Tuesday, April 07, 2015

A gramophone that unceasingly grinds out ragtime

Art and Architecture
Architect and Public

The cynic may read my heading and say it reminded him of the old story of the man who looked at a tombstone bearing the inscription. "Here lies a lawyer and an honest man.'' ''I wonder," he said, "why they buried those two men in the same grave.'' There would be much justification for such a gibe, for in innumerable cases, especially in this part of the world, art has no part in the making of a building. The position of the art of architecture is peculiar. Not only is there no branch of art about which there is more popular ignorance and indifference, but in none is the identity of the artist submerged to the same extent. The names of great painters, of great writers, are known to everybody with any pretence to education and culture, but how many people know the names of half a dozen of the world's greatest architects? The average Briton a few years ago was familiar with one name, Sir Christopher Wren. If he recognises another to-day, it is because Sir Edwin Lutyens designed the Cenotaph in Whitehall. Take our own modest achievements. What proportion of Christchurch people could tell you who designed the Provincial Council Chamber, which is probably the most beautiful building in New Zealand? Possibly you might find a wider knowledge of the authorship of the Anglican Cathedral, and you might be agreeably surprised if you went to Dunedin and asked who designed the leading churches there. I confess I do not know who designed the Supreme Court at Auckland, and I am certain that ninety-nine per cent of Auckland people share my ignorance.

This ignorance and indifference are attracting some attention in England. A year or two ago Mr. W. J. Locke, who is an architect as well as the author of "The Morals of Marcus Ordeyne" and "The Beloved Vagabond,"' appealed to the Press to educate the public in the principles of architecture, as it did in the principles of other arts. "Of all the arts," said the "Manchester Guardian" a few weeks ago, "architecture is the only one whose achievements from year to year pass almost unreviewed in the general Press. New books, new plays, new pictures, and new music are, as a matter of course, subjected to serious criticism in every daily newspaper which values its reputation. Yet architecture, the parent art, is also the one art whose products we all see every day, without going out of our way or paying at a door.'' More than this, architecture is the one art from which you cannot escape. You are not obliged to go to the theatre to see "Sunday" or "The Girl Who Took the Wrong Turning.'' If in your maturity you tire of "Napoleon Crossing the Alps,'' or "In Love" or "His Majesty the Baby," which you once thought beautiful, you can put the picture under the house. But you cannot get away from the exterior and interior of buildings. You have to live in them and with them. Every day of your life they please you or annoy you, or in a subtle way, unknown to you, influence your taste. Architecture has been described as frozen music. It might be added that it is immovable. To live in an ugly house is like having to live with a gramophone that unceasingly grinds out ragtime. The power of the architect or the builder to beautify or to make ugly is therefore illimitable.

Is it not strange, then, that there should be so little interest in architecture? It is quite common to find a man prepared to spend two or three thousand pounds on a dwelling, to say nothing of larger sums spent on other kinds of buildings, without the assistance of an architect. What, he asks you, is the good of an architect? He (the spender) knows what he wants, and he can trust his builder, so why worry? That there is an art in designing a house, and that it requires special training—to say nothing of other reasons why it is advisable to employ an architect—does not occur to him. Far be it from me to suggest that all architects are artistic, or that many a builder cannot erect just as good a house as some of them. There are architects and architects, just as there are doctors and doctors. What I am pleading for is the recognition of the architect's art as necessary to the community, the raising of the standard of his competence, and the education of the public in the principles of architecture. Under our laws, while no one but a licensed plumber is allowed to put in a drain, anyone can design the house to which the drain is attached. I am not saying no one but trained architects should be allowed to design:  the objections to such a proposal are pretty obvious. But there is the anomaly. Drains, being tangible and material things, are of more importance than dignity and beauty.

The public, as I have tried to show, cannot be entirely blamed for its ignorance and lack of taste. How is it to get easy access to the principles of architecture? Recently there was formed in England an Architectural Club, composed of leading architects and a number of writers and other persons interested in the art, the object being to enlarge public appreciation of good architecture.  The movement promises well. Why, asked a famous London editor at the first dinner of the club, should not architects sign their works? Why not, indeed? It would certainly add to the interest of a Sunday afternoon walk in Auckland's suburbs if every house bore the signature of the designer, be he architect or builder. Then we should be able to sheet home the pepper-pot towers, the carbuncle bay windows, and the wedding-cake decoration round the verandahs.

There is this to be thankful for about architecture in New Zealand, that the last generation has seen a marked improvement in domestic design at any rate. The old stereotyped box house, and the “T"-house and '"return verandah" type, with their monotonous-and wasteful interiors, their narrow, little-used verandahs, their ugly roofs, and the tasteless over-elaboration of their detail, are not nearly so common as they used to be. The bungalow style has revolutionised and wrought a vast change of the better. But the bungalow is being widely vulgarised. Hundreds of houses are going up that are meant to be artistic, but are merely ‘arty.' They are pretentious, overloaded with ornament, finicky in design, restless in outline. Perhaps the besetting sin of our domestic architecture is violation of the laws of line. Instead of getting simplicity and dignity and beauty of line, people will break their houses into innumerable angles and excrescences and fiddly faddly little ornamentations and sometimes make the design all the worse by painting it in half a dozen colours. The old-fashioned house was a plain woman, but often she was soberly dressed. Some modern bungalows are like a woman who wears in the street a summer picture hat, a winter fur coat, and silk stockings and suede shoes. Surely something could be done to spread knowledge of the elements of design.

"Art and Architecture."
Auckland Star, 
9 September 1922, 17.

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