It is heartening that Sir Roger Scruton has survived the fury of the Twitter lynchmob to continue in his role as Chairman of the Government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. The way in which his views were misrepresented was quite absurd. All credit to him for persevering and to the Government for standing by him.
Nor has he delayed unduly, licking his wounds. Last week he set out his thinking to the Policy Exchange think tank delivering the Colin Amery Memorial Lecture.
Scruton is not keen on “out of town ” developments:
“New housing estates on the edge of towns, in which boxes or towers stand side by side, but with no real conception of the vital spaces between them, and no provision for businesses, shops, schools, or places of worship and recreation, do not create a place. They are at best parasitic on an existing place, created in another way and with another kind of architecture. Houses and tower blocks dumped on the edge of the town never lose the air of temporary accommodation, where people hole up while looking for something better. And they create a radical price differential between the old centre and its new surroundings, thereby causing the old centre to die.
“The peripheral estate seems to lead inevitably to the ‘void plus sprawl’ of modern America, the template described by James Howard Kuntsler as ‘the geography of nowhere’. In place of it, as Leon Krier has powerfully argued, we should create ‘polycentric cities’, of which London, of course, is a specially relevant example. New development should make room for all the buildings that are not residences: shops, schools, community halls, places of worship and recreation, pubs and so on. The failure to make provision for these things in the planning process has led to the proliferation of lifeless estates on the urban perimeter, rather than the creation of genuine settlements.”
Then there is his dislike of what modernist buildings look like:
“The degradation of our cities is the result of a modernist vernacular, whose principal device is the stack of horizontal layers, with jutting and obtrusive corners, built without consideration for the street, without a coherent façade, and without intelligible relation to its neighbours. Such buildings, generated from ground plans, cannot be stitched into the urban fabric, but form blank and detached surfaces, bounded by edges, with no welcoming apertures to mark the boundary between inside and outside, and no decorative stitching to bind them to the neighbours, to the skyline or to the street. In order to know why we should not build in that way, it is not sufficient, though it is of course highly relevant, that everybody, other than the developer and the architect, dislikes it.”
So how do they get away with it? Scruton suggests they do it firstly by dismissing aesthetic objections as subjective. Secondly, to measure success by the extent a new building stands out from its surroundings, that it is “iconic”, rather than fitting in.
Refuting the “purely subjective” argument, Scruton says that “aesthetic interest is always searching for what is permanent, intrinsically valuable, in harmony.” It is not just some random chance that “ordinary people prefer traditional designs and scales when it comes to housing” but entirely natural. He adds:
“In everyday life we are not animated, as a painter might be, by high aesthetic ideals. We are not trying to reveal the meaning of things, or to create compositions that convey a higher sense of order. Nevertheless we arrange things around us and try to make them fit together in something like the way they fit together in a still-life painting, as when we lay a table for guests, dress for a party or arrange our room. Even in the most minimal tidiness we subject the objects around us to a kind of moral discipline. We tell them: you should stand here, you two belong together, you are the wrong colour, you are out of place, and so on. For whose sake are we doing this? Not for the sake of the objects themselves, for they have no ‘sake’. Look at them as they are in themselves and they become inert, inanimate, awaiting our instructions. When we arrange them however, we do so for the sake of people: not just this person here, who is laying the table, but any other person who might come along. While we think we are making one object fit to another, and each object to the whole, we are actually fitting the objects to an imagined community of people.
“And it is here, I believe, that we should see how misleading is the idea that aesthetic judgments are merely ‘subjective’. The idea of what is ‘fitting’ takes its sense from a wider experience of community. People learn to adapt their behaviour, their remarks and their expressions to the demands and expectations of others around them, and this is what we mean by manners. It is from the resulting conventions, customs and concessions that we draw our conversational repertoire. Knowing how to address a stranger in a new situation, how to move painlessly and quickly to a spirit of cooperation: these are not simple accomplishments. But when we have learned them we have also learned something else: a comprehensive sense of the distinction between ‘fitting in’ and ‘standing out’. The most common form of rudeness involves standing out at all costs, drawing attention to yourself, regardless of whether you deserve it, dismissing attempts to fit in as the ploys of little people who cannot live in a more interesting way.”
It follows that there is a rebuttal of the second modernist alibi that “standing out” is some great imperative. Scruton says fitting in should be the aim:
“Mouldings create shadows and shadows endow things with a posture. Edges without mouldings have a cutting and dynamic character, which can of course be exciting, but which militates against the aim of fitting in. Buildings that stab or bite their neighbours scarcely conform to the civic paradigm, and while the occasional joke of this kind may appeal to the casual passer-by, the joke will inevitably wear thin in time, like the hatchet jobs of Daniel Libeskind.
“There is an erroneous view among apologists for the modernist vernacular that detailing of the classical kind is an irrelevance, that what matters is space and proportion, and that the Orders should be studied with that in view and without regard to the sculptural language. This view is encouraged by the purely mathematical view of proportion proposed by Le Corbusier in The Modulor, and by the specious arguments about space and time put forward by Siegfried Giedion in a highly influential book, Space, Time and Architecture, which has for fifty or more years been a standard text in schools of architecture.
“A moment’s reflection, however, will remind us that proportion and composition are connected: proportion is a relation between perceivable parts, and parts become perceivable when composed. The crucial details of the classical idiom in architecture are those pertaining to boundaries and transitions, lintels, architraves, mullions: places where one element ends and another begins, which are often marked by mouldings, sculpted elements and the shadows that are cast by these things.”
Scruton, in homage to Colin Amery, chose as his theme “the fabric of the city” and his concern at how cities had become “unstitched.” There was no list of policy recommendations to the Government – that would have been rather premature. But in the discussion after his lecture Scruton did make reference to research by CreateStreets showing that “alienating” tower blocks actually provide lower density than the alternative:
“Replace them with streets along the pattern of streets that they themselves replaced. If you did that, it has been very persuasively argued by Nicholas Boys Smith, that you would actually get more people per acre in the development that replaced the high rise blocks without all the mental health problems and crime problems that come with the high rise blocks. One of the things I would like to think about is one can get rid of those socially destructive estates and rehouse the people in the same place in the streets were taken away.”
He also made reference to allowing communities to make “an informed choice” as to the sort of buildings they would like.”It is clearly the case that we have to produce templates of some kind, you can have this or you can have that…the planners have to be presented with what the people want and in some way be compelled to listen.”
That gives us a clue as to one or two matters that the Commission might pursue. But although we didn’t get a manifesto from Scruton we did get a sense of the scope his commission will cover. It will be beyond design. Aesthetics, declared Scruton, are not just about style but the “conversational atmosphere around buildings”.