Design Review: Volume 4, Issue 1 (July-August 1951)
Aesthetics and Morals
Aesthetics and Morals
Four photographs of the Nelson Provincial Chambers. 1. The similarity between this wing and the flanking wings of Aston Hall is remarkable. 2. The central block is sensitively proportioned, and although modest in scale is not dwarfed by the wings which it joins. 3 and 4 show window and wall details. These are quiet, not fussy, and give just enough enrichment to soften and enliven the austere forms of the general mass.page 13
Aston Hall, Birmingham, 1618. An English country house, the prototype of the Nelson Provincial Chambers.
Architects, like most other people, are hard to pin down when it comes to questions of aesthetics. But put a particular, a concrete, proposition before them and judgements are pronounced, prejudices aired and opinions collide. A building that pleases one, another condemns out of hand. The clash of disagreement briefly lights up the theories from which opposing opinions spring. These opposing theories (however inarticulate) no doubt account for the diversity of design we see in buildings today; perhaps they also help to explain why we find so many utterly different solutions to similar architectural problems. So it is with architects' judgements about buildings of the past. Where one praises, another heartily condemns.
In this way, these photographs of the Nelson Provincial Buildings came up for discussion not long ago.
It was interesting to notice the almost instant division of the group into three attitudes: the approving, which expressed itself in words like ‘lively’, ‘charming’, ‘elegant’; the disapproving, which said ‘incongruous’, ‘fake’, ‘dishonest’; and the tolerant, which called the building ‘an engaging period piece’. Agreement was reached on one point only: the architect who designed the buildings had, it was said, realized his intentions; the proportions, the relations between one plane, one mass and another and so on, were very happily brought off.
The argument began. ‘Surely it is page 14 dishonest to imitate stone in wood. Everything about this building proclaims that it should have been put up in stone: the corners — the decorative details over the windows, the gables.’
‘Yes. But when this man designed the building there was only wood to build with. After all, it was built in Nelson over ninety years ago.’
‘In that case he should have made his design to suit the material he could get–wood.’
‘I think it's asking rather much of a man to change the habits of a lifetime and expect him to create an entirely new design just because he is confronted with an entirely new material — I don't suppose wood had often been used for a building of this size in Europe. Besides, he had a tradition to back him up: nobody raised the question of honesty or dishonesty when the Brighton Pavilion was built, and everybody knows what a magnificent fraud that is. When a Renaissance architect wanted a facade to look as though it were made of enormous blocks of stone he had no hesitation in carving lines on the wall to fake the scale he wanted. It didn't occur to him to search his conscience and ask whether he was being honest.’
‘That merely goes to show that morals, architectural morals, at any rate, have improved.’
An engraving by S. L. Paydon of the Nelson Provincial Government Building in 1861. By courtesy of the Turnbull Library.
‘No. I don't think it has anything to do with morals. Because almost at the same time as the Pavilion was designed, the Shaker sect in America was designing entirely different buildings (and furniture, too) of the finest and most austere kind. Their work was completely “contemporary”, and wood was used as wood. The Shakers deliberately chose to use their materials “honestly” — in your sense of the word.’
Here another voice interposed: ‘That, I think, is very much to the point. It is a matter of temperament. In all ages you find pure contemporary design side by side with the eclectic (like the Nelson Provincial Chambers). Which predominates, depends on the temperament of the architect and on the temper of the age. Some people lean to the purist form of architecture. They are the moralists; they are “exclusive”–the Shakers. Others incline towards eclecticism. Whatever pleases them is good.’
A member of the group who had not yet spoken cleared his throat: ‘Your remarks,’ he said, ‘are only partly true. Let me put a question: If you were asked today to plan a public building such as this’ (he indicated the photographs) ‘would any of you design it in a style of the past? Georgian, Regency, Gothic?’ He looked round the table. Clearly, no one would. ‘How would you set about it, then?’ he asked.
There was a pause. Then one member, bolder than the rest, said: ‘If a general phrase will answer a general question, and if you don't ask me to define terms, I would say this: I should try to design the building in as contemporary and (if I may use the word) refined a way as I could. Perhaps that statement is not much help. May I explain further, making it plain that I speak only for myself: When I look at buildings like the Nelson Provincial Chambers or the Brighton Pavilion (since that has already been mentioned), I get the keenest intellectual pleasure — the same kind of pleasure as one gets from looking at a stage setting really well done. Yet such buildings have for me an air of impermanence, of unreality. It doesn't matter whether they are built of brick, or stone, or papier maché. But when one sees a building like the Swiss Borough Council office, designed in our own day, or a building of long ago, like Gloucester Cathedral, built for its own day, it takes hold of the emotions as well as the mind. The pleasure it gives is altogether different in kind and quality. It has the force and the reality of a work of art; for, of course, it is a work of art and not a work of artfulness.’
A murmur of agreement went round the table. Even the moralist, for the moment at any rate, had nothing to add.