Sir Roger Scruton and the architectural establishment
One of the earliest of Roger Scruton’s 50 books was The Aesthetics of Architecture. It’s not an easy read for the layman, and friends of the older Scruton may be surprised at its abstract nature. Because to Scruton, architecture was anything but a dry subject; as part of the background to everyday existence, it contributed significantly, he believed, to people’s enjoyment of their lives. It was therefore important and worth fighting for.
As a committed champion of often unpopular points of view (unpopular with vested interests, that is), he became one of a small band of traditionally minded intellectuals and commentators who took on the architectural establishment.
The state of Britain’s cities today, and particularly of the countryside that he loved, suggests that he did not win all the battles. But he helped lay the intellectual groundwork for improvement. And as chair, then co-chair, of the government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, which has yet to report, the best could be still to come.
I first saw Scruton at a distance. I was an undergraduate sitting at one of the benches in the hall of Peterhouse, Cambridge; he was one of the academics seen fairly often on high table. This was the mid-1970s. Scruton had been a research fellow at the college, one of a caucus of right-wing dons who dined together every night and, in the case of Maurice Cowling, laid the intellectual foundations of Thatcherism.
One of the circle was David Watkin, the architectural historian. On Watkin’s death in 2018, Scruton gave a funeral oration in which he recalled how, before meeting him, he had been warned about him as an evil reactionary and enemy of progressive thought. How wonderful, thought Scruton, that such a person could exist in the liberal hegemony of modern academe.
They became friends, and Scruton’s after dinner talk in the combination room contributed to the intellectual underpinning of Watkin’s Morality and Architecture, published in 1977: an explosively controversial work which demolished the intellectual pretensions of the Modern Movement, with its Hegelian assertion that architecture, if any good, should conform to the Zeitgeist of the age (defined as invariably progressive).
During the 1980s, Scruton, as a polemicist, contributed to the Style Wars which pitted Prince Charles against perpetrators of carbuncles, glass stumps and other architectural horrors (When, at last year’s launch of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, he was accused of refighting past battles and “flogging a dead horse,’ he replied: ‘Maybe, but just to make sure it is dead”).
He became one of a small band of traditionally minded intellectuals and commentators who took on the architectural establishment.
His own preferred solution was put forward in his 1995 book The Classical Vernacular: Architectural Principles in an Age of Nihilism. Modern architecture is too often about the ego of the practitioner. Classicism, by contrast, provides a rule book: you don’t have to be a genius to follow it. It is useful but also agreeable. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, speculative developers and ordinary builders constructed street after street of well-proportioned, decently planned homes, which have continued to please the people who live in them. This vernacular style could be produced without architects. Sadly, the vernacular of today, as seen in the estates of the volume house builders, creates a jumble of ugliness and disorder. Can’t we think again?
Well, yes. The opportunity seemed to have dawned with the creation of the 4B Commission. One or two politicians had dared to use the word “beauty” in speeches, and here was a genuine effort, on the part of the Minister of Housing, Communities and Local Government, James Brokenshire, to see if it couldn’t be delivered through planning.
It would be wrong to say that Scruton leapt at the opportunity to chair it: the role would be arduous and unpaid. But he saw it in terms of a moral duty. He had spent decades thinking about the nature of beauty. Now he would put his shoulder to the wheel.
In an engaging introductory presentation, he explained that – contrary to the old adage – beauty is not wholly in the eye of the beholder. From earliest childhood, we seek symmetry and order. He showed a photograph of primary school children preparing a lunch table: instinctively preparing it so that the settings mirrored each other and knives and forks were precisely placed. The desire for ornament, which makes sense of the built environment and is to be valued precisely because it has not use, seems also to be practically innate; look at the way so many families enjoy decorating Christmas trees. Beauty, he believed, following Plato and other philosophers, has the capacity to propel us out of this world into a higher plane of being.
Once committed to the 4B Commission, Scruton tackled it with the determination with which he pursued other interests. Just as he had learnt the Czech language to talk to dissidents before the fall of the Iron Curtain and musical composition to write an opera, so he now taught himself about the Byzantine intricacies of the planning system.
As Conversations with Roger Scruton, written with Mark Dooley, reminded us, he did not only project influence through books and journalism. There was the talk (slightly terrifying, perhaps, from the sharpness of his mind and a delivery that was apt to leave thoughtful pauses I was always conscious of being only a couple of words away from saying something irredeemably stupid).
Here was a man whose life itself was a statement of his beliefs, even, in its rigour and self-fulfilment, a thing of beauty.
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