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The Builder Heritage Journal   | 26 April 1902

Royal Institute of British Architects Meeting, 21 April 1902

The usual fortnightly meeting of the Royal Institute of British Architects was held on Monday evening, 21 April 1902, at No. 9, Conduit-street, W., Mr. W. Emerson (President) in the chair.

District Surveyors' Examination

The minutes of the last meeting having been read and confirmed, Mr. Locke, the secretary. announced that the statutory examination of candidates for the office of District Surveyor was held on 17-18 April 1902. Of the candidates who attended, two passed, viz., Thomas Handy Bishop, jun., of Leighton Bazzard, and Arthur Maryon Watson, London. These gentlemen had been granted by the Council certificate of competency to act as District Surveyors in London.

Tradition in Architecture: its Function and Value

Mr. A. N. Paterson, M.A., then read a paper on this subject, of which the following is an abstract :—

In defining the scope of his paper, the author said that, while guarding against a tendency to give undue prominence to the inheritance and teaching of past times, he sought to carry his audience with him in regard to the vital importance of tradition as an element in all art of permanence and value, in the hope mainly that the far-reaching voice of the Institute—not only within our own shores but throughout the Britains beyond the seas—might be expressed and asserted to restrain, to counteract, to check the too easily learned and pernicious teachings of the so-called "new art" movement, with certain cognate developments in English architecture.

In using the term "tradition," he wished to disentangle it from another term with which it was apt to be confounded, viz., archaeology. The idea expressed by the word "tradition" in this connexion was briefly: the influence, both conscious and unconscious, upon us as workers in art today of the methods of seeing and doing on the part of the many generations of workers who have preceded us, and who when in life were engaged in like problems to these which now occupy us. Tradition in this sense as regards architecture was twofold, viz., tradition in construction, tradition in design. Tradition must not be confused with style. Styles have their day, and pass. Tradition endures. It must also be clearly differentiated from archaeology. The archaeologist's attitude is that of the scientist, not the artist, much less the art-worker.

Defining the term "art" in relation to architecture, author said that it was the living creative interest which devotes itself to the design and erection of buildings which will satisfy the requirements, and be in accord with the sentiments, of the time; that the art in these buildings is a necessary and natural outcome and development of similar work in the past, of which the technique is learned consciously and unconsciously through tradition; and that archaeology (with history in its train) is, at best, a science by means of which we may arrive at more precise knowledge regarding certain aspects of such work. That we should be able to say that a moulding is early, late, or transitional, will not influence our powers of plan and design; its true importance to us is that in gaining exactness of knowledge as to such details, we are bound to increase our knowledge of the work itself, of the constructional difficulties and the means by which they were overcome and rendered unexpected points of interest, of the infinite variety, the enveloping harmony and the crowning beauty of the building, which through years, and maybe centuries, of growth ultimately reached the completed, the organic form in which we see it. Only—let such enthusiasm be kept under restraint. Do not let us take it for granted that because a feature looks well in an old building therefore it will be equally effective if tacked on to a new front.

In the spirit of the old work we admire, there are no qualities more pre-eminent than directness of aim and honesty of purpose. These two qualities we shall find to be most surely preserved by working after the methods of our more immediate forbears. Architecture, of all the fine arts, is most subject to convention, and that under two main influences, the one immovable, unchangeable, the limitation of that construction through which it must express itself, and which in its turn is subject to the all-pervading law of gravity; the other, as constantly but gradually changing, the physical, mental, and spiritual requirements of those for whose use buildings are designed, together with the effective range of constructional resources at our disposal wherewith to satisfy these requirements. The accumulation of the tradition of former ages has provided as with certain methods, certain formula of construction, from which we cannot escape. On the other hand, it is only from our immediate predecessors, and even contemporaries, that we can gather to what extent the immediate requirements of the day must guide us in our use of these formulae, and what constructional resources are available for the purpose of extending their scope. The leading contours of mouldings and the principles regulating their use, the right and beautiful in proportion—such as these are the traditional data with which architectural design is produced; it is only when novel materials intervene, or in a particular situation, that variations, even to the extent of discords, are admissible and, in their place, admirable. Be sure, however, of the harmonies before introducing the discords. Only the master can successfully cope with the bizarre, the unexpected. There may indeed be a bondage of tradition as of archaeology, but this is impossible when (and this the author took to be an essential and vital principle in the truly traditional attitude) it is accepted in its widest form, when the tradition of yesterday and even of today is regarded as of not less but more importance than that of the century of Wren, of the Gothic master-builders, or of the Greek and Roman classics, when the tradition of steel girder, plate glass, and electric light is accepted along with that of stone vault and flying buttress.

The author went on to speak of the present position of architecture in this country. For nearly a hundred years England has followed a path all her own in such matters, with results which can scarcely be called successful. The path has led, as it were, through a maze, and we are likely to end, when we emerge, precisely where we entered. Meanwhile, neighbouring Continental nations have been quietly pursuing and developing the traditions of earlier times in the light of modern opportunities and requirements, guided therein by a continuous and systematic study of architecture, with the result that, as regards civil architecture in particular, they are far ahead of us in achievement. Few modern English buildings compare with similar work in Paris and other European centres in any of the attributes which constitute architecture a great art; yet English work of earlier date is equal, if not superior, to foreign. The moral is obvious: the fault is not the nation's or the men's, but the point of view, the methods, and, above all, the lack of continuous tradition; while if the doctrines of the "modern school" are to prevail among our younger men, the outlook for the future is still worse. The author briefly glanced at the architectural history of England during the nineteenth century to make clear this idea.

Within the last few years, however, the value of tradition, modern as well as ancient, has shown a tendency to reassert itself; architecture, along with the crafts which nourish it, has been revivified, the true principles of design are being taught with organised effort, and but for this curious "new art" development there was good hope that English architecture would again assert itself in its natural and national characteristics of dignity and refinement. Of the doctrines of this " new art" or "modern school" there were various manifestations; the one prevailing tenet seemed to be that the "copying of styles" is to be avoided as a deadly sin. Why? asked the author.

It was the first time in the history of architecture that a like position had been taken up, for it was surely an admitted fact that, from Assyria and Egypt onwards, the architects of Greece and of Rome, of the Romanesque, Medieval, and Renaissance times, had no other idea in their minds but, in working out constructionally their fulfilment of contemporary requirements, to copy the styles which had gone before, as they knew them. Did the work thus produced suffer in regard to sympathy with the needs of the times, to nobility, to beauty, even to originality thereby?

It is to this taboo of the styles that the characteristics of the new movement are to be traced. The refusal to employ the formulae thus provided has its necessary result in the prevailing baldness, the absolute lack of variety and movement. The styles, especially those of the last few centuries, are essentially the product of civilisation; the architecture of modern times is mainly that of the city; but as recent precedents must be ignored, and architecture cannot escape from the traditional standpoint, inspiration must be sought in the times before city life existed, with a resultant sham rusticity, an assumed simplicity of living and thinking, entirely at variance with the thoughts and habits of those whose requirements the buildings are supposed to supply, and even, if due investigation were made, with those of the designers themselves.

Another characteristic, the result of the same tendency, is the attempt to return to the conditions of working of those earlier times when the individual worker was—or is now supposed to have been—his own master in the particular portion of the general work to which he devoted himself. The said individual worker is, of course, under present-day conditions, unable to play the part thus allotted to him, but if he is employed, not by a "firm," but by a "guild," all is right, and the utmost latitude is at once allowed to the producer in matters of furniture and ornament, with a consequent loss of homogeneity and restfulness in the general scheme. The half-trained amateur, again, too full of art enthusiasm to consent to the drudgery necessary to acquire technical skill in execution—being an "artist"—must be allowed absolute independence.

Encourage the crafts by all means, give the craftsmen every liberty within their own spheres—the architect will be aided and stimulated by their co-operation and help; but his must be the guiding and controlling mind, and his work may, and often must be, independent of their aid. Let st not be thought that it is by working only on such lines as those just touched upon, as its devotees would have us believe, that one can be earnest, or even original. He was inclined to believe that the love of originality for its own sake was the root of all evil in the pursuit of the fine arts. For indeed that, desirable quality though it be, is just one that will not come by "taking thought" for it, and if it be sought after this fashion the result is but a superficial affectation which is at the opposite pole from those solid and enduring qualities which are of ultimate value in the arts. But if the architect, instead of seeking originality, and endeavouring to take it by force of devious paths and strange revivals, is content to follow the quiet lines of tradition, holding at the same time true to himself and the requirements and opportunities of his day, it will be found to have sought him. Future generations will see in his works the special beauties and qualities of his period just as we today discover them in those of our predecessors.

Mr. G. H. Fellowes Prynne, in proposing a hearty vote of thanks to Mr. Paterson, said he thought the subject treated was one of extreme interest, and in the main he could not help feeling that they most of them would certainly agree with the remarks made.

With the idea of a study of the past and the following of tradition, he did most warmly and thoroughly agree. But he thought, perhaps, in his great wish to uphold the following of tradition, Mr. Paterson had rather been following on the lines taken by so many who had in that room and in the room below read papers during the last twenty years. They had so constantly heard those who had read papers abusing those who had gone before in the past century, but he thought it was a matter of evolution to a certain extent. They had certainly been passing through an almost revolutionary time in architecture during the nineteenth century, but at the same time an immense amount of good had come out of it—he meant by the thoroughness with which Early Classic work was studied, and the same applied to Gothic work. In the early phase of the revival in each style the idea of copying was not unnatural. He did not mean by any means to uphold the idea that copying in itself had been good, but the very deep studies of a great many of these Gothic and Classic men in the last century had been of very great service to students of the present day, so he could not agree with the writer of the paper that evil had been the total result. It seemed to be too much the fashion with a great many to abuse the work of our immediate predecessors. He did not mean to apply that to Mr. Paterson, for his paper was of an admirable character, but he meant that many people seemed to think, if their education had been in a certain groove—either Gothic or Classic, as the case might be—it was their duty to abuse the work of a different school of thought from that in which they had been brought up. It was noticeable with the Gothic phase, but it was equally noticeable at the present time. It was said a thing had passed and gone out, and there was no such thing as Gothic. It was folly to look at art in that one-sided and narrow way; they must surely take a much broader view. They must try to see the beautiful in all styles, and make that the foundation of future design, and whether it leans to the Gothic or the Classic. They found that eclecticism at the present day was too often only an excuse for absolute ignorance of the art the man tried to follow. They saw this even with writers of the present day. With regard to Liverpool Cathedral many foolish things had been said. One opinion was that it should be Classic, and that Gothic was dead, and the other was that Classic was dead; but this sort of argument was utterly absurd. If he might just refer to one point, he thought the whole idea of abuse in their own profession was unfortunate. One so often found himself abusing rather than finding the good things in other people's work; they were so accustomed to abuse and unduly criticise; it was so easy to criticise, but it was so very hard to do it well, and the more they really studied what was passed, and looked at the present men's work, aud tried to look for the good in it and not the evil, he was sure they would find their art improve in the spirit of true art.

Mr. W. G. Wilson seconded the motion, and said he thought Mr. Paterson spoke rather feelingly. Mr. Paterson came from Glasgow, and the architects of Glasgow were a singularly capable set of men, but, unfortunately, they were either one thing or the other—they were either followers of the traditions or no, were men who would not be controlled in any way either in their art or their religion. and so he was afraid in a good many ways their liberty had degenerated into licence. It was his privilege to be in Glasgow not long ago, and he was really staggered to see the extraordinary emanations which came from the brains of some of the most prominent Glasgow architects, and so he thought Mr. Paterson spoke rather feelingly. At the same time he considered Mr. Paterson's practice was slightly in opposition to the he had read, because the excellent work which Mr. Paterson himself did afforded very close traces of the study of a somewhat unsuitable style—the Scottish baronial. He thought the last speaker got rather away from the point in speaking of the opposition Gothic men manifested towards Classic men, and the other way about. Did they not think that the true art of today was eclectic art pure and simple? If they went through a garden of flowers they did not make a bouquet all of roses, but they gathered beautiful flowers of different kinds, and the result was beautiful.

Scotchman and Glasgow-man although he was, he was bound to say that the most successful men in England seemed to be imbued with that sense of restraint which his countrymen somewhat lacked, and the would find that the most successful work of today was purely eclectic art—work which it would be hard to characterise as classic work, and equally hard to characterise a Gothic art. These men had learned in both schools, and the result in many cases was eminently satisfactory, and he said, with all respect to their French neighbours and other Continental neighbours, that the English work of today showed more individuality, and seemed to meet the conditions of the times to a greater degree than much modern French work.

Mr. H. T. Hare said he felt very strongly that it was high time that a paper of that sort should be read in that room. He had listened during the last two or three years to several papers from the point of view, more or less, advancing the view that architects should attempt to be original, and therefore he thought that any paper which protested against conscious effort in originality must be of very great value. The idea seemed to be prevalent that if one studied and worked upon traditional lines that must of necessity kill all originality. That was not in his opinion the case by any means. If a man had ability it would come out, although he might work in Gothic, or Classic, or Renaissance, or any other style. They would see the originality there, although the work might be absolutely correct in all its lines. Therefore it was not necessary that one should be always striving after originality. One of the great evils of what was called the "new art" appeared to him to be in the fact that those gentlemen who were exponents of it absolutely divested themselves of everything that had gone before; they stripped themselves absolutely naked and would have nothing of it at all. Why a man who could afford to build a good middle-class house should sit in a room without any mouldings, and which was got up in the same style as a farm-house or a labourer's cottage, he could not say. He did not see why such a man should not have a bit of ornament or anything pleasing to the eye. He had known a case of a house in London which cost many thousands of pounds, belonging to a man who moved into high society. Why in the entrance to the hall he should have a large fireplace, with a gridiron hanging in it, he could not for the life of him see. But that was the sort of affectation he thought ought to be protested against in the strongest way possible, and although, if tradition was followed and studied, it might lead in many cases to a good deal of monotonous work, that was a thing which could not possibly be avoided, and that monotonous work as a whole would be much more pleasant and satisfactory than if it were carried out by men of mediocre talent, working without any guiding principles at all.

Colonel Prendergast said he confessed he was attracted by the title of the paper, for he felt there were great opportunities connected with it, and he had not been disappointed, for he thought it was one of the most important papers that he, who had been a member of that Institute for a good many years, had ever listened to. It was of the highest importance to them, who were professional workers, and it was, perhaps, of still greater importance to those who, like himself, were outsiders, and who were in lamentable ignorance of the whole position. The great British public never had a chance of hearing the groundwork of the great science they were engaged in. They had papers there, but seldom or never was the public instructed as to what the Institute were about, and the unfortunate thing was that if one moved about the Metropolis, one saw the most terrible forgetfulness of what should be. He need only instance two great squares in the town, viz., Hanover Square and St. James's-square. He would ask anybody, for instance, to go into those two squares and see the devastation which was taking place in them. They found fine buildings of the day in which they were put up, but he asked them to look at the abominable stuff recently erected at the corner of King Street, St. James's-square, and George Street, Hanover Square. It was the public who wanted educating, and if the lecturer could only get at those people, they might do something better. In the meantime, one came down to those rooms and listened to papers, and it generally ended in a squabble on the styles. But he thought that the matter was far wider than that. They had not to say whether Gothic or Classic was right, and what the reader of the paper had told them that night was that it was ridiculous to exclude tradition in in a great science like theirs. They must go back and not forget they had something to learn. He would like to say one thing, which was that they had a Royal Institute occupying a leading position, and yet somehow or another were unable to keep in touch with the general public, and he thought a way ought to be found. The whole was carefully and excellently summed up when Mr. Paterson said that he was to believe that "the love of originality own sake was the root of all evil pursuit of the fine arts." Their extreme difficulty was that they were face to face with a new structural method—the introduction of metal into buildings. They had now got to deal with residential buildings in great towns with great shop fronts below them. It seemed him almost an insuperable difficulty, but he did not think that it really was so. It was to be done, and the sooner they faced it the better. If in doing that they did not include the great principle which had been so admirably, put before them that night, and did forget the traditions of the science, he was convinced that something would come out it to the satisfaction not only of the Institute but to the public at large.

Mr. E. W. Hudson said he was greatly obliged to Mr. Paterson for going into the ethical portion of the question, which ordinary individuals like himself could not do, but what perplexed his mind was that in these traditions, as in the preachers of the present day, there were so many voices, and amongst these voices there seemed to be some confusion. Which were they to follow? Apart from the question of style, if they studied tradition they must, to a certain extent, follow either Classic or Gothic, and there seemed to be a difficulty a hybrid style, which was neither one thing or the other, seemed to be a most difficult thing to arrive at unless this new eclectic system was to be considered the medium between the two. Another thing with regard to their own architecture. It might be bad, but he did not think they could look either to the Continent America for a style which would give them the acme or the ne plus ultra of what they were trying to find. it seemed to him from the illustrations he had seen and the small observations he had been able to make, that they could not find much new work in the capitals of the countries of Europe which it was desirable to imitate. He did not think they desired to see the high-storied buildings of America in London. The libraries and other public buildings of America which they had heard explained in that room were no doubt very good, bat he thought in their own works they would find things equally good. In medieval times buildings certainly represented the wants of the age, and it was quite impossible to mistake a palace for a hospital, or a church for a Guildhall, and it was extremely necessary that bygone works should be studied to produce anything which was excellent at the present time. He thought a certain injustice had been done to the architects who had practised in the Gothic style by calling them archaeologists. Fergusson said an "archaeologist is a man who, in making the design for a building tries to imitate the form and details of some bygone age so exactly that it might, but for its newness, be mistaken for a work of an earlier period than that in which it was erected. The term applies equally to Egyptian, Classical, or Medieval reproductions. In many respects the portico of the British Museum is a worse example of archaeology than the design for the Law Courts, because, besides pretending to reproduce a dead style, it is one wholly unsuited to our climate." Of original work they had some examples in London, but whether they were any advance upon the works of those who studied tradition closely it was not for him to say—he meant the Grosvenor Hotel, the Charing Cross Hotel, and the late Strand Music Hall. The question was whether there was anything they could pick out in the work of the present day as the acme of what the ought to follow. What was to be the practical outcome of all the dissertations of the day?

The Chairman, in putting the vote of thanks, said he would like to say he thought this was one of the very best papers they had had in the Institute for many years. It was a paper full of thought. It pointed out the absolute necessity of the study of architecture and a study of the traditions of different phases. It entered a strong protest against the nonsensical affectation of crudeness of design which was called originality. He could not quite agree with Mr. Paterson in his remark that the influence of the revival of the last century must be deemed to have been for evil rather than for good. He did not agree with that altogether. The Classical revival which took place in the early part of the century was engendered by the Classic studies which men went in for in that period to a far greater extent than they did now as a general rule, and he supposed that the Gothic revival was caused by certain works which had been written and also possibly by the easier methods of transit, and to say this only resulted in evil he did not think was quite right. They taught men to learn, anyhow, and that, after all, was the first point. He had a strong feeling himself that the best sort of originality was obtained from the man who had the widest knowledge of ancient precedent, He used the word "ancient" both for Classic and Gothic. Originality that was simply caused by the affectation of the avoidance of acknowledged forms of the beautiful—the making of columns of absurd proportions, and cornices with mouldings entirely different to what was accepted as giving a good effect, without any raison d'être for the alteration, seemed to him entirely wrong. In the wonderful scientific researches that had been made during the course of the last century the result had been the most extraordinary developments of science. Those results were not obtained by men working without a study of what had gone before. Those researches were made in opposition to the lines laid down by certain schools in architecture who wished to ignore all precedent and go back to pre-historic times. What was the use of their having examples of English history and ancient architecture if they were not to profit by what had gone before? He had previously strongly entered his protest against that sort of theory. Education was the thing most necessary for the architect, and a wide education. Colonel Prendergast had referred to the education of the public, but as he had pointed out over and over again, the education of the public in architecture must result in the first place in the education of architects themselves, and only by the architect could the public be influenced in any way. He had certainly noticed that there was more interest and more education on the part of the public at the present moment with regard to architecture than there had been during any previous time in the history of this country. He constantly met people who had absolutely nothing to do with architecture who were greatly interested in new buildings, and who could pronounce an opinion on them, which was a thing they did not hear twenty or thirty years ago.

The vote of thanks having been heartily agreed to.

Mr. Paterson said it would be churlish of him not to recognise very humbly the very great appreciation they had shown of his efforts to think out the problem. Were he not a Scotchman he might sit down by saying "Thank you," but the Scotch dearly loved argument, and therefore he would like to enter a little protest against what he thought was a misapprehension of his sentiments with regard to Gothic and Classic revivals of the last century. Mr. Prynne and the President rather spoke as though he had decried them. and the President stated that he (the speaker) said nothing had resulted from them but evil. He strongly deprecated that view of the matter, for it was quite contrary to what he said.

The Chairman: I quoted your own words, "The influence of these revivals as regards the main issues is evil rather than good.'

Mr. Paterson said he still thought that, as regarded the main issue, that was so. He thought Mr, Prynne was quite right in cautioning architects in general against the abuse of the works of their fellows, still he thought these were times when it behoved one to speak out, and he felt very strongly that the present tendency, unless checked, was likely to do harm to the progress of architecture in the country. With regard to the position of English civil architecture as compared with Continental architecture, several gentlemen had said there were as good buildings here as on the Continent, but none had given an example. Of course, in every country there was mediocre architecture, and the outstanding work of genius must in all cases be the exception; but if they took the flower of the art on the one side, they must take it on the other. No doubt there was a lack of interest in much of the modern French architecture, but he maintained that it was better than the blatant vulgarity of much they had on this side. The only other point was that of Mr. Wilson with respect to the suitability or otherwise of the Scotch domestic architecture to modern needs. That was a difficult question, and it was a sort of red herring thrown across the trail. Some time, perhaps, he would be able to take up the cudgels on behalf of Scotch domestic architecture.

The Chairman announced that a special meeting would be held on Monday, 5 Mat 1902, to elect the Royal Gold Medallist for the current year. At the conclusion thereof, the annual meeting would be held, when the annual report of the Council would be formally proposed for adoption; the Statutory Board of Examiners would be appointed auditors nominated for the ensuing year; and scrutineers appointed to direct the annual election. An election of candidates for membership would also take place. At the same meeting would be brought forward certain alterations in the Institute form of contract proposed by the Contract Committee, in order to have the form available for use where quantities are in the contract.

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