Sunday, March 22, 2020

Pathfinders: Stories from the city (2020)

The Pathfinders Column from the March 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

People ask a lot of questions about socialism in practice, some we can answer, some we can’t. But nobody ever asks what the architecture would look like.

It’s not a pressing social issue, after all, like food or disease prevention. In fact it’s rarely discussed at all, except to complain about some new local monstrosity. When you think about it though, there’s something a little strange about this. People who live in rural areas often have a great familiarity with their landscape and its features, right down to individual tree and plant species. They know the language and vocabulary of their environment, and this knowledge undoubtedly adds to their appreciation of it.

The majority of the world lives in cities, and the built environment has its own language and vocabulary, that of architecture, but most of us don’t know much about it. We know ‘door’, ‘wall’ and ‘roof’ but not ‘quoin’, ‘corbel’ or ‘voussoir’. We rush past buildings every day without really noticing them. We might acknowledge that some grand buildings are beautiful, but we can’t really understand or appreciate what’s interesting about them because we don’t have the words.

Architecture is applied art on a giant scale, and it’s immersive, because you live in it. Some of the art is good, some terrible. It’s also a living historical record of the past, its moods and crazes and fads. It has a function, obviously, but it likes to make statements too, sometimes grandiose political or aspirational statements, that tell us how ruling class ideas have changed over the centuries. If you know how, you can read these messages as plainly as words on a page. Learning even the rudiments of this language can be a revelation. Your own city reveals itself in a whole new light.

It’s not hard to pick up some basics. Just four category words virtually encompass the past thousand years of building in Britain. They are Gothic, Neo-classical, Vernacular and Modern.

Gothic started with the Normans and became de rigueur for churches and cathedrals, and often for colleges and legal institutions. It was all about the power of God, so it features a lot of pointed arches, lofty verticals and spires reaching heavenward like arms in supplication. The point was for commoners to gaze upward with their jaws on the floor, mutter a reverential What the Fuck? and vow never, ever, to argue with the beings who could create such soaring marvels.

Neo-classical is anything that looks like it’s from Ancient Rome, such as pillars with a triangular ‘pediment’ on top, or rounded triumphal arches. Empires didn’t come more bad-ass and macho than Rome, which is why the growing empires of the Renaissance revived its styles and it finally arrived in Britain with Inigo Jones in the 17th century. Instead of piety, it was all about muscular statements of state power. You often see it on banks or theatres or museums, as well as government buildings. Not surprisingly, the Georgians and the Victorians, who had a high opinion of themselves as rulers of an emerging globally dominant power, couldn’t get enough of the neo-classical style, and neither could Mussolini later on. But changing political priorities could change tastes. When the Houses of Parliament burnt down in 1834, a discussion ensued about what to replace it with. Neo-classical was the obvious choice, however the Americans had just finished rebuilding the White House in the neo-classical style after the British had burnt it down in 1812. Relations were still somewhat frosty, so to avoid any connotation of republicanism the architect Charles Barry was tasked with producing a Gothic design, which in turn kick-started a Victorian Gothic revival.

The Victorians, incidentally, were exuberant mash-up artists who would throw caution to the winds and chuck in any feature from any style they liked without the least concern for artistic or historical integrity. The more you learn to read their architecture, the more you start to understand their mindset. They were world conquerors in matters military and scientific. Rules were for other people.

‘Modern’ architecture is a catch-all for anything post-World War 1, when looking forward started to seem better than looking back, so that revivals went out of the window and modern capitalism was anyway more interested in making money than making grandiose and costly statements. Trends did exist though, like the short-lived Futurism of the 1920s, which swiftly looked dated, and the Brutalism of the 1960s, a distinctly Orwellian statement that said unattractive things about encasing populations in hideous concrete boxes and gave architects a notoriety they’ve never really recovered from.

What’s always gone on in the background and is also hot today is the ‘vernacular’ style, which is designing buildings in local materials and in the local or regional style, so that they fit harmoniously into their surroundings instead of clashing horribly with them. In theory anyway.

When you start thinking about the socialist architecture of the future, you realise that all bets are off. First you would have to ask how people wanted to live. Would they stay in settled communities as now, or move around constantly, exploring the entire world and ‘working their passage’, in the sense of helping out with odd jobs wherever they happen to be? Would the current global urbanisation trend continue, or go into reverse, with cities becoming depopulated? There are pros and cons to this question. Would there be a need for public buildings, perhaps to house representative decision-making bodies, or is this an obsolete democratic methodology when everything can be done directly and online? What weight would be given to aesthetic statements, if it meant more expenditure of work and resources? Perhaps socialist architecture would be plain and functional as people found pleasure in things other than the built environment, or perhaps it would surpass the exuberance of the Victorians, or even the Gothic period, with no effort spared in reflecting the magnificence of a new and free social era. Even the design of the simple domestic dwelling is open to question. The practice of having separate rooms for specific purposes only really started with the Victorians. Would people still want to live private and secluded lives in their little walled space, or would sharing of lives and living space become the new normal? There might be a revival of something like the ancient Roman model, where people use public baths and eat out, and only go home to sleep. Perhaps even the concept of ‘home’, in the sense of a permanent personal abode, could become obsolete.

All of these questions will certainly shape the architecture of the future. And let’s not forget emerging technologies like translucent wood for windows, hydro-ceramics for zero-energy air conditioning, light-generating sulphur concrete and self-repairing concrete, high-insulation bricks, nano-alloys, phase-changing materials, gels, carbon-fibre, aluminium foam mouldings, clear solar panels and much more. In the end, nobody can really answer the question we started with, what socialist architecture would look like. Maybe the best response we can give is: what would you like?
Paddy Shannon

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