Roger Scruton’s back – but really, does it make any difference?
When I sit down to think about what I am going to write, I have to consider whether it will still be relevant in six to eight weeks. You will be reading this at Christmastime, online, and 2019 in print – are people still talking about Foster’s Tulip? Or – and here we come to the actual business of this column – is Roger Scruton still chairing the government’s ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful’ commission? At the time of writing, the right-wing philosopher’s copious back catalogue is proving a clown car of odious opinions. Surely, come 2019, this nonsense will be at an end and he will have been returned to the obscure swamp of sinister, opaquely funded conferences and think-tanks that is his natural habitat.
At the time of writing, it rumbles on. Trumpeting the commission that Scruton will lead, Kit Malthouse (housing minister at the time of writing) told architects to ‘stop being so defensive’. Scruton himself responded to critics on his website by suggesting they are habitual offence-takers whose upset is simply a ploy to censor discussion of – for instance – whether homosexuality is ‘normal’ or not. If your opponents are inventing their offence, you have no need to substantively respond to them, which is handy, but it’s also exactly the bad-faith argument you’re projecting onto them. He reserves his offence for important matters, such as an Evening Standard reporter failing to address him as ‘professor’ or ‘sir’. This he compares to the formal disrespect shown by the Nazis towards the Jews, an interesting line of argument considering his own remarks, made in Hungary, about Jewish intelligentsia and the ‘Soros empire’ (he insists his words have been taken out of context). His most recent email bulletin boasts that he has survived the storm, aided by a day of fox-hunting.
Architects seemed less defensive or offended than terribly, terribly weary. Not the style wars, again!
But it hardly matters if he is still in place or not by the time this column appears. The fundamental problem is timeless. From what I saw of the profession’s response to the appointment, architects were less defensive or offended than they were terribly, terribly weary. Not the style wars, again!
Thanks to Prince Charles’s ham-fisted architectural intervention in the middle of the 1980s, we have voluminous evidence of what happens when today’s architectural clients – who make more of these decisions than architects – are instructed to ape vernacular and classical forms. We can see it in pitched-roof out-of-town supermarkets studded with dovecotes and in the rash of truly ugly magistrates courts the country built in the 1990s. Moreover we can see it in scores of identikit housing estates extruded by volume developers in efflorescing orange brick.
More subtly, we can see the positive effects of its aftermath, though only after the Prince and his supporters had done their worst could architects and clients begin to process a more intelligent response to the problems of buildings and the city, from the Urban Task Force to the London Design Guide.
It’s these later developments that seem to have passed Scruton by. He seems genuinely oblivious to three decades of earnest debate and improvement. His terms of reference are Le Corbusier and a few decon-icon punchbags, such as Daniel Libeskind and the late Zaha Hadid, names calculated to get a boo from the small conservative audiences he is accustomed to addressing. This is, to use a term from the hard sciences ‘not even wrong’ – it is simply irrelevant, it has no bearing. It is not the vast majority of architects who are obsessed with form and envelope, it is Roger Scruton. Meanwhile his myriad antique prejudices speak of a mind completely unprepared to address the realities of the 21st century. His problem is not that he is a conservative – it is that he has nothing to offer. He is simply tiresome, and it makes little difference whether he stays or goes. The government has doomed its commission to sterility.
Will Wiles is an author
Scruton’s invocation of Libeskind, Gehry and Hadid as somehow emblematic of what architects think in 2018 (or 2019) is telling in one respect. If Hadid had been designing mass housing in the UK since the 90s, we might not be better off, but our problems would certainly be a lot more interesting. But of course she was never given the chance to build anything here, not until decades later, because of the last bout of style wars. We can only hope that terrible squandering of British talent will not be repeated this time around.