Congratulations to Roger Scruton on his appointment as “Chair” (I suspect he might prefer to be called Chairman) of the Government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission.
Sir Roger tells the Daily Telegraph that he prefers brick, stone, and wood to hardened steel, concrete, and glass. He adds:
“I have loved the built environment and felt wounded by the damage done to it. I want new buildings to harmonise with the urban environment to make them places for communities to live in.”
“The walkie-talkie skyscraper in London is as low as you can get in terms of ugliness.
“The skyline of the of the City of London has been horribly mutilated. Taller is not better unless it’s done in the manner of Salisbury Cathedral.
“It shouldn’t be a great fist thrust into the heavens. It should decorate the skyline.”
The new commission will “advocate”, “develop ideas”, “gather evidence from stakeholders”, and “inform the work” of Government departments. The difficulty is in the entrenched views of those deciding what new buildings should look like -the planners and the architects. They are unlikely to be persuaded by Sir Roger’s arguments – no matter how convincing they might be to the rest of us.
A single word has been with great power to silence those wishing to see beautiful new buildings. Pastiche. The hypocrisy of this sneer was alluded to in a lecture back in 1985, when I was young but “modernism” was already old. It was delivered by Dr Mark Girouard. He pointed out that according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word pastiche means “literary or other work of art composed in the style of a known author.” Girouard added:
“As far as architecture is concerned it is clearly possible to design a building in the style of Mies van de Rohe or Le Corbusier, and many, one might say all too many, such buildings have been built.”
In practice, of course, the term is never used to take a swipe at modernists. However, many “housing units” have been produced from identikit concrete blocks. Instead, the term is used to denounce buildings “designed in the manner of Palladio, or the English Palladiane, or Lutyen”. Girouard found the “limitation of its meaning” in the way the term pastiche is used “intensely irritating”. He was not alone.
Sir Quinlan Terry says the term encapsulates one of the key “misunderstandings” concerning classical architecture:
“A popular misconception is that classical architecture is pastiche; it is often said that it is a simple matter of cribbing from the pattern books. I notice that many art historians are full of this and – like all people who are protected from reality – they will never learn until they start to practise. I believe there is something in the Gospels: ‘If you know these things, happy are ye if ye do them’. It is only in the doing that we learn. Say, for instance, you are asked to design a door in the Palladian manner. You turn to Palladio’s Quattro Libri and you find that you are only given the profile of the moulding. No guidance is given on size, scale, materials or construction. Even if you can decide on a door 3ft 6in wide by 7ft high with architraves one-sixth of the opening and an entablature above, how do you relate it to the wall? How do you convert these lines of an engraving into building materials?You are now faced with decisions about the lining, frame, door and its panelling, not to mention the treatment of the surround on the other side of the wall. To do this you have to draw on your knowledge and experience, and the result will express a number of architectural subtleties. If you are not careful you may also express your own shortcomings and lack of skill! If you feel that a door of this sort is not sufficiently important for its position you can add an Order either side and even a pediment.”
Kit Malthouse, the Housing Minister, is sympathetic to this defence. Speaking to Policy Exchange recently he declared:
“Pastiche has become a pejorative word. It’s a word that is used by the architectural profession, particularly the starchitects, when feel are feeling threatened and they gather together and award each other prizes. Pastiche can be done incredibly well. I follow a Twitter account called New Classicism and they tweet photographs if building that look as though they were built 200 years ago. They look fantastic. Then they tell you that they were built in 2015. We should learn from history. In design we have lost the notion that there are accepted rules of proportion and space that fit, that feel harmonious.”
There was an interesting debate on the “Built Environment” in Parliament last week. Although, after his fearless comments to Policy Exchange, it seemed that Malthouse was a bit more nervous about the word:
“It is possible for modern, efficient and technology-driven design to echo our history and to reflect the local area without becoming pastiche.”
Malthouse has wavered before. When he was on the London Assembly, after (quite rightly) welcoming a proposal from Lord Rogers for Chelsea Barracks being ditched, Malthouse added:
“It is perfectly possible for modern architecture to embrace ancient materials and proportions without being pastiche.”
I also remember (to take the separate but related subject of modern art), Malthouse defending some awful rubbish being put on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.
Anyway, the debate in Parliament was initiated by John Hayes, who said:
“It is critical that every local authority not only has a design guide that is particular to its locale, but that has site-specific design appraisals for those most important regenerative opportunities. It is not enough for a local authority to rely on some county-wide or area-wide design guide or very broad general motherhood-and-apple-pie design principles. There have to be specific requirements for developers, which allow places to continue to change in a way that is in keeping with what has been done before. That is about materials, scale and sometimes eclecticism; there are particular places that look a particular way. We do not want every high street and every housing development, every town and every city to be indistinguishable one from another, but that will only happen if we are very demanding of what we expect of developers.
“I was once shadow Housing Minister. I met many big developers, big names that we could reel off if we wanted to, and they all said to me, “John, if you are clear about the requirements, we will build our business plans to meet them. We understand that you want to build lovelier places, and we know that that is what people want anyway. We are quite happy to build things that people will like and want to buy, or places they will want to rent. Be very clear about your requirements and we will work to them.” It is not about taking on developers; it is about working with them, but being demanding of them.”
There was quite a bit of “motherhood-and-apple-pie” in the debate. Various MPs saying they were in favour of “good design” without making clear what they meant. While Hayes demanded a “black list of blight, which would allow us to demolish many more” eyesores, there was a counter message from Edward Vaizey, who spoke up for ugliness (or “brutalism”, which some of us regard as coming to much the same thing). “I caution against this debate tipping over into an attack on modern architecture,” pleaded Vaizey, boasting that he was the Minister “who listed Preston bus station to much anger.”
Robin Cook’s epitaph on the headstone of his grave in Edinburgh reads:
“I may not have succeeded in halting the war, but I did secure the right of Parliament to decide on war.”
Will Vaizey’s inscription state – ?
“I was the Minister who listed Preston bus station to much anger.”
Hayes said of Poundbury that the popularity of that place reminds him of a comment about the original Broadway production of The Sound of Music:
“No one liked it, apart from the public.”
I am pleased that politicians are showing a greater willingness to champion the wishes of their constituents when it comes to architecture. But we should be under no illusion over the contempt that modernists have for the public. If the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission is just a talking shop it will not succeed – no matter how eloquent its pronouncements.