The argument of Bleak Houses is deceptively simple. Architecture past and present is divided into two categories: success and failure (or “winners” and “losers”). Architectural historians and critics have focused their violent attention on success at the expense of narrating failure in a sensitive and subtle way. They should now do the latter, because this will lead to a more nuanced architectural discourse accessible to a broad public and may therefore also lead to more humane, beautiful architecture in the future.

On the surface of it, this seems an appealing, graciously liberal argument, and it would seem that Timothy Brittain-Catlin is in good company. Successive generations of architectural historians and critics, laboring under the...

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