American Castles and Brutalist Towers

The latest issue of the National Review has an essay by Michael Knox Beran entitled “Why We Love McMansions and Other Modern Castles.”

…America, though born in the faith that all men are created equal, is infatuated with castles — the principal function of which is to make other people feel inferior. Scott Fitzgerald showed Gatsby’s castle fantasy to be the stuff of horror, yet it has been converted into a national ideal. The palaces of the plutocrats — Kykuit, San Simeon, The Breakers — have become places of pilgrimage, and there is hardly a suburban subdivision, covered with mock châteaux, that does not offer up its unsightly homage in the name of the national cult.

After explaining what he describes as the “Darwinian” function of castles to attract members of the opposite sex to their owners, Beran reviews the literary treatment of the subject, and here Waugh’s writings come into play:

The Greek scholar Werner Jaeger went so far as to assert that culture “is simply the aristocratic ideal of a nation, increasingly intellectualized.” Western culture “begins in the aristocratic world of early Greece,” he wrote, “with the creation of a definite ideal of human perfection, an ideal towards which the élite of the race was constantly trained.” As Jaeger tells it, the young Grecian milord was arduously exhorted to reach for the highest arete (excellence), that he might “take possession of the beautiful” (a phrase of Aristotle’s). Western civilization followed. Jaeger perhaps exaggerated, but the old castle, being evil and beautiful, did on occasion create attractive forms of order. Brideshead Castle was not, for Evelyn Waugh, an illusion. The order of such places had its effect even on the proles, or so Jaeger believed: Aristocratic ideals of beauty and arete, he maintained, were continuously being democratized, “universalized.”

Waugh would probably agree with Beran’s conclusion as to why Jaeger’s aristocratic underpinning for castle building no longer applies in its US manifestation:

The very cheesiness of our modern castle establishments is a testament to the triumph of democracy, which makes the well-to-do fretful, and ostentatious in all the wrong ways.

Waugh’s architectural writings are also cited in an article by blogger Richard King relating to the Grenfell Tower fire. The article opens with this:

The British have always been wary of modern architecture, the British upper crust especially so. From the Prince of Wales and his “monstrous carbuncles” to Sir John Betjeman and his iambic fantasies about “heavy bombs” raining down on Slough, a deep suspicion of architectural modernism would appear to be the default position of the bluebloods and their literary hangers-on. The prejudice is perhaps most wittily expressed in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, in the figure of architect Otto Silenus. Silenus is talking to a journalist who has come to inspect his “surprising creation of ferro-concrete and aluminium”. “The problem of architecture as I see it,” he says, “is the problem of all art – the elimination of the human element from the consideration of the form.”

Although Otto’s principles appear to be reflected in the structure of Grenfell Tower, the article goes on to conclude that it was not the building’s brutalist design that caused the catastrophic fire but rather the neglectful attitude of politicians to the building’s upkeep and safety. The basic problem, according to King, arises from the 1980s decisions of the Thatcher government, continued by the Blairites and subsequent Tory austerity policies, to spin off social housing to semi-private management companies in which the government would be less directly involved. The use of cladding to soften the brutalist style cannot be blamed since there were safer options of cladding available for the job at slightly higher cost.

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