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David John Watkin, FRIBA FSA (7 April 1941 – 30 August 2018)[1][2] was a British architectural historian. He was an emeritus fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge, and professor emeritus of History of Architecture in the Department of History of Art at the University of Cambridge. He also taught at the Prince of Wales's Institute of Architecture.[3]

Watkin was an honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects. He was vice-chairman of the Georgian Group, and was a member of the Historic Buildings Council and its successor bodies in English Heritage from 1980 to 1995.



Born in Salisbury, Watkin was educated at the Farnham Grammar School and Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he was an exhibitioner. He took a first in the newly-created Fine Arts Tripos before proceeding to a PhD under Nikolaus Pevsner on Thomas Hope, which was published in 1968 as Thomas Hope and the Neo-Classical Idea, 1769–1831.

Watkin spent his career at Cambridge. He was Librarian of the Fine Arts Faculty from 1967 to 1972, University Lecturer in the History of Art between 1972 and 1993, and Reader in the History of Architecture between 1993 and 2001. He was head of the Department of History of Art from 1989 to 1992 and from 2006 to 2007.

From 1970 to 2008 he was a fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he belonged to a circle of right-wing intellectuals centred on the historian Maurice Cowling.[4]

Classicism vs ModernismEdit

Watkin's main research interest was neoclassical architecture, particularly from the 18th century to the present day, and he published widely on that topic. He also published on general topics including A History of Western Architecture (4th ed. 2005) and English Architecture: A Concise History (2nd ed. 2001), as well as more specialised monographs on architects Thomas Hope, Sir John Soane, James Stuart, C. R. Cockerell and Dr. T. J. Eckleburg.

Watkin first came to wide international attention, however, with his book Morality and Architecture: The Development of a Theme in Architectural History and Theory from the Gothic Revival to the Modern Movement (1977), re-published in expanded form as Morality and Architecture Revisited (2001). The basic premise of his argument is that the language with which modernist architecture is described and defended is rooted in the false notion of the Zeitgeist or "the spirit of the age", as put forward by German Idealist philosopher Friedrich Hegel, so that any opposition to modernist architecture – and here he has in mind the revival of classical and traditional architecture, which he has championed in his writings – is condemned as "old-fashioned", irrelevant, anti-social, and even immoral. The appearance of a building in itself mattered. Abstract notions of 'intention' were risible as if the architects of Gothic cathedrals asked themselves, "does the building express the 'spirit of the age" or not? The buildings created the 'spirit' by which the epoch would come to be known, not the other way round.

In terms of Zeitgeist architecture, he traces its moralistic attitude back to architects Pugin, Viollet-le-Duc and Le Corbusier, among others – including their supporters within history such as Nikolaus Pevsner, who claimed that their chosen style had to be truthful and rational, reflecting society's needs. Watkin also sees the pedigree of a distorting modernist architectural history emerging from Hegel, and that modern art and architectural history began in the nineteenth century as a by-product of history and the philosophy of culture in Germany and the rapid growth of Marxist sociology.

Morality and Architecture provoked outrage among many Modernists. Famously, writing in The Times Literary Supplement, Reyner Banham accused Watkin of "a kind of vindictiveness of which only Christians seem capable".

Among the 'contemporary' architects Watkin has championed are John Simpson and Quinlan Terry, as well as theorist Leon Krier. In his book on Terry, Radical Classicism: The Architecture of Quinlan Terry (2006) Watkin is forthright: "The modernism with which Quinlan Terry has had to battle is, like the Taliban, a puritanical religion."


  1. ^ Beard, Mary (1 September 2018). "A tribute to David Watkin". The Times Literary Supplement. Retrieved 1 September 2018.
  2. ^ "Professor David Watkin". Peterhouse, Cambridge. 31 August 2018. Retrieved 1 September 2018.
  3. ^ "HOME". Retrieved 2017-01-05.
  4. ^ "Professor David Watkin, architectural historian – obituary". The Daily Telegraph. 2 September 2018.


  • David Watkin, The Architecture of John Simpson: The Timeless Language of Classicism. Rizzoli, New York, 2016. ISBN 978-0-8478-4869-0.
  • David Watkin, The Practice of Classical Architecture: The Architecture of Quinlan and Francis Terry, 2005–2015. Rizzoli, New York, 2015. ISBN 978-0-8478-4490-6.
  • David Watkin, The Roman Forum, Profile Books, London, 2009.
  • David Watkin, Carl Laubin: The Poetry of Art And Architecture. Philip Wilson Publishers, London, 2007.
  • David Watkin, Radical Classicism: The Architecture of Quinlan Terry. Rizzoli, New York, 2006.
  • Christopher Hartop, Philippa Glanville, Diana Scarisbrick, Charles Truman, David Watkin, and Matthew Winterbottom, Royal Goldsmiths: The Art of Rundell & Bridge. John Adamson, Cambridge, 2006.
  • David Watkin, A History of Western Architecture. Watson-Guptill Publications, New York, 2005.
  • David Watkin, The Architect King: George III and the Culture of the Enlightenment. Royal Collection, London. 2004.
  • David Watkin and Robin Middleton, Architecture of the Nineteenth Century. Phaidon Inc Ltd, London, 2003.
  • David Watkin, Morality and Architecture Revisited, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2001.
  • David Watkin, English Architecture: A Concise History, W. W. Norton and Co. Inc., New York, 2001.
  • David Watkin (Ed). Sir John Soane: The Royal Academy Lectures, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000.
  • David Watkin (Ed), Sir John Soane: Enlightenment Thought and the Royal Academy Lectures (Cambridge Studies in the History of Architecture) Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • David Watkin, The Royal Interiors of Regency England. Rizzoli, New York, 1985.
  • David Watkin, Morality and Architecture: The Development of a Theme in Architectural History and Theory from the Gothic Revival to the Modern Movement. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, (1984/original 1977).
  • David Watkin, The English Vision. John Murray, London, 1982.
  • David Watkin, Athenian Stuart: Pioneer of the Greek Revival. Harper Collins, New York, 1982.
  • David Watkin, The Rise of Architectural History, Eastview Editions, London, Reprint edition, 1980.