Thoughts on: Essays in Architectural Criticism

Alan Colquhoun’s Essays in Architectural Criticism: Modern Architecture and Historical Change is an extraordinary collection of essays, weaving together the many strands of architectural thinking that dominated post-war architecture in the West. It won the Architectural Critics Award in 1985 and is one of my favourite books, rarely far from my desk.

The essays contained within the book were written over a number of years, during which time Le Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture and Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture were instrumental in advocating two very different ways of interpreting the function and expression of architecture. While many architects and writers aligned themselves to one position over another, Colquhoun does something quite different. He critiques both stances, applying an utterly consistent, if somewhat ruthless, logic in his appraisals.

Rather than comparing the merits Modernism to Post-Modernism, Colquhoun instead chooses to take a historical stance in analysing both. Herein lies the ground breaking moment. Modernism, that architectural movement designed to herald a new age of functional efficiency that broke from the shackles of the past, is revealed to be not quite as free of that historical continuum as one might imagine. Post-Modernism, that architectural movement that argued for complexity instead of the ‘one-dimensional’ Modernist principles, is revealed to be, well, rather one-dimensional too.

In Essays in Architectural Criticism, Colquhoun is not pressing an agenda for how to make architecture. He does not suggest even that one set of principles may be better than another. What he does is expose the folly of believing that architecture can ever be truly free from history; or that architecture can ever truly be a product of history alone. When analysed in the context of previous architecture and the nature of the city – which by its very existence has an inherent permanence – our so called ‘modern’ architecture is in fact both Modernist and Post-Modernist, at varying levels.

I wouldn’t say that the book is exactly light reading, but for anybody interested in Modernism or the progression of ‘modern’ architecture, it is both fascinating and insightful.

Essays in Architectural Criticism: buy online

Essays in Architectural Criticism is available on Amazon in paperback for about £17 (used) or about $12 (used). It is currently out of print so buying new is quite expensive.

Collected Essays in Architectural Criticism is available on Amazon and contains the full text of Essays in Architectural Criticism and Modernity and the Classical Tradition, also by Colquhoun. In hardback it costs around £32 or $42.

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