It offers a curious resurrection of arguments first made almost a century ago and is primarily directed against a group of architects and writers almost all of whom died a generation ago. Less a work of history than one of historical re-enactment, it gives rise to the same oddly nostalgic feel as might a cartoon from one’s childhood. Weirdly, it even ends with James Stevens Curl’s redrawing of an image by the 19th-century artist Alfred Rethel, showing the figure of Death ringing the warning bell against barbarous modernism on behalf of the exhausted author, who has expired in a chair.
Anyway, the size of Curl’s ambition may be inferred from a description of his book as object. It is dense and shiny. Advance praise is integrated into the prelims, a mite too proudly. It has a ‘Prolegomenon’ (yes, really), abundant Latin quotations, nearly 40 pages of preface and acknowledgments, 58 of dense endnotes and 42 of bibliography. Plus a prolix ‘Further Thoughts’ and a turgid epilogue. It is windy, overwritten, under-edited, repetitive and full of clichés. It is a book where ‘much ink has been spilled’. And its design is a disgrace to OUP — and would be to the corner-store copy shop. The jacket is typographically illiterate, the layout is artless, while the pictures lack contrast and sit unhappily grey in a visually dreary book. If this is what the author thinks is good design, then God help us and OUP.
Argued with a pathological attention to detail, and in a style that might have struck even TS Eliot as being a little over-stuffed with classical allusions, it is intended primarily to shock and awe the architectural establishment itself. That’s a pity. At a quarter of the length, and shorn of its more obscure digressions, Curl’s blistering broadside would be a fabulous read for the non-specialist. It’s still entertainingly apoplectic, if you can stick with it. Curl is 81, and his book reads like an outpouring of pent-up anger, contempt, revulsion and despair accumulated over decades.