G.K. Chesterton on Architecture

Architecture is the most practical and the most dangerous of the arts. All the other arts we have to live with. They are things we have to live with and some have even said, with regard to some kinds of music and painting, that they are things they could live without. But architecture is not a thing only that we have to live with — it is a thing we have to live in. We live with it as Jonah lived with the whale. Jonah could not see the monster and there is a great deal to be said for living in the most hideous house you can see in the landscape. That is the one place where you will be unable to see it.

I have before me two or three very interesting books dealing with architecture. The first impression made by all these books is that architecture is at this moment in a very queer condition — queerer than at any other period. We all know this in a way about what men call practical architecture, especially domestic architecture. Now in the past there has been broadly two main social systems — slavery and a rough peasant equality. Most men’s houses, or huts or what not, have either been made by themselves, because they had timber or clay or what was needed, or they have been made by their masters for them. The Eskimo made his own house of snow and the Irish peasant generally made his own cabin of mud or peat, which was the real root of his sense of the injustice of landlordism. On the other hand, Uncle Tom’s cabin was presumably built for Uncle Tom, and most English cottages were built by squires and testify to their traditionalism, their carelessness, and their natural instinct for the picturesque.

But with the growth of modern towns and the reign of specialists, a very strange situation has arisen. For most people, the houses exist before the householder. Those rows of new villas in the suburbs are built for anybody — that is, nobody. Willam Morris, thinking of rabbit hutches, called them man hutches. But they really wait, more like man traps. They wait for the man who shall come or not, as the case may be. Only in the case of the wealthy the householder exists before the house. The rich man has to kick his heels in hotels and horrid places while an architect is building his house.

Now the speculative builders do not know what people would really like. So they build all the houses exactly the same, in a style that nobody could like very much so as to be fair all round. In the second case the millionaire can of course tell the architect what sort of house he would like. The architect listens sympathetically and then goes away and designs something totally different, which the millionaire is obliged to accept because he is afraid of people suggesting that he knows nothing about art, which is indeed the case. In both these cases, you will note, a specialist does exactly what he likes. There is nothing to show that suburban people really like suburban villas. Indeed I strongly suspect that most of the satire against suburban villas is written in surburban villas. There is nothing to show that Mr. __, who made his money in pork, likes the aerial perspective of the new architectural style of steel and glass. And he, poor devil, is a more miserable captive than the other, for he cannot write in the papers abusing the ugliness of his own house. And the suburban class can.

Now all this is to say what most of these books largely agree in saying — that there is not any modern style that is popular in the sense that most people like to look at it — let alone that most people would naturally try to build it. A very sensible and well-balanced little book, called How To Look At Buildings … Buildings — by Darcy Braddell (Methuen; 6 shillings) — makes this point all the more pointedly because it is not in any sense a controversial book. It does not profess to go so deep, for example, as another and larger volume called Purpose And Admiration by J. Barton (Christophers; 10 & 6) — of which I shall speak in a moment.

But the smaller handbook makes this point very clear, for example by a comparison with the 18th century. The 18th century was ruled throughout by the classical style and as we shall see when we come to consider Pugin and Ruskin, many held rightly that this classicism was narrow and cold. But even its narrowness was broad in the sense that it was as broad as the whole people. As Mr. Braddell writes: “In the 18th century all were agreed that as far as they were concerned, classic architecture was vastly superior to what seemed to them the rude barbarities of Tudor and Jacobean architecture.”

Today we have none of that. Today that is, we have things that few people admire and we have things that a lot of people put up with. But we have not anything that can be called the taste of the age, which in the 18th century would make a banker and a bankclerk and a crossing sweeper and even a poor wretched artist or architect agree that the old Bank of England was a suitable and elegant direction.

From All Manner of Thing


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