We know architecture functions. Any given building has a program that does something in the world. But we also talk, certainly, as if architecture matters in some larger way. It has cultural effects. It affects the way people behave. It produces symbols. It allows for the embodiment of memory. It does many other things, but it’s not obvious, at least to me, how architecture does those things. Why does it matter that a building looks one way and not another way? That’s the more academic way that the project began. Let’s say the more direct way it began was that I became struck at a certain point by how often people who discovered I was an architectural historian—of modern architecture—would immediately ask me why modern architecture was so ugly.
I am Timothy Hyde. I’m an architectural historian, and I teach at MIT. And I’ve just written a book called Ugliness and Judgment: On Architecture in the Public Eye.
The thing I should say right away is that the book has a very long chronological span. It starts at about 1700 and goes right up to the present day. But it has a narrow geographical focus. The reason for that focus is that there’s a distinct context for architecture within the setting of Great Britain: a particular legal environment of common law; a specific political environment, which is a representational democracy, but with a constitutional monarchy; a particular cultural setting in terms of the social organization of class structures; the fact that Britain has an established religion. All of these are contextual factors that are very important for the way architecture acts in the world.
The subtitle of the book is On Architecture in the Public Eye, and I’m really trying to point to the fact that this is about public judgments of architecture, by which I really mean collective judgments about architecture and architectural ugliness. And that does have a kind of historical beginning, or it emerges across the eighteenth century as the monarchy—following the Civil War, or the Revolution, the regicide and the restoration—plays a different role within society, within politics; as representational parliamentary democracy takes on a different standing; and as a mercantile class becomes increasingly a force in shaping opinions and shaping ideas and shaping values. What this means is that there emerges something called “the public.” And public discourse and publicity–that word itself was coined.
Ugliness is not the subject of the book in the sense that I’m not trying to explain why a specific building is or is not ugly. Really the question was, well, if so many people think this building is ugly, what are the consequences of that? Why is the reaction to a building so key or so crucial an element to the later social consequences of a building? And how do these stories of the ugliness of a given building and the kind of repetition of a story about the ugliness of a given building have a larger social consequence? So when I’m talking about ugliness, I’m really talking about the way in which the judgment of ugliness begins to have a set of collateral social connections, collateral social effects, that go from a single building, or a collection of buildings, into other domains of social activity—and law, obviously, is among them, but also public health or religion. Architecture might have consequences in those fields, just not in the direct way that we’ve been looking for when we talk about whether or not a building functions properly.
What I’m interested in is an indirect consequence, where an accusation or debate about architectural ugliness leads to or is a part of a surrounding larger debate about some moment of transition, some moment of change. Architecture participates not just by producing a building, but by contributing to the invention, the creation, or just the further development of what I refer to in the book as social technologies. Which can be things like laws, legislative devices; it can be new customs, new behaviors, things that shape the way society acts.
The English architect John Soane, who was, even in his own moment, very well known, famous, very successful in his practice and responsible for some of the major civic commissions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, like the Bank of England building, had a habit—he did it three times—of suing his critics for libel. People referred to his buildings as ugly, using many very elaborate, colorful synonyms for ugliness, and in response, he sued them for libel. At the time it was assumed that a work of art, like architecture or a book, was the embodiment of its creator. So if you criticized one of John Soane’s buildings for being ugly, you are actually making the claim that John Soane himself was immoral, was a bad person, was a corrupt person. He lost all three of his suits because English libel law was reformulated in response to his lawsuits and several others that occurred at the same time to create a distinction between a work of art and its creator.
What this means is that a particular social technology, in this case libel law, adjusted the relationship between a profession—architecture—and its objects such that a new domain that we now simply call criticism could emerge, and could emerge with legal protection. And then, if we think about the way criticism unfolds and occurs over the next 200 years, we realize that this particular transformation of a social technology opens up a new space of cultural production; of ideas being circulated around works of art, works of architecture, works of literature, in a way and with a freedom that was not possible before the transformation of that particular social technology.
Yeah, I think we all assume correctly that everyone is entitled to an opinion about architecture, but we don’t always recognize and think about the way that architecture is actually participating in a broader set of public decisions. The public conversation around buildings, around architecture, is a collective one at all these different stages of the process—from the initial conceptions about building, to the formulation of just ideas about architecture in general, to specific designs of buildings, and to decisions that are taken in response to a building that has been built.
One of the things that’s emerged over the past couple of decades is the definition of public opinion in increasingly formalized ways. Public opinion is now the opinion that is put forward by an amenity society or by a public figure. The collective response to architecture occurs through specific mediums like courtrooms, like libel law; also through things like the planning boards that hear the opinions of some citizens in one way and hear the opinion of other citizens in a different way. And architecture is not reconciling those, or resolving those situations. But the debate about the ugliness of architecture is revealing those particular difficulties, those particular complexities, those particular contradictions that exist within what is initially perceived to be a fully democratic and fully transparent process of evaluating architecture.
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Princeton University Press
Timothy Hyde is a historian of architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology whose research focuses on the political dimensions of architecture from the eighteenth century to the present, with a particular attention to relationships of architecture and law. His most recent book is Ugliness and Judgment: On Architecture in the Public Eye (Princeton University Press, 2019), and he is also the author of Constitutional Modernism: Architecture and Civil Society in Cuba, 1933-1959 (University of Minnesota Press, 2012). Hyde is a founding member of the Aggregate Architectural History Collaborative and is one of the editors of the first Aggregate book, Governing by Design. His writings have also appeared in numerous journals, including Perspecta, Log, El Croquis, The Journal of Architecture, the Journal of Architectural Education, arq, Future Anterior, Architecture Theory Review, and Thresholds.
A pivotal work of architectural history. Summerson reveals how the emergence of a style that will become identified with the city itself is inseparable from the social and economic dimensions of architecture. He explains the ways in which the aesthetic characteristics of architecture in Georgian London actually had their origins in social and economic determinations, such as economic necessity or social desirability.
A peculiar and little-known work of architectural theory. Collins asks, how do we make aesthetic judgments about architecture, how do we make other kinds of judgments about architecture? He offers a lengthy comparison between legal judgment and architectural judgment in hopes of defining new, rational principles of architectural evaluation.
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