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Ray Attfield enters the debate - TrustNews Jun 18

John Hearn opened this long overdue debate with a plea: ‘It’s important to design for today and not attempt to recreate the past‘. I join it with the aim of looking behind the facade to see what provokes such strong reactions and why the focus on style rather than substance will damage the quality of the city.

One thing is clear: style is not the real issue, just a convenient label, the outward sign of common agendas, sometimes founded in faith or philosophy but more often on fashion and undefined likes or dislikes. Style is also political, complex, contentious, easily misunderstood and frequently used to seduce or mislead. There is no style which defines good architecture of now. What should determine the future of our towns, however, is a duty of care, a responsibility to understand, and this to be founded on more than personal taste or outward appearance. Words are too often used to suggest what is not possible and the real issues of this discussion are l suggest hidden within these key words: fear, tradition and traditional, modernity, context, authenticity, and honesty.

The first is fear, the quite normal fear of change, of growing up, of growing old, of the new, of the future. What we grow up with is familiar, we have formed our character within its comfort, but it is the past and we have no choice but to move into the future, to grow up.

The desire to hold onto the past is understandable but the future can only be different. With reason we hold onto images, objects, memories, patterns of behaviour, even buildings because they provide an important foundation for what lies ahead, but the question is how to form the future with what defines the reality of the present?

The second is tradition. A tradition is a pattern of behaviour, passed down within a group or society, with symbolic meaning or special significance and with origins in the past. To be credible a tradition will reflect a significant aspect of life such as belief or good practice. Traditions which have lost their meaning, or are invented in support of fantasy or wish fulfilment, are hollow and nothing more than historical re-enactment, like the ‘Medieval Fayre’ which is taken down at the end of the day. They cannot fulfil the dream but worse they deny the possibility of achieving a better future.

Traditional architecture. What is it? A method of building based on local craft which no longer exists? Particular decorative features? Is it just a collective term for the complexity of the past? Or if the term is used, is it to pretend that nothing has changed, and is that honest?

Next, Modernity, the continuing project of the European Enlightenment and the foundation of our culture. It contains the idea that rational thought and change are essential to our existence in the real world. The process of change and a commitment to achieve its benefits still remain the foundation for good design. Modernism, the style of the early 20th century (now historical), embodied the principles of modernity. It incorporated classical ideas of proportion, scale and order, used rational rather than emotional criteria, and saw change as desirable, not something to be feared.

Context. All good architectural practice will be based on understanding and developing the real physical and spatial context not merely the visual, which can only create an external likeness to what exists, and though touching our sensibilities may mirror what would better be changed. The example by Amin Taha (fig 1) demonstrates an intelligent understanding of the complex question ‘what is an appropriate response to completing a 19th century street facade’ while still honestly and imaginatively saying this is of today. Robert Adam used the term ‘Modern Contextual Architecture’ to describe the ‘classically’ detailed scheme in Southgate Street, and while l know of his playful sense of humour, for all the reasons I have given, such use of language is intellectually dishonest. When language abandons meaning, all manner of things appear possible.

Authenticity concerns being truthful, seeing reality for what it is, even if different to one‘s own viewpoint or preferences, and coming to terms with, not avoiding the consequences. Authenticity is about honesty but is frequently undermined by mimicry on which Pope Francis said recently:

‘Mimicry, that sly and dangerous form of seduction that worms its way into the heart with false and alluring arguments.’

We have a responsibility to carry the past into the future without trivialising it and a responsibility not to raid the classical foundations of European culture for quick fixes and decorative gestures.

The familiar is of the past by definition, but there cannot be change - and change there must be - without creating the new. If fear of the new is the issue then we must be mature enough to understand and guide it, not hide behind a facade deceitfully giving the appearance of having not changed, and avoiding the potential benefits and qualities which only change can provide.

Corner site Upper Street, Islington
Fig 1 - Replacement of a corner site in Upper Street, lslington
with a building cast from a mould constructed from photographs
of what previously existed. The new windows relate to
the modern arrangement of internal spaces.

Georgian House, Islington
Fig 2 - One house in a Georgian terrace, lslington.
An example of simple elegance, scale, classic proportions,
generous large windows and refined detail
- but note, achieved without decoration.


Ray Attfield



Editor's note: Ray is developing an extended version of this article, which will appear shortly with this issue of TrustNews on the City of Winchester Trust web site, wwwcityofwinchestertrust. co. uk