January 8th, 2008


The paradoxes of Quinlan Terry

Skirmishes (perfectly civil and respectful ones befitting to the two elements of a mutually-defining binary) have broken out on Click Opera between the avant and retro factions recently. The other day I noted an odd "semantic drift" which sometimes happens here, a drift from "laboratory" to "conservatory". I start by talking about some kind of laboratory culture (Mike Meiré's Farm Kitchen Project, for instance), but the comments have drifted into a discussion of conservatories by the end of the day. If I blog about radical fashion, someone sooner or later asks me if I read conservative fashion blog The Sartorialist. If it's the philosophy of form, I'm asked my views on Alex Kerr or Christopher Alexander.

Now, in terms of cultural politics, these queries are the aesthetic equivalent of the questions political pollsters ask to find out how someone's likely to vote. They're good questions because they're hot buttons. A thumbs-up for Kunstler, Alexander, Kerr and The Sartorialist would represent a certain view of the universe which I'd characterize as conservative. So I tend to take these questions as "Are you a conservative yet?" Explaining, the other day, why I tend to back off from Alexander and The Sartorialist, I said that it was because they both seemed to propose the existence of a cosmic order -- justified by metaphysics of some kind -- which favoured some forms (the gentleman's suit, the "natural city") above others. These forms would usually be characterized as "classic" and "timeless" and "real" and "spiritual", as opposed, say, to "vogueish, modern, secular, facile, meretricious, plastic, trendy".

Nobody so far has asked me what I think of the architect Quinlan Terry, but he's an interesting case, a sort of extreme example of the retro-fogey tendency which holds the avant-trendy one in a neat binary opposition. Have a look at the building on the right above and tell me when it was built.

It's the Howard Building, Downing College, Cambridge University, and it was designed and built by Quinlan Terry in the mid-1980s. Most people, encountering this building without knowing its origins, would probably assume it was built in the late 18th or early 19th century. Now, I don't find it, in and of itself, an ugly or bad building. It's actually quite handsome. But I'm very much against the idea of making straight pastiches of old building styles -- it seems like a complete abrogation of the responsibility of the artist to say something relevant to the times. It's also letting down the future, which requires topicality and inventiveness from us, even just so it has something to revive and play around with in its turn. There's nothing more useless to the future than an age which just recycles a previous age and doesn't come up with its own distinctive style.

Presenting this conservative architect to its liberal readers, The Observer asked "In a world obsessed with modernism, could this classically-obsessed traditionalist be the ultimate rebel?" The story began with another paradox: "He is our most controversial architect - precisely because he is so uncontroversial." The trouble with these formulae is that they quickly become so semantically unstable they self-destruct.

In a world where to rebel is to conform, to conform is to rebel.

Quinlan Terry is so uncontroversial he's controversial.

Some people are so retro they're positively avant-garde.

To challenge perpetually is no longer challenging; the true challenge now would be to soothe and reassure.

If to conform is to rebel in a world where to rebel is to conform, then conforming and rebelling no longer have any meaning. The moment you start to rebel in that world, you conform. And yet the moment you start to conform, you rebel, so rebelling is actually rebelling again. And yet it's not, because to rebel is to conform. But that's to rebel, actually. And so on. It's like a dog chasing its own tail.

The Observer article confirms that Terry's classicism has a strong cosmological-metaphysical underpinning in the form of his Christian faith. But what I find really interesting is how this worldview which is supposed to be based on an inherent order in the universe was actually created dialectically through an Oedipal struggle with opponents who turn out to be Terry's own parents and teachers. This opposition is what makes him a "rebel", and yet the people he rebelled against to become the man he is today are, themselves, much bigger rebels than he is.

"His parents were typical Hampstead progressive types," Lynn Barber tells us. "Guardian readers, communists, they went to Moscow before the war," says Terry. "They were not atheists, but I think they were militantly agnostic. Another word for agnostic is ignoramus, but no one likes to use that word." His mother was an artist friendly with key Modernists like Barbara Hepworth and Walter Gropius. The Bauhaus, then, wasn't just a set of forms and principles in a textbook for the young Terry. It was Walter, sipping tea with Mummy in the drawing room.

Later, Terry clashed with his Modernist teachers at the Architectural Association, again rebelling against people I would consider rebels. The Architectural Association is one of the places I feel at home in these days when I go back to Britain. There's a wonderful bookshop, a great cafe, interesting shows. The place is just filled with a spirit of adventurous experimentalism. When I was there in October my friends from Abake -- and James Goggin, who made my last two sleeves -- were showing in the ground floor exhibition space. Anyone attacking the spirit of the AA is basically not a friend of mine (unless it's some sort of "minor differences" grouch), just as anyone attacking egalitarian idealism or the Bauhaus is basically on the other side of the political divide. These attitudes are "rebellious" the same way it's "rebellious" for art critic Brian Sewell to advocate a return to figurative painting in a time dominated by post-Duchamp conceptualism, or for the Standard (Sewell's paper) to say that the ICA should shock and challenge its own liberal patrons rather than the standards of a wider cross-section of the British public. It's a rebellion against rebellion, a revolution against revolution, an Oedipal attack on the progressive.

"I thought that the world was not as I'd been brought up to believe," Terry told The Observer, explaining the rift with his parents and teachers. "They said it was getting better and better, but it was actually getting worse and worse. Because I'd never been taught about original sin and its hold on the whole human race, and how man in sin is displeasing to God, in a way I was totally protected from the Christian faith... We live in terrible times... I just think we're in decline really, in every way. The West in general, Britain in particular. Morally, I think we're in decline - look at the crime figures, the divorce rate." And so Terry, in his practice, returns to a Golden Age and justifies it with reference to Golden Sections and Golden Rules and God, the parent you can trust, the parent who isn't a communist or an aesthetic radical, and certainly isn't trendy.

In some ways I'm "on the same page" as Quinlan Terry -- just heading in the opposite direction, and for similarly Oedipal reasons. Terry works in Dedham, an unspoilt English village where my family also lived for a couple of years in the 70s. The Georgian Edinburgh flats I was brought up in would probably be very much to Terry's taste, as perhaps would my school, the neo-classical Edinburgh Academy. But these buildings were the perfect reason for me to fall in love with Tokyo, a city which actually felt like the present and the future rather than the past, and had a dynamism, a reckless modernity sorely lacking in conservative British places like Edinburgh and Dedham, no matter how well-proportioned or God-approved they might be.

At least, though, I recognize where Terry is coming from. I recognize that he's simply responded negatively to the progressivist radicalism and aesthetic Modernism I respond positively to. And perhaps he really has become a Christian and a conservative in a spirit of rebellion. It's just that he's chosen, as I see it, the wrong thing to rebel against: rebellion itself. In his quest for cosmic order, he's released a whole Pandora's Box of tail-chasing Oedipal paradoxes which, ironically, make the world considerably more unstable and chaotic. Back to the lab.