The recent appointment of Roger Scruton to the position of Chair of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission was greeted by howls of derision by architects. The instant and rather pathetic attempt to trawl through his every utterance and find some snippet of controversy so as to get him sacked has fallen away as it should have.
Scruton is a sound thinker with much to offer. His occasional controversial remarks don’t sit well with contemporary mores but then whose do? The allegations of anti-semitism were simply misquoting. Yet there is a problem with Scruton’s appointment. It lies not in the way that Scruton has attacked contemporary architecture in his first speech in the position, nor in the way that his boss Kit Malthouse MP, Minister of State for Housing, subsequently accused architects of being over-sensitive, but in the issues this debate hides.
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It is clear that the philosopher’s thinking has not moved on much since he wrote his book on architecture in 1979. His first comments quite deliberately evoke the style wars of the 1980s with Prince Charles on one side and modernists on the other. “Aren’t you flogging a dead horse?” he was asked. “Maybe, but just to make sure it is dead,” he replied. A neat reply. But the fact is that in architectural terms, neo-classicism – or at least a modernism tinged with historicism – is rather ‘in’ right now.
The uber-fashionable Peter Barber, for example, added brick archways to a recent social housing project which wouldn’t have looked out of fashion in the 1930s. Patrick Lynch’s King’s Gate SW1 uses a series of stone columns in classical proportions even if it is ultimately a modernist building. Some architects have even visited Poundbury – the model settlement developed by the Prince of Wales and found certain aspects pleasing.
There’s a further irony. Scruton and his detractors in the architecture press also share profound misgivings about suburban development. Since Lord Rogers’ Towards an Urban Renaissance was published in 1998, the consensus in architecture has been to constrain the expansion of development into the green belt and to densify housing in urban areas in a contextual way.
This has been architectural orthodoxy since the late 1990s and was a mantra of CABE – the body charged with ensuring aesthetic standards were high before it was largely castrated in Cameron’s “bonfire of the quangos” and shunted into partnership with the Design Council. Largely forgotten, it has been augmented or supplanted (no one is quite sure) by the body that Scruton now heads. Oddly, if you listen to him, he seems to agree with this position on densification. In his recent speech he declared: “When buildings [in the city] refuse to fit together, then they refuse to fit to us. You don’t belong here, they tell us: you people are in the way. Inevitably, in the face of such a rebuke, people flee to the suburbs.”
So, when we look beyond the hair-triggered outrage of Scruton’s detractors (which he is quick to goad), the architectural differences often boil down to very little: neo-classical pseudo columns versus modernist mullions.
Rather endearingly, Scruton insists that housing is an aesthetic issue, rather than a economic, social or political one. His boss Kit Malthouse, conveniently ignores the fact that only 1/10th of the housing built in the country will have been designed by an architect: kicking out at them, as he has and continues to do so, is utterly irrelevant. So why do it?
Perhaps because it distracts our attention from a much thornier political problem. Suburban housing is often simply an issue of choice, particularly for those who Tories might see as their natural supporters. The truth is that suburban homes are actually popular and always have been.
Whether we wish it or not, a suburban renaissance is upon us. The Town and Country Planning Association has calculated that, between 2011 and 2031 there will be a 20% increase in the number of households (i.e. around 4.5 million). Of that increase, 25% will be in London. A full 60% will be in the whole of the south of England.
Development inside London is dogged by the political and logistical problems of effectively rebuilding its post-war housing estates and the high land costs (caused in part by the way the Urban Renaissance constricted development) making the job of incorporating both private and social housing in ever denser configurations virtually impossible. Development outside will be constrained by the Green Belt; a planning barrier the Tories show no intention of demolishing.
The truth is that where the Tories need to build, if they are to reach their housing targets, is true blue territory. Terrified by the perfect Nimby conundrum – i.e. that the very thing that may gain them support from younger voters is also what may lose it from their existing base – the creation of this new quango looks like a Government attempt to shift the agenda to a debate about aesthetics which is at best, not pressing, and at worst, an irrelevance.
What is relevant is that people like living in lower densities. “We don’t expect a family who quadruples its income to move to a smaller apartment, no matter how many coffee shops there are in the neighbourhood,” says the Professor of City Planning at the Marron Institute in New York, Solly Angel. The real controversy is that no one in the UK is willing to admit that this ‘debate’ about beauty hides a more pressing one about urban, and suburban, expansion.