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Architecture and taste: Do I know what I like?

Charles Holland

Does architecture have objectively good or bad qualities, or is our appreciation coloured by personal or cultural bias? In an excerpt from his new book, How To Enjoy Architecture, Charles Holland argues that prejudice makes us too quick to dismiss buildings in which we might otherwise find pleasure

Waterloo Crescent and the Gateway in Dover.
Waterloo Crescent and the Gateway in Dover. Credit: Charles Holland

Architecture and taste

Part of the motivation in writing How To Enjoy Architecture was a frustration with the somewhat tribal and partisan way that buildings are often discussed. A binary opposition between modernism and classicism – reduced to their most cartoonish qualities – characterises much online discussion. A current staple on X (formerly Twitter), for instance, are posts that rely on an opposition of two images, one invariably of a classical building and one of a modernist one. The post’s author usually makes it very clear which one we are supposed to like more. The tweet will say, for example, something like, ‘When did we exchange the desire for beauty with ugliness?’

More subtle forms of this argument persist across architecture – and within it. Secular infighting characterises a lot of architectural debate. My aim here is not to enter into an argument for one kind of architecture over another. Nevertheless, the division of architecture into supposedly obvious categories of beauty and ugliness needs challenging if we are to approach buildings with a desire to appreciate them better and accept that even buildings we might not initially like have merits.

An example close to (my) home might help to illustrate this. I frequently walk along the seafront of Dover, on the east Kent coast. The town sits in a wide stretch of harbour between two banks of white chalk cliffs. It is a famous view, familiar to many. The ferry port dominates the eastern edge, a complex logistical space managing the ceaseless movement of lorries on and off the boats. Beyond, the esplanade is dominated by two large buildings, one from the early nineteenth century and one from the mid-twentieth.

The earlier building is Waterloo Crescent, actually a pair of white stucco blocks that curve gently with the profile of the beach. Waterloo Crescent was designed by Philip Hardwick in the 1830s. It is a Grade II-listed building, protected and preserved as an important example of Georgian seaside architecture. The later building is called the Gateway and consists of two large blocks of apartments. Completed in 1960, the Gateway is predominantly seven storeys high and runs parallel with the seafront. It is not listed and it is not particularly popular in Dover, routinely being described in local newspapers and on social media as an eyesore and a blot on the landscape.

Why is one building generally well liked and the other not? On the face of it this is – as they say – a no-brainer. It is not just ordinary people saying they prefer one rather than the other. This choice is seemingly endorsed by higher authorities and the official arbiters of taste, including Historic England. The Gateway flats are not listed. Waterloo Crescent is. There is apparently very little to discuss. Nothing to see here. End of.

But I am not completely happy with this explanation. I want to know what motivates our choices and what underlies our preferences. I want to question those preferences, too. But I want to do this in the spirit of enjoying architecture more and, perhaps, condemning buildings a little less. I also like the Gateway flats and would like to rescue them from their ignominious fate as the whipping boy of Dover seafront, an easy target for those decrying the (relatively) modern age as a desecrator of historic towns.

We privilege some buildings over others for all sorts of reasons. But what I am interested in, what I think it might be useful to do, is to try to move beyond these a priori positions and to really look at the buildings in question. My book hopes to place you in the here and now, in the everyday experience of buildings. It covers lots of ground, literally and metaphorically, looking at buildings from all over the world. But the intention is always the same: to approach those buildings as if they are in front of us and to foreground experience and observation over prior knowledge or assumed aesthetic preference.

So here we are, in the here and now, standing on Dover’s slightly windswept seafront. There are undoubtedly some underlying ideological reasons accounting for the difference in the reactions to these two buildings. And opinions are not quite as clear as they first seem. Let’s test the hypothesis of this introduction and look a little more, push our assumptions around a little and test our prejudices.

Waterloo Crescent is a very good example of Regency seaside architecture. Other seaside towns that developed in the 19th century have a lot more of this kind of architecture: Brighton, for example, with its long, cream-coloured terraces rippling along the seafront. Dover doesn’t have much. It grew as a port rather than a resort and it was very heavily bombed in the second world war, so Waterloo Crescent is a rare local example.

Georgian urbanism tends towards the repetitive. It follows a system – of proportions, materials and details: a pattern book that could be used everywhere. The Georgians cared little for ideas about the vernacular or for local materials or appropriate scale or any of the other things we consider important in developments today. As a building, Waterloo Crescent is pretty much all façade. The rear elevation is a bit gloomy and makeshift: small windows and service entrances predominate. But the sea front is special. It is a long curving drumroll of an elevation alleviated by cross-rhythms of windows, awnings and balconies. It is a set piece, a showstopper, a big-band finale. It is not particularly subtle, but it is very effective. It is covered in white stucco, the very definition of seaside gaiety, its surface reflecting the light and standing clear and bright against the blue skies, when we have them.

How can the Gateway rival this? Isn’t it just a big monster of repetitive flats and unrelieved brown brickwork? Well, for some reasonably objective reporting we could turn to The Buildings of England, that vast compendium of architecture listed county by county and initiated by the German art historian Nikolaus Pevsner. Specifically, we need to read the East Kent volume, written by John Newman, Pevsner’s former assistant.

Newman describes the Gateway flats as more of a missed opportunity than a calamitous mistake. We are told that their balconies have a rather flat rhythm and that the taller, nine-storey block sits unhappily against the lower, longer section. The brown brick is also, apparently, a little dull. Along one section of the building, the one facing the town, the architects placed a row of prosaic and utilitarian garages. Newman is not entirely wrong. Some of this is true.

But against this one could say that the white metal balconies have a celebratory quality about them. They stand out more strongly because of the relative dullness of the brick, and their long horizontal rhythms have an elegant 1950s quality reminiscent of the Festival of Britain. There is also a large, three-storey hole in the centre of the block which allows views through from the approaching street to the beach and the blue skies beyond. It is a dramatic moment, forming a raised piazza with the building bridging over it.

The gardens in front of the Gateway are in the tradition of ornamental seaside gardens everywhere. They have palm trees and decorative planting, and their scale is generous and inclusive: anyone can wander through them or take a seat and watch the ferry boats slowly come into the harbour, turn around and leave again.

Dover seafront has seen far greater crimes than the Gateway flats. Some of them are being built as I write. And seafronts tend to attract speculative developments of hotels and apartments, all craning for that all-important view. Unlike most of these, the Gateway was built by the local authority as ordinary housing, which might also be part of the problem. Social housing is not meant to have the best views and it is certainly not meant to block the views of other people. So the Gateway has committed two crimes, one aesthetic and one cultural.

A regular criticism of the Gateway is that it destroys views of the seafront. It is not a gateway at all, but a barrier. In an obvious sense, this is true. It is a big building, and if you are standing on the town side of it, the sea is very much on the other. But the same criticism could be made of Waterloo Crescent, which dominates the other end of the seafront just as surely as the Gateway. Both these buildings effectively form the seafront, the edge of the town, defining views from the water. Neither building tries very hard to break down its mass or appear to be smaller than it really is.

So our objections to buildings might be the result of a complex mix of motivations, some aesthetic but others to do with who built them or who they are supposed to be for. History undoubtedly obscures this, lending older buildings a sense of permanence and a right to be where they are, whatever the motivations of those who put them there to start with. Cycles of fashion and taste therefore matter too, when thinking about buildings. There is nothing as toxic as the recently fashionable, wrote the American artist Dan Graham. The Gateway is a building that comes from a period only now being reassessed for the quality of its architecture. Other buildings in Dover have not been so lucky.

Stage Hotel in Dover, designed by Louis Erdi, photographed on completion in 1957 by Reginald Hugo de Burgh Galwey. The building was demolished in 1988.
Stage Hotel in Dover, designed by Louis Erdi, photographed on completion in 1957 by Reginald Hugo de Burgh Galwey. The building was demolished in 1988. Credit: Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections

A few yards along the front from the Gateway is a surface car park that was once the site of a building that the Buildings of England volume really did approve of: the Stage Hotel designed by Louis Erdi in 1957. Historical photographs of this building reveal something dynamic, sprightly, slender and vivacious. The Stage’s five storeys of hotel rooms were perched jauntily on concrete V-shaped legs. The rooms – hoisted up in the air over a two-storey restaurant and reception building – were angled towards the sea. In front of the hotel Erdi designed an equally delightful garden, the whole composition having the conscious quality of a piece of American ‘Googie’ architecture: exuberant roadside buildings designed to grab the attention of motorists.

Erdi’s remarkable building was demolished in the 1980s along with an equally audacious car showroom just a few yards away on the opposite side of the same street. Very few people mourn the loss of either building. It is possible that the demolition of such architecture – good-quality 20th-century modernism – doesn’t fit the narrative around conservation which presumes it is generally older buildings that need conserving and modern ones that we need protecting from.

The question this generates, though, is important: how do we value and judge buildings that are unpopular at certain points in history? Which ones do we like and why? Undoubtedly our reaction to buildings is culturally generated: we learn to some extent which buildings to like and which to dislike. We breathe in an atmosphere made up of stories and myths around architecture that are part of the cultural landscape we inhabit.

This landscape is not continuous or neutral, and neither is our role in it. Different social and cultural classes tend to like different kinds of buildings for different reasons. In the case of Dover’s Gateway flats, questions of wider social and political value hover over our opinion of the building, fusing with aesthetic prejudice.

So my book has another aim, which is to move beyond received opinion and popular prejudice and to really look at buildings. This might mean we look at some that are considered a bit beyond the pale. My purpose is not to try to convince anyone of the merits of, say, the Gateway over Waterloo Crescent, or to stoke the flames of an already rancorous culture war. I would prefer to see both as worthy of interest. And so the book is partly about the question of how we judge buildings and how opinions of them are established. It is also written in the hope that some of these judgements might change, or at least become more open to reinterpretation. One way of enjoying architecture is to be less judgemental and more interested.

Charles Holland is professor of architecture at the University for the Creative Arts, Canterbury, and founder of Charles Holland Architects 
How to Enjoy Architecture: A Guide for Everyone is published by Yale University Press (192pp, £15). Buy it at the RIBA Bookshop