Marking the Anniversary of Lovecraft's Death with a Reflection on Georgian Architecture
Yesterday marked the eightieth anniversary of the death of H. P. Lovecraft, an occasion that provoked a great deal of ambiguous observation in the media, mostly due to the tension between Lovecraft’s genius as a creator of a fictional world and his almost comically absurd levels of racism. In noting the anniversary of his passing, I thought I would break from my usual topics of discussion to talk a bit about one of Lovecraft’s other obsessions, Georgian architecture. As most readers of Lovecraft’s fiction, and especially his letters, know, Lovecraft was obsessed with Georgian and Georgian Revival architecture and found in it the form most pleasing to his sense of aesthetics. “Lifelong antiquarianism has caused me to lay zestful stress on historic backgrounds & traditional architectural minutiae,” he wrote to Fritz Leiber.
I was thinking of this when I read an interesting column in The Spectator discussing a recent report from Britain which found that Georgian architecture was a key factor linking the country’s best places to live. According to columnist Ed West, studies have found that houses with traditional architectural elements (even new ones) sell for 5% to 15% above the price of nontraditional houses. “So why don’t the authorities at local and national level do the obvious thing and make more town centres look like Edinburgh or Cambridge, and so make beauty available to more people?”
That’s a great question, and it’s probably one that Lovecraft would have asked as well. I wonder if the same reverence for tradition would hold here in the United States, where there is less history and whole cities lack any traditional architecture at all. I think that it might, if the McMansion craze is to be taken at face value. These clapboard and foam fantasias draw (badly) on traditional architectural styles and elements, albeit out of proportion and without the fineries of traditional style. But the reach for those forms suggests that Americans would prefer traditional styles, if anyone still knew how to build them correctly. I can recall, for example, a doctor in my hometown who wanted to live in a Victorian house, but he also wanted to live in a ritzy neighborhood, so he built his own from scratch. It was a laughably awful imitation, instantly recognizable as a fake. Similarly, here in Albany, when a Victorian brownstone near the city’s main park burned down and had to be demolished, the owners of the land tried to rebuild it in the traditional style, and whether through changes in material or lack of talent, it sticks out like a sore thumb, its details too simple and its proportions all too wide.
West blamed unloved forms of modern architecture on two things: (a) architects who are aggressively “contrary” in designing buildings at odds with public taste and (b) regulations that prevent traditional architecture in the name of public safety and access. Since the latter doesn’t apply to the United States—where building shapes and ornamentation are generally not regulated aggressively—it does make me wonder why people purposely build ugly buildings that they know people don’t like. West sees the issue as a political one, and he urges conservatives to oppose regulations that restrict Georgian architecture, offering the pseudo-Trump slogan “Make Beauty Affordable Again.” It seems that he sees modern and postmodern architecture as a kind of liberal conspiracy to dehumanize cities and towns.
Lovecraft was in agreement, more or less, writing in a 1927 essay on Vermont, “On the towns of the lower coast the blight of mutation and modernity has descended. Weird metamorphoses and excrescences, architectural and topographical, mark a menacing tyranny of mechanism and vice-royalty of engineering which are fast hurrying the present scene out of all linkage with its historical antecedents and setting it adrift anchorless and all but traditionless in alien oceans…” I’m not sure he entirely saw it in explicitly political terms, but rather that modern capitalism had run roughshod over traditional culture. I imagine that’s also the reason behind strip malls and Walmarts and the bland consumer architecture of modern America, which could use traditional architecture to look like attractive town squares, but choose to be ugly beige nothings, probably because it’s cheaper.
I think that aesthetics play a role in our perceptions and help to shape our view of the world. Ugly buildings can be alienating, and a perceived lack of beauty (even if architects think brutalism and postmodern hodgepodges are lovely) contributes to a perception of alienation and decline. The trouble, though, is deciding what is beautiful. I imagine that in places that lack colonial and Victorian layers, like the new U.S. cities of the south and west, perceptions of beautiful architecture differ from those that do. That’s probably why imposing one style—like the infamous “beige box” style—from coast to coast feels more impersonal and alienating than traditional regional architecture.
3/16/2017 11:14:41 am
This is a very timely post for me, because in a whim I bought a book called "Anti-Ugly: Excursions in English Architecture" by Gavin Stamp. Stamp is an architectural historian, and in this book which is a collection of articles he wrote for Apollo the Arts Magazine, he explores subjects such as historical preservation, beauty in its many forms, and classical/traditional architecture vs modern architecture and he personalities that champion opposing architectural ideas and goals. I highly recommend it if you are interested in architectural history, but I recommend having a computer or tablet or smartphone at hand since the reader will want to find images of the buildings discussed, and unfortunately the book is all text.
3/16/2017 12:11:08 pm
"It does make me wonder why people purposely build ugly buildings that they know people don’t like."
3/16/2017 04:23:32 pm
"Second, most people simply have no taste so they don't know the difference."
3/16/2017 12:28:28 pm
I've seen a similar attitude in my state of Texas. I see more and more homes built to look more rustic, usually log style. Some will overlay the outside with wood to reflect the appearance of an American Western ranch. A lot of the prefabricated homes will include faux shutters and square pillars, again, to reflect earlier period features.
3/16/2017 01:33:32 pm
There is a certain level of "form follows function" going on with the "beige box" syndrome. Most stores don't OWN the space they're in in a mini-mall. Beige boxes can be refurbished very easily to suit a new tenant, and a more architecturally-detailed space not so much. (Witness how when a free-standing restaurant goes under, it takes a LOT longer for the place to be purchased or rented fresh than a space in a strip mall.) Larger store chains want easily-rearranged warehouses, basically, so that's what they build.
3/16/2017 01:50:37 pm
No, you're certainly right about the way the disconnect between form and function is what tends to make the glued-on ornaments of McMansions look so laughable. I think the problem is that the most important "function" of new houses is to be "big," which throws everything off because most of the space is simply there to look impressive. They're basically barns with pilasters.
3/17/2017 01:14:17 pm
Yeah, that drives me crazy--not so much that houses are meant to be "big," because god knows, that's the function of a lot of older buildings, too. The Palace at Versailles, anyone? Prinny's Brighton Pavilion? Windsor? For that matter, the Capitol Building or any of the Smithsonian Museum buildings? But putting tiny squirrel-y decorations on a large space is like putting a tiny print on someone my size--it just makes it look wrong. If you don't understand what functionality makes the decorations the size they are, you cant' figure out how to scale them appropriately, is the real problem.
3/21/2017 01:23:54 am
We have some lovely rehabs around here. There was a Copper Penny that went through a decade or two of being called "Golden Sun" and anything else that might sort of fit with the, you know, giant penny motif. But my favorite I never witnessed, only saw in ads on a local multilingual public access channel; a Taco Bell rehabbed as "Ringer Hut."
3/16/2017 02:38:45 pm
As has been noted many times, US suburbs all look the same.
3/16/2017 05:21:48 pm
I always like a good generalization as much as anyone in the world, but rilly? Do they all look like Leavittown, or Malvern, or Chevy Chase, or Cottage City?
3/16/2017 11:11:52 pm
Hi AN -
3/17/2017 12:48:29 am
I forget who wrote it, but there was a song about the suburbs being all The same. I remember one of lines being that the homes were all Ticky-Tackey and all looked the same.
3/17/2017 01:24:43 pm
Gotta say this--the houses of the average income Joe have, throughout history, largely looked the same regardless of where the average Joes congregated. It's always been the wealthy who've had the money to differentiate greatly, and it's always been the wealthy who've had the money to preserve their buildings for any great length of time. Most English countryside cottages from 300 years ago look pretty much the same, too.
3/17/2017 01:33:17 pm
V -- Your criticisms of Gothic Revival (and Queen Anne, for that matter) are exactly why Lovecraft hated them. It goes all the way back to the first Gothic Revival residence, Horace Walpole's Strawberry Hill, which literally pasted fake Gothic ornaments onto the walls. I guess the question is whether a building succeeds aesthetically at what it is aiming to do. Even though I personally love Victorian architecture, I've seen a number of Victorian houses that are so ill-conceived that they were clearly the McMansions of their day.
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