Conservatives Call For Beauty In New Architecture
[Editor’s Note: Next week, please join those interested in architecture, preservation, and urbanism (including Rod Dreher, Michael Brendan Dougherty, and Duncan Stroik) in New York City on September 17 for a discussion of “Till We Have Rebuilt Notre Dame: A Conversation on the Future of Architecture, Faith, and Civilization in the West.“]
It is well known that the British government recently appointed me to chair a commission with the task of advocating beauty in building. Our planning system empowers people to oppose consent for buildings in their neighborhood, if they can make a persuasive case. And because there is a widespread and justified belief that whatever is proposed is likely to be ugly, people put all their energies into defending their landscapes and townscapes from the developers. This has made it increasingly difficult to house our growing population. The commission was to persuade people that we can still build in ways that enhance rather than detract from the beauty of their surroundings, and in this way to overcome their opposition. It was a challenging task to produce a report that would both soothe the producers and satisfy the consumers, in a market distorted by vested interests, class conflict and ideology.
Indeed, it was unlikely from the outset that someone like me, a believing conservative who sees architecture as inextricably linked to our sense of who and where we are, should survive long in such a post. My appointment was greeted with howls of outrage from the architectural profession, and a massive campaign of defamation was launched in order to secure my dismissal. The campaign was unsuccessful, despite the best efforts of the architectural press, and I remained committed to the task allotted to me. Later, however, following an interview given to the New Statesman, I was summarily dismissed by the government for my “offensive and unacceptable” remarks. Since nobody told me that I had been dismissed, still less what the remarks were that had caused this, I was unable to reply to the accusations. In due course it was revealed that the “interview” was a fabrication and that I and the New Statesman had both been entrapped by the journalist, who had broadcast his triumph in social media posts that revealed a hostility bordering on the pathological.
By then, however, it was too late for the government to go back on its decision without showing a commitment that it would rather jettison than defend. The main aim of conservative politicians is to get through to the next election without being noticed. Nothing is more embarrassing to them than a person who claims not only to share their beliefs but also to be inclined to put them into practice. Hence the new volley of character assassinations precipitated by the fabricated interview have included quite a few contributions from conservative grandees. Even the former chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, having presided through the Evening Standard, which he edits, over a continuous defamatory assault on me, has joined in the exultant Twitter storm to celebrate my dismissal. It became clear that in accepting the commission I had stepped into a minefield, and that the rumor that I would be defending the sentiments of ordinary people against the interests of the architectural profession and the volume builders was enough to mobilize the entire establishment against me. [Editors’ note: As TAC went to press, the New Statesman acknowledged its errors and the UK government reinstated Roger Scruton’s commission appointment.]
I draw the following lessons from this episode, and the first and most important is this, that conservatives, because they are no longer sure of their principles and frightened of any call to express them, will not defend the one who is hounded on their behalf but, on the contrary, hastily look round for the stones that they too can throw. Although, in my view—and in the view of readers of this magazine—the conservative position is the default position of all true communities, conservatives exist in a state of fear. Their beliefs are true but forbidden, and forbidden by the self-appointed censors in our universities and media. If accused, conservative politicians will deny that they have any such opinions and join in denouncing the criminals who could subscribe to them. Nor will they bother to find out the truth once someone is under attack from the mob. “Join in” is the only advice that occurs to them.
The second lesson I draw is that the architectural establishment is not, as it pretends, governed by an ethic of social responsibility. On the contrary, it is a powerful vested interest, and like all such it has fortified its position with an ideology, thereby disguising self-interest as a historical, moral and political necessity. Any opposition to this ideology calls forth contemptuous abuse, such as that recently heaped on James Stevens Curl for his book Making Dystopia, in which he shows that the inhuman ways of building introduced by the modernists were the result of inhuman ways of thinking too. It has not escaped the attention of the ordinary citizen that, while modernist templates and materials are defended by the profession as morally and historically necessary, uniquely true to the Zeitgeist, and so on, these templates and materials are used for one reason only, namely profit. And it is profit gained at the expense of the rest of us. Anybody who sides with popular feeling in this matter becomes a threat to one of the most powerful vested interests in our world, and must expect to be attacked not just by the construction industry and the architecture schools, but by all the political interests in their pockets.
The third lesson that I draw is that conservatives must wake up to the danger. Our built environment is not some accidental feature of our world that can be left to look after itself. It shapes our communities and our sense of identity, conveys an image of our belonging and of the attachments that matter to us. You cannot have a coherent conservative philosophy that does not address the question of our surroundings. As I try to show in my book How to Think Seriously about the Planet, it is conservatives, not radical greens, who have the real environmental agenda, and part of that agenda concerns the human habitat, the place where we settle and which we shape as a home. It is absurd to believe that we can leave our habitat to look after itself, and still pursue a politics of rootedness and national identity. And we should not blind ourselves to the fact that the architectural modernists have, from the beginning, conceived architecture as a part of social engineering, projecting a new and transnational order in place of our old forms of membership, and condemning their opponents as reactionaries and nostalgists. Ask almost any successful architect where he or she stands politically, and the answer will be some version of the “progress” idea, bound up with all the fashionable causes of the Left.
Until conservatives wake up to the fact that the built environment is part of their real agenda, and to be fought for just as tenaciously as any other aspect of our inheritance, they will be wrong-footed in their attempts to govern our cities. This does not mean that styles should not change, or that new forms and materials should not be experimented with. It means that we should approach architecture as conservatives approach everything else, with a view to distinguishing what fits and what grates, what belongs to us and what threatens us, what the people want for themselves, and what the vested interests and the ideological elites wish to impose on them. Working out how to do this is a vital part of our agenda, and the first step is to look around for architects and urbanists who share that agenda and who refuse to be bullied by a lobby that is as out of date as the old trade unions of Europe.
However, we enter here into dangerous waters. The sanctity of private property is so fundamental a part of the American settlement that the country’s conservatives look with suspicion on any policy that seems to prevent people from doing what they will with what is theirs. Although zoning laws are now an accepted part of urban policy, they are accepted because they are the wrong kind of laws. They divide the city into residential, business, manufacturing and shopping areas, and so contribute to the effect famously lamented by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, of a city that is unwalkable, disjointed, without a living center or a shared public face. Businesses accept these laws, since they are easy to comply with, like an entrance test. Pass the test and you can do what you will.
The question for conservatives, therefore, is what kinds of planning law are acceptable, within the context of a free economy. The issue came to the fore in the case of Penn Station, New York, the Beaux-Arts masterpiece of 1910, built by the firm of McKim, Mead and White, and demolished in 1963. Protests by the citizens of New York were on a scale to match the recent protests against the extradition law in Hong Kong. But they failed to move the City governors to take steps to preserve the station, which was replaced by an alienating rats’ warren, surmounted by one of the ugliest mid-rise buildings in New York, facetiously described as a garden.
This cultural disaster perhaps could not have been averted: it was only as a result of it that Americans began to wake up to the need for conservation laws, introducing the “landmark” concept as the best way to ring-fence the objects judged necessary to the national heritage. The suggestion has been made, by Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Arts Society, that Penn Station should be rebuilt, using the sculptures and columns dumped in the New Jersey meadowlands, some of which have since been retrieved. A campaign has even been launched—though how far it has got or is likely to get I do not know. But such battles over “heritage” should not distract us from the real problem, which is not how to conserve beauty but how to produce it. Buildings like Penn Station attract our protective instincts not only because of their beauty but because we fear what will come to replace them. By what policy can we defend the human habitat from the uglification that is growing all around? Who decides, with what powers, and by what right?
This is one part of a yet greater question, which is whether conservatives in government can ever succeed in developing a cultural policy, and if so what form could it take? There are those who say that culture is no business of the state. But in an era when the state has taken charge of education, so as to degrade it in the interests of its egalitarian agenda, it is no longer possible for conservatives to take that simple line. We need to develop our own urbanist curriculum, our own conception of what should be taught in schools of architecture, our own conception of how new settlements should be laid out, and of the ways in which the built environment should be adapted to the community that grows in it. We need to make a comparative study of the planning regimes that have produced places where people flourish, and of the regimes which produce places where they decline. And we should be bold enough to choose between them.
In all this we should remember the most important fact, which is that towns, villages and cities are shared spaces. They contain buildings that are privately owned. But those buildings should be acceptable to everyone who has to live with them. The revulsion against modern ways of building is not confined to a few fogeyish aesthetes. It became clear to me in the research for the commission that the revulsion against the glass and steel office block, against the residential tower without streets or parkland, against the computer-designed “envelope” in the place of the up-standing façade is worldwide and visceral. From all across Europe came the message: when you have sorted things out in Britain please come and sort things out here. Indeed, in response to my sacking by the British government the Polish Ministry of Culture promptly awarded me its architecture prize.
The purpose of planning law is to make places that residents can belong to; and the way to do that is to make places that belong to their residents. This simple extension of the idea of ownership, to embrace all that have a relevant interest, should be the basis of a conservative cultural policy. We should do what we have always wanted to do, which is to return the real choices to the people, and to prevent the elites from imposing the things that the people abhor.
Roger Scruton is The American Conservative’s New Urbanism Fellow. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.