From the privileged comforts of Peterhouse, a bachelor college in Cambridge founded in 1281, David Watkin, a vertiginous Anglican in a suit, launched an acidulous attack in 1977 on the principles of modern architecture, when the first edition of Morality and Architecture was published. A great deal has happened in the years between, but it remains an addled, sly, knowing, superior, rancorous, smarmy, sneering stinker of a book.
Watkin's targets include Otto Wagner, Walter Gropius, Louis Kahn and Frank Lloyd Wright, accused of arrogant philistinism. But the ground zero is Watkin's teacher, Nikolaus Pevsner (the great apologist for Bauhaus Modernism), to whose historical method he devotes 43 pages of snitty analysis. A smug traditionalist, Watkin pits himself against a functionalist design tradition that goes back to Plato, via St Thomas Aquinas.
Jonathan Swift wrote, "All poets and philosophers who find/ Some favourite system to their mind/ In every way to make it fit/ Will force all Nature to submit." Dr Watkin's favourite system is classical architecture. Yet, whatever distress it may cause him, his virulent anti-Modernism makes him an expression of the zeitgeist. He makes an odd bedfellow with the baffling neo-Marxist French sage, Jean Baudrillard, who at the same time also attacked Bauhaus determinism.
It was also in the late Seventies that Robert Venturi and his wife Denise Scott Brown published Learning from Las Vegas, a hymn to what Baudrillard defined as "residue, superfluity, excrescence, eccentricity, ornamentalism, uselessness. Kitsch." Venturi attracted a lot of followers among those who found the strict Modernists, with their insistence on a single solution to any design problem, annoying. They were certainly a daft, if essentially decent, bunch.
Whatever the arguments for and against Modernist moralising and formalism, by the mid-Seventies the fundamental tenets were being relaxed - long before Dr Watkin got his pin-striped gander up in Cambridge. The old defining belief in truth to materials might work with wood, stone and iron, but could not be extended to chipboard or complex polymers. Similarly, "form follows function" is only a half truth: overstuffed sofas can be very functional. This point was made to me by Pevsner's most impressive pupil, the late Reyner Banham, whose review of the first edition of Morality and Architecture accused Watkin of "a kind of vindictiveness of which only Christians seem capable".
A lot went wrong with modern architecture in Britain. The period between the Second World War and 1977 was, perhaps, the direst in the entire history of building on this island. Significantly, it was a period of national decline. But the many atrocious buildings erected then are atrocious because they are badly designed, not because they are modern.
Politicians were at least as responsible as modern architects for the horrors of redevelopment. As the architect to the GLC from 1956 to 1971, Sir Hubert Bennett opposed system building. But local and national government insisted on making political capital by saving time and money, although system building did neither. Because of the accuracy required in prefabrication, Bennett discovered, systems were in fact slower (as well as more costly) than brick.
Politicians also insisted on the hated high-rise, even when studies in the mid-Sixties showed that the desired density of 200 people per acre could be achieved with low-to-medium rise schemes. But David Watkin is not one to let facts get in the way of an argument. He simply hates Modernism.
In 1956 Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, explained the morality of his vision: "averting mankind's enslavement by the machine by saving the mass-product and the home from mechanical anarchy and by restoring …