The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Bleak Houses: Disappointment and Failure in Architecture

Timothy Brittain-Catlin (MIT Press, 192pp, £17.95)

Reviewed by Harry Charrington

This is a book of many virtues, most of them absent from contemporary architectural criticism. It is enjoyable, it is eloquently yet succinctly written, and it makes substantial points with acuity and wit. But then, it’s not really a book of architectural criticism, it’s about something much broader: ‘as much as anything a book about how architecture is communicated through words’.

Brittain-Catlin is repelled by what he calls the ‘attack language’ of much architectural criticism, not only for its macho ‘teleological or triumphalist’ view, which seems to regard the destruction of its perceived enemies as just as important as the promotion of its own cause, but also for its irrelevance to the wider world, and its part in driving architects further and further away from the public. The bottom line of this, he argues, is just that: the bottom line. While interior design magazines are accessible and appealing, architectural journals are distinguished by both their poor writing and their poor sales – with seemingly no-one involved considering that the two might be linked.

In place of modernist abstraction, Brittain-Catlin argues that an effective way of ‘talking about buildings to those who become indifferent to them’ is to reclaim the values and language of literature, in particular those of the novel: sentiment, feelings, and comfort. Relating this to architecture, he reasserts a tradition of English architectural history, deriving from John Summerson, in which writing about buildings is a form of storytelling that engages with what Tolkien, quoted here, called the ‘secondary world’: a parallel existence which catches the imagination. This tradition also appeals to Brittain-Catlin because of its unashamed connoisseurship and concern for detail, which he reasons are vital to informing any public debate about what matters, and what to value.

Of course, this still leaves the question of which stories to tell, and Brittain-Catlin chooses a selection of architects he thinks have been deemed failures by, or excluded from, conventional architectural history. There are stories of ‘losers’ such as Horace Field, of the doomed children of more able architects, of ‘sissy’ – but never sexy – architects, and of those who love architecture and wish to practise it, but who have neither the talent nor, crucially, the discipline to do so. There are also descriptions of ‘loser’ styles such as the ‘Quality Street’ style and Elizabethan architecture (although the late Sir Richard MacCormac’s love of it is not mentioned).

It is, nonetheless, disappointment and loss that form the book’s most affecting stories and themes, and, stemming from these, Brittain-Catlin’s frustration and fury at having to practise architecture in an environment that disregards not only his feelings, but those of the people and places for which he cares. He counters this situation by reasserting the values of modesty, serenity, and retreat, qualities he identifies in James Durden’s Summer in Cumberland, ‘the only picture I have ever wanted to be in’, although he gives us numerous other instances of Ruskin’s ‘twilight melancholy’.

The book is (very deliberately, I suspect) tied to a very English culture of observant wistfulness and camp, in which an appreciation and cultivation of mood predominates – the reference to a love of Peter Skellern’s songs seems particularly telling. That doesn’t mean it is always gentle or nice; alongside generous praise for mentors and heroes is a glorious litany of scores settled, and gossip retold. Brittain-Catlin wields a stiletto with insouciant ease – blink and you’ll miss it – but look back down the passage and you see the body count mounting up. I would argue he sometimes gets the wrong victim, and praises some ne’er-do-wells, but I think that’s the point, and is certainly part of the pleasure of reading Bleak Houses.

In many ways this book is a natural companion to the recent C20/English Heritage/RIBA series 20th Century Architects (which includes one by Brittain-Catlin on his cousin, Leonard Mannasseh); fine architects often largely neglected by architectural criticism. Like these monographs, reading Bleak Houses is a profoundly nostalgic experience, but one that is not so much a wallow in the past, as a timely reminder of standards, public service and considered beauty. It is also a call to arms for the ways in which we talk about architecture. As Brittain-Catlin says, language matters because if architects are ever to produce everyday buildings as satisfactory as a modest Georgian terrace, then we need to find a way of speaking about what we are trying to do.