Dr Simon Richards
Tel: 0116 252 2774
My research concerns the history and theory of modern and contemporary architecture, focussing in particular on the ways architecture is thought to influence and possibly improve human life, behaviour and society. These ideas are among the most fascinating but also troubling features of architecture and planning. They are fascinating because they sometimes involve a genuine view about the nature of humanity, about what people are and what they need. But they can be troubling as well as they often involve passing judgment on the lives and behaviour of ordinary people, as well as a desire to reform them through the influence of the built environment. To get at this neglected aspect of the discourse my research goes beyond straightforward architectural history to look also at the psychological, sociological and philosophical sources that architect-planners draw upon. I have chosen to focus my research on the most contentious aspects of architecture of the recent past as I believe it is the art form that has the most direct impact on the daily lives of the most people.
My first exploration of this topic was in relation to the infamous 20th-century architect Le Corbusier, who has been criticized for an oversight: advocating architecture that neglected community. By tracing previously unexplored links with thinkers like Blaise Pascal, Carl Gustav Jung, Georges Bataille and Albert Camus, I discovered that this was not a mistake but deliberate. Le Corbusier had a clear view of what people should be doing to live meaningful lives, and socializing and community life were not considered important. His cities were designed to keep people apart for the purpose of spiritual self-exploration in cell-like apartments. Given his influence on modernist residential architecture worldwide, this understanding helps explain what some consider to be the socially alienating effects of these buildings. This research was published as my first monograph, Le Corbusier and the Concept of Self (Yale 2003): “This is so instructive and well-mannered a book that it should be read by anyone willing to reconsider the individual’s place in society, in Le Corbusier’s day or any other. Anyone who has settled on a simplistic, probably negative view of the man should read it again and again. A valuable book.” ( Norbert Lynton, The Art Book, Vol. 11, No. 3, June 2004); “Architecture books are usually either glossy, shallow, picture-book porn, or indigestibly laden with cultural theory architect-speak. Some, though, get it just right. Le Corbusier and the Concept of Self sounds impossibly hefty. But Richards boils down complex cultural theory (on that cultural theory staple, the self) into elegant prose that says something new: Corb hated people.” (Tom Dyckhoff, The Times, December 6th 2003); “A disturbing book, but with a compelling central idea.” (Elain Harwood, Architects Journal, January 8th 2004)
I followed this book with one that asks similar questions of architects and planners from the middle of the last century up to the present day. While the architectural approaches and formal solutions have changed radically over this period, the commitment to use them to reform behaviour and society has not. Architect-planners continue to design in accordance with assumptions about how people should be living, although often they claim the contrary. This research, which was done in partnership with Professor Jules Lubbock at the University of Essex, involved studying the major departures in theory and practise over this period, covering the topics of community-regeneration, the turn towards history, memory and tradition, and the incorporation of linguistic paradigms and other philosophical models. I interviewed many important figures who have shaped our theoretical and built landscapes, including Jane Jacobs, Robert Venturi, Léon Krier, Peter Eisenman, Charles Jencks, Andrés Duany and others. This was published as my second monograph, Architect Knows Best: Environmental Determinism in Architecture Culture from 1956 to the Present (Ashgate 2012): “Architect Knows Best is a thoughtful and highly recommended book, especially at a time when environmental determinism enjoys new popularity in its latest incarnation of sustainable architecture and planning.” (Volker Welter, Planning Perspectives, September 1st, 2013) Denise Scott Brown, one of the most influential architect-planners of recent decades, also commented: “‘Architect Knows Best’, Simon Richards observes wryly, as he describes how we architect-planners stride onto the urban scene asking ‘where’s the Big Idea?’ The words ‘urban vision’ bring Le Corbusier to mind. But social change in the 1950s altered the terrain of architects’ visions, diversifying them, making this trail harder to follow. With love and fascination, Richards teases out the last sixty years of such ideas. Noting that we feel our expertise entitles us to prescribe for cities, he shows how much of our prescription consists of navel gazing as we delve into our own psyches and value systems.” The book identifies a “problem,” she concludes, which “clearly calls for another type of architectural education.”
Other projects have included: a history of populism within architectural taste debates of the 1960s and subsequently; a reassessment of the theory and legacy of the neglected Greek architect-planner Constantinos Doxiadis and his ‘Delos Symposia’, in light of contemporary discussions about different scales of architectural intervention and ambition; an exploration of the concept of the ‘vernacular’ in the work of Hassan Fathy, Paul Oliver and Bernard Rudofsky, including a critique of its use subsequently as a catch-all for practically any type of architecture; an account of the way American, British and Japanese intellectuals collaborated on the formation of a ‘uniquely’ Japanese architectural aesthetic after the collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate and its isolationist policy.
Currently I am working on two articles exploring the interplay of notions of architectural tradition, heritage, authenticity and national identity as they are used – sometimes counter-intuitively – in justifications of ultra-modern, global architecture. The core of this research involves a reassessment of the reputation of the Grand Shrines at Ise and Katsura Imperial Villa in Japan, both of which have become important touchstones in the debate about how to appropriate and update national traditions for architects around the world. October 2013 marked the latest re-consecration of the Shrines, which have been rebuilt according to Shinto traditions approximately every twenty years since around the 7th Century AD. 2014 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Kenzo Tange’s famous book on the Ise Shrines, in which he claimed their architecture as a prototype for modern Japanese and global styles, as well as the Venice Architecture Biennale which is dedicated this time to exploring the ostensible erasure of architectural tradition under global pressures. I intend to complete these research articles during a sabbatical in 2014.
To date I have supervised one PhD to successful completion: Dr. Ling-Ching Chiang, on representations of Taipei and national identity in Taiwanese New Wave and post-New Wave cinema (Passed, July 2013). I supervise a further three PhDs at various stages of completion: Julie Moss, on the heritage debates and refurbishment proposals around British modernist housing blocks; Mahmood Khoshnaw, on the imperial and colonial content of classic literary dystopias; David Maddock, on the influence of Clive Bell, and especially his book Art (1914), upon the formation of an Anglo-American formalist art theory.
I would be interested to receive PhD research applications from anyone interested in working on the following:
a. 20th century through to contemporary architecture, planning and theory
b. Environmental determinism and psychology
c. Representation of ‘the city’ in art and literature of the 19th and 20th centuries
d. 20th century art theory and philosophical aesthetics
- The Death and Life of Modernist Architecture
- Classical Aesthetics and Its Legacy
- Documents of the History of Art
- European Art 1890-1940
- Theory and Practice
- Introduction to the History of Art
- Undergraduate Admissions for all History of Art related degrees
- Research Director
- Postgraduate Research Director
- Member of International Strategy Group