A question of style
Monday 25th October 2004
Jules Lubbock on building politics
''Classical architecture will never lose its associations with Nazism.
They make it eternally unacceptable as a style in which to build." Some
years ago, I wrote words to that effect in the New Statesman. I almost
immediately regretted them. On reflection, it seemed clear that the
relationship between architecture and politics doesn't work like that.
In a retraction, I argued it was more akin to that between streets and
street names. We do not think of Oliver Cromwell when we visit Cromwell
Road, nor of the Battle of Trafalgar in Trafalgar Square - like all
words, place names acquire a life and meaning of their own, not
determined by anything inherent in their sound or history. Meanings can
change, but only with social acceptance. Likewise with architectural styles.
But which account of the relationship between architec- ture and
politics is correct? Are there meanings so permanently associated with
types of architecture that they are almost inherent in those forms, or
are these connotations in constant flux?
We need to re-examine the relationship between classicism and Nazism. In
the postwar period, it did appear to many on the left that classical
architecture was indelibly stained by Nazism and political reaction.
Most leftists concerned with architecture were modernists. The right, on
the other hand, certainly after the high-rise debacle of the 1960s, used
the supposed links between modernism and socialism to epitomise all that
was rotten in the welfare state. Historically, however, it was not so
simple. The three great continental pioneers of modern architecture,
Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus, Mies van der Rohe and Le
Corbusier were deeply compromised by their dealings with the Nazis or
After Hitler came to power in 1933, Gropius hung on in Germany till late
1934, Mies till 1938. Both sought commissions from the Nazis in the hope
that they would adopt modernism as the regime's style. Their hopes were
not as vain as they appear in retrospect; the Nazi Party was split on
the politics of culture. Mies contributed to the 1934 "Deutsches Volk -
Deutsche Arbeit" exhibition alongside Gropius, helped design perhaps
four service stations for Hitler's autobahns, and decorated his
competition project for the 1935 Brussels Exhibition with swastika
pennants. The radical architect who had built the monument to Rosa
Luxemburg for the Communist Party in 1923, demolished by the Nazis in
1933, signed the notorious artists' proclamation supporting Hitler's
candidacy for Chancellor in August 1934. He defended modernism by
claiming that architecture was apolitical. Some modernists, on the other
hand, were committed socialists; Hannes Meyer, a former Bauhaus
director, emigrated to the Soviet Union.
The origins of modernist ideology further complicate the picture. The
key figure was the Viennese architect and in-terior designer Adolf Loos,
who coined the famous slogan "Ornament is crime" in 1908. His own
political affinities lay with the laissez-faire Austrian economists
Ludwig von Mises and Frederick von Hayek. Using clothes as a metaphor
for architecture, he argued that the bemedalled uniforms of the
Austro-Hungarian imperial hierarchy descended directly from the
trophy-based regalia of earlier societies. In Britain and America, on
the other hand, the unadorned gentleman's suit was the product of the
change from rigid status to social structures constantly shifting in
response to the forces of modern capitalism, becoming ever more
egalitarian in both appearance and reality.
So modernism has been associated with laissez-faire capitalism,
socialism and fascism, and employed by all three. In Britain during the
1950s and 1960s, it was as much the style for speculative offices as for
Hertfordshire schools and New Universities. On the other hand, while
classicism was the style adopted by the British Raj for the Viceroy's
House in New Delhi, designed by Edwin Lutyens in the 1930s, it was also
employed by the Labour-controlled London County Council for their
slum-clearance flats, some also designed by Lutyens.
There are many examples of a style changing in meaning. The Gothic
Revival, which began as an 18th-century gentleman's plaything, was
promoted by Pugin as the style appropriate for the revival of a benign,
Roman Catholic squirearchy to counter Hanoverian corruption and
industrial utilitarianism. Pugin's gothic was adopted by Disraeli in his
political novels Sybil and Coningsby as the style for the paternalism of
the Young England movement. Gothic was then secularised by the arts and
crafts movement, becoming the symbol for a socialist, anti-urban utopia
in William Morris's News From Nowhere.
But Morris's disciple, the planner and architect Raymond Unwin, ensured
that cottagey vernacular became the model for the huge suburban
developments of the inter-war period. And today the new suburb of
Poundbury outside Dorchester, planned and designed by Leon Krier in the
local vernacular, has weathered its association with the Prince of Wales
to be adopted by the Labour minister John Prescott as the prototype for
housing on greenfield sites.
It seems, therefore, that claims for the ethical, religious or political
virtues or the suitability of a particular style have little foundation.
The problem for unwary politicians in using architecture as a political
symbol is that it can so easily become a sitting target, a hostage to
fortune. All buildings cost a lot, but big buildings by signature
architects are extremely expensive - only wealthy corporations and
individuals or the state can afford them. Such monuments are therefore
symbols of power. Richard Rogers's Millennium Dome is a very expensive
monument, and when the Millennium exhibition flopped, the building
itself became a convenient stick with which to attack the fiscal
extravagance of metropolitan, cool Britannia, new Labour. Yet Tony Blair
and Prescott had taken over the whole scheme from John Major's government.
Architecture is an art of appearances - even more, perhaps, than
politics. That makes it such a treacherous political weapon. As a
general rule, the rich and the great want their monuments to be big but
to look even bigger and more striking. A rare exception was Thomas
Jefferson, who understood the art of dressing down. In Washington, the
mischievous president wore shabby clothes to needle the British
ambassador, who complained of Jefferson's "slippered undress" and of his
deliberate, republican breaches in protocol, such as the absence of any
seating plan at state banquets, forcing the ambassador to sit "below the
salt". Jefferson's country house, Monticello, on his Virginian estate,
was as grand and classical as that of any English aristocrat. It has
roughly the same number of rooms as Robert Walpole's mansion Houghton
Hall, in Norfolk, though the rooms themselves are smaller, and like
Houghton it is four-storeys high. But Monticello appears to have only
one storey and seems modest by comparison.
Unless they have Jefferson's expertise, politicians would be well
advised to steer clear of monuments and wily architects of all stylistic
Jules Lubbock is professor of art history at the University of Essex.
His book The Tyranny of Taste: the politics of architecture and design
in Britain 1550-1960 is published by Yale University Press
This article first appeared in the New Statesman. For the latest in
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