Roger Scruton’s pronouncements on architecture feel like a classic strategy of distraction from matters which are of significantly more pressing concern, writes Joe Morris
I remained as open-minded as possible following the announcement of Roger Scruton’s appointment as chair of the Conservative Government’s new Building Better, Building Beautiful commission before reaching any conclusion or stance. I wished to remain distanced from the obvious archi industry rhetoric that would ensue.
But, having read through Scruton’s Colin Amery Memorial Lecture, it is difficult to discern this verbiage as anything other than a jingoistic call to arms from an ailing general, seeking to suffocate the real-time City crisis with an outmoded and outdated dogma.
There are some aspects of his lecture that, if delivered by many contemporary urbanists and architects occupying the trenches of the modern-day planning system battle zone, could be construed as positive: the idea of the city as an organic whole with veins and arteries; that conservation must be a part of the ‘larger’ enterprise of adaptation; the frame of a city being constantly adjusted as new styles and materials are stitched into the [city] fabric, and so forth.
But in his belief system and his philosophy there remains an underlying maliciousness, a deeply entrenched hatred born of prejudice and societal conditioning. A disregard for ‘progressiveness’, for ‘innovation’, for ‘evolution’ and for ‘revolution’.
Does he, do we, believe that the solutions to the most critical questions facing our generation and those that follow, can be found in ‘good manners’, by ‘fittingness’, by ‘tradition’, by building in the ‘old way’, by ‘door-frames, window-frames, string courses, quoins, shafts, corbels and vaults’?
Scruton’s tiresome anecdote seems to be fed by an unswerving faith in the subjective value of the ‘vernacular’ the highest order of which being those principles defined by the Classical Orders. The rules of the Classical Orders, a compositional system ‘invented’ many millennia ago, cannot have any regard for present-day environmental conditions, nor recognition of the harm inflicted by ozone depletion, nor global warming, nor waste or excess, nor engagement with the environmental harm caused through construction at a macro level.
The rules of the Classical Orders cannot have any regard for present-day environmental conditions
Nor can they have any regard for typological and programmatic demands, of scale, density, intensity, culture, demography, the pressures of population growth and so on.
Particular alarm is found in Scruton’s obsessive assertion regarding the vocabulary and grammar of building aesthetics as a singular truism; that parts are endowed with independence (from any of the above), of rules, convention and custom which all govern their combination, and that these parts ‘must’ be endowed with character.
Language does indeed matter, but the architectural language that Scruton speaks is dictatorial and élitist, a disdaining and sweeping disregard for the important work our industry has extolled for many decades, in the face of untold pressures, which have come to define our modern-day plight. His is a language which is not of the common people he alludes to.
The language that Scruton speaks of is dictatorial and élitist, a disdaining and sweeping disregard for the important work our industry has extolled for many decades
Scruton’s gaze appears through the veneer of façadism, with one eye firmly on the Classical dogma he espouses, and it is through this dusty monocle that he seeks to return us to the cobbled grain of pinnacles, crowns and crenellations, none of which can be said to form any reasoned or rational basis for consideration.
Certainly, it is difficult to imagine how any of this might begin to tackle the pressing need for material innovation, for the radical transformation of fabrication and building techniques and technologies, for the necessary evolution of procurement, for digital technologies and customisation as a means to drive bespoke efficiencies as we tackle the supply and demand of city growth in the face of population expansion.
In fact, Scruton’s arrival feels more like a classic strategy of distraction away from matters which are of significantly more pressing concern. That I am writing this, or that column inches continue to expand in response, may well be the intended strategic outcome of a government ostensibly distracted by its own catastrophic, self-made Brexit farrago.
To demonstrate the lack of vision in Scruton’s polemic, I’m drawn to the work of two practices of architects. Firstly the Dutch practice RAU. Secondly the Catalonian duo of Eva Prats and Ricardo Flores. In the former, we find a practice spearheading a radical approach to generating environmentally responsive architecture.
Led by Thomas Rau, architect, visionary and king of the one-liners, such as ‘Every building is a material depot’ and ‘Waste is material without an identity’, we find in RAU a practice seeking to make a positive contribution to society and to the planet out of an awareness of how human activity affects the environment. Rau says: ‘A truly sustainable building is not just one that incorporates energy efficient technology and fulfils the standards of given sustainable certificates’ [but one which achieves] ’physical, spiritual and social wellbeing.’
RAU’s belief is that architecture must ensure that our activities on earth add value to the future instead of consuming resources that can’t be replaced. This a move away from the present-day linear economy of waste to a circular economy which seeks to prevent the use of new resources. This means in the first place re-using products and materials in new functions by recycling them, and at least trying to prevent burning or disposing of materials.
RAU’s radical vision is that buildings are indeed temporary, but the resources are finite, clear counter-position to Scruton’s emphasis on longevity for longevity’s sake. Buildings are in effect ‘raw material deposits’ through which materials can be relocated and reused in future cycles without a loss of quality. A move away from ‘consumption’ to ‘performance’, and an awareness of the changing demands of human life.
In the case of Flores and Prats we find a practice whose methodology has its spirit in the tradition of craft, of the ‘old ways’ of seeing, doing and making, where the hand and the eye are in direct engagement with the qualities of the site and of the human condition.
In the case of Flores and Prats we find a practice whose methodology has its spirit in the tradition of craft
At the Sala Beckett in Barcelona, for example, we might at first sight see a solid reworking of an historic building – previously the Peace and Justice Cooperative – reimagined as a theatre, a place for culture, humanity and the arts. However, what we are actually presented with, is a radical experiment in up-cycling in an open dialogue with history. It is a project clearly contributing to the city through a richly layered narrative of new and old; a theatrical piece of drama and storytelling; a project defined by restoration and conservation and not a corbel, portico, fluted column or Classical ornament in sight.
In some strange, serendipitous allusion to the radical visioning of RAU, each significant element of the former industrial building has been carefully collected, re-appropriated and reused by Flores and Prats, from the frames to the doors, the polychrome tiles, rose windows, the stratifications present in the masonry fabric and the plasterwork.
The design process included an in-depth study of the environmental characteristics, identified and developed through numerous drawings and detailed study models, a sort of forensic archi-ology, but where rules are subjugated and bent to dramatic effect. The restored Sala Beckett reflects the dense memories profoundly rooted in the culture of the historical industrial district. Substantial traces of the original building are left intact, turning all the signs of time and the uses of the building into a device through which to give further meaning to the drama.
These examples by no means stand alone. But in the context of Scruton form a formidable counter-argument to his myopia.