Colin Davies
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Colin Davies is an accredited Arts Society lecturer. The following lectures on different aspects of architecture are suitable for local history and arts societies as well as universities and colleges. Other talks are available.
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1. Thinking about architecture

Architecture is usually discussed in terms of styles and periods – Romanesque, Gothic, Classical, Baroque, Georgian, Modernist, High Tech and so on. This lecture looks at architecture differently, not as an isolated discipline but in relation to the many other ways we human beings understand and come to terms with the world around us. Abstract concepts like ‘language’, ‘form’, ‘truth’ and ‘nature’ are mental tools that can help us to think more clearly about the buildings and cities we live in. Is a Gothic Cathedral more ‘organic’ than a classical temple? Should buildings be ‘honest’ in their structure and their use of materials? Is there a relationship between architectural proportion and musical harmony? These are some of the questions the lecture poses. (Also available in an extended form as a study day.)

2. Architecture and language

Is architecture a language? Buildings undoubtedly convey messages. Sometimes the messages are obvious, like the bank building that looks solid and dependable; sometimes they are subtle and ambiguous, like the house Robert Venturi designed for his mother, which somehow manages to look modern and traditional at the same time. The idea that architecture is a language has been widely accepted in recent years by critics and theorists. Among architects themselves, the topic has become notorious because of its obscurity. All the talk of ‘semiotics’, ‘structuralism’ and ‘deconstruction’ can be off-putting. But the basic idea contains some fascinating insights which, in this lecture, will be explained in plain English.

3. Organic architecture

What does ‘organic architecture’ mean? In casual conversation and in coffee-table books it often simply means buildings or parts of buildings that bear some superficial resemblance to animals or plants – the Art Nouveau buildings of the early twentieth century, for example. In more serious discussions, however, it means something deeper: an architecture that imitates the processes rather than the products of nature, arising ‘naturally’ from the circumstances of its creation –site, climate, available materials and the beliefs of the society it serves. In these terms, Gothic architecture is more organic than Classical architecture, but there are many other examples. It was the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright who first coined the phrase ‘organic architecture’ in this sense.

4. Architecture, music and the invention of linear perspective

In his dissertation on architecture, Leon Battista Alberti – the original ‘Renaissance man’ – wrote: ‘We shall therefore borrow all our rules for the fixing of proportions from the musicians’. It is not surprising that the question of proportion should be an important theme in Alberti’s book, but how did the musicians get involved? It turns out that there is a mathematical link between visible proportions and audible proportions, or harmony, and that Renaissance architects were well aware of this link. They saw it as proof that their architecture could participate in the harmony of the whole cosmos. One of them, Filippo Brunelleschi, took the idea further in his invention of ‘linear perspective’ and thereby, incidentally, revolutionised western painting.

5. Truth and ornament in architecture

Is it important for buildings to be ‘honest’ in their use of materials and structural forms? For example, does it matter if the upper part of what seems to be the external wall of St Paul’s Cathedral is really just a freestanding screen designed to hide the buttresses behind? In the nineteenth century, critics like Augustus Pugin and John Ruskin deplored this kind of deception and called for a return to the truthfulness of Gothic architecture. Ever since then, most architects, especially Modernist ones, have been guided by what Ruskin called ‘The Lamp of Truth’. On the other hand, another nineteenth century critic, Gottfried Semper, thought the opposite. For him, architecture was essentially decorative and artificial, like a theatre set or a flattering suit of clothes. Which was right? This lecture will help you to decide for yourself.

6. Cities of Memory, Cities of Prophecy

Cities renew themselves on different time scales. Buildings can be short lived, but streets and squares can last for centuries. In old European cities like Rome and London there are streets that people have walked along for 2000 years. These are the Cities of Memory, the physical counterparts of written history. But in the 20th century a new urban vision was born. Planners and architects asked: why can’t cities be ideal designs like machines? And they began to make plans for future cities based on functional criteria – the Cities of Prophecy. This lecture will look at both types of city and see how they combine to make the environment we live in.

7. Living without architecture: the story of the prefabricated house

There was a time in the early twentieth century when a group of progressive architects dreamt of changing the world by revolutionising the ordinary house. The Modernists thought that houses should be made in factories, just like cars. They produced many theoretical designs and built many prototypes, which are faithfully recorded in architectural history books. But the truth is that none ever went into production. In commercial and industrial terms, they were failures. Meanwhile, house builders in America, Japan, Australia and Northern Europe got on with the job of industrialising house production without involving architects. The world is full of interesting factory-made houses, but they don’t get into the history books because they don’t count as architecture.

8. High Tech architecture

High Tech in architecture has nothing to do with high technology as we now know it – computers, the internet, mobile phones, social media and so on. The term refers to a style developed in the 1970s and 80s by a group of British architects including Norman Foster and Richard Rogers. High Tech architects preferred synthetic materials like metal and glass rather than natural materials like brick or wood. They also liked the idea of a building as a ‘kit of parts’ that could be dismantled and re-arranged to suit changing requirements. High Tech might have ended up as a mere footnote in architectural history had not its founders gone on to become, as the title of a recent television series put it, ‘The Brits that Built the Modern World’.

9. Zaha Hadid – architectural superstar

Dame Zaha Hadid died on March 31st 2016 at age of 65. Architectural historians of the future will surely recognise her as one of the most important architects of the early 21st century. She was born in Iraq and her reputation was global, but she made Britain her home. This lecture tells the story of her career from the visionary projects of the 1980s, through the years of frustration when her designs were considered unbuildable, to the prolific crop of successful projects built all over the world in the last decade of her life.

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10. Modern architecture

This lecture is based on Colin Davies’s book ‘A New History of Modern Architecture’ published in August 2017. Major themes in 20th and 21st century architecture, such as the rise of Modernism, the Postmodernist reaction, the survival of Classicism, and the effects of digital culture on the architecture of the new century, are introduced and explained in jargon-free terms. The aim is to foster a fuller understanding Modern architecture and thereby encourage the enjoyment of its rich variety.