Past Delusional

I am currently preparing my talk for the annual Lignacite Lecture which I will be giving next month entitled ‘Building on Evolution’. I have taken as my theme the tacit knowledge of historic builders and what we could learn from them. However this has also got me thinking about our tendency to allow nostalgia to blind us to reality.

How often do we hear that it was ‘better in the old days’, that Georgian or some other architectural period was the ‘pinnacle of achievement’, that pop music these days is not as good as the 70s, that the modern world is poor by comparison.

By comparison with what?

All aspects of our culture suffer from the same delusion. People of my generation often lament the decline of popular music. It was so much better in the 70s they say. Well that’s probably because they are judging the past by their own collection of music. They bought a small selection of what was available because it appealed to them, and it probably still does. However, they have long since forgotten all the rubbish that was also played on the radio. This creates a distorted impression of the past. Lets face it there was just as much rubbish recorded in the 70s as there is today, we have just forgotten about it!

Well, the buildings that we use to judge the past are also the few, finest examples of their genre. Lets face it, the majority of Georgian buildings no longer exist. They were not fit for purpose and have gone, they failed to endure. Many buildings of the Georgian period were cheaply built by speculators, just like today, and sometimes they even fell down.The Georgian buildings that remain are the ones which were well enough built to endure and functional enough to still be useful to future generations.

The same goes for Gothic cathedrals. The ones that we are familiar with are the ones that were well enough built as to not fall down already (although the reformation had a little to do with it too). But even enduring cathedrals show the signs of constant alteration and repair. The history of British cathedrals is replete with collapses and reconstructions; Hereford, Chichester and Lincoln all suffered major collapses amongst many others. However, the Gothic style developed through expression of the structural imperatives of construction and so such buildings can be easily repaired and altered.

So we could reasonably expect that buildings from any period in history varied in quality and only the best still survive. It is wrong therefore to assume that any period was a golden age based on only the surviving evidence. The buildings that survive are either the product of enduring institutions such as the church and government or they are buildings that managed to appeal to successive generations.

This appeal in surviving historic buildings must be tangible. The buildings had to survive long enough on their own merits to become historic and therefore worthy of legislative protection. So we should be able to learn an awful lot about how to make buildings for the future by trying to understand why historic buildings survived, physically, functionally and culturally. After all enduring is synonymous with sustainable.

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