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…

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