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Kit Malthouse: The Building Beautiful commission is an attempt to win architects work

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Those who think the Roger Scruton-led commission is an attack on the profession are misunderstanding its intent, writes housing minister Kit Malthouse

To reach 300,000 new homes a year is going to take a quantum leap in output for the housebuilding industry in its widest sense. From bricklayers to planners, developers to councillors, surveyors to building inspectors, everyone will have to put their shoulder to the wheel if we are to successfully reach that target by the mid 2020s. It is an immense challenge and my job is to devise the means by which all these actors have the finance, rules, skills and supplies they need to build.

But my biggest challenge by far will be convincing the British people that the land needed to solve the housing problem lies in their suburbs, villages, cities and towns. The numbers are daunting: 300,000 homes a year means approximately one million under construction and something over four million in the planning system.

The only way we stand a chance of winning support for this output is if people like what we build – beautiful buildings gather support; blank ubiquity garners protest and resentment. If you get the design right – the scale, the context, the fitness – communities will feel enhanced and respected, and will lay down their petitions and placards.

The vitriol was immediate – I was incompetent, ignorant, sick and a fascist – and that was just from the architects

This is why we’ve started a debate on quality and design with the launch of our Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. As we did so, I wanted to test the water and see if the architectural ‘style wars’ were in abeyance and whether there was space for a rational debate, so I tweeted a deliberately polarised picture of Apt’s [formerly Robin Partington & Partners] Park House, a glass commercial building on Oxford Street, alongside HBRA’s Neoclassical Tuscaloosa courthouse in Alabama.

I didn’t express a preference but I did claim that one would last for centuries and one wouldn’t, without specifying which. The vitriol was almost immediate – I was, among many other things, incompetent, ignorant, sick and a fascist – and that was just from the architects. The debate seemed to be framed by a profession that assumed it was under siege from people who are too stupid to know good design when they see it.

Yet while beauty may well be in the eye of the beholder, taste, what the public likes, is more objectively measurable. And it is surely the taste, not only of the occupants of new homes, but of those who live near them and have to accept them, to which we should pay more attention. Given that only 10 per cent or so of new homes have ever been near an architect, far from attacking the profession, we are actually attempting to win them more work. Our new commission will urge developers to make room for beauty, to let architects rip, for only they can save us from the blankness.

If there is one thing I achieve as housing minister I want it to be that articulation, detailing, proportion and vernacular become words used in the design of mass domestic architecture once again, for they are largely absent now. We must all surely aspire to build the conservation areas of the future, and I am convinced that unless we do, we will not receive the co-operation of the public in this, our most urgent moral mission: building the homes the next generation deserves.

Kit Malthouse is minister of state for housing

  • 5 Comments

Readers' comments (5)

  • joseph b fitzgerald

    Kate Milthouse should realise that the British public should have what they aspire to but importantly with the Architects
    What happened to the Georgian architecture did the Victorians care ! No !
    Joe FitzGerald FRIBA

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  • Joseph. What you you talking about?! Kit. You were bound to raise hackles by involving Scruton. Architects see themselves as socialists. And like most socialists don’t understand how markets work?

    You will only build 300,000 houses per year with pattern books; but who designed the pattern books used by the Georgians, Victorians, between the wars or the 60s? They evolved, based on the work of some good architects but using the workforce and materials available, varying with time place and costs. Long life, loose fit, low energy? Layout is as important as the design of the actual units?

    The stumbling block will be Planning Permission. Most people distrust anything new, and planners, Councillors and Officers, go along with objectors so as not to lose votes or face. People hate change. They are Remainers and Remoaners, not Brexiteers! But in general like what is built, and very quickly see the advantages when it’s done. Like leaving the shackles of the EU, but still liking Europe?

    Mistakes were made. Putting low income families in tower blocks in the 70s. Poorly co ordinated infrastructure. HS2 is a mistake. And so is Thames Waters super sewer. Diesel cars were promoted to avoid global warming, and are now seen as the polluters, and will be taxed as such. What we need is conversion of popular models to hybrid, and Volkswagen could take the lead here. Hybrid Beetle? Hybrid Golf? Have the Ministry of Transport asked them? I’d buy 2! Electric doesn’t work, and driverless never will.

    Governments won’t solve these problems on their own, but they could show a lead. Forget old man Scruton for a start?! Good luck Malthouse.

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  • And in the background of the photo of Malthouse talking to the young architect? is a half finished housing scheme with gang nail trusses and no chimney. So not loose fit. How do you convert the loft. And why only 2 storey? They won’t get the density required. And they won’t be homely or energy flexible without a fire place. So get a grip builders, architects (if there was one) and Malthouse?

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  • Some decades ago a neighbour removed the annoying struts from the Gangnail trusses in the loft of his new house to accommodate his extensive model railway layout.
    Luckily he mentioned this, proudly, to the builders, and was prevailed upon to restore the struts - involving the use of Acrow props to take out the deflection in the rafters.
    Any analogy here with the actions of Kit Malthouse is entirely in the mind of the reader.

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  • Speaking as someone who was at the talk at the Policy Exchange and someone who has spent 10 years in the industry, I look forward to having a rational debate on architecture. However, this is not what has been initiated by the government in this instance. Placing a staunchly conservative philosopher at the heart of the new commission that has hastily been set up in response to a questionable piece of research completed by a right-wing think tank is hardly the best way to initiate a rational debate. It would be irrational for anyone who isn't a lifelong conservative to think this is the best way to address these issues in an open and productive forum, away from partisan politics.

    The main issues, which this commission won't discuss at all, are the provision of social housing built by the public sector which is required to solve the national housing crisis. The houses that are hated by Scruton, built by the public sector in the 50s-70s are in very high demand and incredibly highly-valued now – so much that they've all been sold to private owners which is why there are so few houses remaining for the increasing number of low-paid works and homeless people with nowhere to call home!

    The question of taste is key here, as Mr. Malthouse does clearly believe in traditional architecture over contemporary (notice that modernism is an entirely different and specific style, which is a common mistake showing the level of understanding reflected by some of those involved in this debate). Throughout human history, society has built to reflect the stylistic zeitgeist – from the Romans to Victorians. It's only now that certain people are wanting to turn back the clock and instead of looking at the incredible talent in UK architecture - ready to create something new and exciting - we are instead looking to the past, following the queue of Mr Malthouse's not-so 'innocent' tweet. It's important to say that the UK is a global leader in architecture, internationally revered, however the buildings that are being commissioned from this sector abroad are all in a contemporary or avant-garde style instead of exporting the traditional vernacular that is being called-for in this situation. There aren't any buildings build by Grimshaws or Maccreanor Lavington in China or the Middle East that are Victorian or Georgian pastiche.

    The idea that neighbours will relinquish their objections to development if it considered traditional or ‘beautiful’ is not reflected in the reality of most architect’s experience. We recently designed a small single house that was a contemporary translation of the existing Victorian vernacular, spending time and effort to achieve a suitably appropriate design in terms of scale and proportions. Using traditional features with similar contemporary materials, and this didn’t dissolve opposition. The passion behind NIMBYism and BANANAs is much more complex and linked to house prices and a general dislike of any change.

    Architects can be central to solving the housing crisis and other social issues, such as the environment, feelings of social exclusion and disenfranchisement. There are several areas where architects could be enabled to provide solutions, however in some cases this involves more action from the government and councils to support this type of positive investment. Architects create value in society - economically, socially and environmentally – so why should only private clients benefit from this? If Mr Malthouse was serious about supporting great architecture, he might consider making the use of an architect for construction projects mandatory, as it is in several European countries, but that will never happen here.

    The comfort for architects is that the impact of the 'Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission' will, almost inevitably, be negligible. Hopefully we can have a rational debate on these issues in the future.

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