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losers

An inspired dreamer of the idealized early eighteenth century village life of Kate Greenaway and Randolph Caldecott Brittain-Catlin writes; ‘It is the variety of failure in Field’s career that makes him interesting. … when the true extent of Field’s disasters are known , from the sheer impossibility of realizing his old-fashioned village idyll in industrial late-Victorian England, to the decline in his powers, to the seedy, sad nature of some of his forlorn surviving buildings – in the case of his lovely bank branch in Wealdstone, its ravishing beauty surrounded by all the ugliness of an uncared-for high street is an almost unbearable sight – the story is suddenly a great deal broader, a great deal more interesting..’

Jean-Marie Rouart in ‘La Noblesse des Vaincus’ looks at failures in cultural history such as ‘Alfred de Musset , most of whose life was blighted by hopeless passion for George Sand’ and Perec’s abstruse writing ‘so abstruse as to lead to rejection.’ Rouart says: ‘ Life’s losers. What writer is not kin to them? ‘But these are not failures so much as successes who are most interesting when they failed. Rudolf and Marot Wittkower in ‘Born under Saturn’ says something like that about the architect Francesco Borromini. The East German film ‘Die Architekten’ is about the futility of personal ambition in GDR as well as the personal breakdown of the characters and so tracks some of Brittain-Catlin’s interests. Niels K Prak notes architects are in constant retreat in the face of consultants, commercial and speculative builders and ironically are pushed away from creativity by the very forces used to draw a line between creative artists and producers. Architectural competitions create huge numbers of losers and the endless dashing of dreams. ‘Every one of them has lost time, energy, nerves, ambition, money, and of course pride; pride to their spouses and partners, to their children, perhaps to their parents, to the more successful architects in their circle of family and friends, to their rivals, to their bank managers.’

Corrupt competition can kill as for example in 1835 Francis Goodwin who as a result of such corruption died of apoplexy. Some architects are known because they were forced to not exist. At the start of his career Frank Lloyd Wright’s best friend was Cecil Corwin who Wright described as ‘the fine looking , cultured fellow with pompadour and beard’. He is later annihilated by Wright. Deep friends, Corwin supported Wright, but after a while something goes wrong. Corwin says to Wright, ‘I’ve found out there’s no joy in architecture for me except as I see you do it. It bores me when I try to do it myself. There’s the truth for you. You are the thing you do. I’m not and I never will be. I’m no architect. I know it.’ Wright notes much later: ‘Cecil went off East and – God knows why – never have I seen him since.’ Wright’s giant shadow was too much and killed sunlight for Corwin.

How do we become losers? By being the undistinguished pupil of untalented fathers of great ones. ‘George Gilbert Scott’s son George junior was a finer designer than his father, but his best building – the church of St Agnes, Kennington, in south London – was damaged during an air raid in 1941 and then gratuitously demolished , to be replaced by a disappointing cheap shed of a church so no one can appreciate it anymore; and he himself became mad, was certified insane in 1884 and later died in his father’s magnificent Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station in London.’Augustin Pugin’s son , Edward Welby Pugin, died at 40 in the Turkish baths in the Grovesner Hotel at Victoria Station. A bachelor, lonely, bitter and bankrupt, most traces of his architecture gone, it was his bad temper that was partly to blame for his loser status. Erich Mendelsohn was intolerably arrogant and repellant. He fell out with the Bauhaus architects and once in exile everyone else.

How do we become losers? Early demolition or mutilation of your work will do it. Wells Coates has had everything he did in London destroyed, including his BBC radio studios of Japanese-Hollywood modernism. James Wyatt’s buildings were either demolished, fell down or caught fire. Some architects are too lazy or too well-off. Others lose their talent. M.H. Baillie Scott spent the second half of his career being uninteresting. William Crabtree designed the Peter Jones store in Sloane Square but nothing else, ending with some mediocre stuff in Harlow. Some are too complex, difficult, demanding or unclassifiable. Lucien Kroll and Peter Hubner are both ‘untidy, disordered, threatening anarchy, breaking what is seen as good architectural manners’ according to Peter Blundell Jones, and that’ll be enough to condemn them. Up until recently women have been losers almost by definition in architecture. Many, such as Swede Ingrid Wallberg, weren’t allowed to be architects and were just influences. Yet she influenced Albert Lilienberg, Le Corbusier and Albert Roth.

Young architects tend to be losers. Their work is either lost or subsumed to their leading partners or superiors. ‘The thing with Rodney Gordon is that he couldn’t be bothered to publicise himself’ says Jonathan Meades. Gorden is a Brutalist architect whose building got credited to Owen Luder for whose partnership he was working. Decade after decade of hard work can be buried in frustration and obscurity. Some are losers as people as well as architects – ‘Stanford White’s reputation was forever sullied after he was murdered by a young psychotic.’ Some offices are full of losers. John Soane of the early 19th century had an office of losers – ‘most were hopeless, unremembered or remembered for the wrong reasons..’ Some losers are high scoring students with had the wow factor who then never made anything afterwards. James Adams, a Royal Academy gold medalist working between 1806 and 1809 was an example of this unrealized genius type of loser. RD Chantrell, a Soane pupil, supported the right style and yet was no good at it and was mocked and boycotted and driven to exile.

Some losers are losers because they were doing the right thing but were not as good as others doing the same thing. William Railton, who designed Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square was of limited talent and technical ability and couldn’t keep up with the Gothic revivalists. Brittain-Catlin tells us that ‘ he was bullied or shamed by his employers into abandoning architecture altogether.’ Others are losers because they were out of their depth. The designers of the Anglican Cathedral in Valetta in Malta were all like this. They were ignorant of the local stone, it needed rebuilding, five builders were killed during reconstruction, the Maltese press hated it and Lanksheer the architect was branded a ‘Protestant devil.’ Cost cutting and political battles can also cause losers. Ralph Knott designed London’s County Hall but his original design was criticized and changes ruined its proposed grandeur and élan. He died suddenly in 1929 aged 50, wrecked by drink and disappointment. His loser status has been rubbed in posthumously. He designed the former Speaker’s House in Stormont but Wikipedia attributes it to his hated rival Lutyens .

Some losers are losers because we remember them only because they ruined a better building. Josef Klarwein wrecked a family villa by Mendelssohn in Jerusalem. His work was rubbished by fashionable youth. Thomas Robinson ruined Vanbrugh’s Castle Howard, whilst another loser Daniel Garrett added silly steps to Hawksmoor’s noble mausoleum there. Other losers are remembered because they built something on the remains of something wonderful that wasn’t realized. Those who designed the building replacing the original Penn Station and those who replaced Thomas Hardwick’s propylaeum at Euston are remembered this way. Losers are also made from those who built ugly buildings such as the Elsom Pack and Roberts office and transportation hub at Hammersmith after the plans by Foster didn’t come through. Frederick Gibberd is remembered this way for his Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral. He was on the losing side of a battle between Brutalists and Scandanavianists as well as not being Lutyens and delivering his original design.

Failures are also made out of great ‘unbuilts.’ Shaw in 1864 failed to build the Bradford Exchange. For Lutyens in 1907 it was the London County Hall. Architects in exile also become failures. Oskar Kaufman left his smart Shoneberg flat in Berlin for Tel Aviv because of the Nazis. He nearly starved, couldn’t find work, was commissioned to design a theatre, didn’t finish it and left Tel Aviv in despair to face persecution in Budapest. Brittain-Catlin writes that; ‘Among the dead there must surely have been countless geniuses. Among the wounded and the damaged there must have been many who had been forced to abandon their dream of becoming an architect.’ Death is another way of becoming a failure. Edward Reynolds contributed to the design of the Brutalist Alton West estate at Roehampton but died ‘after a long and painful illness’ on January 1st 1959 aged 32. Accidents also contribute to this species of the posthumous loser. Maciej “Mathew” Nowicki a pioneer of the hyperbolic paraboloid was killed in an airplane crash in 1950 after visiting the site of the new city of Chandigarh where he was going to be the master planner. Michael Ventris died of a road accident at the age of 34. His unremarkable house in Hampstead is remembered because of this fact and nothing else.

There is real and there is fake. Why don’t some buildings get on the critics radar? Some just don’t, such as high-Victorian provincial-classical and mid-twentieth-century almost-tudor. The buildings are unsurprisingly clumsy, badly judged, derivative. Much contemporary housing in UK is like this done in a washed out, cheap and unhistorical style. Without a reasonable conversation with architecture, which is also about life and experience, the buildings turn out losers as do their architects. Of Quinlan Terry’s boring and neo-Georgian riverside scheme for Richmond Peter Blundell Jones wrote: ‘The tragedy of Terry is that he is unable to reinterpret… He is not working in a living tradition and so cannot enjoy the corrective influence of colleagues.’

Brittain-Catlin says: ‘… most contemporary housing in Britain is actually designed in incompetent versions of historical styles, an example of the dimness of debate that I am struck by as year follows year.’ A counter example is the ‘Essex Design Guide’ but architects attacked it. All critics hate tudor architecure. Brittain-Catlin finds this is weird because it is good architecture and important and even fits with modernism’s criteria for good. He writes: ‘No one who wrote about the importance of function, or the logic or potential of a structural frame…’ could miss the fact that ‘… the Elizabethans had been here before. Elizabethan architects could do symbolic geometry as well as anyone, and they construct using and expressing the natural properties of materials…’ Mark Girouard writes on this. But mock-tudor isn’t discussed as a proto-type paradigm for modernism. An 1820s and 30s revival of mock Tudor style caused architectural rage. Alfred Bartholomew had a chapter title of his book ‘Specifications’ ‘The Gross Corruption of the Kind of Building called “Elizabethan”’ and wrote it was a style like ‘a book with its morals reversed by negatives, its sentences misplaced, its words misspelled, its grammar corrupted, some of the words left in English, the remainder translated into different foreign languages, and the whole badly printed upon bad paper.’ Joseph Gwilt called it an ‘ imperfectly understood adaption of classical forms to the habits of its day in this country.. full of redundant and unnerving ornament.’

At the same time as architectural critics were damning it Sir Walter Scott was testifying to the fascination of the public’s interest in the Tudor and Elizabethan architecture. Now neo-Tudor houses are being designed and built all over but critics are silent. The idea of ‘fakery’ is a key to this silence. This is another legacy of Augustus Pugin. In his book ‘Contrasts’ Pugin made the concept of ‘fake’ important. ‘Unless the ancient arrangement be restored, and the true principles carried out, all mouldings, pinnacles, tracery, and details, be they ever so well executed, are mere disguise.’ ‘Beautiful’ and ‘true’ became the watchwords. What he was doing ‘ was trying to drag architecture out of one of its most disappointing and frustrating periods through the quality of design, and his packaging of the ‘Gothic revival’ as “moral” was part of his attempt at steering his design idea through to the people who would adopt and pay for it… This was their language …’ Brittain-Catlin argues that Pugin ate other architects and created the language of bullying cannibalism. Charles Cockerell’s Royal Academy lectures were ‘a perfect disgrace’, John Shaw’s words were ‘a sad failure’, John Soames’s extensions at the Bank of England were ‘… the most costly masses of absurdities that have ever been erected.’ This hectoring and bullying tone predominates when style is discussed by Anglo Saxons and has done since the early nineteenth century.

Brittain-Catlin prefers novelists’ approaches to buildings. Alan Hollinghurst’s ‘The Stranger’s Child’ contrasts two houses a la ‘Waugh’s ‘Brideshead Revisited.’ One is in Stanmore (near Horace Field’s Lloyd’s Bank) . The house is described as having ‘ a way of resolving itself into nooks’. There is no concept. No overall description of form or style. Specific areas are associated with feelings and expressions of the people discovered in them. Is this a phenomenologists’ approach? Brittain-Catlin says: ‘Phenomenology is a winners perspective: it attributes meaning to the spaces by virtue of the associations they arouse. Yet it is possible to put this familiar approach precisely in reverse, and say that the elements of the house are here created by the associations that frame it.’ In this novel it’s a pair of homosexual situations, ‘ … one in which two attractive university undergraduates , who in later sections of the story both turn out to be straight, have the kind of sex one associates with Edwardian aesthetes, with much fresh air, swimming, and poetry, the other in which a plain and straight young man, George’s lonely and inadequate brother, much given to masturbation, is pursued ardently but hopelessly by an older and richer man until he meets a sad end. There is no separation between the house and these situations…’

Hollinghurst’s ‘Two Acres’ works like EM Forster’s Howard’s End, the house a metaphor for a family rooted in English soil. Elzabeth Bowen’s ‘Eva Trout’ is also set in a defining house called ‘Cathay’ in bleak Thanet in Kent. Alexandra Harris writes of Bowen as a novelist ‘whose buildings and their contents are alive, or breathing, staring or dying.’ Michael Cunnington’s ‘By Nightfall’ shows the decadence and confusion of a mind via unrelated rambling set pieces of the enormous rambling house… ‘Bach, French doors, Jean-Michel Frank, Giacometti, Art Deco, Dogon.’ Brittain-Catlin finds these approaches to writing about architecture superior to what he describes as the triumphantalism of architectural critics.

He notes that architectural critics don’t write about minor second and third rate building. He contrast this situation with the other arts. He argues that where most fiction, music, films and poetry are third rate there are critics for them and people like it. But the attack language of the architectural critic can’t discuss what they consider third rate ideas that the public like such as rooms, feelings, vignettes, comfort, coziness, retreat, leisure. Brittain-Catlin thinks the critical silence a result of the Pugnite triumphalist hangover. Things are broadly Puginite and Pesvenerite plus tinctures of a Peter Davey type moral commitment to sustainability and public service. Brittain-Catlin writes: ‘… my argument is that mainstream architectural criticism has failed to address attempts to work with what looks like traditional types of building or variations on them… and this has left a large hole in the national debate.’ He connects this with the notion mentioned in passing above that architectural superstars are bluffers. He quotes with approval Hugh Casson: ‘ All professional people… depend very largely on bluff, whether they are dentists, veterinary surgeons , or architects.’ He also connects philosophical accounts of architecture with self publicity, his parade cases being Daniel Libeskind and Rem Koolhaas.

He discusses the bullies and sissies and the discourse of violent attacks that became the settled way of talking about buildings firstly in the writings of Loos, Le Corbusier and Gropius and then generalized across the whole profession. Brittain-Catlin identifies this with a tendency to espouse a narrow political rhetoric and the linking of a style with a politics eg neoclassical = Speer. It mobilizes a violent language of repudiation.

Is there a moment we seize in this where the losers are a sacrifice? This is a modern use of the term not found in biblical, rabbinical nor medieval Hebrew, nor Greek or Latin and found in Arabic, Spanish and German before Hebrew. In modern Hebrew ‘korban’ denotes both an offering and a victim of a crime. Moshe Halbertal discusses this in his book ‘ On Sacrifice.’ Can we understand losers in terms of an offering within a structured hierarchy? Is sacrifice essential to human expression and life? Would it be something that Brittain-Catlin’s account of losers might require. It would give his notion of a loser a depth of hinterland . Why a loser is refused can be obvious up to a point but perhaps there is always a mystery attached.

The result is to face a rejection that remains inexplicable at some level, and so unpredictable and out of our hands to overcome it. The inherent potential for rejection stands in all our existential predicaments. It is part of our superiority when we enter into a sacrificial cycle voluntarily, a symbolic recycling of the gift to its origin. Halbertal writes: ‘Sacrifice is… a gift given within a hierarchical context in which the ordinary obligation to receive and return is not valid. As such, a cycle of gift exchange is not necessarily established with the presentation of the offering, and a dangerous gap between giving and receiving is opened up, creating a potential for rejection and trauma.’ If there is a way of opening up the real resonance of the loser it is here with the rejection and trauma both primordial and privileged. It defies conventional ethics because acceptance is never secured.

The establishment of ritual is to try and deal with the unpredicatable mystery of rejection. Magical readings of ritual endow protocols with causality but rob it of personal elements. Halbertal writes: ‘causation cannot replace desire.’ Rene Girard discusses the relationship between sacrifice and violence. On his account, sacrifice is purification to end escalating violence. It requires the careful calibration of the scapegoat. The loser as scapegoat is intended to place the sacrifice on the side that refuses to retaliate and thus the violence cannot escalate. But Halbertal rejects this: the loser is not a scapegoat because the loser is placed outside the sacrificial bond, outside the ritual protocols, outside the cycle of gifts. The loser is not part of the protocol, afforded a special significance and role within it, as the scapegoat is, but is annihilated, humiliated and her desire to take part crushed. She is denied the meaning of gift giving and this results in a forced barrenness. The stakes, being so high, are therefore a reason for the violence. Cain killed his brother once his sacrifice was rejected. The reason for the gift is to be part of the relationship. It is not the reason for the relationship. It is a symbol for a gift that cannot be reciprocated.

Do we seek justice for the loser? Kierkegaard says that human justice is very prolix and yet at times quite mediocre, the divine justice more concise in needing nothing from the prosecution. As Kafka retells it, we are infomers of our own guilt. We help ourselves to eternity’s memory of that.


ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 29th, 2014.