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Beauty, Buildings and the Cretinocracy.


IT DIDN’T TAKE long for the cultural Stasi of the British left to identify Sir Roger Scruton as the latest Enemy of the People and demand his immediate defenestration from his newly appointed position as Chair of the government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. According to them he’s an anti-Semite and an Islamophobe and therefore should have no say in anything to do with, well, anything, let alone architecture. Oh, and he’s a homophobe. Congratulations, Sir Roger, you’ve scored a Hat Trick in the Oppressor Olympics.

At this advanced stage of the left’s heretic-hunting psychopathy we know there’s no need either to take these accusations seriously or to engage in an intellectual rebuttal of them. There’s no point arguing with cretins. I should think that Scruton is sound enough to withstand this (it’s an unpaid position, so there are no financial implications) but whether the politicians are is another question. Today’s Tories are distinguished by their lack of spine and any perceivably Conservative principles, so who knows what they’ll do.

This is all irrelevant to the job which Scruton has taken on, of course. The Commission has been set up to improve the quality of new builds in Britain, to make them more beautiful. Sir Roger states he wants to see new constructions “harmonise with the urban environment to make them places for communities to live in.” He is a noted adversary of modern architecture. Nothing wrong with that as far I’m concerned: the record of post-war planning and architecture in Britain is appalling — working class communities destroyed, historical buildings demolished, hideously designed and shoddily constructed blocks raised everywhere, inner city areas gouged by motorways, etc.

The unfortunate truth is that whether Scruton stays or goes the Commission’s deliberation will result in nothing. At the most it flatters the powers that be that they are in any position to alter a situation over which they have no control. It’s a typical top-down approach that cannot work, because it cannot alter the embedded aesthetic and political mindset of planners and architects.

Nor is it simply a matter of letting the public decide whether they think a building is beautiful enough to live or work in: they have no choice. When it comes to public and commercial buildings they also have to put up with the knowledge that despite decades of them saying how much they dislike modern architecture nobody has taken any notice. The ugliness has continued. The results these days may not be as “brutal” as earlier specimens and be more slick but they are nonetheless unattractive, intrusive, and usually of such an internationalist style that they could have been lifted from a city on the other side of the world.

The Pavlovian puppies snapping at Scruton’s heels are in total agreement with the idea of increasing state control of every part of life, including the design of the buildings we live and work in.

The irony is that the Pavlovian puppies snapping at Scruton’s heels are in total agreement with the idea of increasing state control of every part of life, including the design of the buildings we live and work in. I don’t know whether today’s leftists are fans of modern architecture but the architects and planners guilty of the post-war blighting of Britain were often leftists. The Soviets weren’t so hot on beautiful architecture either. The shoddiness of their materials and workmanship was notorious, something they can share with many of today’s public developers, whose pavements, walls and other constructions require frequent repairing.

Which brings us to the other unworkable part of the project: who defines beauty? The cathedral in Lincoln is an object of beauty; the new bus station is not (neither is the university nor the Debenhams store). There is more to the concept of beauty than can be dismissed as mere subjectivity, though I’m not sure I’d be able to explain why. I can, however, suggest one aspect of the ugliness of so much modern public architecture is its aggressive anti-human presence: it’s corporate, mechanical (back to that again), grudging in its accommodation of actual human beings, and bland despite its blustering. Occasional exceptions do slip through, just not often enough to become the norm. I wish Sir Roger the best of luck in his spat with the cretinocracy. Sorting out the problem of beauty and buildings will be more of a challenge.

Currente Calamo columnist, poet and writer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent book is Albion Days (perennisperegrinator press).

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