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Nature and the Idea of a Man-Made World: An Investigation into The Evolutionary Roots of Form an Order in the Built Environment.

There are two worlds, the natural and the man-made, but they are not equal in status. Nature takes precedence, and the world of man has a duty to stay 'in harmony' with it. Prehistoric man lived in harmony with nature, as do 'primitive' people today, and maybe children. But at some point (the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution? Take your pick) 'civilised' mankind began arrogantly to flout this imperative. Result: spiritual and ecological misery. Humbly, therefore, we must relearn nature's way.

Though historically and logically fragile, this bundle of assumptions, with its echoes of the Garden of Eden and the Noble Savage, constitutes the myth that underpins, for example, dozens of popular films (Dances With Wolves, say) and the vast paperback literature on lifestyle recipes and self-help psychology. It owes its pervasiveness to its rhetorical use: to legitimate a creed or a course of action by asserting its descent from primeval origins - which characterises it as 'natural' and 'timeless', and damns counter-propositions as 'unnatural' aberrations.

Legitimation by appeal to precedent is, by definition, culturally conservative. So it no surprise that, of the many publications on architecture which since the late 1970s have played the 'natural' card, several, like this book, have argued for the restitution of architectural Classicism. With stately style and pace the author strolls through a familiar landscape of distinguished archeological, anthropological, philosophical and architectural sources, pointing out the indications of classicism's uniquely harmonious, natural and timeless status. Along the way he entertains several provocative speculations: for instance, that architecture was originally a paradigm for, and preceded, structured thought - or, putting an ethical spin on biologism, that cultural systems not only do but should behave like organisms, notably by imitating their slow, cautious evolution.

Crowe stresses that the universality and timelessness claimed by classicism, a principle not a style, does not exclude regional and temporal variation, and may be interpreted to accommodate the exigencies of contemporary life. Although he cites the essays of Leon Krier and Rossi, for exemplary recent practice he can instance only Calthorpe and Duany & Plater-Zyberk, and he refers with purse-lipped disapproval to characteristic twentieth-century products such as steel, glass, cars, planes and sprawling suburbs. Yet is a taste for fragmentation, fidget and frenzy any less part of human 'nature' (and thus less compatible with architecture) than that for stability and harmony? What universality has an architectural principle that can play no part in the raffish joys of late twentieth-century life - including motorway cruising, discount warehouses, and Nintendo?

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Author:Tabor, Philip
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1995
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