Morality and Architecture Book Review


Morality and Architecture Revisited by David Watkin is a book that caused a stir at the time of it’s publishing in the British architecture scene in 1977.1

Watkin was an Professor in The History of Art and Architecture at Peterhouse college Cambridge so he was a central figure in a group of traditionalist or reactionary thinkers and architects which Peterhouse is associated with. This is the group also around The Prince of Wales2 like Leon Krier, Quinlan Terry, John Simpson, and Roger Scruton.

It’s worth remarking that this group are reactionaries so unlike say post-modernists whose work moves on from and supercedes modernism this group are pre-modernists they want to go back before modernism which they reject.

There are a few books by people in this group for instance The Aesthetics of Architecture by Roger Scruton all advocating for generally the same thing. That modernism is bad, gothic is a fad and the ideal style of architecture is a kind of English Georgian Classisism or Neo-classisism.

Key Ideas

In Morality and Architecture Watkin wants to remove the argument that modernism has any moral imperative over the classical style. He wants to create the intellectual space in which to build classical buildings again is natural. He does this by basically taking on the what he thinks are the key defenders of these arguments one after another from the oldest to the most modern.

The list of authors he attacks is Pugin, Viollet-Le-Duc, Lethaby, some modernists including Corbusier, Furneux Jordan, before finishing with Pevsner his one time teacher and behemoth of modernism in the UK.

He does not make any defense or even barely a mention of the classical style which he favours. Instead Watkin wants to kneecap the intellectual basis for arguments that Classicism has been superceded.

These arguments roughly boil down to three categories;

  • Religious
  • Spirit of the age or zeitgeist
  • Technological and Rational

All three above are types of moral arguments which the writers Watkin covers use against the classical style. Should you agree with any of them this would A priori exclude all other styles of Architecture in favour of yours.


Watkins starts with Pugin who advocates the pre-eminence of the gothic style on the basis of religious superiority. Unlike classical architecture which is pagan in foundation, gothic is Christian and pure under this view;

To argue, as Pugin does, that the arts employed by the Church to symbolize her divine truths are themselves somehow infused with the aura of unchanging truth is a curious materialist heresy (Page 21)

The spirit of the age argument is then addressed3 and attacked,

Our conclusion is that an art-historical belief in the all-dominating Zeitgeist, combined with a historicist emphasis on progress and the necessary superiority of novelty, has come dangerously close to undermining, on the one hand, our appreciation of the imaginative genius of the individual and, on the other, the importance of artistic tradition. (Page 127)

The technological argument is also addressed. The idea that the architect above all follows the program and crafts the best solution with the technology of the time. There is no applied style’ so that the result is without decoration. But this of course is not what art is;

Beneath all this lies the praise of the naturalness and authenticity of unalienated man completely identified with his society, as against the complexity of an art which builds on the interaction between tradition and the imagination of the individual. (Page 109)

Watkins is a sharp and witty writer. I think he is fairly effective at showing that these arguments are mostly just substitutes for arbitrary personal preferences.


A couple of problems are clear after reading the book.

The first is that of so what! These repudiations apply equally to the classical style. Certainly no more can we claim a spiritual justification for that style either.

We could appeal to tradition but that just begs the question classical architecture being an import just like modernism for example. It’s just my tradition over yours, my preference.

Secondly the moral argument for spirit of the age has been addressed but the practical one has not. Modern but Classically styled buildings have wifi and mastic joints like any other. A building developed in the style suitable to the technologies, economic and political realties doesn’t need a further moral aspect for justification.

Thirdly Watkins strangely ignores post-modernism. He has killed many popular arguments for modernism sure but that style had already almost passed by the time of the publishing of the book originally.4


Watkins does not defend his position in this book, for him it’s enough to level the playing field and yet it begs the question. He has reduced the other style to a social preference a cultural and socially relative classist position, but he won’t say that his is too.

This book is out of print and I couldn’t find an ebook of it so I ordered a second hand copy. Is it worth chasing down? If you are an Art or Architectural historian I recommend this book wholeheartedly, it’s well written, sharp and incisive if a little one-eyed. It also marks a specific turning point in 20th Century Architectural History.

But otherwise it seems too much of its time and place, except were it not for the re-emergence of classicism Donald Trump’s Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again order for instance.

I will leave with a quote from the book itself meant as an observation of others but ironically describes Watkin well too;

…nothing dates people more than the standards from which they have chosen to react - Anthony Powell, The Valley of Bones, 1964, P.158

  1. I am reviewing the revised addition with a Preface and Epilogue added in 2001.↩︎

  2. Now King Charles III.↩︎

  3. …as Mies was fond of saying, the spirit of the age”. This alone was what mattered: this alone defined the age For Mies’ (page XXVI)↩︎

  4. Learning From Las Vegas Book Review and Notes had already been published 5 years before in 1972 so Post-modernism had already arrived. Perhaps this book did deliver the coup de grâce but as we see this death passed with a collective shrug of the shoulders.↩︎

September 11, 2023