things are different back in England. Here, the institutions of industry and commerce have fewer surplus resources and lack the cultural confidence to boldly impose a
corporate identity on the physical landscape. ‘Modernism’

has been, to a greater extent than in America, a cause of
the public sector. Who is going to celebrate the aesthetic
of a hamburger stand or a Shell petrol sign in Britain?

Instead, English anti-modernists have :>een advocates of the
vernacular and the traditional. They know more clearly
about the buildings they don’t want, than those they do.

Instead of attempting to re-theorise the architectural tradition in ways which allow for a more complex modern
archi tecture, a more. dismissive attack has been made on
the whole modern movement. Though Scruton’s own position
is less crude than this, he leaves only the barest theoretical space in his argument for a ‘tradition of the new’. Yet
even though no one should want to knock down Chipping
Campden, and all those other exquisite villages in the
Cotswolds, the future of British architecture can’t just lie
in preservation and tactful compromise with the antique.

Many of the popular transformations that have occurred in post-war British commercial culture, in the fields for
instance of interior design, fashion, and pop music, have
also been expressive of ideas of classlessness and even
youthful rebellion. They have sometimes been viewed on
the right as attacks on traditional moral values and ways
of life. The commercial success of Habitat was in its way a
product of Bauhaus modernism, and Marks and Spencer has

also been strong on design for practical use. (Incidentally,
this Bauhaus design tendency is less pervasive in its influence in the USA, where it is hard to find a decently designed dustpan-and-brush.) There has been a market form of
egalitarianism and modernism in Britain, as well as the
more collectivist forms we usually associate with the Welfare State. ‘Swinging London’ was not an altogether congenial image for British conservatives, and commercial culture for the traditionalists is as much a problem as a solution. ‘Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough,’ wrote the
late Poet Laureate, John Betjeman. Las Vegas thus has few
takers in Britain. While the hard-faced Tories of the
Thatcher school might have liked a militant commercial
tone, they have tended to defer in cultural matters to the
cultivated old guard. After all, commercial freedom in the
arts as likely as not meant pornography. So Lord Whitelaw
set up the exemplary and enlightened pluralism of Channel
4, and in state policies for the universities and the arts
Oxbridge and what Robert Hutchison referred to as
‘the opera class’ remain more-or-less in control. While the
ultra-traditionalist Tories of Peter house and the Salisbury
Review don’t really agree on philosophical fundamentals
with the possessive individualists of Thatcherism, they seem
to have decided nevertheless to give them unstinting
support against the common ‘progressive’ enemy.

English architectural conservatives have emphasised
tradition, vernacular styles, and the recently-neglected
qualities of Victorian and rural England, in their contest
with modernism and progressivism. The ‘vernacular’ at its
simplest means the use of building forms originally developed to suit local materials and conditions, but continued
for the sake of historical continuity and consistency. The
preservation of old buildings (one of the main concerns of
Morris as well as Pevsner) has been re-appropriated as a
cause by the right. English cultural conservatism, unlike its
American cousins, looks less to the abstract individual and
the marketplace, and more to the traditions of the past for
its fundamental values. There are individuaHsts “and organicists in currents of the right in both societies. But where
in the United States even the traditionalist movements (for
prayers in schools, for capital punishment, or against abortion) present themselves as the strident popular campaigns
of ordinary citizens, in Br i tain a superior upper-class tone
is more in evidence, in journals such as the Spectator and
Private Eye, and the Salisbury Review, in the assertion of
conservative values. The defence of a traditional statusorder still seems a more viable option here than it has ever
been in the United States.

An intellectual neo-conservatism is emerging in England
which is markedly different from the new conservatism of
·merica. Curiously, considering Thatcherite preoccupations
.vith sociological subversion, the disciplines of sociology
and anthropology have begun to provide a discourse for
traditionalist counter-attack. Bernice Martin’s A Sociology
of Contemporary Cultural Change is an intelligent
critique of the radical individualist culture of the 1960s, in
its various dimensions of popular culture, political ideology,
and professional mission. It contrasts the radical individualism of the counter-culture, in its sexual, educational,
therapeutic, and political practice, with traditional ideas 01
authority and social boundary. It plausibly suggests that the
emergence of new forms of religious sectarianism among
the young is a reaction to the catastrophic loss of identity
and structure brought about especially by the drug-culture
of the late 1960s, and after. It argues that in contrast
working-class communities were wedded to more traditional
conceptions of authority and an established way of life.

This analysis does go some way towards explaining working-class support for the conservative cultural backlash.

Mary Douglas’s anthropological work on the functions
of everyday symbolic languages (including, for example,
those of bodily appearance and the arrangements of family
meals) in externalising social boundaries and identities is
cited by Martin in her defence of (relatively) conservative
social values. This work shares a concern with a ‘whole

way of life’ of working-class ethnographers of socialist
sympathy, such as Hoggart and Seabrook, but argues that
the values of such ‘traditional’ communities are wholly
antipathetic to middle-class cultural radicalism. This critique points from the political right to cultural fractures in
the ‘class alliance’ between working-class movements and
the philanthropic middle class (or their professional descendants). The political importance of these divisions from
a socialist point of view has recently been noted by Gareth
Stedman Jones .

It is not difficult to see, especially in Seabrook’s work
, a similar sense of loss and invasion, though he assigns
responsibility for this to a consumer capitalist culture and
to the betrayals of socialism, not to radical ideologies. This
conservative defence of traditional communities of class is
linked to the main subject of this article, since the replacement of old family housing and settled working-class
neighbourhoods by ‘comprehensive redevelopment’ and the
tower block have been seen by some as a symptolTIatic
aspect of rationalist progressivism.

The Aesthetics of Architecture
Roger Scruton in The Aesthetics of Architecture has
atte;npted to develop a philosophically substantial conservative aesthetic theory. This book fortunately lacks the gratuitous provocation and profaning of progressive beliefs ‘thinking the unthinkable’ about race, capital punishment,
etc. – which characterises his weekly journalism in The
Times. Nor does it have the unattractive failings of The
Mea’T11ng of Conservatism , which makes use of the
idea of ‘rhetoric’ to justify sententious posturing. The Aesthetics of Architecture (henceforth I shall abbreviate it to
A.rchitecture) is a serious and thoughtful book, and in this
article I shall discuss only this and other of Scruton’s
Norks that bear on architecture. The more general assessment of this writer, whose work continues to be wideranging both in subject-matter and tone, is a task I do not

Scruton seems to have been more deeply exposed than
we usually expect of conservatives to the cultural thinking
of the new left, in Cambridge and elsewhere. One of his
points of departure, like the early new left’s, was F.R.

Leavis’s literary criticism . He is interested in the
relations of architecture and society, and his central concept of tradition is a way of seeing architecture as an
essentially social form. His critique of the abstract rationalism and expressionism of the modern movement relates to
the ‘organicist’ critique of individualism and the market
also developed by socialist writers, such as Raymond
Williams , though with a different goal. He derives his
Dositive view of architecture, as the positive expression of
human creature powers and relatedness to the environment,
from the work of Hegel and the early Marx. Marx’s theory
of alienation has not usually been the preferred aesthetic
approach of conservative writers. What we see in Scruton
is a return to idealism, and an attempt to develop this in a
conservative irfstead of socialist direction. To do this,
Scruton has also had to engage with other contemporary
forms of cultural theory, including psychoanalytic and
semiological approaches. In some of his other essays
Scruton has written about such writings in more dismissive terms, as if the object were to provide a ritual
refutation of them for conservative readers who were
never going to read the actual books. But in Architecture
the engagement is more genuine. These theoretical writings
are persuasive rivals to Scruton’s own position, and have
had to be refuted or assimilated in one way or another to
his own theory.

Scruton’s architectural criticism seems to take as “ne
of its models the literary criticism of Leavis, by no means
an intellectual figure of the right. From Leavis he takes
the idea that an adequate criticism will be based on a
detailed analysis of particular works, and also the concep22

tion of a ‘common reader’ to whom both the works and the
criticism should be addressed. Leavis, for all his emphasis
on individual creativity, and on the centrality of the moral
faculty in both art and life, stressed the essential relation
of literature and society. Literary studies were serious, he
argued, when they were about not merely the canons of
taste of a particular privileged coterie, but when they explored the meanings of life in and for a whole society.

Scruton has elsewhere described Leavis as defending an
idealist conception of experience in an empiricist culture.

There are some affinities between post-romantic literary
criticism, in England, and the idealist and historicist’tradition of archi tectur al wr i ting, the latter influenced by the
Hegelianism of Wolfflin, as was the former by the idealism
of Coleridge. These have both been traditions of ‘organicist’ criticism of capitalism, William Morris being central
to the socialist version of this in Britain. But the differences between Scruton’s and Leavis’s approaches to art and
society are important. For Leavis, literature was an imaginative representation and moral exploration of social life,
and provided moral standards, through particular ‘realisations’ of experience, by which it could be judged. He
became an advocate of some ‘modernist’ writing – T.S.

Eliot’s poetry and D.H. Lawrence’s novels – because they
gave symbolic form to contemporary experience. He had a
view of the relations of literature and society that was
thus in some ways hopeful and missionary in outlook. But
later in his career an increasing tension developed between
his concerns for’ life’ and’ literature’. ‘The great tradition’

came to be defended against modern society, and Leavis
found little to interest him in later contemporary writing.

The relation between society and art is even more
problematic in Scruton’s work. He takes up Leavis’s general
assertion that art is or should be part of everyday experience, but he is much hazier about the actual ways in which
they might be connected. With Leavis, he attacks causal
and reductionist theories of art – this was the main ground
of Leavis’s hostility to the Marxism of the.1930s. But he
goes further, and rejects a representational view of art
(which in some form was vital to Leavis’s position) as inapplicable to architecture. This severing of any specific
connection between architecture and other forms of exper ience which it might be held to symbolise leads him to an
exclusive concern with architectural traditions and the
sense of propriety and style that make them meaningful.

Architecture tends to become, in his detailed argument, an
autonomous object of aesthetic understanding, since all
definite connections with other forms of experience are
rejected as reductionist. The elements of value in society
are held to lie within these traditions, and modernism is
rejected because of its break with these, but also from
hostility to the contemporary social values and qualities of
experience to which it has sought to give expression. The
general hostility to theory in Leavis (discussed by Francis
Mulhern in his Moment of Scrutiny), and to the major
modern theories of the ‘culture and society (relation’ in
Scruton, also support this growing disjunction between art
and society. I shall in the final part of this article suggest
a possible solution to this theoretical problem, through the
idea of architecture as a symbolic container for different
kinds of meanings.

In a different way the psychoanalytic view of art
(especially the Kleinian approach which has had, through
the work of Adrian Stokes , most to say about architecture and which most interests Scruton) is also a social
theory of art. It suggests that works of art symbolise
states of human relationship in their most infantile and
unconscious form. Scruton’s rejection of this perspective
seems to be based on his failure to recognise the significance of symbolisation in Kleinian theory, and on his misreading of it as a kind of causal reductionism.

Semiology, which Scruton criticises as a misleading
theory of language, but whose conception of language he
makes use of, also depends on a view of languages (both
literal and figurative) as social constructions, embodying




through their fields of difference the choices of social
meaning and expression available to individuals in society.

Expression, in this view, is less ‘created’ by the individual,
than selected by him (or her) from a pre-existing set of
possibilities. Scruton wants to emphasise the interaction
between the individual artist and traditions which only
exist as they are re-made by him. His preference for the
concept of tradition over that of convention is intended to
emphasise this element of individual autonomy and authenticity, over the excessive social or linguistic determinism of
some structuralisms. But the argument is nevertheless on
the same social ground. J-Iegel and Marx are theorists who
describe the creativity of the individual in necessarily
externalised and social forms, in their more idealist and
materialist ways. The engagement with these frameworks as
Scruton’s main points of departure is made because he
shares with them a social view of aesthetic meaning. The
organicism and holism of the cultural theory of the new
left has been re-appropriated in Architecture, as Scruton
has attempted to reconstitute a more traditionalist aesthetics. Architecture, he says, should be part of a common
culture, reminding us with this phrase both of Raymond
Williams’s use of this term, and also of an earlier definition
of culture as tradition{s) by one of Williams’s most important conservative adversaries, T.S. Eliot .

The Nature of Aesthetic Experience
Scruton’s philosophical arguments are derived principally
from Kant, from Wittgenstein, and from Hegel. From the
first, he develops a theory of imagination, and argues that
this is the essence of aesthetic understanding. Imagination
in Kant’s work doesn’t have its contemporary common-sense
meaning of free-floating ideas and images separated from
our perception of reality. This view of imagination (which
is closer to the contrasting Coleridgean concept of ‘fancy’)
would support an expressionist, romantic theory of art and
architecture to which Scruton is opposed. Kant’s theory of
imagination refers to the necessarily ‘conceptual’ character
of our knowledge of the world. We perceive through categories of thought. We make sense of the chaos of sensory
exper iences which assail us both through certain fundamental organising frameworks of our experience (the categories of space, time, and personal identity) and also
through perceptual constructs (concepts, figures, mental
maps) which enable us to give coherent shape to our sensations.

Perception, on this account, is necessarily interpretive.

We must have concepts to which we can fit our observations and experiences, or we cannot understand them. An
ecologist will organise his experience of a forest differently from a soldier, or children playing. But without some
available ideas to which observations can be related, not
much is seen at all.

Scruton suggests tha t architecture is understood
through such imaginative perceptions. We ‘make sense’ of
buildings by comparing what we see with our knowledge of
what kinds of things they are. The more we know about
what kinds of things they might be (the richer our usable
vocabulary of distinctions and discriminations of style, for
example), the more we will be able to understand what we
see. Once we recognise, for instance, the basic similarities
in the design of Oxford and Cambridge colleges (the
arrangement of gateway, quadrangles, chapel, cloister, hall,
garden, and their major architectural styles), we will be
more able to make sense of the variations accomplished
within these common patterns. In a similar way, our familiarity with other art forms (styles of comedy routine, or
grand opera, or modern jazz) may enable us to make sense
of differences within them, through the play of the expected and the unexpected in our exper ience of particular

A second major philosophical source for Scruton is

Scruton, following Wittgenstein’s central
tenet of meaning being established through use rather than

definition, rejects the various reductions of architectural
meaning and value to a single cr iter ion or definition. The
various ideas postulated especially in ‘modernist’ literature,
of architectural meaning defined by function, or as relationship to space, or as individual expression, or as products of material interests, or of unconscious psychic reality, are rejected as reductionist. Architecture, Scruton argues, cannot be characterised through such merely abstract
definitions. Instead, architectural meaning is realised and
embodied in particular instances. (This argument is similar
to Leavis’s rejection of explicit critical theories in his
famous debate with Wellek .) The language, so to
speak, must be understood through its particular uses. As
David Holbrook has pointed out in the analogous case of
Leavis, there seems to be an implicit assimilation in this
argument of Heideggerian ideas of meaning only being fully
apprehended through experience, not by abstract reason

The imaginative, or seeing-as, function, which Scruton
sees as crucial to aesthetic experience, is related mainly in
Architecture in response to style. Scruton regards architecture, like many other art forms, as highly self-referential. This is a version of the current literary theory of
‘intertextuality’, though ‘deconstructionism’ is one of the
current critical approaches which he does not discuss in
this work. He suggests that one of the main ways we make
sense of a building is in the relationship of its forms to
precedents within its architect’S chosen tradition. Architectural forms have their own implicit ‘fitness’, and ‘sense’

is made, by architect or observer alike, by relationship to
these forms. Relationship will be expressed through degrees
of conformity and variation of pattern. Since architects
often face unique problems of site and use, or in important
commissions are expected to provide original solutions even
to familiar problems, there is a natural process of adapting
known conventions to new situations and this provides one
of the main reasons for variation and innovation. There will
be, with any convention, successful and unsucces·sful variations, dissonances that ‘say something’ and those which
merely jar and spoil. Thus, what many buildings are in part
‘about’ is other buildings. The more we know about the
traditions of architecture, and the richer our knowledge of
related buildings of merit, the more fully we will be able
to respond to a particular building.

The emphasis on tradition and style gives a conservative leaning to Scruton’s argument. It makes knowledge and
respect for the established traditions of architecture the
most important aspect of architectural experience. Most of
the examples he cites are buildings of acknowledged classical status. But his position is more complicated and challenging than that of a mere advocate of the equivalent of
a classical architectural education, or of the role of the
aesthetic connoisseur. Though he has his passages on the
connoisseur’s category of ‘taste’, Architecture is not pr incipally a work of self-regarding cultural superiority, and
connoisseurship is explicitly rejected as an aesthetic
approach. He is interested, in this book, in the possible
meanings of architecture for everyone. He argues, following
Leavis, that architectural experience depends on feeling as
well as mental understanding. An intense experience of a
few works may be more important than a superficial knowledge of many. Even the presentation of the book is consistent with this more universalistic purpose. The many
illustrations are carefully explained in relation to the text,
and he uses them as Leavis used textual quotations to
ground and demonstrate his argument through examples
which the reader can also consider and learn from. Architecture does convey a real affection for its subject, and an
educator’s concern to transmit this to others. While there
are serious problems with Scruton’s aesthetic theory, and
many will not share his preferences in buildings, nevertheless the book has many of the good qualities of radical cultural writing of the new left {which, when they have
appeared in such writers’ work, have been liable to be described condescendingly as autodidactic}. One lucid example,


which demonstrates well that architecture is or can be
‘ordinary’, is a discussion of a railway wall in Westbourne
Park Villas, london, in which its regularity and shapely
form (much nineteenth-century railway architecture was
built with a careful, Romanesque attention to form and
detail) is nicely commended.

Scruton’s interest in architecture as an element of universal human experience leads him to consider, and to
attempt to refute, other theories which have attempted to
explain it in broad social terms. Architecture is not only
self-referential, he acknowledges. It has and should relate
to religious beliefs and to ideas of a cosmic order – how
can we make sense of Gothic and Renaissance architecture
if we don’t understand this? He concedes that there is
something in the idea that a society’s buildings are expressions of its social relationships. As Girouard says in the
first lines of his English Country Houses :

What were country houses for? They were not originally, whatever they may be now, just large
houses in the country in which rich people lived.

Essentially, they were power houses – the houses of
a ruling class. The size and pretensions of such
houses were an accurate index of the ambitions, or
lack of them, of their owners. When a new man
bought an estate and built on it, the kind of house
showed exactly what level of power he was aiming

Now Girouard is of course interested in specific architectural designs and styles, and not merely in sociological description. But a distinctive quality of this book (like
Williams’s The Country and the City , which makes
some parallel observations about country houses and the
literary conventions in which they figured), is that it explores the connections between social and stylistic meanings.

Similarly, Scruton acknowledges that at some ‘primitive’ level unconscious needs may have something to do
with our response to buildings. Adrian Stokes, influenced by
Melanie Klein, argued that relationship to an unconscious
image of mother and mother’s body was a primary aspect of
our relationship to the world, not its sole aspect. Summerson drew attention to this aspect of buildings in Heavenly
Mansions .

There is a kind of play common to nearly every
child; it is to get under a piece of furniture or
some extemporised shelter of its own and to exclaim that he is in a ‘house’. Psychoanalysis interprets this kind of play in various ways
(he makes reference to a work of Susan Isaacs).

I am not however concerned with such interpretations except in so far as they show that this particular form of phantasy cannot be dismissed merely
as mimicry of the widespread adult practice of living in houses. It is symbolism, of a fundamental
kind, expressed in play.

Summerson compared the ‘aedicular’ forms of Gothic cathedrals (countless shelters within shelters) with these preoccupations of small children. Stokes believed that these
primary preoccupations found expression in metaphors and
symbols, for which buildings and paintings were only two of
the most elaborate languages. Scruton points out that the
idea of buildings as symbolic of the human body – and the
many associated analogues of buildings with people in their
expression and bearing – is an old one in architectural history, for example in Wolfflin’s work. In fact it goes back to
Vitruvius and Alberti. (‘Like unexceptionable Society,’ says
Dickens in Little Dorrit, ‘the opposing rows of houses in
Harley Street were very grim with one another.’) But there
are more or less theoretically elaborate ways of understanding these analogies – Stokes wrote about them both
before and after he experienced psychoanalysis. What
Scruton tries to argue is that these are merely ‘primitive’

elements of aesthetic experience, rather than fundamental
or constitutive of it.


The primitive anxieties which buildings evoke, but also
contain for us, are more physical and basic even than a
psychoanalytical account of this sort suggests. It may be
that the elaboration and ordering of openings and entrances
to buildings has to do with the fears they unconsciously
evoke at the points where the wall seems not to be held
up, where the outside can get in. It is not only the fantasied damage that our feelings do to the outside world that
buildings symbolically contain and restore to wholeness.

They also give symbolic elaboration to the ontological fears
that arise from gravity, from light and darkness, from open
space and enclosure, and from the harmful potential of
solid objects themselves. They reassure us in the face of
these primitive anxieties about the physical world.

The main grounds for Scruton’s rejection of a psychoanalytic view of architecture is his denial of deterministic
accounts of architectural meaning, whether the causes in
question are socio-historical, materialist, or unconscious.

But I think very few advocates of the Marxist, historicist,
or psychoanalytical positions Scruton attacks in fact any
longer hold such deterministic views. To an extent, in the
area of cultural theory anyway, we are all idealists now.

Of course the connections between social contexts and
architectural meaning are most interesting when they are
internal to works, and not merely the external boundaryconditions or causes of them. Similarly, the study of the
press and broadcasting has become most interesting when it
has got beyond the more obvious issues of ownership and
censorship, and explored the ‘internal’ professional practices of editors and broadcasters. It is the ways in which
‘ideology’ becomes part of implicit codes that needs
explanation. For years (following Leavis, in fact) all the
best cultural work has been on the ‘internal relations’ of
cultural and social forms. The reduction of the whole world
to mere text or discourse is now a more besetting misdirection than economic determinism.

Similarly in psychoanaysis, and especially its Kleinian
variant, it is the symbolic expressions of unconscious meanings that are the main subject of interpretive attention,
not the symbolic effects of unconscious causes. A major
theme of Kleinian psychoanalytic writing has been the emotional preconditions of the capacity for symbol formation,
and in its later development, in the work of W.R. BiOI)
, the forms and qualities of thought itself, in different
(and sometimes extreme) mental states. In as much as buildings can symbolise basic states of internal relationship
(between the self and its internal objects), and contain
their ambivalences and conflicts in an ordered way, they
become important representations of our inner selves. Since
as human beings in a given society, and perhaps more generally, we share some basic life-experiences, buildings can
represent these states of symbolic order as part of a common culture. Psychoanalysis provides a theory of symbolisation of unconscious desire and anxieties, not a mechanistic
model of their effects. The basic experiences which Kleinians place at the root of experience (the infantile relationship to the breast, for exa;np”~) figure even in clinical
work as the root of an infini te series of symbolic transformations in later exper ience, as one important source of
the meanings we find in the world.lnterpretations of this
kind are hypotheses to be tested against the experience of
patient and analyst together (Scruton rightly points out the
clinical emphasis of Kleinian work), not an a priori schema
that must be correct. Scruton has a less sensitive or wellinformed picture of Kleinian clinical method than he does
of the application of its insights to architecture.

The critical weakness of Scruton’s account lies in the
nature of the relationship between what he calls the ‘primitive’ elements of aesthetic experience (its possible infantile or social basis, for example), and its essentially imaginative or symbolic nature. His attack on semiological or
linguistic approaches to architecture attempts to destroy
the links of meaning between these ‘primitive’ elements of
architectural experience, and its conscious and rational

qualities. He treats semiology as just another misleading
theory, but a theory of architectural language of some kind
is in fact necessary to all the other approaches he discusses, including his own.

The anthropologist Clifford Geertz, in an essay in
Local Knowledge , refers (following Alton Becker) to
four main orders of semiotic connections, for investigation
in a ‘social text’. These are the relation of parts of a text
to one another (this equates to the principle of coherence);
the relation of a text to others historically or culturally
associated with it (inter-textuality); the relation of it to
those who construct it (the intentions of authors): and its
relation to realities conceived as lying outside it (theories
of reference, of which architectural ‘historicism’, ‘historical materialist’, or ‘class theories’, and theories of unconscious meaning, are all examples).

(Each of these
approaches corresponds to a different ‘aesthetic ideology’

.) What Scruton does is in fact to opt rather arbitrarily for the first and second of these approaches, namely
the concern for coherence (hence his approval of the classical Orders), and for tradition. Architectural meaning in
his view is apprehended in these two main dimensions. But
he is sensitive enough to realise that this hardly exhausts
the matter, and would rule out of bounds the insights of
many of the great architectural critics, like Wolfflin ,
Summerson, and Wittkower, whom he admires – and more
ambivalently, Stokes. So he admits some of their conceptions of relevant meaning (which involve external reference
of various kinds) as a ‘primitive’ element of architectural
exper ience.

This is at any rate much better than the more dismissive approach of Scruton’s Salisbury Review colleague
David Watkin. In his Morality and Architecture Watkin
sketches out three different national traditions of architectural theory. The English tradition, in writers like
Pugin, Ruskin, and by adoption, Pevsner, relates architecture to religious and political meanings. The French tradition, through Villet Le Duc and Le Corbusier, reduces architecture, in a characteristic rationalism, to technology,
science and function. The German tradition, influenced by
Hegel and producing the great historicist criticism of
Wittkower and Wolfflin, links architecture in a ‘historicist’

way to the Zeitgeist of a period, characterising the
Renaissance, Baroque and other great styles. While this
sketch is illuminating in its bold clarity, the prescriptive
alternative offered is meagre. Watkin commends, from
Popper and Gombr ich’ s cr i tiques of his tor icism, the idea of
the creative individual contribution to architecture – the
dimension of ‘intention’ in Geertz’s terms. Since this seems
to throw out of the window not only modernism (the
intended target), but much other classical architecture and
architectural theory as well (in addition to being a gross
over-simplification of Gombrich’s views), this position has
little to recommend it, as more than a very partial view.

Architectural Language
Scruton argues against a semiological approach to architecture as a language in Chapter 7. While he notes some
‘language-like features’ in architecture – rules, conventions, the ‘mutual dependence of part and whole and the
sense that a “significance” might arise from its operation’ he argues that these at:t,ributes are those not of language
but of style. The idea of syntax, central to language, is
irreconcilable with the importance to good architecture of
harmony and disharmony, and of significant variation in
existing forms. He views syntax as a set of fixed and
deterministic rules, which strictly prescribe what can and
should be said. I shall argue later that artistic (and other)
languages have been theorised in more complex and open
ways than this, and that to these more sophisticated conceptions Scruton’s objections do not validly apply.

Scruton’s critique of semiology is based on a referential theory of language, which does not seem consistent
with what he himself argues elsewhere in his book. A

language, he says, cItmg Frege and Davidson, must have
truth conditions.

Architecture is not representational
(buildings are not propositions; they cannot be true or
false). Therefore, architecture, though it shares with language conventional and ruleful forms, is not a language. But
elsewhere, and more consistently with Wittgenstein’s and
Kant’s views, Scruton describes expressive forms of speech,
which convey meaning in a public and ruleful way, but not
truths. Scruton has early on made the concept of practical
reasoning fundamental to his view of aesthetics. Practical
reason is concerned with the rational basis for justification, not description and explanation. Indeed, he argues
that Kant’s own distinction between practical reason (the
sphere of morality, subject to rational understanding) and
aesthetic judgement (outside reason) is invalid. Scruton
wants to argue that aesthetic judgement is a conscious and
rational process. It is about values, not desires. ‘A value,
unlike a mere preference, expresses itself in language such
as that used by Alberti; it pursues what is right, fitting,
appropriate, and just. It is the outcome of thought and educa tion, and can be supported, overthrown, or modified by
reasoned argument.’ (Scruton here shares with Leavis the
view that feelings are central to aesthetic experience, but
that discriminations of feeling and objects to which they
are appropriate, can be learned. His emphasis on the qualities of the object, and on the differences between sentimentality about objects and recognition of their true properties is also an insight important to Kleinian and other
psychoanalytic theory.) The theory of language developed
here is clearly not merely a descriptive one. Expression and
judgement too are subject to rational order, and are thus
formulated in language.

Scruton’s argument here in Chapter 1 of Architecture
is about the language of aesthetics, and not the ‘language’

of architecture itself. Nevertheless it seems strange to
base an attack on the ‘semiology’ of architecture on a concept of language much narrower than that depioyed for
other important purposes earlier in his book.

Semiol’)gical accounts of various ‘sign systems’ have
‘~mphasised the expressive as well as the representational
functions of language. Mary Douglas, for example, in
,Jatural Symbols , has demonstrated the choices made
in the conventions of clothes and bodily appearance betNeen the formal and the informal, the hairy and the
smooth, the loose and the tight, and has seen these dimensions as symbols of the strength of social boundaries. Subscription or non-subscription to social norms will be signified by appearances, not only in the indexical (sometimes
representational or functional) forms of liveries, uniforms,
etc., but in the more abstract and conventional codes of
consistency, decorum, etc. The fact that representational
truth is only one function of most aesthetic languages
(though facial expressions, clothing and building styles can
all misrepresent and thus ‘lie’), is far from equivalent to
saying that in their non-representational modes these
languages convey no meaning.

One crucial point about semiology seems to be misunderstood in The Aesthetics of Architecture. De Saussure’s and Barthes’s great insight was to see that meanings
are conveyed through discriminations between fields of differences, not through the representation of essences, or
the externalisation of subjective intentions. Meanings are
given to experience by the concepts which are available to
language-users in a given context or culture. Language
does not merely reflect the things of the world, but shapes
and divides experience into discrete things and qualities.

This is Kant’s view of the category-impregnated structure
of perception, given a socially-relative form by Durkheim,
and a more linguistically-specific form by de Saussure. This
view is also consistent with Wittgenstein’s view of languages as ‘public’, as forms of life: it is implicit rules and
conventions of understanding and behavior which are primary. It is odd that Scruton, who bases much on approaches
derived from Kant and Wittgenstein, should revert in his
discussion of semiology (itself a transformation of Kantian25

ism into a sociologically-relativist form) to a prescriptively
representational and positivist view of language.

The model of language does not however transfer
simply to the field of art. Some salient differences between
language per se, and aesthetic languages are summarised in
an excellent essay by Alan Colquhoun . (A number of
writers in America have approached the issues posed by the
‘crisis of modernism’ and the proliferation of new theoretical approaches in aesthetics in a much less embattled
and negative way than the English anti-modernists.)
Colquhoun’s distinctions are, in summary, as follows:

(1) In language, change only occurs in one part of the
system at a time. In aesthetic systems, change often occurs
in the whole system, e.g., the change from Gothic to
classical architecture, or from eclecticism to modern.

(2) In language, change is always unintentional. In
aesthetic systems, change is always intentional (though the
intention may not be rationalised).

(3) In language, the existence of precise perceptual
degrees of difference in the phonic object is relatively unimportant…. In aesthetic systems, however, precise degrees
of difference are important – the differences between the
interval of a third and a fifth in music, for example. In
music the ability to distinguish degrees of difference is
used to make a structure which is interesting in itself, and
to create meaning.

(4) In aesthetic systems, unlike in languages, the sensible forms are interesting in themselves. Signs are conventional, but not arbitrary. Signs may resemble their object,
or be analogous to it.

The main point perhaps is that art forms are among
other things self-referential – the contemplation of the relationships of forms to each other, and to their objects, is
part of aesthetic experience. Symbols in art are objects of
attention in their own right, and not only in their external
referents <3D). Such a more complex view of aesthetic
language does not mean that we have to abandon the idea
of language in art. If we try to, we will merely find ourselves reinventing it, as Scruton in his references to architectural 'languages' and 'vocabularies' does . Yet his
emphasis on the ‘vocabulary’ and ‘syntax’ of architecture the positive value of decoration, moulding, and ornament,
the classical principles of orders and their later continuations – is one of the most valuable emphases of his book.

This concern for detail is quite consistent with a more
receptive and less traditionalist approach to the new
explanatory discourses of semiotics and its cognates. Other
writers based in the USA, such as Colin Rowe , have
also shown that the distance between classical and modern
architecture – for example in regard to the concepts of
harmony and proportion – is – by no means as great as
Scruton suggests. Le Corbusier is particularly singled out
by Rowe for his commitment to classical ideas of proportion.

From these distinctions between the languages of art
and languages per se Colquhoun derives the view that aesthetic language needs to be understood in a his tor ical or
diachronic dimension, as well as a systemic or synchronic
one. The correct view that art forms are subject to change
leads Scruton, in a later essay in The Aesthetic Understanding, to prefer the idea of tradition to convention. But
his failure to acknowledge the possibility and frequency of
changes in artistic languages as a whole is one of the
things that leads to his general rejection of modernism. It
does not seem possible, in his view, to invent a new

Metaphor and Symbolic Transformations
Perhaps the key to this problem, and one which is !}lore
consistent with Scruton’s view of imagination and ‘seeing
as’ as the key to aesthetic experience than his preferred
concept of style, lies in the idea of metaphor and metaphoric language . If we return to Geertz’s types of


semiotic connection vve find II)ur ~<i'1ds of meanings that
'texts' (in this case buildings) can contain. Scruton chooses
to privilege two of these (coherence and inter-textual relations) over the others, but there seems no convincing
reason for this other than his own tr adi tionalist leanings.

If we see art languages as condensations of many possible kinds of significance (imaginative perception means
recognising what these might be), then referents which lie
outside the work (to the power of the country-house owner
in Girouard, or to the mother’s damaged but restored body
in Stokes) become perfectly admissible. Also admissible as
possible meanings are symbolic transformations from other
artistic languages – the derivations of early modernist
transformations from the idioms of the industrial and engineer ing constructions of the nineteenth century, and also
from Cubism, for example, or the echoes of aerospace
design that one can see in the smooth, light, aluminiumfaced forms of some recent buildings, like the Citycorp
Center in New York (1977). Buildings can refer to objects
and conventions outside the field of architecture (consider
also the relationships between painting and architecture in
the Renaissance); to their own past and contemporary
styles (this may be both in synchronic and diachronic
dimensions); and can express and explore human feelings
and needs (for intimacy or grandeur, for example).

Scruton’s concept of creative expression, which he
takes from Hegel and the early Marx, while on the surface
and in intention admirably humanist, is in fact a somewhat
inadequate and regressive concept for this reason. It
implies an intuitive idea of what human needs and a human
scale are, and misses the multi-valence and multiplicity of
meanings that are in fact conveyed by buildings, and perhaps especially need to be if they are to externalise our
contemporary experience. The concept of ‘creative’, as
used by Scruton, is over-specific, in a way somewhat similar to William Morris’S use of this idea in the sense that it
values some kinds of forms (those bearing the manifest imprint of human labour) over others. But .jet- aircraft, suspension bridges, the weight-defying and immaterial appearance of some glass-walled skyscrapers, or the miraculously
fragile appearance of James Stirling’s History Faculty
building at Cambridge are products and aesthetic expressions of modern forms of human labour too, and have their
own aesthetic meanings. Scruton somewhat reluctantly acknowledges this – he notes for example that the freeway
designers of Los Angeles (unlike those of Coventry) have
created an aesthetic of speed; he also points out some
careful detailing in Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building
in New York. But he doesn’t appear to have much affinity
for the modern, and his Hegelian view that ‘only by transforming the world into the visible and tangible record of
things rationally pursued can a man find a place for himself
there; without that place there will be no self to furnish
it’ takes him back mainly to the classical forms of expression.

The language of architecture shares its multi-valent,
self-referential, and ambiguous qualities with the other
languages of art. The distinguishing features of symbolic
forms of this kind is that they draw attention to themselves and their own qualities, but only according to one
untenable aesthetic doctrine does this mean that they
should have no relation to any mean’ings outside themselves.

This doctrine is particularly unconvincing in its application
to a useful and social art such as architecture. The mental
process of ‘seeing as’ or imaginative perception, which
Scruton sees as central to aesthetic experience, is the way
in which we recognise these different possible meanings in
the same object. Often the most interesting and complex
works, as with literature, will be those which are most rich
in (or receptive to) different meanings and valid interpretations. Meaning may be made possible by tradition, but it
does not exist only in the dimension of reference to it.

The ‘Langue’ and ‘Parole’ of Architecture
If we could establish the multi-valent properties of archi-

tectural languages (and their various possible kinds of connotation and reference) it might be possible to pursue arguments about appropriate building design in a more understandable and productive way. We can see architecture as
inherently a metaphor for many kinds of meanings. Architects use languages of conventional expression made available for them by their predecessors, but, in the nature of
artistic languages, they are able, if they are original and
creative, to modify these languages, and perhaps transform
them substantially. Individual buildings, and the work of
particular architects are architecture’s ‘speech’ (or parole),
the traditions and conventions which are available to them,
both in engineering and form terms, are its ‘language’ (or
langue). If we understand the functions of language and
speech, respectively, we can make sense of different kinds
of work. If we understand the particular properties of
architectural language as a language of art, we can see the
relevance of different kinds of meaning in buildings.

‘The recognition that ‘styles’ or conventional systems of
signification are inescapable is in this sense an advance,
whether made in the context of a traditionalist aesthetic
by Scruton, or in Cl, post-!Tlodernist perspective by Venturi.

Scruton’s attention to the conceptual and philosophical
basis of the aesthetics of architecture has certainly made
possible a much greater clarification of these issues. The
modern movement in architecture, while claiming to be
against style and convention, appropriated and created
styles of its own, from sources unfamiliar to the then
established eclectic tradition. We can now understand it,
like modernism in literature or painting, as a rejection of a
particular repertory of what it perceived as merely academic forms of the past, and as an attempt to create
idioms more appropriate to contemporary experience, for
example of technologies and the city. Sometimes modern
architecture is rejected because it is all-too-expressive of
the sensibility of the contemporary world. Some of its
detractors, like readers of fiction who prefer conventional
‘middlebrow’ narrative to more exploratory forms of
writing, often wish modern experience, as well as its
symbolic representations, would go away.

If we could acknowledge that buildings can convey
many sorts of meaning, we might ourselves find a language
for the expression of rational disagreements about preferences. In aesthetics especially, such disagreements are inevitable. Aesthetic perspectives are ultimately matters of
choice, and cannot finally exclude each other, since they
are expressions of value and of alternative possibilities for
human life. There is no inconsistency in recognising, as
alternative ‘meanings’ in a building, a reflection on a tradition or on an architectural predecessor; an exploration of a
relationship to physical space derived from our most vulnerable and infantile feelings (we might understand the kinetic excitement of fairgrounds as deliberate attempts to
stir these feelings up <34»; an expression of social relationships in a specific community; a development of the
possibilities ~f new technologies or materials; or a celebration of a particular human activity. Buildings in principle
can do all these things and more. Many of them will do
more than one – 'complexity and contradiction', as Venturi
said, may be characteristic of the most interesting buildings as ambiguity and mul tivalence are of some of the most
powerful kinds of literature . Architects and critics
will have their understandable commitments and preferences for one dimension of meaning over others, and as
well for the particular statements within such a dimension.

Some people like the metropolis; some prefer the countrytown; others the village, as forms of life. Such differences
are part of the plurality of life. It would be a step forward
if the committed expression of such differences did not so
often include preemptive and domineering assaults on the
language through which such differences should be

The enormous recent growth of interest in language
and in its derivatives (sign-systems, etc.) is probably a consequence of the proliferation of competing forms of symbolisation in the modern world. It is no longer possible to
rely on implicit understandings held within a discourse,
since formerly dominant discourses – e.g., classical forms of
literature – have lost whatever monopoly of attention of
the educated they may once have had. So ‘meta-theories’

of culture are developed, centering around language itself,
to bring these competing symbolic forms into somd kind of
order. The transformations which ‘modernism’ brought about
in several art forms at roughly the same time were one stimulus to the development of more general E:ultural theories
(of which Wittgenstein’s can now be seen to be one) .

Scruton’s book attempts to draw selectively on some of
these new approaches to rehabilitate a more traditionalist

Political differences are among those which properly
inform architectural discussion. This is the case for the
explanation of architectural forms, and for prescriptive
arguments over what should be built, and in what style.

Marxists are committed to a view of the necessary primacy
of one kind of level of social life over others, and will perhaps see these ‘meanings’ as the main story of the history
of an art form. This model of explanation has been notoriously insensitive at the level of detail, especially in the
non-representational arts, and is mostly now qualified by a
strong element of idealist ‘relative autonomy’ and recognition of the specificity of cultural forms. So far as prescription is concerned, socialists might be expected to have a
democratic and populist conception of architecture – one of
their problems is the contradiction in the modernist tradition between this and affiliation to the elitism of the avant
garfle. Scruton’s own position is also somewhat contrary.

His aesthetic preferences in architecture seem traditionalist and classical, but the ideas of a universal human aes-thetic faculty which he takes from both Kant and Leavis
may also point in a more popular direction. ‘{his was after
all one pathway that led from Leavis to the cultural new
left in the 1950s. It seems that socialists have as much
need, and can make as much use, of the idea of architectural language and of the various possible metaphoric meanings of buildings, as anyone. Scruton’s references to Hegelian concepts of self-realisation, though one might not share
his particular traditionalist interpretation of this, points
towards the idea nf a world full of humanly created meanings which must remain central to socialist aesthetic

It is also likely that conservative insights into the importance of traditions, and of established social and moral
boundaries, will need to be reconsidered by the left. Modernism has not been without its technocratic and bureaucratic failings, and these are not wholly attributable to the
unfavourable conditions of patronage under which many
modern architects have had to work . The idea that
architecture is a language which can convey many meanings
also confers intelligibility and legitimacy on conservative
points of view, such as Scruton’s. Those who care for
buildings, in their different ways, share a commitment
which may differentiate them from 9thers of the same political persuasion. They should, like those in political and
procedural disagreement in other disciplines (such as historiography for example) be able to acknowledge their
specific community of language and value.

Modernism in architecture is a language, like others.

What we need, at this time, isa way of considering reflectively what elements of the modernist tradition can be
fruitfully developed, and in what ways its impersonality and
often massively collectivist scale (whether the collectivism
of large corporations or states) needs to be qualified by
more sensitive attention to smaller and more specific
human communities.

Part of ‘the problem of modern architecture’ is the
deficiency of the ‘social institutions’ to which it must relate itself. It is because we don’t have institutions and

communities which are sufficiently capable of self expression (such forms of expression have in the past always been
social as much as individual), that modern architects have
found it so difficult to create popular idioms, with any
reliability or continuity. Maybe a certain kind of sociological and political pluralism would be a first step. If we
could start from the actual and possible communities for
whom buildings are made, many of whom will be moral or
functional, not territorial communities (air-travellers, members of universities, or theatre-goers, not local residents),
and the types of building which might correspond to them,
we might be better at finding idioms in which users could
recognise their own values and purposes. Just as Gothic
and Baroque architects had a very well-established idea of
what a church should in essence be and look like, so we
need as starting points some agreed conceptions of what a
school, an airport, or a shopping centre is supposed to do
and how it should appear. Only from established forms can
come meaningful variations and development (on this essential point, Scruton is right). This is perhaps one reason why
in practice modern architecture and design have succeeded
most consistently in Britain in such settings as the design
of schools and (some) universities, and in a modest but
decent way, in the work of London Transport. In these
areas of work, it has been possible to establish known conventions and precedents, sometimes relating (as in the
Oxbridge case) to a long historical tradition. Part of the
modern problem, as Colquhoun points out, is that individual
modern architects have had so little influence, and have
not been able to establish common styles. Instead, every
problem is approached from scratch. Part of the attraction




David Watkin, The Morality of Architecture, University of Chicago
Press, 1984. See also The Rise of Architectural History, Architectural
Press, 1980
Roger Scruton, The Aesthetics of Architecture, Methuen, 1979. Also,
The Aesthetic Understanding, Methuen, 1983, and Art and Imagination,
Rout1edge, 1974
John Casey, The Language of Criticism, London, 1966
Lewis Mumford, The City in History, Penguin, 1973
R. Wittkower, Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism, Academic Editions, 1949
O. Von Simson, The Gothic Cathedral: The Origins of Modern Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order, Princeton University
Press, 1973
N. Pevsner, The Englishness of English Art, Penguin, 1979
R. Venturi, D. Scott Brown and S. Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas,
M.I.T. Press, 1977. Also R. Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in
Architecture, rev. ed., Museum of Modern Art, 1977
C. Jencks, contribution to debate on D. Watkin’s ‘Morality and Architecture’, in Architectural Review, February 1978, and The Language
of Post-Modern Architecture, Academic Editions, 1981
R. Hutchilison, The Politics of the Arts Council, Sinclair Brown, 1982
Bernice Martin, A Sociology of Contemporary Cultural Change, Blackwell, 1981
G. Stedman Jones, ‘Why is the Labour Party in a Mess?’, in Languages
of Class: Studies in English Working Class History 1832-1982, Cambridge, 1983
Jeremy Seabrook, What Went Wrong?, Gollancz, 1978; Working Class
Childhood, Gollancz, 1982
Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism, Macmillan, 1980
A good account of F.R. Leavis and Scrutiny is given in Francis
Mulhern, The Moment of Scrutiny, New Left books, 1979
Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, Penguin, 1971.

R. Scruton, The Aesthetic Understanding (especially chapters 1, 2, 13,
14, 15)
Adrian Stokes, Collected Critical Writils, Vols. 2 and 3, ed. L.

Gowing, 1978. Hanna Segal’s essay on
ilIiam Golding’s novel The
Spire has an interesting psychoanalytic exploration of what a medieval
cathedral might have meant to its builders. This essay is in H. Segal,
The Work of Hanna Segal: A Kleinian Approach to Clinical Practice, J.

Aronson, 1981
T.S. Eliot, Christianit and CultureOncludes ‘Notes towards the Definition of Culture’ , Harcourt Brace, New York, 1960
F.R. Leavis, ed., Selections from Scrutiny, Cambridge, 1968
M. Girouard, Life in the English Country House: A Social and Architectural History, Penguin, 1980
R. Williams, The Country and the City, Oxford, 1975
Sir J. Summerson, Heavenly Mansions; and other Essays on Architect~ New York, Norton, 1983
W.R. Bion, Second Thoughts, New York, J. Aronson, 1977
Clifford Geertz, Local Knowledge (Chapter 1), New York, Basic Books,
The aesthetic ideologies which correspond to these semiotic connections can perhaps be sketched out as follows:

(a) The principle of coherence gives rise· to classical theories of order
in art.

of Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles, or Venturi, Scott Brown
and Izenour’s Las Vegas, is that these places have developed recognisable styles, in their inimitable ways. The aesthetic choices to be made in different contexts are somewhat arbitrary, or at least under-determined. This is what
it means to say that aesthetic langua;;cs .:lre subject to
large-scale transformation, and that its signs are to some
extent conventional. What is important is that within a
genre there should be some consistency, some known forms,
some continuity through which differences and individuality
can have significance.

A more considered and balanced approach to the language of architecture, as the necessary frame and not the
issue of debate, might enable the current battle of the
ancients and moderns to be conducted in a more rational
and fruitful way than is currently happening, especially in
Britain. It is perhaps not helped by the characteristic forms
of expression of architectural writing, as the declaration or
manifesto (per,haps conceived on the model of the architectural project for an immediate occasion which commits no
one for the future, rather than as the consistent development of a line of thought). To this necessary and difficult
debate I think Scrutori’s carefully argued book makes a valuable contribution, not least because of the unusually
painstaking way in which he seeks to explicate different
theoretical positions. He might agree with the sptrit of the
idea that such a rational exploration of differences in
architectural approaches is desirable, if not with the sugI?;ested foundation of this debate on the idea of a metaphoric language of architecture.






(b) The idea that the meaning of ‘texts’ primarily lies in their relation
to other texts (the ‘inter-textual’ approach) generates a traditionalist
view of art. Also recently to a celebration of the virtuosity of the
critic in uncovering these derivations and transformations.

(c) The relation of the text to its author’s intentions gives rise to
romantic theories of art.

(d) The idea of reference to a reality outside the text gives rise to a
variety of conceptions, depending on the dominant ·concept of ‘external’ or ‘internal’ reality. For example, among idealists and Hegelians
this gives rise to historicist theories. Among Marxists, to materialist
or class theories. For Durkheimians (viewing texts~s lh~’~oll~ctive
representation’ of social structures and social norms) the interpretation will be sociological. For psychoanaytic theorists, the most interesting dimension is the unconscious formations derived from infancy.

These approaches may minimally assert only that art is the symbolic
expression of exploration of other important areas of experience, and
varies in relation to these experiences in society and history. This
view can be more or less dialectical and interactive in its view of the
relationship of art with these other ‘levels’ of experience.

H. Wolfflin, Renaissance and Baroque, Cornell University Press, 167;
Principles of Art History, Dover
Mary Douglas, Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology, New York,
Pantheon, 1982
Alan Colquohoun, Essays in Architectural Criticism (Chapter 4 in particular), M.I. T. Press, 1981
An extreme version of this view, developed in ‘symbolist’ critical
theory at the end of the nineteent.h century, argued that the meaning
of a work of art was contained wholly within the work itself – the
idea of ‘pure form’.

For example, on pages 241, 250 and 256 of Aesthetics of Architecture.

Colin Rowe, The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa, and other Essays,
M.I.T. Press, 1976
Max Black, Models and Metaphors, Cornell, 1962. The crucial point is
that metaphors are ‘switch-points’ which relate a particular idea or
image to more than one meaning-set. We thus ‘see’ or interpret something in more than one web or frame of meanings at the same moment.

In English fairgrounds, at least, live goldfish in glass bowls (or nowadays, less attractively, in polythene bags) are often given as prizes. I
have thought these may be ‘baby in the womb’ objects, which enable a
child symbolically to care for the infantile self which has been (pleasurably) disturbed and excited by the rides, noise, and lights of the

The abrupt juxtapositions of different, confusing, and conflicting
meaning-systems may be a distinctive characteristic of ‘modernity’ in
both everyday experience and art.

Wittgenstein’s interest in language, and especially in his later writings
in its differentiated forms, can be seen as a response to the extreme
cultural plurality of early twentieth-century Vienna. This is the argument of A. Janik and S. Toulmin, Wittgenstein’s Vienna, Touchstone
Books, 1974.

By this I mean that the conceptions of modern architectural and urban
design have often had to be applied in a pared-down form, so that for
example adequate resources for maintenance, or for community buildings related to housing developments, have often been lacking.

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