Adrian Forty

Adrian Forty’s writing – more, his approach to writing and research – stands in stark opposition and resistance to our contemporary attitudes towards research, writing and history. Forty, a historian and academic, recently retired after 40 years, has ‘only’ written three books: Objects of Desire, Words and Buildings, and Concrete and Culture). The first two have become classic texts and the third is destined to become one as well. Along the way there has been a small clutch of journal articles. If he were starting out today it is doubtful that he would be a ‘successful’ academic given the various pressures on research today: publish often, pushing towards interdisciplinarity, demonstrating impact, and generating income through research grants. Forty is one of the last great classic academics. He publishes only when there is something to say, and therefore, nearly everything he has written is worth reading (certainly the three books are required reading in my view). Forty demonstrates the worth of quality over quantity. If the majority of academics today took his lead we would probably have one-quarter to one-third the number of journal articles and books published, but they would be worth publishing and worth reading. Libraries, journals and bookshops are now bursting with wordy texts that say very little by using vague and suggestive language, with barely disguised previously-published work (sometimes three to four incarnations), or rehashed readers with poorly translated or yet-again-republished versions of ‘key’ texts. And it now makes our job harder sifting through all this to find relevant, carefully researched and well-written work.

Apart from Forty’s ethos, there is the writing and the way he handles topics. His prose is always clear and careful (not to mention precise) with its language. And language, in fact, was the topic of his second book, which demystifies a number of terms that too many of us were willing to use without questioning their meaning. My reading of Forty always saw his work as political, but never in a straightforward or obvious manner. His article ‘Europe is no more than a nation made up of many others: thoughts on architecture and nationality’ reads like a classic historian’s text, uncovering and using archival process drawings and correspondences to carefully place the genesis and rational behind two particular designs (The Taylor Institute and Martyrs Memorial in Oxford). It discusses the different takes on architecture’s relationship to nationality, but it did so at a point (1996) when this type of conversation was becoming popular once more in Europe. Forty didn’t just randomly pick the topic but carefully used history to warn us of the problems and possible mistakes that can be made when going down this trodden road. He does a similar thing in ‘Being and Nothingness: Private Experience and Public Architecture in Post War Britain’. Here the questions are around the value and possibility of public space and of public ownership and it is, again, published at a time (1995) when we are seeing a critical shift in the definition, make-up and discussions around urban public space.

A good deal of his work does this, without ever coming out and saying – “this is an argument for….” There is no need for this because the writing is more of a warning, a warning about how ignorance of history (yes, here comes the cliché) condemns us to repeat it. And it is also a lesson: that history isn’t just marginalia and trivia about the past but that is can teach us things about ourselves in the present. And it is also a lesson that this kind of history and writing only works when it is done with care, un-rushed and without the pressure of artificial targets or outcomes. It is written because it needs to be. So if it takes seven years between books, then that’s what it takes. The wait is worth it because what he has to say is worth it.

Unfortunately for the rest of us the academies, governments and modern economic principles will not tolerate waiting when it is much more profitable to churn out words and buildings.

There are two reasons for reading the work of Adrian Forty. It should be said that Forty’s work doesn’t tell you what to think yet it informs you in a way that makes you more knowledgeable. Forty’s work demystifies things rather than make them more mysterious (which for some curious reason is what some academics think their role is). It gives you deep knowledge because it often focuses on where ideas came from and how we use language to talk about them. You get to the bottom of things and from here you can make your own individual progress. But you should also read it as an example of how to do good history – from both the writing perspective and from an ethos that resists the commodification of this beautiful and important discipline.

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