By createstreets, Aug 3 2017 11:25AM
By Jeremy Musson
I have always thought the most significant quality of architecture is that it is the most practical and purposeful form of art. It meets needs, it is present, unavoidable, it frames lives - and has framed past lives, and will frame future lives, whether street, palace or church. We just cannot avoid it, while sculpture and painting, even installations can be easily ignored. Architecture may be an art form. It is also a service industry.
I have been an active conservationist, a field in which good understanding, and documentary-based research is vital; if you could not muster a reasonable and reasoned argument about the significance of the building under threat, it was in effect a lost cause. I was also, in the 1990s, a curator of historic houses and landscapes for the National Trust, where we debated endlessly the relevance and impact of those buildings and these places on their various audiences. We certainly felt then that our research and understanding was key, but we also recognised that you need no knowledge at all to respond to a building or a physical place.
One of the areas of great interest to me, has always been what the designer and builder intend, and how did they express that, how did their contemporaries react and respond to the building, how did it look to them, what did they say about how it functioned? We may read a building for its references, to say, dynasty, or to religion, or to the classical or gothic world, but it also contains in its story, numerous other dialogues, which change over time. It is this sense of the ‘residence’ of past lives and works which Ruskin and William Morris championed so fervently in the nineteenth century, and which frames both the world of conservation and the world of curatorship: the defence of authenticity and legibility.
David Hockney once observed that the art which survived from ancient cultures did so because either it was created in durable materials, or because it was loved – or venerated. In the complex field of preservation, I would champion love or affection, as a method, and the love, which springs from knowledge, is the best of all.
For the past two decades, 12 as a specialist writer-editor on the staff of weekly Country Life magazine, I have pursed the history of hundreds of buildings, and in more recent years I have lectured to undergraduates, postgraduates, experienced house curators, interiors designers, and many other audiences. I have both supervised and supported other researchers, and led teams working on conservation management plans and statements, which seek to understand and outline the protection of that significance. I have explored aspects of the historic house, church and wider urban contexts too. Historic buildings are the points on our cultural maps by which we can - and do - explore the past and define the present.
I have been especially interested in the intersections of architecture, art, and ideas, and written on the houses of the British aristocracy and squirearchy (and aspects of their social history), but also on the houses of artists and writers. I have written about English, American and European subjects, from obscure, Norman manor houses to the house of Goethe in Weimar, from King’s College Chapel in Cambridge to the water gardens and house at Ninfa in Lazio.
All of these projects have been explorations of meaning through buildings and the experience of buildings; how buildings work, and how they work on the observer and the visitor. I have become increasingly interested in the sharp rise in ‘cultural’ tourism, in an ever-wider awareness of the significance of architecture and urban character when visiting European cities (and how tourism impacts on that significance and character).
Architectural history needs to be anchored in the real world of builders, owners, developers, regulations, of contemporary fears and vanities. It reflects its time and, in turn, shapes it. This is why it is exciting to be involved in a new initiative in the field of architectural history, which embraces European and North American topics. The Gothic cathedral and castle, the renaissance villa, the baroque palace and church, the impact of industry and religion on nineteenth century European architecture, and the evolution of the very idea of the significant past will all be explored, as will the influence of the classical world, the architecture of the colonial era, Beaux Arts in the US, and the meaning of modern in architecture. Architectural history is, for me, one of the best routes to understand the world we inhabit, as well as the world we would like to inhabit. It’s a lot more than pretty pictures.
Jeremy Musson is an architectural historian, writer and broadcaster. More information about his new MA course at the University of Buckingham, London Programme on the history of Western Architecture is available at:
The course’s evening seminars and discussions for the 2017/18 programme will be led by some of the outstanding scholars of today, covering topics from the medieval world to the mid-twentieth century, and will provide a framework for the individual student’s dissertations.