The usual history of architecture is a grand narrative of soaring monuments and heroic makers. But it is also a false narrative in many ways, rarely acknowledging the personal failures and disappointments of architects. In Bleak Houses, Timothy Brittain-Catlin investigates the underside of architecture, the stories of losers and unfulfillment often ignored by an architectural criticism that values novelty, fame, and virility over fallibility and rejection. Brittain-Catlin tells us about Cecil Corwin, for example, Frank Lloyd Wright’s friend and professional partner, who was so overwhelmed by Wright’s genius that he had to stop designing; about architects whose surviving buildings are marooned and mutilated; and about others who suffered variously from bad temper, exile, lack of talent, lack of documentation, the wrong friends, or being out of fashion.
As architectural criticism promotes increasingly narrow values, dismissing certain styles wholesale and subjecting buildings to a Victorian litmus test of “real” versus “fake,” Brittain-Catlin explains the effect that this superficial criticality has had not only on architectural discourse but on the quality of buildings. The fact that most buildings receive no critical scrutiny at all has resulted in vast stretches of ugly modern housing and a pervasive public illiteracy about architecture.
Architecture critics, Brittain-Catlin suggests, could learn something from novelists about how to write about buildings. Alan Hollinghurst in The Stranger’s Child, for example, and Elizabeth Bowen in Eva Trout vividly evoke memorable houses. Thinking like novelists, critics would see what architectural losers offer: episodic, sentimental ways of looking at buildings that relate to our own experience, lessons learned from bad examples that could make buildings better.
“… there are few books I can think of that describe the emotional engagement with architecture with such acuity. And despite the subject, Bleak Houses is anything but a bleak read.”—Richard Williams, The Times Higher Education
“...this is one of the most intriguing, original and gently provocative books on the meaning of architecture for some while.”—Architecture Review
“… It’s a book that all who not only write on architecture but who also have a genuine interest in the welfare of the historic built environment ought to read.”—Alex Bremner, The Victorian
“Bleak Houses is a unique guide through architecture’s own disconsolate circles of hell, from the hopelessness of revivalism to the curse of the mutilating extension. At once comic and bitter, wry and lachrymose, Brittain-Catlin’s Virgil inducts the reader in architecture’s vast lacunae of the mediocre, the disappointed and the sad. In speaking to and for the many buildings for which there is no discourse because they merit none, he skillfully reveals how failure can be a whole lot more illuminating than success. This book will make a lot of architects, myself included, feel very uncomfortable indeed.”
“At least half the architects mentioned in this catalog of failure are names you’ve never heard of. Remarkably, Timothy Brittain-Catlin turns the story of these people he calls losers into one of the most compelling books about architecture I’ve read in a long time.”
—Robert Harbison, author of Eccentric Spaces
“Timothy Brittain-Catlin’s Bleak Houses is unique for being the first history of architects who, by conventional standards, have been considered losers or failures. By telling the story of those who just fell outside the canon, or outside the circle of fame traced by a triumphalist history, Brittain-Catlin maps out an alternative architectural history without teleological narratives about style, change, and influence and thus offers a quieter and more modest way of looking at buildings that can relate much more closely to our own experiences. Witty and captivating, with an interesting touch of melancholy, it makes you think and see the world differently.”
—Martin Bressani, McGill University