The AJ’s Rupert Bickersteth accompanied the chair of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission on his last public engagement in the role
Just five days ago, I was pottering round Stratford appraising modern housing developments with the government’s then chair of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. Alas, Scruton’s controversial comments on Hungary and Islam have finally drawn to a close his short stint – four months dogged by contention – since his appointment to the commission in November 2018.
Little did I know when I joined the Architecture Foundation’s critical walking tour – led by The AJ’s competitions editor, Merlin Fulcher, last Friday – that it would be one of the very last appearances from the Scrut.
He arrived late in a black cab with an entourage of other commissioners and the secretariat. And as he shuffled slowly over to the gathered group (what is the collective noun for architects?) I thought: ‘This is going to be a long day.’ Slightly lopsided in gait (or maybe that was on account of the old-school briefcase/medicine bag) and with preposterously wild hair for someone still occupying such professional roles, he reminded me more of a grandparent than a relevant judge of what does and doesn’t make good housing in 2019.
Unfortunately, he went on to prove his limited knowledge in the sphere of the built environment. He would hazard guesses at the why and how of procurement, freehold, leasehold and the role of the client and developers, seemingly learning about Design and Build for the first time and asking questions that at best seemed un-informed and at worst plain ignorant.
At every project we stopped at Merlin would admirably try to draw him on whether or not there was apparent ‘beauty’ in a given façade or block of flats, whether a courtyard or a cladding presented the spirit of a classical ideal. And resolutely, he refused to take the bait. He was polite, charming and generally affirmative of the different things we saw. He seemed concerned that social housing was truly affordable and he was positively enthusiastic about Peter Barber’s Newham scheme; ‘it could be expanded for acres. Terrific!’
There was the odd quip. Eric Parry’s painted balconies in East Village are ‘such a challenge to look at’ and Níall McLaughlin’s nearby Elgin Marbles façade (which unbelievably housed the Greek team during the 2012 Olympics) was gently dismissed as ‘inappropriate, perhaps. A bit of a one-liner’.
All in all though, he was full of charm. He had no caution around me as a member of the press. We chatted amiably about the good old days of Bethnal Green, before the 1960s Modernism of the Mansford estate, when it was all ‘crumbling terraces and drag shows’ (I told him the drag is still very much a thing). He said how much he enjoyed living in the area and going to the pub where there’d invariably be a man in a dress who would require someone to play the piano and that man would be a young Scruton, apparently.
He seemed concerned that social housing was truly affordable and he was positively enthusiastic about Peter Barber’s Newham scheme ‘it could be expanded for acres. Terrific!’
Again, it was an anecdote from several lifetimes ago told as if by a slightly misty-eyed grandparent. Later when I asked him how he’d found the Commission generally and if it had been a bit of a bore (a touch of my own Scruton-baiting) he was adamant: ‘No not boring. In fact very interesting … and very tiring. And very difficult. Very difficult to conceptualise – that is to understand and formulate the questions before even answering the question I’ve been asked to address “What is beauty?”’
What is beauty indeed? And I’m afraid (I’m not at all actually) he has been denied his platform to expound on that theme having doubled down on views more ugly with regards to Soros and Hungary and the entire idea of Islamophobia − not to mention his outrageous comments on date rape and homosexuality. My conservative (big and small C) grandfather used to tell charming anecdotes. I’m positive he held very questionable views on ethnic minorities despite being an incredibly lovely man who cared for his family and strangers alike with generosity.
I’m pretty sure Scruton also has some very questionable views on race and religion but, in person, those views felt more generationally ingrained – and this is not to excuse him at all – but rather to try and more accurately portray, not the hard nosed angry classicist the media have painted him as, but more so, the ignorant relic from another era, unwilling to understand and accommodate the change that the liberal majority currently demands.
It was unclear which way he would go in the end with the Commission’s review. He truly seemed to embrace ideas about wellbeing and space being things concerned with more than the aesthetic. I was amazed at the high-profile names from British architecture attending Friday’s tour: Simon Henley, Biba Dow, Paul Monaghan and Roger Hawkins to name a few. But I understood they were there partly out of curiosity and partly to urgently take hold of an opportunity to explain and educate the Commissioners.
Scruton will no longer muddy the waters of the housing crisis with stylistic questions of taste and beauty
Nevertheless, we are fortunate that Scruton will no longer muddy the waters of the housing crisis with stylistic questions of taste and beauty. He is best left to his philosophy and the academic realm, where he certainly should not be no-platformed for his conservative minority views.
When introduced to the walking tour group with regards to the report he would be producing he cut in ‘unless it all goes in the bin’ and, as it has turned out, he’s made it there first.