The Twentieth Century Society

Classic Book Review: J M Richards’ Castles on the Ground

Coming to terms with the suburbs

Castles on the Ground: the anatomy of suburbia by J M Richards, first published 1946

Reviewed by Jessica Kelly

I bought my copy of Castles on the Ground: the anatomy of suburbia on eBay in March 2011.  It was first published in 1946 by the Architectural Press, who owned the Architectural Review, which Richards edited between 1935 and 1972. John Murray published a second, revised edition in 1973, but it was then out of print until Faber and Faber reprinted it in August 2011 as part of the  ‘Faber Finds’ series.  The three different editions of the book trace the changing fashionability or cultural relevance of the ideas within it – namely a negotiation of the relationship between architecture and popular taste.

Richards wrote Castles on the Ground during the war, while he was working for the Ministry of Information in Cairo. He wanted to address the problem of the unpopularity of modern architecture in Britain. The main argument in the book was that people’s taste in architecture had nothing to do with aesthetics, but was the product of tradition, social values and cultural associations. Therefore, Richards argued, taste could not be changed overnight and, rather than ignoring or pandering to popular taste, modern architects should develop a modern vernacular that satisfied urges currently sated by suburban architecture. His principal aim was to understand the style of the suburb and why it was popular; to elucidate the puzzle of, on the one hand, the ‘deficiencies of suburban taste’, and on the other ‘the appeal it holds for ninety out of a hundred Englishmen’: ‘Perhaps we should not criticise so fiercely the architectural idiom the suburb has adopted as its own if we understood the instincts and ideals it aims to satisfy, and how well, judged by its own standards, it often succeeds in doing so.’

Richards was particularly fascinated by the ‘universality’ of the appeal of suburban style, its ability to span the divisions of generation and social class, which gave the style what he described as ‘the one quality of all true vernaculars, that of being rooted in the people’s instincts’.

When it was first published the book had a tepid reception. In his memoir, Richards’ described it as the only one of his books ‘founded on original thinking’. It was a lasting disappointment to him that the central purpose of the book – to discover the qualities on which ‘vernacular appeal rests’ – was overlooked, and that the book was instead used to accuse him of abandoning modern architecture after the war. In the mid-1960s Reyner Banham – in New Brutalism – described Castles on the Ground as a ‘blank betrayal of everything that Modern Architecture was supposed to stand for’.

There were long descriptive sections in the book on the English suburban residence and the gardens which ‘stand trim and lovingly cared for in the mild sunshine’. These sections could be seen to present a romanticised, nostalgic view of the suburb in which ‘everything is in its place. The abruptness, the barbarities of the world are far away.’ Banham argued – this time in an essay, ‘Revenge of the Picturesque: English Architectural Polemics, 1945-65’ – that this was a retreat into the ‘debased English habits of compromise and sentimentality’. However, far from being an ‘apology for the suburbs’, Castles on the Ground was a continuation of Richards’s interest in vernacular styles and their relation to modernism in architecture, which had begun in the 1930s.

The copy I own is the 1973 edition. It includes a new introduction called ‘The more things change…’ in which Richards explains that the book is not really about the suburbs but ‘about participation’. At the beginning of the 1970s the purpose of architecture and its role within society in Britain was being reassessed, and it was an apt time to revisit Richards’ arguments about the relationship between architectural aesthetics and public taste. Richards was not apologising for the suburb, but seeking to understand it, seeking to help modern architecture achieve the longevity and universality of ‘an idiom that shall be natural to our time and as capable of unselfconsciously adapting itself to our own needs and aspirations’. He summed up his position to suburban vernacular by insisting that modern architects ‘pay some attention to the expressed preference of the majority, to what people themselves want, not what we think they ought to want. We may despise what they want. We may think they should be educated to want something different, or at least to know they could have something different if they wished, instead of their choice being limited by their ignorance of the alternatives; but we can only progress democratically at a speed which does not outpace the slow growth of the public’s understanding, in particular its assimilation of social and technical change.’

The latest reprint, by Faber Finds, suggests that perhaps the framework for public participation in architecture is once again being debated. On the other hand, it could be a return to what Banham called the ‘habits of compromise and sentimentality’. My hope it that it paths the way for greater awareness of Richards’ contribution to British architectural culture.

The Castles on the Ground is available in the Faber Finds series (www.faber.co.uk)