Issue 12
Words by

Making architecture easy

7th September 2023
25 Mins

Unlike nearly all other arts, architecture is inherently public and shared. That means that buildings should be designed to be agreeable – easy to like – not to be unpopular works of genius.

Since at least the nineteenth century, debate has intermittently flared up around the question of what styles of architecture we should build. In recent decades the two sides have often been characterised as ‘traditionalists’ and ‘modernists’, supporting the use of traditional and modernist architectural styles respectively. 

To some people, this framing feels strange. These people have the impression that we used to make fewer ugly buildings and dysfunctional places. They don’t accept the idea that technological modernity somehow morally requires us to build in an austere ‘modernist’ style. But they also find it bizarre to be dogmatically in favour of the use of old architectural styles rather than new ones. People in this group feel that the debate has gone wrong somewhere. They are ideologically homeless: they are obviously not ‘modernists’, but they are also uneasy with the ‘traditionalist’ label. I count myself in this category, and I think quite a few other people fall into it too. 

I believe that the ‘traditionalist’ framing is indeed a mistake, and that there is no reason to favour traditional styles per se. But there are important reasons why we should favour some architectural styles over others – reasons that are special to architecture, and that set it apart from music, literature, painting or film. Architecture is a public art, a vernacular art, and a background art: it is created by a huge range of people, and experienced involuntarily by an even wider one. This means that we need architectural styles that are as accessible as possible, to the full range of people who live with what we build, and to the full range of builders who create it. Some ‘traditional’ styles might well be useful in achieving this, but it is not their being traditional that matters: any style with broad and deep appeal will do just as well.

1. The curious idea of ‘traditionalism’

People who are uneasy with a lot of modern buildings are sometimes attracted to the idea of ‘traditionalism’. But on reflection, ‘traditionalism’ is quite a strange idea. I don’t identify as a ‘traditionalist’, and I don’t think other people should either. Here is why.

First, the term itself is misleading. A natural definition of ‘traditionalism’ is a view on which we should build in a traditional way. But on any plausible definition of a ‘traditional style’, ‘modernism’ has itself become a tradition. It has pioneers, paragons and imitators; it has purists, popularisers and schismatics; it admits of allusion, pastiche and reinvention. All the cities of the world now teem with office buildings that are variations on the Seagram Building in New York City. It is unclear what makes them less ‘traditional’ as the variations on the Palazzo Farnese that filled many of the cities of the nineteenth century. To be sure, modernism began with a period of rapid, relatively discontinuous, and often consciously revolutionary change. But so have other traditions, including in some respects the Gothic and the Renaissance. 

The Reform Club (Left) and Bastion House (Right. Both have very clear stylistic sources. Why should only one be counted as ‘traditional’?
Marc Barrot via Creative Commons, Stephen Richards via Creative Commons

What the traditionalists need is some way of distinguishing the traditions they like from the traditions they don’t. One possibility is to go for age: traditionalists could rebrand as ‘oldists’, who favour the use of old styles rather than new ones. Defining ‘old’ is tricky – we would need to go back to at least 1920 to exclude the Modern Movement pioneers, but by doing so we would exclude Art Deco, Brick Expressionism, and so on. Let us suppose, however, that with a bit of fiddling we can get to a definition that does a tolerable job at sorting the styles that traditionalists like from the ones they don’t. Even so, ‘oldism’ would seem like a very strange view. Surely a style’s being old per se is not the thing that matters? If a new style were invented that had all the merits of the old styles (whatever you think they are), and that enjoyed their broad and deep popularity, surely any sensible traditionalist should be in favour of it? 

Should ‘oldists’ oppose these buildings because they were built in styles invented after the beginning of ‘modernism’? 
Author’s collection

What ‘traditionalists’ really want to say, in my view, is that old architectural styles tend to have some characteristic that tends to be lacking in ‘modernism’. What they really support are styles with this characteristic: this may correlate with age for the time being, but it is perfectly possible that a new style could be invented in which this characteristic is abundantly present. The question of course is what this characteristic is.

The most obvious answer might seem to be that it is simply ‘goodness’. We thus arrive at ‘goodism’, according to which we should favour styles conducive to good architecture, and disfavour styles conducive to bad. It might seem that goodism is obviously true to the point of being a trivial claim. Curiously enough, however, I am going to argue against it. There are many contexts in life in which we should be goodists. But when it comes to architecture, we should often care about other things more than the sheer goodness of the work.

2. Easy and challenging styles

I want to step back for a moment and introduce a different distinction, namely between what we might call easy styles and challenging, or difficult, ones. A style is ‘easy’, as I use the term, if works in it can be enjoyed or appreciated, at least on a basic level, without much work; a style is thus ‘challenging’ if works in it require a lot of work to enjoy. This is of course a continuum rather than a binary, and it allows that an easy style may encompass the odd challenging work, and a challenging style the odd easy one. Crucially, the easy/challenging distinction is orthogonal to the good/bad distinction: it is obvious that both challenging and easy art can be both good and bad. They are not unrelated: for instance, it is arguable that the best works tend to be at least somewhat challenging. But they are definitely not the same thing.

Challenging arts have existed throughout history to some extent. The court poetries of many cultures have been enormously allusive in ways that exclude everyone unversed in their sources. There have been architectural styles that presuppose a knowledge of a complex body of rules upon which they then play, like some kinds of mannerism. There has been difficult music, too, like the ars subtilior of the late Middle Ages, a refined and complicated musical style that seems only ever to have been enjoyed in highly educated circles (the curious might try this playlist).

The Palazzo del Te is famous among architectural historians for the various ‘tricks’ it plays with the classical language. Needless to say, these tricks are invisible to laypeople, who derive no pleasure from them. An early example of somewhat more ‘challenging’ architecture
Marcok via Wikimedia Commons

Nonetheless, it seems fair to say that rising levels of difficulty was one of the distinctive characteristics of high-status arts in the twentieth century. Atonal music, abstract painting, brutalist architecture and experimental literature are frequently opaque and sometimes actively rebarbative to ordinary people. ‘Modernism’ is a hugely complex phenomenon, and it would be egregiously silly to say that all modernist art is challenging, or even that all modernist styles are so. But it would also be silly to deny that the two phenomena are related and correlated. 

In some cases, the ascendancy of the difficult seems to have almost completely severed the relationship with a once relatively broad audience: of the world’s fifty most performed operas, for example, none is remotely modernist, and indeed only one was written after 1914, Turandot (this website provides fascinating details). Opera probably never had especially broad appeal, of course – but its appeal has nonetheless narrowed strikingly. 

It would be extremely interesting to try to describe the contours of this phenomenon – the rise of the artistically challenging – in greater detail. It is striking, and usually unremarked, that it is very variably true from one art form to another. Many critically admired novelists today – say, Kazuo Ishiguro, Mario Vargas Llosa, Orhan Pamuk, JM Coetzee – appear on fairly normal domestic bookshelves, whereas there is perhaps no living classical composer of the first critical rank who is a household name. Some contemporary art galleries are hugely popular, like London’s Tate Modern or New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, but very few people watch video art or experimental cinema at home. Quite a few art forms seem to have drifted easy-wards in recent decades, in an age that increasingly values accessibility and deprecates elitism. A serious, detailed, slightly quantitatively-minded history of the popularity of modern artistic styles would be a fascinating thing to read. Here however I content myself with very broad contours.

In architecture, the broad contours are clear enough. As mentioned above, there are definitely popular ‘modernist’ buildings: as the huge 2007 poll by the American Institute of Architects found, the American people really do like Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch and Wright’s Fallingwater. I am not sure I have ever met someone who disliked the Sydney Opera House. Visual preference surveying suggests, however, that the majority of the public remains broadly traditional in its tastes, albeit undogmatically so. The survey below by Create Streets and Ipsos MORI is typical: wholly or mildly traditional designs score highly, more avant-garde designs get a mixed-to-negative reception.

There are also the enormous though little-studied revealed preferences of the private housebuilding market, one of the few contexts where most people’s architectural preferences have unmediated market power. It seems highly significant that speculative builders, be it in the USA, England or France, continue to build in the vernacular revival styles that have been standard for suburban housing since about the 1870s. The average ‘Barratt box’ (a pejorative term for the standard mass produced home built in the UK) has brick-faced walls, cottage-style windows, a pitched and tiled roof, a panelled door, and even a fibreglass chimney stack: it is rarely ‘modernist’ in any sense, and it is never brutalist. 

The architectural historian John Summerson, himself sympathetic to the Modern Movement, remarked in 1940 that the public ‘can’t understand modern architecture, never will, and hates it like poison’. This would be a serious exaggeration today, and probably was already in 1940. But it was and remains true that ‘modernist’ styles are relatively inaccessible to the lay public.

Some recent ‘housebuilder vernacular’ in the UK: in sheerly quantitative terms, something like this is the ‘style of our times’ 
Robert Kwolek and David Milner, Create Streets
New American suburban houses are also typically built in styles traditional to the United States
Creative Commons Left Middle Right

I think the trend towards rising difficulty in most kinds of architecture is concerning, for reasons that do not apply in the case of most other arts. I am going to look at three of these, having to do with architecture’s character as a public art, a vernacular art, and a background art. In all this, however, I want to remain neutral about whether the best works in challenging styles are better or worse than the best works in easy styles. I also want to remain neutral about why challenging styles rose to ascendancy in the twentieth century, and about whether this was symptomatic of something good, bad or mixed about our culture. These are important questions, about which many interesting things have been written. But I believe we can make a powerful case for ‘easy architecture’ without answering them. 

3. The case for easy architecture

The first distinction I want to look at is between private and public arts. A private art is one where the artist and the buyer are the only people who have to experience the work. Literature is a paradigm of a private art: someone else choosing to read a book almost never directly causes me to have to experience it too. Music is generally private too: with the exception of muzak in restaurants and music played too loudly by our neighbours, we rarely have to experience others’ musical choices. Architecture, by contrast, is to a large extent a public art, at least so far as exteriors are concerned. With the exception of the island villas of billionaires, the great majority of those who experience the outside of buildings are not their owners: indeed, a building in a city centre may be experienced by tens of thousands of non-owners every day.

Some people like this building, some do not. But all must experience it
Author’s collection

It should be obvious why this presents a problem for challenging styles. Almost by definition, challenging styles tend to be enjoyed only by more highly versed minorities. For a private art form, that need not be a problem: the minority can enjoy its difficult art, while the majority continues to blithely enjoy its easy ones. The fact that there are people out there listening to Webern and reading Joyce is normally a matter of complete indifference to everyone else listening to Taylor Swift and reading Jack Reacher. But in a public art, the artistic choices of the minority are experienced by everyone. If a style is used that most people dislike, their environment will become to that extent more disagreeable for them. If the minority of difficulty-appreciators is disproportionately represented among those who make or influence decisions, then the problem is heightened. Existing evidence suggests that C2DE (roughly, working class) demographic groups tend to have slightly more conservative architectural tastes than ABC1 (roughly, middle class) ones, but postwar social housing tended to be much more stylistically radical than private spec-builder housing of the same period. This is troubling.

This conclusion follows regardless of what view one takes on the broader questions about challenging styles mentioned above. It might be that challenging styles allow for greater and more complex artworks than easy ones do. It might be that their ascendancy reflects the greater openness and creativity of modern cultures. If this is so, their ascendancy in literature and music is something to celebrate. But even if it is, the fact that they are displeasing to those without the time or artistic sensitivity to understand them is a problem in the case of architecture.

The second distinction is between what we might call genius and vernacular arts. A ‘genius art’, as I use the term, is one most people experience through works by a very small minority of artists. For ease of reference I shall call these the ‘geniuses’, though of course there is an imperfect match between an artist’s being a genius and their work being unusually widely disseminated. A ‘vernacular art’, as I here use the term, is one where most people experience works by a much broader base of artists.

Music is a paradigm of a genius art: almost all music to which we listen is written by a tiny minority of composers and songwriters, while the vast majority of composers and songwriters are listened to by almost nobody. The ratio varies from one type of music to another, but a 2021 report by the Intellectual Property Office found that one percent of artists account for 80% of streaming hours. The reason for this pattern is essentially that (a) good music can easily be performed many times, especially once ‘mechanical performances’ from CDs or streaming services are counted; and (b) there is rarely much reason to have bespoke music written for some given purpose. The exceptions illustrate the rule here. It is perfectly possible for composers to write bespoke music for an occasion, like the anthems Handel wrote for the coronation of George II, or songs written for the World Cup today. But it is extremely rare – and even this music, if it is good, tends to be listened to on other occasions later.

Architecture is near the vernacular end of the continuum: the genius architects are directly responsible for a tiny proportion of the buildings we experience. Most great architects probably designed fewer than a hundred buildings: indeed, most buildings are not architect-designed at all (i.e. they are put up by builders without consulting an architect). For almost all of us, this will be true of the buildings we care about most – our homes. The reason for this is that it tends to be inconvenient to exactly replicate designs. This is not completely true – most Georgian terraced houses had similar facades, for instance, often based on the same pattern books – but on the whole it is not desirable to take a single building by a leading architect and simply repeat it hundreds of thousands of times.

This too is a reason why challenging architectural styles could be more problematic than their equivalents in other media. Inaccessibility does not just make an art harder for audiences: it makes it harder for artists too. Some of the really challenging styles can yield masterpieces in the hands of masters, but will generate a mess in the hands of minor architects and commercial builders. 

Again, this is not straightforwardly a ‘traditional’ versus ’modernist’ distinction. There are, I think, some ‘traditional’ styles that tend towards the difficult or challenging end of the spectrum, and that could not easily be vernacularised. 

Consider this design by the refined late-Victorian architect EW Godwin for a house in Chelsea. In my view, this is a successful design, and it is a pity that the Metropolitan Board of Works did not give permission for it to be executed in this form. But it would be very hard to emulate its style, except through generating an exact replica. Godwin does not follow any simple rules of thumb on facade composition – he arranges his solids, voids, reliefs, murals and projections with ineffable taste, creating a facade that seems balanced without our knowing quite how. The murals, sprawling across the facade with no easily describable spatial relationship to the other elements, are a particularly extreme case – they do look right, I think, though it would be so easy for something similar to look wrong. 

Now imagine Godwin’s style in the hands of our major housebuilders, or indeed in the hands of a traditionally trained but relatively untalented architect. Almost certainly, the results would be carnage – superficially similar, but somehow all wrong, each element too big or too small, too high or too low, too extravagant or too sparse. What a volume builder or a minor architect needs is a style that is easy to use, with repeatable elements and straightforward compositional rules of thumb – a style that is easy to get right without genius or even talent. Ease of use is conceptually distinct from the ease of appreciation that we discussed above, but in practice the two are closely interrelated: a builder who cannot appreciate the style they work in is highly unlikely to be able to design effectively in it.

Ease of use is surely one of the great virtues of the Georgian or ‘Palladian’ style: as the architectural historian David Lewis once remarked to me, one can mass-produce perfectly serviceable ‘Palladian footsoldiers’ to an extent that is true of few other styles. Consider this house in York, of similar size and purpose to Godwin’s design in Chelsea. Every element has been standardised for centuries, and the underlying facade pattern has been used literally millions of times – hardly an ounce of creativity was required of its designer – and the result is still just about perfect.

The work of a ‘Palladian footsoldier’ in York
Author’s collection

Turn now to possibly the most contentious style of all, brutalism. Many people can name some brutalist buildings for which they have at least qualified affection. Here are some of mine: the Barbican Centre, Harvey Court in Cambridge, Clifton Cathedral, the Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate in St John’s Wood, the old Academy of Arts in Berlin, Our Lady Help of Christians in Birmingham. But the kind of genius that created these buildings is not widespread, and it is much less clear that the style is safe in the hands of talentless architects or commercial builders. My own views on the style will always be conditioned by the brutalist building I know best, on a street I visit often in North London. 

Clifton Cathedral: brutalism with genius. A street in North London: brutalism without genius.
Creative commons and author’s collection

Along with private/public and genius/vernacular, there is an important distinction between foreground and background arts. A ‘foreground art’ is one that is paradigmatically enjoyed as the centre of one’s attention. Literature and film are clear foreground arts: it is impossible to enjoy either without concentrating on them. Music is traditionally thought of as a foreground art, though people often do enjoy listening to music in the background too. Painting can be either. By contrast, architecture is normally a background art. While it is of course possible to contemplate or study a building, most people almost never do this, and even lovers of architecture do it much less than they experience buildings in the background. Overwhelmingly, we experience architecture while doing and thinking about other things. In this respect architecture is more akin to dress, ceramics or furniture design than it is to the ‘fine arts’.

What one wants of a background art depends on what it is a background to. Some activities benefit from quite specific background arts. People may want psychedelic background music in a bar, Mozart divertimenti at a formal drinks reception, and wholly vapid music in a hotel lift. The same is, to some extent, true of architecture, especially in respect of interiors. The interiors of churches, pubs, offices, patisseries, royal palaces, hairdressers’, nurseries, law courts and art galleries are all carefully designed as backgrounds for the activities that take place in them, each with its own particular vibe.  

When it comes to the exteriors of buildings, though, we don’t tend to be able to match architecture to activities in such a neat way, for reasons having to do with architecture’s character as a public art. Buildings’ exteriors serve as backgrounds to a huge range of activities. In my view, this generates constraints on what we want them to look like. The streets of a city are places of work and play, of sickness and health, of triumph and grief. To all this, buildings owned by strangers form the involuntary backdrop, and for this reason, we often want them to be as we want strangers to be: polite, courteous, friendly and unintrusive. Strangers on a train who won’t stop telling jokes or talking about their deepest fears are not usually welcome, though humour is a virtue and people’s deepest fears are often interesting. 

A good background to everyday life
Author’s collection

The problem this poses for difficult styles will be clear enough. There are contexts in which we want objectionable background arts: the background music of horror films tends to be atonal, for instance. But most people don’t want their everyday lives to be like horror films: they want them to take place against a polite, friendly, but otherwise fairly neutral context. An easy style, enjoyable on a basic level with minimal effort, is naturally suited to this; a challenging style, opaque and perhaps forbidding without work from its audience, is less so.

4. Concluding remarks

What makes an easy style? There is no short answer to this question. Maybe ornament has something to do with it, but there are easy styles almost without ornament, like vernacular architecture all over the world (an example), and even the simpler end of Georgian design in the British Isles. Maybe natural materials play a role, but the cast iron architecture of the nineteenth century is beloved by all. Maybe formal or symmetrical facade composition is involved, but there are numerous old styles that frequently arrange doors and windows across facades without much visible logic. Ease and difficulty in architecture involve a cluster of quite complicated and interrelated features, not a single or dominant one.

Hampton Court Palace: there is no discernible pattern to the windows, but this hardly seems like demanding or proto-modernist architecture

The case for easy styles is perhaps best summarised by returning to a comparison with music. 

Atonality in music is the use of all the notes of the chromatic scale, including combinations of notes that would be considered out of key relative to one another by normal standards, that emerged during the 20th century. It is the most conspicuous driver of the increasing difficulty of modern classical music, which now sets it apart from classical music from before the 1900s, and essentially all popular and folk music to this day. All musically sensitive people agree that there is good atonal music and bad tonal music, but it is also obvious that atonal styles tend to be harder for most people to appreciate. The revealed preference evidence is, as ever, the clearest: atonal music seldom appears even in the classical concert repertoire, and it is even rarer in popular music. Its one great breakthrough into popular culture is in film and television soundtracks, where it is frequently used to generate unease and tension.

Imagine if atonal music were played on loudspeakers across the towns and cities of the country. The vast majority of it was not written by gifted composers, such as Arnold Schoenberg, but by commercial muzak producers, so even when one troubled to listen carefully to it, it would rarely be of any interest. Everywhere someone went, except indoors and in the countryside, this disconcerting sound would follow them, making every street and square into a slightly uneasy and alienating place. The citizens of such a country would tend to flee its public spaces; the countryside would be intensely valued for its ‘quiet’; its cities would struggle perennially against decline. Substitute architecture for music and, it seems to me, a little like the world we actually live in.

In other words, tonality plays roughly the role for music that easy-ness plays for architecture. Or to put it the other way round, easy-ness is ‘architectural tonality’. 

Earlier in this essay, I mentioned ‘goodism’, the view that we should simply favour good works over bad ones. Goodism is obviously sort of true. We all have reason to be goodists about music, learning to love and appreciate good atonal music as we appreciate music of other kinds. In some contexts – say when we are looking round a foreign city as tourists – we should be goodists about architecture too, admiring good ‘atonal’ buildings for their goodness and not worrying about their atonality. If we were building a pavilion in a desert, we might also have reason to be goodists in making our design decisions.

But goodism is not the whole story about architecture. Buildings can be good – even great – in ways that are inaccessible to the people who have to live with them. They can be great in ways that are impossible to scale into a vernacular style. And they can be great in ways that are completely unwelcome as a background to everyday life. If we pursue architectural goodness or greatness without regard for these facts, we will produce cities that are deeply inhospitable for their inhabitants – as we have sometimes done. So we should not pursue goodness without regard for these facts: unqualified goodism is therefore mistaken. 

The chapels of E Fay Jones. A flowering of ‘tonal architecture’ in late twentieth-century rural Arkansas?
Mildred B Cooper Memorial Chapel (wikipedia) and Thorncrown Chapel (wikipedia)

It is obvious that architecturally easy, or ‘tonal’, styles do not have to be ‘traditional’ or old ones. Some strands of ‘modernist’ architecture were relatively accessible even in the most austere years – in my view Jørn Utzon, Saarinen, Geoffrey Bawa, Frank Lloyd Wright, Minette da Silva and the Eames Office are examples – and lots of non-traditional architects today are trying to establish novel ways of building that have broad and deep appeal. We should all hope they succeed. On the other hand, I don’t think there is any general reason why we have to employ new styles, as I have argued elsewhere. Most of the old styles had broad and deep appeal all along, and they are all still there, waiting for us. We need not be afraid to use them.

More articles from this issue

The discovery of copper

Words by Ed Conway

Today’s world requires vastly more copper than you could imagine, and the world of electric vehicles will require even more. That means finding new ways to find and extract copper from the earth’s crust and oceans.

Read more