Welcome David Lewis

David Lewis joined us in late 2021 as our new Director of Studies in Architectural History. He is an architectural historian whose interests include the architecture of modern Britain and the United States, especially architecture of the period 1880-1940, the design of sacred architecture, and the Gothic Revival.

Tell us about your research. 

I am particularly interested in British and American architecture of the years 1880-1950. These were the decades when modern architecture as we know it was forged, and when there was a wide range of ideas about what modern architecture could be. What do I mean by that? For instance, an atmospheric movie theatre of the 1920s is one in which the auditorium is designed to look like, say, a starlit square in a Mediterranean village. It is meant to transport the visitor to another world through the use of techniques of set design combined with modern technologies – forced perspective, recorded sound, lightbulbs in the ceiling making twinkling stars, projectors could even create a simulated sunrise at the end of the film. The idea was that modern technology allowed people to construct fantasy worlds to inhabit, to build whatever they could imagine. Some of this thinking is behind places such as the village of Portmeirion in Wales or architectural eclecticism more generally. The dominance of the machine aesthetic and the replacement of craft with factory production, was not in any way an inevitable evolution, but only one of the diverse modernities that existed at that time.  

Are there overlaps between your work and other areas of the Department, for instance our History of Art or Sustainable Urban Development portfolios? 

Yes, Sustainable Urban Development and Architectural History are related. To understand our cities, one has to understand the buildings and infrastructure that they are made up of. Architectural history is the subject that begins to tell what makes them the way they are. History of Art, History of Design, and Architectural History are plainly closely-related disciplines, because movements in art can also affect architecture and design. But it is important to remember that they are distinct disciplines. Art is often figurative; it tells a story visually. Architecture, by contrast, although it can be a vehicle for the display of art, is a completely abstract artform. Art and architecture do not convey meaning in the same ways. An abstract painting may look like a kettle to one person and like an elephant to another, but for one viewer to insist that everyone else must interpret it as a kettle would be absurd. The same is true in architecture. 

What benefits come with a knowledge of architectural history? 

The greatest architectural inventions come from knowing the full range of the architectural language – its most poetic images, its most powerful rhetoric. For designers, studying architectural history is the equivalent of reading the great books. Architectural history is a vast library of architectural ideas that architects can draw on when they design. But it also serves the wider public: An understanding of architectural history helps you to place buildings into their cultural context. It helps you to form the sorts of educated arguments that you will need to understand the architectural work of others.  Additionally—perhaps most importantly—it would help you to more deeply enjoy the great beauty that surrounds us in the built environment and the incredible record of the human story that it represents. As you visit a new place or revisit one you already know, a knowledge of architectural history would allow you to answer questions about when and why the environment around you was built. You might recognize that a neighbourhood of late Victorian houses intersected by a wide straight boulevard was built as a streetcar suburb, or you might be able to decipher the construction history of an ancient church.  

Architectural history can be approached from a number of different angles depending on your needs as a designer or cultural critic. Most of us have some control over our personal space, and we influence the laws and norms that govern shared spaces in our community. Architectural history does not have to be about something old and is never obsolete. Everything around us, whether it has stood for a thousand years or was just completed, is part of a long architectural tradition developed by a vast multitude of architectural designers over thousands of years. Architectural history is the way that we tap into that tradition, and it allows our built work to be much better than what we could achieve alone. The architectural tradition is something that all people share. You can choose not to go to an art gallery, or not to have paintings or sculptures in your home, but as G.K. Chesterton said, architecture is the one art we cannot avoid: “We live with it as Jonah lived with the whale.” 

With the growing concern over climate and carbon neutrality, is architecture at a turning point? 

Building durably is key to sustainability. Our ancestors built in a way that was zero carbon, using local materials to build long-lasting, repairable structures. The international modernist idea that instead of repairing existing components, you bring in a new factory-made replacement and the idea that buildings only need a 30-year lifespan, is predicated on cheap energy. It is incredibly wasteful. Instead of looking for technologies, which may or may not materialise, that would allow us to continue this method of building, we should use the fully-sustainable building technologies we already have, namely traditional building methods. We have the technology already, but many architects instead focus on shaving percentage points off an inherently destructive system. Construction accounts for 40% of the world’s emissions, and then climate controlling and making the enormous floor-plates of modernist buildings habitable accounts for much more on top of that. That is considerably larger than say, the carbon footprint of flights, which account for only 2% of global emissions. Traditional building (which doesn’t necessarily have to go hand-in-hand with traditional aesthetics) is the organic food movement of architecture. But few people are clamouring for a return to traditional building methods, in fact just the opposite. 

What are your plans for the architectural history programme at the Department? 

I am still new in this position, and before I make any plans for additions to our offerings, I need to make sure I completely understand what exists here already. My predecessors have built an incredible programme – one of the best in the nation -- and I want to make sure that we maintain that quality of provision.  I am hoping that we can host collaborations with neighbouring disciplines such as Design History, and I am hoping that we can continue to provide courses that cover a wide range of time periods. This breadth of provision is one of the things that distinguishes the Oxford programme. If anyone reading this has any ideas for courses or events you would like to see offered, please get in touch. I am open to suggestions. 

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Published 26 May 2022