There's something that I find truly beautiful about ruins; I hate the process of course, whether that be the relentless passing of the ages, violent insurrection or wanton vandalism, but just about all ruins have a certain hauntingly beautiful quality. They're a reminder that everything is to one degree or another ephemeral, that nothing lasts forever, no matter how solid it may seem; that what is here now may – indeed certainly will – be gone one day, just as what was before our world is now gone all but for its last crumbling relics. Ruins are like ghosts of their past selves, of times, places and peoples long gone, just vague sketches of what once was and what felt so permanent, the last proud stand of each building being the last stand of that past.
London now has a few more ruins, for the time being anyway. Across the capital the pneumatic claw, the enemy of all buildings, is busy at work removing the last charred reminders of what was a part of our world just a week ago. It's a sad process. No matter how glorious and glittering a building may have been, no matter what it may once have stood for or once was, no matter how once loved and admired, the end is inglorious, unsympathetic, permanent. The building's last stand is never a successful one.
As we look back at last week's riots – or rebellions against civilisation as I prefer to call them – and reflect upon the state of our nation, the simmering ruins of London come poignantly symbolic. The Reeves building in particular, which we watched be consumed by flames live on television and now stands as just a burnt out shell of crumbling brick, has a lot in common with Britain it seems. The reports, and indeed reports of most other fires, made great emphasis of how these historic local landmarks had survived the Blitz – they could have added post-war planners who with glee sought to finish the demolition job for Hitler – and how grand their heyday had been. It felt the manifestation of our country: once proud, built on the hard work and enterprise of free individuals, on the bedrock of family, that "nation of shopkeepers" derided by Napoleon, an emporium of our finest produce; representative of our entrepreneurial best, survivor of our enemy's worst, destroyed by our own. How things have changed for both the building and Britain, how linked the two seem.
The descent into public barbarism by a section of society, not entirely confined to the now seemingly recognised and fairly new social group "the underclass", has opened a free for all blame game among the commentators and public. What caused the first riots I do not know, we never will, though I personally suspect something was organised by the criminally involved to hijack the unrelated Mark Duggan peaceful protest in a bid to discourage certain useful police tactics – as the 80's riots successfully did, to much public suffering – as their line of work gives them a rather vested interest in the matter; the end to stop and search was repeatedly called for. What then caused the hooded masses and a few others to join, in an escalating chain, night after night, until anarchy reigned on the streets of the capital in boroughs as leafy as Ealing, Camden and Clapham, is though very much up for debate.
Though we hear so many reasons – attempted excuses, in many cases – for what caused such open mass criminality, none truly stand up. The allegations of the Left are at best verging on the ridiculous: boredom, as if that were ever an excuse; cuts to youth centres, as if rioting and ping pong are substitutes; student fees, as if these individuals can even spell university; and quite ludicrously the marketing of trainers, as if a FootLocker commercial was so powerful it set off a frenzy of crime. These however are not reasons to riot, let alone loot, commit arson, assault and murder, even if you accept them as issues faced by the young. These feral youths – "feral rats" as one victim described them – did not become barbarians for want of a basketball court, they did not pillage our streets for lack of ping pong, nor did they set ablaze shops and homes because they were deprived of the latest designer trainers; morals are not dependent on these things. Likewise these were not politically motivated rioters or a genuinely aggrieved minority, they are not a hungry poor – the poor do not have BlackBerry smartphones – and they are not oppressed. They are fit, healthy, free young individuals in a vibrant, exciting city, better off than about 5 billion people on earth in every possible way.
But rather than count their blessings and seize the legal opportunities around them – as Sikh channel SangatTV urged – a culture has developed that is based on imagined grievance, a dismissal of personal responsibility, and is largely morally bankrupt; a "violent, destructive, nihilistic, gangster culture" – that David Starkey wrongly attributed to immigrants but is entirely home grown and [as he noted] very multiracial – is endemic. These are Blair's Children, speaking their own basic language unintelligible outside their self-imposed ghettos, brought up on the belief that the source of income is the welfare cheque, that they are deserving of it, and used to escaping the consequences of their actions their whole lives. The riots were the outcome of these youths having grown up in a society where there are rights without responsibilities, where there's always an accepted excuse, and where money flows freely from the State.
The Left would love to put a spin on it, but the riots were just a mass outbreak of what these "gangster chavs" do as the norm. The only difference last week was the scale and location, as they moved out from the estates and into our sights, committing their vandalism on shops rather than phone boxes and bus shelters, terrorising "us" rather than those that live among "them". The riots were just what they do, but en masse in front of our eyes, and based as ever around their central philosophy of greed without morals or work ethic: "I want this and I want it now". Their cry was one of spoilt children for unearned right, the demand not for opportunity but automatic entitlement: "Give me your trainers, your iPhones, Your hooded sweaters and plasma TV, The designer refuse of your teeming store. Send these, the sporting goods, the looter-tossed, to me."
Can you convince this section of the population that has chosen barbarism over civilisation to change? The answer I fear is no, some people are just that way. At best we can achieve a harm reduction strategy, in which crime is vigorously tackled, and in which we reduce the numbers joining this growing sub-culture. To this ends we must ask why some areas are dominated by this lifestyle while others aren't, why riots failed to take off in other areas despite similar demographics, why some estates are no-go areas and others aren't. And here I return to buildings.
Towering in the distance behind Reeves stands an example of "gangster chav" territory, a 1960's concrete monstrosity, a prime example of socialist architecture; cold, impersonal, bleak, a rabbit warren of corridors, stair wells, lift shafts and "streets in the sky" walkways. To walk around this kind of dehumanising development is not a pleasant experience: there's nowhere to run, nobody around, and the shadows are cast everywhere. It's an adventure playground for yobs, an environment that is all but impossible to police. The decent majority so needed for order retreat in these circumstances behind locked doors and tightly pulled curtains, the violent minority reign over the public areas – it's too dangerous for anyone else to go outside – and gradually their culture takes root among the young: if you want to avoid trouble, you join them, you don't study, you don't diverge from their cultural norms, you become one of them, and then the cycle begins on the next generation.
The planners and architects built these developments to change human behaviour, so we should not be surprised that several generations on we are facing a changed culture. Buildings do not make bad people, but they can give them the upper hand and facilitate their cultural growth. "We shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us," as Churchill said. The planners of these buildings should hang their heads in shame, the pneumatic claws should get to work. Ultimately it's the only way.