The junior transport minister has no mandate for his grandstanding attack on architects, says Paul Finch
John Hayes is a man who, for better or worse, knows his own mind. Modestly comparing himself to David facing the Philistines of the architectural profession, he pledged last week to ‘make aesthetics a matter of public policy’.
As a student at Nottingham University, Hayes was involved in a campaign to create a pipe-smoking society affiliated to the student union, which gives us some idea of the sort of chap he is, or was. He adores the views of Roger Scruton and the Prince of Wales on architecture, but believes that, whether people are aware of those views or not, his own nostrums are ‘bold, controversial and, to some, provocative’.
His views are a rehash of commonplace observations made since at least 1984
I have some news for him: his views aren’t bold; they are a rehash of commonplace observations made since at least 1984, so they are scarcely controversial; and they are only provocative in the sense that a fly buzzing round you on a tranquil sunny day is irritating, but not something to get too worked up about.
The minister claims that making said aesthetics a matter of public policy is ‘exactly what I have a mandate to do’. It is not clear where exactly this mandate has come from, since architecture and the arts are properly the responsibility of fellow-ministers in other departments. The job of Mr Hayes is, among too many other things, to make sure we have sufficient infrastructure.
He boasted last week about the fact that he had set up a design panel in respect of roads, and that there is a 50-strong design panel for HS2 (which sounds about 35 people too many). He also made a series of undifferentiated and, of course, non-specific attacks on architects guilty of producing ‘soulless ubiquity’, followers of the ‘Cult of Ugliness’, which is apparently ‘our new orthodoxy’.
In a series of staccato sentences beloved of the self-important trying to sound like Winston Churchill, Hayes declared:
‘We can and will turn back the tide.’
‘My certain conviction is unwavering.’
‘Some who did the damage to our country were crass and careless.’
‘But some brought monstrous havoc knowingly, wilfully.’
To which one can only respond: why doesn’t he name them? After all, he just about manages to applaud Blackfriars Station/Bridge, the King’s Cross station extension and the Millau Viaduct, though, needless to say, the architects received no reference. I suppose he can claim that he doesn’t name the architects of the one specific ‘modern’ transport building singled out for criticism: Euston Station.
The original Victorian station was demolished in 1961, but apparently the minister believes (a) that the instincts of the replacement architects were Brutalist (he is quite wrong); and (b) that their ‘descendants still each day design and build new horrors’ with ‘sub-standard, conceptually flawed buildings’, none of which he cares to name.
You have to wonder whether Mr Hayes, whose constituency is admittedly in Lincolnshire, has ever taken the opportunity to travel on the Jubilee Line Extension, or experienced the very decent Docklands Light Rail station at Woolwich (with artwork by Michael Craig-Martin), where he was born and brought up. Has he seen the airports and rail stations by Foster, Rogers, Grimshaw et al, not only at home but around the world? Apparently not.
Of all the building types which one could choose in order to attack contemporary architecture, transport is the most inappropriate. I fear Mr Hayes only does so because transport is his remit; in falling prey to the Cult of Scruton he has taken on board arguments that have as much relevance to his remit as 1961 does to 2016.
He should stick to trying to make the trains run on time, especially Southern.