An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 233

Clinton Howell Antiques - May 15, 2023 - Issue 233

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts

Power, if you look back through the ages, is expressed most overtly by what an empire builds. ("Ozymandias", Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem on the ephemerality of that power is a great reminder of that.) Virtually all great civilizations built monumentally, as well as monuments, to their rulers or to some aspect of the power structure in some form or another. And yes, they all faded away, but how is power being displayed now? One thing is for certain, there is no particular style that is dominant in the 20th and 21st centuries that glorifies one particular system. Skyscrapers dominate the urban landscape and some are quite stylish in one way or another, but there is no identification of those buildings to a political system or to a country. You would think that with the vast amounts of capital that have been accrued, not just by countries but in these days by individuals, that there would be some nationalist association adapted to a style of building. In fact, the sky scraper is far from being a statement of anything save for man's incredible ability at using concrete, steel and glass. It is those materials which will be the monuments of our age.

When I arrived in London in the fall of 1971, I mostly stayed in the West End of London--not for any reason other than that most of the entertainment that I could seek out was likely to be somewhere west of Leicester Square, whether it was art galleries, the theater, cinemas, museums, etc. However, I noticed that the singers, David Crosby and Graham Nash, were playing a concert at the Royal Festival Hall and I booked tickets and found myself wondering where the Royal Festival Hall was? It was, of course, a major post war building project on the south bank of the Thames and part of the endeavor to rebuild London after the destruction of the blitz as well as for celebrating the Festival of Britain in 1951. (The last building site filled, post blitz, was finished just six years ago, seventy years after the war was over.) When I arrived at the hall, I was a little shocked by the architecture--brutalist concrete--it seemed so non-British given the image I had of London before coming to the country--the Tower, Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, etc. But post-war, concrete and the brutalist style had taken hold and not just in London--it was quick and cost effective, and that alone made it attractive to urban planners. What exactly is brutalism--is it really a style or just a description for cement structures?

Brutalism is extraordinarily functional in certain ways and has earned a place, perhaps not so much as one particular style--concrete is an extraordinarily versatile material and a brutalist building can have many forms--but as a means to an end. I stayed in an East German holiday camp outside of Potsdam for a wedding a decade or so ago and each room was a cube of concrete designed with absolutely no extra space. I had to stand in the shower on the diagonal as that was the only way I fit. In essence, it worked very well although spending time in the room was clearly not part of the designer's intent--it was a holiday camp, after all and you were meant to be outside. It was pure function. In contrast and on the other end of this spectrum, I remember hearing a story about Frank Gehry's building at MIT, the Ray and Maria Stata building, where he had omitted to include closets. This may or may not have been intentional, but it speaks to a kind of willfulness about functionality--perhaps that functionality is boring and that it should not dominate the discussion, no matter how important it may be. Is this the point of the de-constructionists? I am not a maven of architecture, but the intersection of function and design is always fascinating.

In the larger historical picture, the kinds of display that Assyria, Egypt or any number of empires created are now, well and truly, ancient history and like poor Ozymandias, broken and forgotten no matter how great an empire had once been--not that the ancient past is forgotten as one of the best exhibitions I have ever seen was by the British Museum on Nineveh. But maybe forgetting those empires, in a broad sense, is how it should be? In essence, the mission of all empires is conquest, expansion and dominance, all failing strategies whether in the short or long term and like the monuments they produced, will be looked on as curious with little meaning save for their aesthetic. In a similar vein, it is probably a good thing that building styles today are more about function and long term environmental stability than a distinctive style--that speaks of the future and is forward looking. However, I would add that there is a caveat to functionality and it is the one thing that should never be overlooked--beauty. Beauty is what makes us want to maintain and sustain what has been built--which is why Ozymandias, real or imagined, is remembered at all.