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Beauty watchdog could be government decoy, admits Scruton

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Roger Scruton has admitted the government’s beauty commission he leads could be a decoy to distract from some of the UK’s more pressing housing issues

During a lively debate on ‘beauty’ at Central Saint Martins (CSM) in King’s Cross yesterday evening (24 January), the philosopher and author conceded: ‘I’m here in order to make it look like something is being done.’ 

The launch of the government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful commission, and its decision to appoint controversial traditionalist Scruton as its chair, was the trigger for the latest Fundamentals lecture series run by the university’s Spatial Practices Programme.

Scruton’s comments followed a discussion with fellow panellists Liza Fior from muf architecture/art; design and technology teacher Neil Pinder; the Home Builders Federation’s Andrew Whitaker; and Shelter’s Deborah Garvie.

Asked by chair Oliver Wainwright whether the beauty commission was ‘a decoy, a distraction from actually solving … real issues [of housing supply and choice]’, Scruton replied: ‘I sometimes feel it is. I’m here in order to make it look like something is being done.’ 

He added he had been asked to ‘confront this question of why people object to things being built in their neighbourhood’.

Pressed by Wainwright on whether this was the ‘most urgent’ question, Scruton said: ‘It isn’t simply a matter of the surface appearance of things’, adding: ‘If properly understood, I think you might come to see that beauty is what it is about, but it is only so because it is also about people.’

Scruton also appeared to distance himself from the Policy Exchange’s Building More, Building Beautiful report, which was critiqued by Liza Fior during the event. He told her: ‘I only wrote one page of it.’

In a heated exchange, Fior pointed out he was named as co-author and he should rewrite it. ‘Maybe the result of today is a stronger piece of work,’ she suggested. ‘I think you probably know more people in this current administration than we do. You can tell them: end right to buy, allow local authorities to borrow money, build mixed-tenure communities, build higher ceilings.’

’You write a draft and I’ll rewrite it,’ replied Scruton.

The debate focused heavily too on whether people had a choice over the homes they could buy. According to Scruton many didn’t, meaning there had to be a housing policy that ‘looks after the homeless’.

He said: ‘The question is what method do you use that doesn’t create other problems in its wake.

‘We used to try and solve it by [building] social housing, which is built by local government and remained the property of the local government. And then as we know we had the big sell-off. Many feel that was a tremendous mistake but it’s happened and the question is: what do you put in its place?’

The speakers’ opening presentations challenged the beauty commission chair’s championing of traditionalism; from Fior’s dissection of the Policy Exchange report to Neil Pinder’s call for architecture to retain its mix of styles, while ‘looking to the future’ rather than the past.

Shelter’s Deborah Garvie, meanwhile, focused on the stories of people living in cramped and unsanitary conditions in temporary housing across the UK. 

Praising Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ PLACE/Ladywell development in Lewisham, a modular housing block built for Lewisham Council, she said: ‘I think its beautiful because the people living there think its beautiful’, and added, paraphrasing Corbusier: ‘Homes are machines for people to live in.’

The Fundamentals series continues on 7 February with a session on architects titled ‘Is the profession detached from popular taste?’. 

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Hope the next 2 debates move on to what architecture really addresses. This one was fun and Lisa in particular made many good points on what should be the subject of a debate. But in the end it was deeply depressing for practitioners particularly when it comes to what design really entails.

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  • Don't we need an integrity watchdog for devious and manipulative politicians?
    A start would be to draw up a revised performance specification for them - for example, in Sweden politicians are unable to enrich themselves at public expense by devoting their intellect to creating ingenious and devious schemes to put a roof over their heads in Stockholm. The roof is provided by the state.
    Dealing with the sort of manipulative populism that can have a massive sting in the tale might be more difficult, but MPs who are serial liars should surely be unceremoniously shown the door, as the sometimes surprisingly naive and gullible electorate can't be relied on to do this.

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