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 burden of the narrow modernisms of their forefathers (and a few foremothers), have struggled in myriad ways to break open the somehow sharply defined boundaries of the canon of architectural history in search of a broader and more inclusive discourse.1
But Bleak Houses is a more complicated, and more frustrating, piece of writing than this. Brittain-Catlin pursues the argument sketched out above through a chaotic mash-up of genres of critical, biographical, and historical writing. One finds here not only moving pocket histories and biographies of “sad” buildings and their long-suffering architects but also passionately worded attacks on architectural historians and critics, first-person travelogues, and memoir. Amid this clutter, it is nonetheless clear that the subgenre of the “failure memoir” serves as the Trojan horse to deliver Brittain-Catlin’s liberal manifesto. Without an understanding of this move, there is no way to explain the deep flaws in his argument. As Giles Harvey, a journalist and editor at the New Yorker, has already diagnosed, the failure memoir is a publishing house–driven phenomenon in which misery and company are profitably connected on a mass scale.2
Following the rules of the subgenre, Brittain-Catlin’s narrated perception of his own misery and failure is the frame for a diagnosis of a universal condition of misery and failure. Not even Freud was so bold. The book’s first line: “When I returned to England in the middle of the year 2000, after nearly ten years abroad, I discovered that I had become a loser” (1). From the last page: “The feeling that I had every morning when the sun rose yet again magnificent … was that perhaps there would eventually be a chance to get things right, that I would be recognized; and yet nothing seemed to happen” (152). Such statements are not only intended to connect the author with those forgotten or maligned past figures about whom he writes, but they are also naked appeals to the reader to sympathize with his plight, to see themselves and others in his self-image and in the narrative images he produces of pathetic past architects.
This rhetorical tactic sits uneasily with the more sweeping tone of the rest of the book. The title Bleak Houses is meant as a play on the title of Charles Dickens’s masterpiece. There is little point in rehearsing here the intended irony proposed by juxtaposing Jarndyce v. Jarndyce with Pugin’s Contrasts as two roughly coeval historical horizons of economic and aesthetic judgment, except to say that Brittain-Catlin hopes to achieve, à la Dickens, a set of reforms in the court of public opinion. The aim is to recover the biographies of the architectural “losers” because they might offer “a wide range of experiences for those who want to get to know buildings better” and “ways of looking at buildings that can relate much more closely to our own experiences, and give a more accurate picture of the relationship between architecture and the rest of our culture than the old ways” (21). Who doesn’t have a nasty thought for the excesses of modernist historiography? Yet there’s the rub, front and center: Brittain-Catlin cannot escape the language of judgment—“better,” “more accurate,” just plain right—that he pretends to abhor for its destructive insensitivity.
Brittain-Catlin’s clever but shallow refusal to engage directly with the merits and demerits of modernist historiography and subsequent critiques of that historiography will perhaps allow his book to seem reasonable, even sympathetic, to the unwary reader—particularly to the beginning student in architecture school, to whom, I expect, this book will all too often be recommended. But there is no escaping that even if it is true that Tudor architecture has been at times unjustly mocked by various modernist critics as a straw man, it is certainly untrue that, as one chapter subheading asserts, “all critics hate Tudor architecture” (54).3
Bleak Houses is not only a disappointed and wistful text, but it is also an angry book. It is full of sexist language and painful analogies—“half-Gothic,” “half-Tudor” buildings are “transgendered,” apparently (57)—and it is probably best not to mention class lest I be accused of being nasty. Brittain-Catlin reserves particular scorn, however, for “architectural critics” and “conventional architectural historians.”
Teasing out whom it is that he is talking about is often difficult. He rarely names or quotes his villains, even if he does take down some easy targets by proper names. But in this book there are always “people,” apparently legion, who are “rude,” ruthlessly singling out individual architects for criticism of the judgmental and negative kind, and thus destroying their lives and dooming their works. Worse, for Brittain-Catlin, are those architectural writers who wish to politicize architecture for their own personal gain. Certainly such “people” merit our scorn, but it is hard for me to understand the relevance of the point, given that I ascribe to a commonsense and widely shared view of history that sees politics as produced through events and “people” rather than something that is only projected—selfishly and arbitrarily—backward onto events, let alone individuals, by critics or historians.
As for said historians, Brittain-Catlin tends to attack us (and, presumably, himself) via proxies. As usual, violence begets violence. Brittain-Catlin offers, with no documentary evidence or serious analysis, a shockingly ignorant evaluation of the Smithsons—whose work he dismisses as “locker-room intimidation, really; cock-flashing” (81)—because of their interest in a sophisticated combination of influences that resulted in what would become known as “the New Brutalism” at the expense of a putatively humanistic “Scandinavianism” that interests him.
Perhaps most mischievous is his willful misreading, late in the book, of New Urbanism as “a matter of taste, that is all, not of principle” (141) and as “a noble retrenchment from the pain of real life which seems to have ended, mainly, in a great deal of paper and very little else” (144). One has to wonder whether Brittain-Catlin has thought much about the real stakes of suburbanization and downscaling of social housing projects on both sides of the Anglophone Atlantic, the cartoonish “neoclassicism” or context-free vernacularism of shopping centers, the cloistered garishness of “gated communities,” or any of the other fungible stage sets for consumer capitalism that have become the modus operandi of twenty-first-century neoliberal real estate development. This is a core problem with the winner/loser logic of his account. Since the winners receive no direct analysis, there is no serious basis for the ethic of judgment in Brittain-Catlin’s illusion of a post-Pugin world. Perhaps if Brittain-Catlin did not just dismiss architectural criticism and history as the bleating of self-serving bullies, he might find much to admire and criticize in an architectural historical and critical culture struggling ingenuously—if always already too late—with the complexity of narrating the relationships between theory and practice; among the have-a-lots, the have-somes, and the have-nots; and between corporate entities and “individuals.”
In his willingness to surrender critical apparatus in favor of a narcissistic aesthetic of personal autonomy and melancholy affect, Brittain-Catlin offers us the cryptohistorical reverse of the “postcritical” or “projective” coin. In search of “a quieter and more modest way of looking at and interpreting buildings” (5), one that would be in keeping with his own “loser” status, he unwittingly reproduces the violence of the so-called winners and then cracks up. Oedipus, eat your heart out.
The debates on this topic have seen memorable passages of argument appear in the pages of this journal. See, for example, John Maass, “Where Architectural Historians Fear to Tread,” JSAH 28, no. 1 (Mar. 1969), 3–8; Diane Harris, “That’s Not Architectural History! Or, What’s a Discipline For?,” JSAH 70, no. 2 (June 2011), 149–52.
See Giles Harvey, “Cry Me a River: The Rise of the Failure Memoir,” New Yorker, 25 Mar. 2013, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/03/25/cry-me-a-river (accessed 1 July 2015). The classic entries in this genre in modern Anglophone literature are undoubtedly F. Scott Fitzgerald’s three essays in The Crack-Up (New York: New Directions Books, 1945).
This misstatement is indicative of a loose attitude toward fact throughout the book. Brittain-Catlin repeatedly cites archival documents and published collections of letters without quoting from them in his text or in the endnotes or providing due context; see the introduction’s note 1 for the first example (153).