Four Walls

Peter Campbell

  • Living Space: In Fact and Fiction by Philippa Tristram
    Routledge, 306 pp, £40.00, January 1989, ISBN 0 415 01279 1
  • Building Domestic Liberty by Polly Wynn Allen
    Massachusetts, 195 pp, £16.70, December 1988, ISBN 0 87023 627 X
  • Borderland: Origins of the American Suburb, 1820-1939 by John Stilgoe
    Yale, 353 pp, £25.00, February 1989, ISBN 0 300 04257 4

The Picturesque, with its cottages ornées and simulations of Tuscan rusticity, is hard to take seriously. Yet it accompanied a radical change in English architectural thinking. This happens to be easy for us to understand – a similar change in sensibility is going on now.

The buildings in Colen Campbell’s great 18th-century picture-book of British Classical architecture, Vitruvius Britannicus, are shown in plan, elevation or one-point perspective. But when Soane, in the first decades of the 19th century, makes a presentation drawing he is likely to show the building in oblique perspective. Time and weather are acknowledged – the building may even be in ruins. You do not understand the building so much as imagine what it would be like to stand in one particular place – the perspectivist’s station-point – at one particular time of day.

High Modernism, like Palladianism, was in love with the geometrical underpinning of architectural aesthetics. A favourite illustration in histories of modern architecture (originating with Colin Rowe) makes explicit the connection of the Classical to the Modern via the magic of proportion by showing how the same 2:1: 2:1: 2 rhythm underlies Palladio’s Villa Malcontenta (1560) and Le Corbusier and Jeanneret’s villa at Garche (1927). Modernism put the perspectivists, who had flourished while eclecticism reigned, out of business. Rendered perspectives became the tool of the developer and speculative builder. They were rarely used by architects of the Modern establishment. Space, it was argued, could be better imagined from a presentation which abstracted information.

When something more than a plan and elevation was needed, both 17th and 18th-century architects and their 20th-century Modernist successors, preferred to build models. In the Seventies of this century axonometrics – drawings which add an elevation to a plan which has been turned through 45 degrees – became fashionable. Some architects (James Sterling, for example) presented schemes using axonometrics which complicate things further by showing structures from below. Post-Modernism has changed all that and perspectives are once again respectable. Paintings, rather in the manner of Canaletto, by Carl Laubin were used to present Jeremy Dixon’s scheme for the extension to the Royal Opera House and were an important part of a concerted exercise in public persuasion. The same artist’s paintings of John Simpson’s ideas of how Paternoster Square would look if the latest Palladians were given control were a highly successful spoiling exercise which came very close to making people believe it was a real alternative to Arup Associates’ official scheme. An exquisitely pale perspective was used, rendered in watercolour, along with model, plans and elevations, in the presentation of Venturi and Rauch’s National Gallery extension – a belt-and-braces exercise in architectural presentation which allowed the various strategies to be compared. In order to keep alive some vestige of the viewer-must-contribute principle, the model is white.

Contemporary changes in methods of architectural presentation accompany what they prefigured in the late 18th century: a collapse in official taste. The norms which resulted in almost all 18th-century buildings being in some sense Classical worked no more thoroughly than those which resulted in almost all buildings constructed after 1950 being in some sense Modern. During the last decade things have changed. Now, before a structure begins to rise, the architect must do what novelists have always done: bring an imaginary space to life.

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