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The socialist case for Trad Architecture Conservatives don't have a monopoly on beauty

Prince Charles built a carpark (Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)

Prince Charles built a carpark (Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)


July 19, 2022   5 mins

Ask a conservative why Britain’s cities and towns often look so ugly, and you’ll likely be told that it’s intentional: the result of post-war utopianism and the establishment’s inexplicable embrace of modernist architecture. For the traditionalist magus, Roger Scruton, such a development was “the greatest crime against beauty the world has yet seen”. In this account, it is the fanatical architect, zealous planner, and toadyish politician who are to blame for the handsome streets of yesteryear giving way to atomised ruin. The malaise may be aesthetic, but its roots are moral.

What is not asked, however, is why? Why did Britain, and much of the West, suddenly insist on remaking the built environment at such speed? The idea this resulted from a sudden bout of cultural self-loathing is supported by no evidence. The same is true for the notion that despite founding Nato and trying to maintain its empire, post-war Britain was somehow stuffed with surreptitious Marxists, from the commanding heights of Westminster to the planning offices of your local town hall.

Like most simple, comforting stories, this is wrong — a convenient narrative for inaction and self-satisfied moaning. What is needed instead is a Marxist, materialist account of why the built environment changed as it did. History, after all, is not forged purely by ideas.

What does a materialist analysis tell us? Firstly, that conservative concepts of beauty are incongruent with a devotion to the free market, something which Marx identified 150 years ago. Capitalism, driven by a relentless quest for profit, requires constant spatial transformation. This means we have the buildings we do because, for the most part, somebody somewhere is making a buck. This is difficult to grasp for many on the Right because they have elevated profit into a kind of ethical value (although this wasn’t always the case). But it should be relatively obvious, and far less outlandish than the idea that your nearest Wilko or TK Maxx looks the way it does because of the malevolent influence of Oscar Niemeyer. As Marx wrote in The Communist Manifesto: “All that is solid melts into air; all that is holy is profaned.” This is why a commitment to the free market, and to social and aesthetic conservatism, are irreconcilable.

This is most conspicuous today with Purpose Built Student Accommodation (PBSAs), those modular ziggurats afflicting skylines across Britain, from Altus House in Leeds to Beckley Point in Plymouth (each is the tallest building in their respective city). In Cardiff, more than 7,000 student “flats” were built in just three years.

These buildings are springing up like medieval Bolognese towers for two reasons: firstly, because the building standards are lower for student developments than either residential housing or housing in multiple occupation; and secondly, because building them is lucrative. Forget Marxist council officers and architects with fantasies of becoming the next Frank Gehry. These buildings are being assembled in the quest for profit.

In Portsmouth, the city centre has now essentially become a student campus, the city’s sense of civic pride sacrificed to corporate student accommodation and fast-food outlets zipping deliveries to them via smartphone. It’s a grim vision of what our smaller city centres are becoming, with spaces for interaction in short supply. In Bournemouth, where I grew up, a seaside town synonymous with Victorian and Art Deco architecture looks increasingly like the set of the Teletubbies. Any sense of place is out of the question, the objective instead being to turn the town into a giant airport terminal.

Another important reason for those tragic “before and after” pictures so beloved of Trad Architecture Twitter is the popular adoption of the car in the mid-20th century. As with the failure to grasp the contradiction between free markets and conservation, this too is lost for many on the Right (although, in his defence, Scruton once referred to cars as “dangerous weapons”). This shouldn’t be overly surprising given the automobile was synonymous with personal freedom, an avatar of the sovereign individual conquering the elements. What is forgotten with this blanket projection of personal autonomy, detached from society, is that the dense patchwork of urban settlement that preceded it was lost. You may be able to go anywhere in a car, but you do so by cutting yourself off from others. In the words of Kafka: “you are free, and that is why you are lost.”

The reconfiguration of streets around the car is the principal reason cities such as Birmingham, Glasgow and Bristol lost much of their lustre. This was not limited to Britain, of course. Take the story of Robert Moses, the subject of Robert Caro’s magnificent biography The Power Broker. Over several decades as a public official in New York, Moses gleefully destroyed downtown areas often marked by cultural and racial diversity, as well as high density construction. The reason? To build expressways.

The Cross Bronx Expressway offers the best example of this, ripping as it did through the heart of what would become the northern and southern parts of the Bronx. Things could have been worse, however. And it was only because of civic resistance, led by the likes of Jane Jacobs, that the construction of the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway was stopped. Had she failed, it would have destroyed much of what is SoHo, Little Italy and Chinatown.

While it’s true that an infatuation with the car was central to post-war planning, today it is the Left leading the movement for low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs). By contrast, it is Conservative councils, such as in Southampton or Wandsworth, that are reversing them. This is not to say all LTNs have been executed well, but it is clear that reducing our dependence on cars has become a part of the culture wars, with conservatives often on the wrong side. It’s one thing posting nostalgic pictures of yesteryear; it’s another to do the hard political yards to reverse mistaken choices since.

This bizarre confusion is most obvious in Poundbury, the experimental community built on land belonging to Prince Charles. Even here, in a place whose premise is a return to tradition, the civic centre of Queen Mother Square is a car park. Even if you embrace the orthodoxies behind the project (I personally find it more akin to a Las Vegas theme park), it’s hard to see how rows of hatchbacks and people carriers continue the legacy of Victorian or Georgian architecture. It’s the same in the village of Wickham, home to the second largest medieval square in England. The Visit Hampshire website refers to the village’s “15th century cottages” and “beautifully preserved Georgian houses”. Yet such wonders are also now obscured by the fact that the village square is now a rather large car park.

When it comes to the built environment, it’s easy to lapse into mistaken binaries. On the Right, conservatives wish to retain a distinctive architecture. They claim to want to “conserve” buildings whose qualities transcend present, fleeting sensibilities. They believe in objective standards of beauty — be they from antiquity, or the work of Palladio or Wren. The Left, meanwhile, is apparently driven by a fixation with the future, a permanent experimentation with forms and an impulse to discard the old.

And yet much of this narrative doesn’t align with reality. Councils of all stripes are gleefully granting permission for hideous student blocks, while a Conservative government oversees our rivers being pumped with effluent. Meanwhile, it is progressives who make the arguments for more humane environments where we use our cars less and enjoy a slower pace of life. They don’t always get everything right, but there should be no doubt that active travel, living streets and low traffic neighbourhoods are the simplest ways to begin making our towns and cities beautiful again.

All of which is why the socialist case for respecting architectural heritage should not be at odds with a small ‘c’ conservative approach. This should be the opposite of the promethean road-building projects of the last century, while also avoiding a swivel-eyed hatred of more recent architectural heritage, whether that be the Barbican in London or Berlin’s Palace of the Republic. Take the brutalist Trinity car park in Gateshead. Conservative critics may think such buildings shouldn’t exist by default, and so it was demolished in 2010. Yet it has been replaced by a Tesco — hardly a win for Scrutonian beauty and the public good.

Finally, socialists and conservatives alike must understand that the built environment, as with every human endeavour, is an inheritance from one generation to the next. We should be humble rather than dismiss the ideas of those before us, regardless of which century they come from, while also asking what kinds of structures will fill our descendants with wonder. As Stephen Nachmanovitch wrote: “If we operate with a belief in long sweeps of time, we build cathedrals. If we operate from fiscal quarter to fiscal quarter, we build ugly shopping malls.” The enemy of beauty isn’t “modernism”; it’s a society built on maximising profit and shareholder value.


Aaron Bastani is the co-founder of Novara Media, and the author of Fully Automated Luxury Communism. 

AaronBastani

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N Forster
N Forster
1 year ago

“…As with the failure to grasp the contradiction between free markets and conservation, this too is lost for many on the Right”

Badly researched. Read more Scruton – How to be a Conservative 

Scruton wrote at length about the contradiction and tension between Capitalism and Conservatism. 

“The Left, meanwhile, is apparently driven by a fixation with the future, a permanent experimentation with forms and an impulse to discard the old.”

Its hard to deny. The corrupt Labour councils of the 60s and 70s did more damage to Newcastle upon Tyne than the Luftwaffe ever did. Have a look at those “before and after” pics son.

“Like most simple, comforting stories, this is wrong — a convenient narrative for inaction and self-satisfied moaning. What is needed instead is a Marxist, materialist account of why the built environment changed as it did. ”

It isn’t needed. Rather, it along with conceit is all you have to offer. There is a difference between what is needed and all you are capable of.

Why is Unheard employing this Sophist? Do they have a diversity quoter to fill? Not enough badly researched articles?

Last edited 1 year ago by N Forster
Jon Stanton
Jon Stanton
1 year ago
Reply to  N Forster

The left is not the only party fixated on the future, Marx for example wrote a lot about the destruction and proletarianization of the peasantry by the revolutionary bourgeiouse class and it forms an important part of his thinking. The free market values championed by today’s rightists are the same ones which destroyed the old Europe in the long nineteenth century.
Britain’s most destructive revolutionary of the 20th century was Margret Thatcher.

N Forster
N Forster
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Stanton

Your response reads like you are conflating Conservatives and Capitalists? Please refer to my previous comment about Scruton.
As for Thatcher, she may well have been what you claim, but she seemed more interested in destroying communities and organised labour than buildings.

Jon Stanton
Jon Stanton
1 year ago
Reply to  N Forster

I accept that there is a theoretical distinction between conservatives and capitalists, but in this country the former have let themselves be used and discarded in the latter’s campaign against the left, in part because as I think Bastani correctly points out here, their lack of materialist analysis means they cannot correctly identify and organize against the bourgeiouse interests which attack the things they wish to conserve.

Jeremy Poynton
Jeremy Poynton
1 year ago
Reply to  N Forster

Not just “How To Be A Conservative”, but his many works on this matter, and books which also cover it, such as “The Soul of The World, which I am currently re-reading

https://duckduckgo.com/?q=roger+scruton+architecture&t=brave&ia=web

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
1 year ago
Reply to  N Forster

*Quota.
And I don’t think it’s Scruton he’s having a go at (quite rightly); Sir Roger was a rare exception. Cf. Liz “Uber-riding, Deliveroo-eating, Airbnb-ing freedom fighters” Truss being considered on the right of the Tory party!
In such a world, I say take allies where you can get them if your concern is for preserving what can’t be bought and sold – ‘never thought I’d die fighting side by side with a Marxoid.’

Last edited 1 year ago by Tom Watson
nikolaus frei
nikolaus frei
1 year ago

A rather clunky article, and the infantile Marxist ‘logic’ doesnt help either.
However, be it as it may, Dr. Bastani does reach a valid conclusion – that the Tories do share in the blame for the destruction of city centres, planning crimes and other assorted ugliness.
Talking about Marx – have a look at Clerkenwell Green, home of the Marx library. (and the Session’s house, the Victorian toilets, the temperance fountain, and lots of other history). What do we see? The toilets are boarded up (3 years and counting, no progress visible), and Clerkenwell Green is mostly a car park, half of it for TfL busses that stink up the neighbourhood. Islington council is in the iron grip of Labour, and its MPs, by the way, are Thornberry in the South, and Dear Leader Corbyn in the North. Just saying.

Last edited 1 year ago by nikolaus frei
Jeremy Poynton
Jeremy Poynton
1 year ago

They had Scruton to guide on this, then turned om him as a result of lies in I recall, The New Statesman; then when Douglas Murray exposed this – they never apologised.

No way I will vote for this shower again – I thought they’d fight Woke. Instead, they bent the bloody knee. Cowards

James Scott
James Scott
1 year ago

The Barbican survives with substantial popular support (its gardens and water features are absolutely vital, in my view), but Berlin’s Palace of the Republic is gone, replaced by a replica of the handsome Prussian royal palace that preceded it on the site (although one facade is reserved for the brainless spreadsheet style that all new buildings in Berlin use).
Mr Bastani might disagree, but good riddance to that shabby, asbestos-infested, Stasi-haunted old hulk.

Steve Kerr
Steve Kerr
1 year ago
Reply to  James Scott

Love that evocative phrase “spreadsheet style” that you eloquently use to describe the still essentially dominant minimalist architectural style.

Sophy T
Sophy T
1 year ago

’For the traditionalist magus, Roger Scruton, such a development was “the greatest crime against beauty the world has yet seen”’
Have a look at Seoul – or indeed most cities in East Asia. Acres and acres of beautiful traditional buildings have been bulldozed and replaced with high rise buildings and tower blocks identical to those in Birmingham, Berlin or Chicago.

Ian Campbell
Ian Campbell
1 year ago

I am embarrased to say that I used to give a lecture to architecture students which compared Poundbury to Las Vegas, without having any direct knowledge of either, but when I finally visited the former in 2019, I was completely won over. It might not be perfect but it’s a whole lot better than any housing development going up around Edinburgh at the moment, many of which look destined to be the slums of the future. I
I could never make much sense of Roger Scruton’s ‘The Aesthetics of Architecture’ but he was on the side of the angels on most issues

Last edited 1 year ago by Ian Campbell
Harry Smithson
Harry Smithson
1 year ago

I thought this article was a relatively robust olive branch designed to build consensus around planning for human-scale and beautiful shared environments.
No one seems to be disputing the fact that Stalinist tenements and lowest-common-denominator student accommodation are dispiriting, joyless eyesores. What unites them is this sort of unimaginative functionalism, whether that has been arrived at via short-termist capitalist investors or bland utilitarian statism. Surely there’s space for agreement (and relief from this relentless culture war)?
I’d also like to slyly insert here that Scruton reputedly died in the Blue Labour camp.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago

We’ve had 100 years to evaluate Marxist architecture and town design.
The results have been far more oppressive and inhuman than any eyesore that grew under free enterprise.

Last edited 1 year ago by Brendan O'Leary
Ragged Clown
Ragged Clown
1 year ago

For an antidote to the idea that social housing is necessarily ugly, check out this wonderful blog post today at Municipal Dreams.
https://municipaldreams.wordpress.com/2022/07/19/council-housing-on-the-london-loop-part-i/
Yes, some of those houses are hideous (including my house in picture #6) but many are quite lovely. Bear in mind that these projects were built to house poor families such as mine (family of 6 in an 800 sq ft maisonette) and many were built to replace slums rather than Scrutonesque splendour. The people who built those housing estates thought it important that everyone had a home to live in. Some of them even thought that they deserved a beautiful home.
I very much agree with the author that the twin forces of unrestrained capitalism and the motor car were largely responsible for much of the present ugliness in our cities but I am hopeful that our cities are slowly becoming places for people to live — rather than to drive — once more.
Bristol, where I live, for example, is slowly reclaiming its beautiful areas from the tyranny of the motor car (whose idea was it to put a two-lane highway through the middle of the lovely Queen’s Square?) and the movement towards low-traffic neighbourhoods is nothing but good from my perspective.
For the first time in my life, cities are getting lovelier. Yes, they still manage to put up some monstrosities (are the big, ugly housing blocks around Castle Park the fault of central planning or naked capitalism?) but, on the whole, Bristol is getting lovelier and it is the conservatives who pine for the good old days of inner-city traffic.

Jorge Espinha
Jorge Espinha
1 year ago

“Conservatives don’t have a monopoly on beauty”. Oh please! Take it from us! Run with it! God knows you are much better than us in making something “institutional”. You are right about the profit motive. But culturally speaking, every time someone talks about “pretty houses” that person is laughed out of the room. And that my friend is on you. Culture has an immense power. And today’s culture is left’s empire.

Sophy T
Sophy T
1 year ago

One of the reasons the Left encourages ugly Brutalist buildings is because even though they may not like them, they think conservatives don’t like them and that’s enough for them.
In the 1970s there was a plan to build a by-pass past Baslow through the park at Chatsworth. This wasn’t so much because the by-pass was needed as an opportunity for the left wing council to spoil the beautiful and privately owned Chatsworth estate.
I can’t remember the exact order of events, but I think opposition prevented the building of a similar by-pass through the park at Petworth so that, combined with the 1970s financial crisis brought to a halt plans for the Chatsworth one.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago

Good architecture – a subject on which we all have opinions, and about which middle-class people can come almost to blows about.
For what it’s worth, my 2p worth – 3 points:

  1. Good architecture primarily is functional. Form follows function. If you have a choice between making the functional elegant or not elegant, then opt for elegant, of course. But there should be nothing there which does not do a job.
  2. Good architecture should not have status anxiety or be pretentious or be concerned about impressing people. Anything done for show is a fail. See previous point about function. Often, anything which has no function is a pointless embellishment (like stucco) which is designed merely to impress.
  3. Good architecture should respect its geographical and historical context. Unfortunately, too many people debase that laudable principle by reducing it to a slavish stricture about churning out pastiche. Cue visually-illiterate nostalgic angry middle-aged blokes snorting about “hideous modern carbuncles” (ignoring the fact that some of the modern designs they fulminate about are over 100 years old). Hence 21st century buildings with Greco-Roman pillars. Hence painted-on fake Tudor beams on gerry-built houses in housing estates. 

Er, that’s it. Bear the foregoing 3 points in mind, and you’ll never go too far astray. 
The converse of course is architecture that is primarily decorative, pretentious and slavishly-derivative.
A good friend of mine is a retired award-winning architect. 
A newly-rich business-man once commissioned him to design a new house.
But every design my friend did was turned down by the client.
Eventually, the architect began to see what the problem was. Over time, it became apparent that the client only liked any design details that were showy.
The penny dropped, and, exasperated, my friend snapped: “J____, you don’t want a house – you want a statement of social arrival”.
My friend intended this as an insult.
But the client paused, thought about it, clapped my friend on the back, and and said: “Now you’re getting it – that’s what I do want – supersize everything lad, bling it up to f___, or I’ll be looking for a new architect.”
C’est la vie.

Paul Nathanson
Paul Nathanson
1 year ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

I can hardly quarrel with your personal taste in architecture, but I do quarrel with your assumption that the esthetic principles of good architecture are self-evident or even factual (which is how you state them).
What you describe is a modernist esthetic: form follows function, less is more and so on. And modernism has indeed produced some beautiful architecture, but so have other styles. Logic itself does not indicate that ornament, for instance, is inherently “dishonest” or inherently “pretentious.” It can indeed have a distinctive function, if not a structural one then an esthetic one (or both, as in Gothic architecture). In some contexts, sure, ornament distracts the eye; in other contexts, though, it delights the eye and thus affirms a deeper esthetic sensibility.
It’s true that every building should withstand gravity, provide protection from the cold, prevent water from leaking in and so on. It should be efficient, in other words, not only as an end in itself but also as the means to an end–that is, fulfilling its particular function. Le Corbusier notwithstanding, a house is not only a “machine for living in.” The function of a house or a church, in other words, is not the same as that of a factory or a warehouse.

Adam McDermont
Adam McDermont
1 year ago

An enjoyable article although I don’t agree that the Barbican or modern architecture is generally redeemable. More modern buildings with allusions to the past might work though. It really is staggering how dispiriting contemporary architecture is. I would personally favour a Georgian revival.

https://theheritagesite.substack.com/

Last edited 1 year ago by Adam McDermont
James Jenkin
James Jenkin
1 year ago

Great articles like this give me so much hope the left can talk about the economy and society in a serious way again

Spencer Dugdale
Spencer Dugdale
1 year ago

“….it’s a society built on maximising profit and shareholder value.” And thank God. The alternatives that have been tried are so much better are they?

Dominic A
Dominic A
1 year ago

Perhaps ‘the reasons’ are not so complicated; only a post-modernist academic would make it so. Rapid industrialisation/de-ruralisation of the C19th, followed by the WWs delivered lead-fisted, left-right punches that left Britain down, and almost out. Over the decades, dislocated from roots, we learned to eat, and build rubbish. In the slums, cul-de-sacs, Eton, and the House of Lords, we ate terribly (compared with our peer nations); and lived in ugly, incompetent buildings, whether they the Wimpey homes, the council estates, or even the cold & wet stately homes. Stunned by historical events, too few people cared, too few had a clue – to the nature of good food, or good architecture.

Last edited 1 year ago by Dominic A
Dave Weeden
Dave Weeden
1 year ago
Reply to  Dominic A

Do you really think “rapid industrialisation/de-ruralisation” only occurred in a single island off the coast of Europe? Do you think only British people became dislocated from their roots? (I’m still recovering from reading Norman Cohn’s “The Pursuit of the Millennium” which is about many things, but one of them is his insistence that behind the various Millennial cults at the end of the Middle Ages was social change and people moving to cities and away from the settled culture of their villages. But this started happening in the 13th or 14th centuries. (The premise of the d**k Whittington myth–young man leaves rural life for the big city, to ‘seek his fortune’–started then.))
Try reading Dickens, many of whose books are set in the Georgian era. Oliver Twist was subsisting on meagre portions of gruel 100 years before WW1, so I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the cause. Poor housing and poor diet feature a lot. Poor diet goes back a long way; think of Dr Johnson’s definition of “oats.”
And “cold and wet stately homes”? I’m not much of a reality TV watcher, but I believe there’s a show called “Escape to the Chateau” which starts with a derelict, so I imagine, cold and wet (it rains abroad too, you know) former stately home. Do you really think the Continentals ate nothing but Cordon Bleu until McDonald’s arrived in Paris in the 1980s?
I really can’t believe Britain ate uniquely terribly. For one thing, our food is bland: spices are often used to hide the taste of poor meat.

Dominic A
Dominic A
1 year ago
Reply to  Dave Weeden

Do you really think “rapid industrialisation/de-ruralisation” only occurred in a single island off the coast of Europe? Do you think only British people became dislocated from their roots?”
Clearly it happened in all developed countries, and is happening in all developing countries. Britain was the earliest, deepest adopter/adapter to industrialisation. I think we also had/have a particularly aristocratic/plutocractic governance style, that catalysed the dislocation, and which can be traced back to the Norman invasion. Britons, far more than our neighbours have broken connections to the land, water – this is reflected in law and tradition where we have the most restricted access to rivers and land, with overarching privacy rights held by the landowners – many of whom can trace their family and name directly to Norman conquerors.

David Frost
David Frost
1 year ago

Socialist esthetics is not a new thing. The Soviets introduced us to “Socialist Realism,” a thoroughly uninspired form of art subordinate to the political program of a thuggish elite. Their architecture was about the same (and the stuff that hasn’t collapsed may be examined with curiosity and distaste).
But, heck, if you’re stupid enough to trust a socialist with your economy, why not let him have a go at your architecture, as well?

Last edited 1 year ago by David Frost
Melanie Mabey
Melanie Mabey
1 year ago

Interesting article sad about Portsmouth and Bournmouth. James Howard Kunstler argues a similar thing in ‘Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape’. Eventually these hideous structures will be unusable and unlivable owing to the deficit in oil. It was the oil that made them possible and the lack of oil will make them impossible. They are entropy made manifest or as Kunstler puts it the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.

Ian Morris
Ian Morris
1 year ago

What a confusing article. Good or bad buildings and environments have nothing to do with Marxism or periods of history. All created objects and artworks are the products of the artists, architects and designers who created them. A talented architect will produce a good building whether he is Sir Christopher Wren or Norman Foster. A talented author will produce a good book whether he is Charles Dickens or Bill Bryson. A rubbish creator will produce rubbish at any time.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ian Morris
David Bowker
David Bowker
1 year ago

I would guess that 95% of bad architecture since WW2 has happened where the left is in control. Eric Hobsbawm regarded all Gothic architecture as “ghastly”. In the rush to create the brave new world at the end of WW2, anything old was seen by the left as symbolic of a corrupt and ridiculous ancien regime that needed replacing.
An alliance of Labour councils and dodgy profit-driven developers ripped the heart out of northern towns and cities. Everyone has heard of the corruption of T Dan Smith in Newcastle and Poulson. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. As a builder friend of mine always used to say: “I love Labour councils – they’re so much easier to bribe”.
Also – if the university sector had not been grossly expanded, why would we need all these grotesque student blocks in city centres? Even here we find the alliance of Tony Blair and the worst aspects of money-grabbing capitalism.