A question of style

Jules Lubbock on building politics

''Classical architecture will never lose its associations with Nazism. They make it eternally unacceptable as a style in which to build." Some years ago, I wrote words to that effect in the New Statesman. I almost immediately regretted them. On reflection, it seemed clear that the relationship between architecture and politics doesn't work like that. In a retraction, I argued it was more akin to that between streets and street names. We do not think of Oliver Cromwell when we visit Cromwell Road, nor of the Battle of Trafalgar in Trafalgar Square - like all words, place names acquire a life and meaning of their own, not determined by anything inherent in their sound or history. Meanings can change, but only with social acceptance. Likewise with architectural styles.

But which account of the relationship between architec- ture and politics is correct? Are there meanings so permanently associated with types of architecture that they are almost inherent in those forms, or are these connotations in constant flux?

We need to re-examine the relationship between classicism and Nazism. In the postwar period, it did appear to many on the left that classical architecture was indelibly stained by Nazism and political reaction. Most leftists concerned with architecture were modernists. The right, on the other hand, certainly after the high-rise debacle of the 1960s, used the supposed links between modernism and socialism to epitomise all that was rotten in the welfare state. Historically, however, it was not so simple. The three great continental pioneers of modern architecture, Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier were deeply compromised by their dealings with the Nazis or with Vichy.

After Hitler came to power in 1933, Gropius hung on in Germany till late 1934, Mies till 1938. Both sought commissions from the Nazis in the hope that they would adopt modernism as the regime's style. Their hopes were not as vain as they appear in retrospect; the Nazi Party was split on the politics of culture. Mies contributed to the 1934 "Deutsches Volk - Deutsche Arbeit" exhibition alongside Gropius, helped design perhaps four service stations for Hitler's autobahns, and decorated his competition project for the 1935 Brussels Exhibition with swastika pennants. The radical architect who had built the monument to Rosa Luxemburg for the Communist Party in 1923, demolished by the Nazis in 1933, signed the notorious artists' proclamation supporting Hitler's candidacy for Chancellor in August 1934. He defended modernism by claiming that architecture was apolitical. Some modernists, on the other hand, were committed socialists; Hannes Meyer, a former Bauhaus director, emigrated to the Soviet Union.

The origins of modernist ideology further complicate the picture. The key figure was the Viennese architect and in-terior designer Adolf Loos, who coined the famous slogan "Ornament is crime" in 1908. His own political affinities lay with the laissez-faire Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Frederick von Hayek. Using clothes as a metaphor for architecture, he argued that the bemedalled uniforms of the Austro-Hungarian imperial hierarchy descended directly from the trophy-based regalia of earlier societies. In Britain and America, on the other hand, the unadorned gentleman's suit was the product of the change from rigid status to social structures constantly shifting in response to the forces of modern capitalism, becoming ever more egalitarian in both appearance and reality.

So modernism has been associated with laissez-faire capitalism, socialism and fascism, and employed by all three. In Britain during the 1950s and 1960s, it was as much the style for speculative offices as for Hertfordshire schools and New Universities. On the other hand, while classicism was the style adopted by the British Raj for the Viceroy's House in New Delhi, designed by Edwin Lutyens in the 1930s, it was also employed by the Labour-controlled London County Council for their slum-clearance flats, some also designed by Lutyens.

There are many examples of a style changing in meaning. The Gothic Revival, which began as an 18th-century gentleman's plaything, was promoted by Pugin as the style appropriate for the revival of a benign, Roman Catholic squirearchy to counter Hanoverian corruption and industrial utilitarianism. Pugin's gothic was adopted by Disraeli in his political novels Sybil and Coningsby as the style for the paternalism of the Young England movement. Gothic was then secularised by the arts and crafts movement, becoming the symbol for a socialist, anti-urban utopia in William Morris's News From Nowhere.

But Morris's disciple, the planner and architect Raymond Unwin, ensured that cottagey vernacular became the model for the huge suburban developments of the inter-war period. And today the new suburb of Poundbury outside Dorchester, planned and designed by Leon Krier in the local vernacular, has weathered its association with the Prince of Wales to be adopted by the Labour minister John Prescott as the prototype for housing on greenfield sites.

It seems, therefore, that claims for the ethical, religious or political virtues or the suitability of a particular style have little foundation.

The problem for unwary politicians in using architecture as a political symbol is that it can so easily become a sitting target, a hostage to fortune. All buildings cost a lot, but big buildings by signature architects are extremely expensive - only wealthy corporations and individuals or the state can afford them. Such monuments are therefore symbols of power. Richard Rogers's Millennium Dome is a very expensive monument, and when the Millennium exhibition flopped, the building itself became a convenient stick with which to attack the fiscal extravagance of metropolitan, cool Britannia, new Labour. Yet Tony Blair and Prescott had taken over the whole scheme from John Major's government.

Architecture is an art of appearances - even more, perhaps, than politics. That makes it such a treacherous political weapon. As a general rule, the rich and the great want their monuments to be big but to look even bigger and more striking. A rare exception was Thomas Jefferson, who understood the art of dressing down. In Washington, the mischievous president wore shabby clothes to needle the British ambassador, who complained of Jefferson's "slippered undress" and of his deliberate, republican breaches in protocol, such as the absence of any seating plan at state banquets, forcing the ambassador to sit "below the salt". Jefferson's country house, Monticello, on his Virginian estate, was as grand and classical as that of any English aristocrat. It has roughly the same number of rooms as Robert Walpole's mansion Houghton Hall, in Norfolk, though the rooms themselves are smaller, and like Houghton it is four-storeys high. But Monticello appears to have only one storey and seems modest by comparison.

Unless they have Jefferson's expertise, politicians would be well advised to steer clear of monuments and wily architects of all stylistic persuasions.

Jules Lubbock is professor of art history at the University of Essex. His book The Tyranny of Taste: the politics of architecture and design in Britain 1550-1960 is published by Yale University Press

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