Sunday, 22 March 2015

The Philip Webb Centenary

How does - or should - one honour the dead? The centenary of the death of architect Philip Webb is giving rise to a cluster of activities that all look appropriate enough at first glance. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings is organising a tour of Red House in May and other related events; Tessa Wild will be speaking to the William Morris Gallery, again in May, about Webb’s work and ‘his deep friendship with Morris’; the V&A will have a Philip Webb display in November, which will encompass his furniture designs as well as his buildings. There are many other similar things going on elsewhere and they all look – and no doubt will be – genial, informative and entertaining (I might even go to one or two myself); but oh dear, how relentlessly historical and therefore ultimately low-key they all are into the bargain!

The pull of a personal name always draws us back to anecdote and history in this manner. To truly honour the dead – our dead, i.e. socialists and communists like Webb and Morris – we are well advised to move from names to themes, from the past to the present, from nostalgia to struggle. So to celebrate the Webb centenary let the William Morris Society organise for later this year (it is still not quite too late to do so) a series of high-profile speakers on the general topic of ‘Architecture and Society Today’, which might recapture for the present some of the centrality and excitement that architecture had in cultural and political debate in the postmodern 1980s (of which Fredric Jameson’s analysis of the Bonaventura Hotel in Los Angeles might stand as an exemplary instance). Sign up Owen Hatherley, Will Self, Jonathan Glancey and others, call these talks the ‘Philip Webb Centenary Lectures’, publish them subsequently as a book, and let us look boldly forward rather than back.


Kotick said...

It's also one hundred years since the death of Walter Crane, Tony. What might a "thematic" rather than personal celebration of his centenary look like?

Tony Pinkney said...

Hum, not sure I have an answer to that, Kotick ... In the spirit of Nietzschean forgetting (from his great essay ‘On the Use and Abuse of History for Life’), I think I would recommend that we forget the small fry like Walter Crane and Emery Walker altogether. I certainly don’t think, for instance, that the Morris Society’s success in its lottery bid with the Emery Walker Trust is going to do it any good at all. Rather, it’ll just pull it back to smallscale, historicist, arts-and-crafts-rather-than-political definitions of its activity – which will really will be a case of the tail (Walker) wagging the dog (Morris)!

Musidorus said...

Well, there is another approach possible here, associated more with Walter Benjamin than with Friedrich Nietzsche. And that is to collect everything that you possibly can, including (or perhaps even particularly) the so-called "small fry" like Crane and Walker,because you can never tell when it might become politically usable again. For they too might become, as the sixth thesis of Benjamin's 'Theses on the Philosophy of History' puts it, the image from the past that unexpectedly flashes up to us at a moment of danger.

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