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The Triumph of a Distinguished Failure

The Architecture of Humanism was first published in London in 1914. Its author, Geoffrey Scott, a twenty-nine-year-old British architecture school dropout, had been living as an expatriate in Florence, where he worked for Bernard Berenson. Scott’s book was reprinted in Britain in 1924, and in the US in 1965. Now it has reappeared again, with a foreword by Henry Hope Reed and an introduction by Paul Barolsky.

A new edition of this minor classic of architectural criticism is welcome not only because it is still worth reading but also because it is so apposite, for the architectural situation a hundred years ago was similar to our own. Here, for example, is Scott complaining about the confused state of architectural thinking:

There may, at the present time, be a lack of architectural taste: there is, unfortunately, no lack of architectural opinion. Architecture, it is said, must be “expressive of its purpose” or “expressive of its true construction” or “expressive of the materials it employs” or “expressive of the national life” (whether noble or otherwise) or “expressive of a noble life” (whether national or not); or expressive of the craftsman’s temperament, or the owner’s or the architect’s, or, on the contrary, “academic” and studiously indifferent to these factors. It must, we are told, be symmetrical, or it must be picturesque—that is, above all things, unsymmetrical. It must be “traditional” and “scholarly”…or it must be “original” and “spontaneous,” that is, it must be at pains to avoid this resemblance; or it must strike some happy compromise between these opposites; and so forth indefinitely.

Scott lived during a period of astonishing architectural variety. The five years leading up to the outbreak of the First World War witnessed the following important buildings: Edwin Lutyens’s severe and magnificent Castle Drogo in Devon; Frank Lloyd Wright’s rebuilt Wisconsin home, Taliesin; in Vienna, Adolf Loos’s proto– International Style Steiner House; Horace Trumbauer’s neo-Georgian Widener Library at Harvard; Cram & Goodhue’s muscular Gothic Revival US Military Academy at West Point; McKim, Mead & White’s Roman classical Pennsylvania Station in New York City; Paul Philippe Cret’s simplified classical Pan-American Union Building in Washington, D.C.; Peter Behrens’s even more simplified classical AEG turbine hall in Berlin; and Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer’s factory-like glass-and-brick Werkbund exhibition pavilion in Cologne.

Scott championed the architectural principles of the Renaissance, a period that he broadly defined as starting with Brunelleschi in the fifteenth century, and ending with the rise of the neo-Gothic movement, four hundred years later. In The Architecture of Humanism he went about his task in an unusual way, for he devoted most of his book not to a defense of classicism but rather to an examination of current architectural attitudes. He described four general points of view, which he provocatively titled the Romantic Fallacy, the Mechanical Fallacy, the Ethical Fallacy, and the Biological Fallacy.

The Romantic Fallacy referred to attempts to adapt a poetic and literary sensibility to architecture. This attitude, engendered by the Gothic Revival and the subsequent writings of John Ruskin, produced buildings such as Fonthill, a millionaire’s country mansion made to resemble a medieval abbey, with the requisite cloister and a towering spire over the living room. The problem with this approach, according to Scott, was that an image in a poem and an image in a building are different. In literature the content might be romantic, but the form—the language—followed traditional conventions. “The ‘magic casements’ of Keats,” he wrote,

have their place in a perfectly formal and conventional metric scheme that displays their beauty, and are powerful over us because they are imagined. But the casements of the romantic architecture, realised in stone, must lack this reticence and this support. They were inconvenient rather than magical, and they opened, not on the “foam of perilous seas,” but, most often, upon a landscape-garden less faery than forlorn.

By attempting to introduce poetic meaning into buildings, the Romantic Movement distorted architecture, Scott argued, rendering it chiefly symbolic: “[Architecture] ceases to be an immediate and direct source of enjoyment, and becomes a mediate and indirect one.” Were Scott writing today, he might use the term “Disneyfication”—stagecraft rather than architecture.

In the chapter on the Mechanical Fallacy, Scott attacked the assumption that construction could be used as the basis for judging architecture. “The art of architecture studies not structure in itself, but the effect of structure on the human spirit,” he wrote. Influential theorists such as Viollet-le-Duc admired medieval cathedrals because their pointed vaults, flying buttresses, and clustered piers were seen as a direct expression of the weight they carried. Conversely, they judged Renaissance buildings to be inferior, because their domes were often reinforced by hidden chains, and their vaults were routinely strengthened by iron tie-rods. This casual approach to structure made the Renaissance architects appear clumsy. Scott retorted that this attitude was intentional:

The Renaissance grasped this distinction between the several elements of architectural design with extreme clearness. It realized that, for certain purposes in architecture, fact accounted for everything, and that in certain others, appearance accounted for everything. And it took advantage of this distinction to the full. It did not insist that the necessary fact should itself produce the necessary appearance. It considered the questions separately, and was content to secure them by seperate means. [Emphasis in original.]

In other words, it is important to distinguish between the mechanical art of building and the aesthetic art of architecture, that is, between fact and fiction. An example of this difference is Christopher Wren’s great dome of St. Paul’s in London. The exterior dome is a wood structure, designed to be seen from afar; the interior wood and plaster dome is part of the interior experience of the cathedral; while the structure that actually supports the heavy lantern is a hidden stone conical dome. On the other hand, the piers that carry the great weight of the entire structure are massive, probably more massive than strictly required by engineering.

In The Stones of Venice, Ruskin criticized Renaissance architecture because he considered it immoral and corrupt. He hated the sensuousness, and what he called the pagan roots, of classical architecture. Ruskin introduced ethical standards to architectural criticism; henceforth it was not sufficient for buildings to be beautiful, they also had to be moral. Scott took issue with what he called the Ethical Fallacy of Ruskin and his followers:

It was a Puritan revival, but with this difference: the fervour of Puritanism was now active in vindicating the value of art. It insisted that architecture was something more than a mechanical problem. It gave it a human reference. But, unluckily, this Puritan attack, far from clearing the path of criticism, did but encumber it with fresh confusions no less misleading than the logic of inhuman science. Art was remembered, but the standards of art remained forgotten.

According to the Puritan view, which was later accepted by most architectural modernists and is still in favor today, buildings that conceal their structural parts, as does St. Paul’s, are less “honest” than those that expose their columns and beams. The pilaster, a flattened column which was the staple of Renaissance architecture, is considered “deceitful” because it serves no structural function. Faux finishes, common in eighteenth-century interiors, are likewise disdained. Conversely, if a building is “truthful,” if it exposes its structure and avoids adding extraneous elements, it has perforce to be beautiful. Scott argued that this was a simplistic view. One should consider the overall goal of the architect in arriving at a judgment. In any case, he denied that morality had a place in making aesthetic decisions; in his opinion, the artistic end—in the case of architecture, the experience of the building by its occupants—justified the means.

The fourth fallacy was to consider the changing architecture of the past as analogous to biological growth, a view held by many art historians at that time and still influential today:

The object of “evolutionary” criticism is, prima facie, not to appreciate but to explain. To account for the facts, not to estimate them, is its function. And the light which it brings comes from one great principle: that things are intelligible through knowledge of their antecedents. Ex nihilo nihil fit; the nature of things is latent in their past. The myriad forms of architecture fall, by the compulsion of this principle, into necessary order.

The Renaissance is often described as following a course that began with youth (Brunelleschi), reached maturity (the so-called “High” Renaissance of Bramante and Raphael), and finally succumbed to decline, old age, and decay (the Baroque and Rococo). Scott, who particularly admired Baroque architecture, argued that concentrating on the sequence of styles missed the point. “The first condition of aesthetic understanding is to place ourselves at the point of vision appropriate to the work of art: to judge it in its own terms,” he wrote. Thus Brunelleschi did not know that he would be followed by Bramante, any more than Bramante could imagine Bernini. Each should be judged on his own merit rather than as an episode in an imagined evolution, a view echoed by the Harvard art historian James S. Ackerman in his influential essay “Style.”

Scott was an aesthete. He wrote in the tradition of Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, describing the Italian Renaissance, with some exaggeration, as “an architecture of taste, seeking no logic, consistency, or justification beyond that of giving pleasure.” The “humanism” of his title referred to a theory that had been developed by the contemporary German aesthetic phil-osopher Theodor Lipps, whose Ästhetik influenced Berenson as well as the critic and novelist Vernon Lee. Lipps’s theory of empathy (Einfühlung), as Scott adapted it to architecture, meant that people experience buildings with reference to themselves. The essence of architectural aesthetics, Scott insisted in a passage that anticipates Siegfried Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture by twenty-seven years, is the position of the human body with respect to the material organization of space:

To enclose a space is the object of building; when we build we do but detach a convenient quantity of space, seclude it and protect it, and all architecture springs from that necessity. But aesthetically space is even more supreme. The architect models in space as a sculptor in clay. He designs his space as a work of art; that is, he attempts through its means to excite a certain mood in those who enter it.

Scott used the example of a spire, which, if it is well designed, is often described as “soaring,” despite the fact that it actually exerts downward pressure. We identify with its upward thrust, just as we identify with “springing” arches, “stretching” roofs, or “muscular” columns. According to Scott, these are not merely metaphors of speech, but a profound reflection of how we actually experience architecture.

The insights in The Architecture of Humanism owed much to the author’s firsthand experience. Geoffrey Scott was born in Hampstead in 1885, the youngest son of a successful flooring manufacturer, and was sent to Rugby, then one of the best public schools in England, and to Oxford, where he studied Greats.1 His social life interfered with his studies, but he distinguished himself in his final year at New College by winning a prestigious prize for his essay “The National Character of English Architecture.” This success led him to enroll at the Architectural Association in London. Finding the practical courses uncongenial, however, he left after a few months. Although he had a small allowance, he needed a job. For a time, he accepted a position as the traveling companion of a rich young American on a tour of Italy. Then, for several months he worked in Paris as an assistant to the American Ogden Codman Jr., who was compiling a catalog of French chateaux. Codman, an architect, was the coauthor with Edith Wharton of The Decoration of Houses, and Scott later became close friends with Wharton, and also Elsie de Wolfe, America’s leading interior decorator.

These early experiences exposed Scott to architectural influences but they did not set him on a career. That impetus was provided by Berenson’s wife, Mary. While Scott was still a student, he was the Berensons’ summer houseguest at I Tatti, their Fiesole villa. Mary, who may have fallen a little in love with the personable young man, took him under her wing. She introduced him to Codman and Wharton. In 1910, the Berensons invited Scott to return to Italy to assist in improvements to their villa. This work, which eventually included laying out the large garden, was done in association with Cecil Pinsent, an English architect whom he had met some years before. Scott and Pinsent established an architectural partnership, and over the next four years, in addition to I Tatti, carried out several architectural commissions for members of the Anglo-American community in Florence.

Thus, in 1913, while he was writing The Architecture of Humanism (which is dedicated to Pinsent), Scott had the benefit of several important influences. He was working as an architect and living in surroundings that put him in daily, intimate contact with some of the best Italian Renaissance architecture. He had traveled extensively in France and Italy. Most important, he was in close contact with Bernard Berenson, the foremost Renaissance art scholar of the day. Berenson’s circle at I Tatti included his neighbor Vernon Lee, whose intellectual influence Scott also acknowledged.

The Architecture of Humanism was a critical success. Edith Wharton called it “brilliant and discriminating” in the Times Literary Supplement. Scott, who had just turned thirty, seemed destined for great things, and he immediately planned a sequel, a history of architectural style. Medically unfit for military service, he spent most of World War I in Italy, but the book never got written. Instead, he frittered away the next ten years with a stint organizing Berenson’s extensive library, and an unpaid job at the British embassy in Rome. Scott, who openly accepted his homosexuality only late in life, had an unhappy marriage to Lady Sybil Cutting, a wealthy English aristocrat, and several inconclusive love affairs, notably a two-year liaison with Vita Sackville-West.

Years later, Virginia Woolf wrote of Scott in her diary:

He was tall, & dark & had the distinguished face of failure; reminded me a little of…other “brilliant” young men, who remain “brilliant” and young well into the 40ties and never do anything to prove it.

Woolf didn’t like Scott, and she obviously wasn’t impressed by his architectural writing, but her characterization, while not entirely inaccurate, was too harsh; although he gave up architecture, he did do something—more than once. In 1925, he published The Portrait of Zélide, a short biographical essay on Madame de Charrière, an obscure eighteenth-century novelist and wit, who is also remembered for her liaisons with James Boswell and Benjamin Constant.2 Once again Scott scored a critical success, gaining praise from reviewers and winning the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Booker of its day. Soon after, he was appointed editor of the newly discovered Boswell papers (after T.E. Lawrence had turned down the position). The long-lost papers had come into the possession of an American, Ralph Isham, and Scott spent the next year and a half in New York City. In 1928, he published the first three volumes to great acclaim, becoming a minor celebrity and signing a lucrative contract for a biography of Boswell. Less than a year later, after returning to New York from a visit to England, Scott, always sickly, caught pneumonia and died. He was forty-four.

Architecture, simply and immediately perceived, is a combination, revealed through light and shade, of spaces, of masses, and of lines,” Scott wrote in The Architecture of Humanism. This definition, which anticipates Le Corbusier’s “architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light” by almost a decade, is surprisingly abstract and ignores his emphasis on sub- jective experience. Yet Scott was hardly a trailblazer for architectural modernism, which in 1918 was just around the corner. “Humanism has two enemies,” he wrote, “chaos and inhuman order.” The inhuman order of industrialized building, mass production, standardization, and the other paraphernalia of the International Style would have appalled him, as would have also its aesthetic Puritanism and moral posturing.

If there is one early modernist architect that Scott would have approved of, it would probably be Mies van der Rohe. For Mies, as for Scott, appearance counted for everything; he never believed in form merely following function. A building such as the the Seagram Building, with its neoclassical sense of composition and detail, is morally neutral. Its elegant façade hides as much as it reveals. As for chaos, there is no doubt what Scott would have thought of the work of our contemporary architectural avant garde, whether Thom Mayne’s shifted tectonic plates, Coop Himmelblau’s jagged collisions, or Zaha Hadid’s nervous compositions. “Fantastic architecture, architecture that startles and delights the curiosity and is not dominated by a broad repose, may sometimes be appropriate…,” Scott wrote. “But it is unfitted, aesthetically, for the normal uses of the art, for it fatigues the attention; and architecture once again is insistent, dominating, and not to be escaped.”

The architectural historian Reyner Banham once characterized The Architecture of Humanism as “the aesthetic hand-book of the neo-Georgian and Playboy phases of English architecture.” Presumably Banham was taking a swipe at the work of contemporary architects who design in the classical style, for whom Scott is something of a hero. There is no doubt that Scott’s architectural taste was classical. His designs in Florence were classically inspired. The villa that he and Pinsent built for Charles A. Strong, a well-to-do American philosopher, has a triple-arch loggia as delicate as a Brunelleschi arcade (see the illustration on this page). Yet, while Scott saw the four-hundred-year-old Renaissance tradition of architecture as an ineluctable fact, I’m not sure that he would entirely approve of the doctrinaire classicism that appears in different guises today. He admired the academic tradition of classicism so long as it was freely interpreted and allied to a living sense of art, but he always rejected academic theory. “My contention is that ‘theory’—the attempt to decide architectural right and wrong on purely intellectual grounds—is precisely one of the roots of our mischief,” he wrote in The Architecture of Humanism.

Scott does not mention any contemporary architects in his book, not Edwin Lutyens, whose Baroque Heathcote villa in Ilkley, Yorkshire, was inspired by the sixteenth-century architect Michele Sanmicheli, or the Amer-ican architect Paul Philippe Cret, whose simplified version of classicism Scott might have admired. Nor did the author take issue with such modernist proselytizers as Adolph Loos or Gropius’s partner, Adolf Meyer. Perhaps, sequestered in Florence, he was simply uninterested in current architectural fashions. Or maybe he was being shrewd. By avoiding specific references, he gave his book a timeless quality which partly accounts for its longevity. The chapter on the Romantic Fallacy, for example, can be read as an attack on today’s architectural deconstructivism, with its pretentious literary metaphors and romantic, albeit often nihilistic, allusions. (The work of Peter Eisenman and Daniel Libeskind provides examples.) Scott’s argument against the Biological Fallacy continues to be a rebuke to those who promote architectural novelty on the grounds that the new—and only the new—is a proper reflection of our time.

Scott laid out general principles in The Architecture of Humanism but he resisted the impulse to formulate his own intellectual theory. “What we feel as ‘beauty’ in architecture is not a matter for logical demonstration,” he wrote. The closest he came to practical advice was to recommend a greater firsthand familiarity with the tradition of humanist architecture. This familiarity would presumably develop one’s taste, and taste, as the subtitle of The Architecture of Humanism suggested, was at the center of Scott’s architectural sensibility. He defined taste as a “disinterested enthusiasm for architectural form.” He recognized that to many this would sound capricious and inconsequential; nevertheless, he called for the primacy of aesthetics, and for responding to buildings with the eyes and heart rather than with elaborate critical theories. In a period such as our own, where architecture is so dominated by conceptual interpretations, by a seemingly endless succession of -isms, it is useful to be reminded that buildings are—or should be—made to be experienced and enjoyed. Scott can be maddeningly vague at times, but his love of architecture rings clear, and his insights guarantee that The Architecture of Humanism will continue to be read almost a century after it was written. Not bad for a distinguished failure.

  1. 1

    For biographical details see Richard M. Dunn, Geoffrey Scott and the Berenson Circle: Literary and Aesthetic Life in the Early 20th Century (Edwin Mellen, 1998).

  2. 2

    A new edition of The Portrait of Zélide was reviewed by P.N. Furbank in The New York Review, January 15, 1998.

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