Et in arcadia ego

The praise heaped on David Watkin and his Morality and Architecture, following his recent death, and then that of Robert Venturi just weeks later, took me back exactly 40 years, to when I saw them both in that summer of 1978.   Giancarlo De Carlo asked me to review Watkin, Jencks’ Second Edition Post-Modern and that summer’s fun in London for his then new journal Spazio e Società.   Here is a snippet:

David Watkin’s book (perhaps to Jencks’ embarrassment) is in ways similar, but this is a mischievous if not downright malicious piece of reactionary propaganda posing as academic righteousness. Full of tendentious sneers and gratuitous insult, while purporting to argue against the moral purpose in architecture from Pugin to Pevsner and the Modern Movement, it reveals itself as a violently anti-socialist tirade.

‘It’s principal claim to originality’, philosophy professor Richard Wollheim wrote recently, ‘is the total absence of sympathy with the topic on which its polemic is conducted’. It is a corpse not worth picking at; having been adequately dismembered, its nastiness and stupidities brilliantly flayed by Reyner Banham (Times Literary Supplement 12.2.78 p. 191), and its likely consequences more subtly dissected by Robin Evans, (Architectural Design May/June 1978 p 276).

But in a sense Watkin’s hollow diatribe was as necessary as Jencks’ shallow case; for, although ‘the old Puritan idea that simplicity is moral and elaboration immoral’, (of which on pages 38-39 Watkin accuses Le Corbusier), makes me assume he’s never seen a Corbusier building, we have enough evidence of the sterility of modern architecture for Watkin’s boorishness to claim an excited following. Watkin, setting up the arid polarity of formalism (good architecture) versus socialism (bad architecture), can only retreat into the suggestion that the architect renounce all interest in the social milieu created by his work, to become the mere stylist of museum exhibits.

The Modern Movement claimed to be the only true architecture for the people; but it was unintellegible to them. ‘Anything which reminds one of the past is a vice’ (as Watkin wildly caricatures Pevsner).

I’m slightly taken aback to find this again after so long.  How far have we now really wandered into a foreign country, I wonder? 

The whole long piece for SeS – also built around Peter Cook’s Art-Net and Robin Middleton’s Beaux-Arts ‘conferences’  of summer 1978- is found here.

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