Epiphanies are necessarily rare (unless, that is, you’re easily deluded, or out of your skull on blue cheer or strawberry fields). Were they quotidian they wouldn’t be epiphanies, and as one grows older they become rarer still. When we are young we are, thankfully, open and susceptible – maybe too eagerly susceptible. Middle age brings with it discrimination – or at least a been-there, seen-that, know-the-source sort of wariness. Architectural or topological epiphanies are precious.
My earliest (and these were despite the fact that I was privileged to go to school from the ages of five till 13 in Salisbury Cathedral Close) were a) Wardour Castle, when it was near derelict in a sea of swaying grass a metre-and-a-half high, b) Denver Sluice in the fens and c) Edwin Lutyens’ Marshcourt. Decades have passed, yet these places still infect my dreams. They have become part of my oneiric geography. The potency of Wardour was ascribable to happenstance and partial neglect; that of Denver Sluice to the vertiginous fright prompted by being surrounded by three levels of water all higher than the land.
Marshcourt was different. Even had I been told it was the work of Lutyens, that wouldn’t have meant anything. When I was 11 I had not heard of him, and when I was 11 his reputation among architects and architectural pundits – if not among Home Counties house buyers – was, anyway, low. I was innocently transfixed. I doubt that I articulated to myself the conviction that I was in the presence of genius. In my diary, which I still have, I merely recorded “a very nice building”. In defence of that juvenile insipidity of expression, I would say that there is probably no other item of architectural appraisal in the diary I kept in those years. And in deference to my former self, I should say that it is a very nice building. That is one of the apt words for it. Which begs the question: can a nice building really be a work of genius? Niceness is, after all, off-limits, non-U, not quite acceptable. Surely niceness and genius are incompatible?
Last Easter I stayed in the hotel from hell and went, on successive days, to two works of tectonic genius in eastern France. Works so chasmically unlike each other that they persuade me that genius (or atemporal greatness, or whatever this quality might be called) exists irrespective of stylistic idiom, of technical bravado, of adherence to this movement or that ideology, of grand pomp or forelocked humility.
Genius is just shorthand for that which speaks simultaneously to brain, heart and lower spine
This quality – genius is merely shorthand for that which speaks simultaneously to brain, heart and lower spine – transcends everything, even niceness. The critic Ian Nairn understood this. He never, though, as far as I know, (and, God, I sometimes feel that there is nothing I don’t know about this latterly dropsical man) spelled it out. Nabokov, however, was explicit: “There is only one school of writing – the school of talent.” For writing, read architecture.
What is it about those two works I saw in France:
Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp, and CN Ledoux’s saltworks at Arc-et-Senans in the Franche-Comte? What is it that makes a man who has been-there, seen-that, knows-the-sources turn into his 11-year-old self and submit in awe and wonder, and in a state of dorsal rapture? It is emotionally affecting, and it is moral in that word’s most etymologically elemental meaning: the distinction between right and wrong. In these instances, the rightness sings.
Now, for 175 years, ever since Pugin, and through Ruskin, Morris, Blomfield, Pevsner, Watkin et al, the argument pro or con this or that sort/school/tendency has been based on stylistic preference dissembled as moralistic (rather than moral) necessity. Moralistic is preachy – we live in moralistic times – moral is, on the other hand, not eternal (nothing is) but is at least appreciative of great art’s duration long beyond its cause and patronage.