The Pursuit of Knowledge

Saving the City

By From the October 2008 issue

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All conservatives agree on one thing, which is that, before destroying things, we should pause to consider their merits. This principle applies to everything important, from marriage to monarchy, and also to architecture, which is a fundamental component in both those things. I was therefore pleased to be invited recently to debate the question of modern architecture, at one of the Intelligence Squared debates in London. The motion—“this house believes that Prince Charles was right, modern architecture is still all glass stumps and carbuncles”—was somewhat tendentious. After all there is good modern architecture and bad, and glass is only one part of the problem. Moreover, the debate was sponsored by the Royal Institute of British Architects and the chamber packed by the aspiring architects whom they represent. It was therefore unlikely that Simon Jenkins, Léon Krier, and myself, who had been invited to propose the motion, would win the vote.

Nevertheless here was a rare opportunity to speak publicly against one of the greatest acts of destruction in my lifetime: the erasing of our cities by building styles that defy the fundamental goal of city architecture, which is the creation of livable neighborhoods. We all know—be it from Paris or Greenwich Village, from Bath or Beacon Hill—what a livable neighborhood is. And we all know that, once modernist architects get their hands on it, the neighborhood will be smashed to pieces. As Brian C. Anderson points out in this issue, modernist designs and futuristic plans have helped to deprive cities of their centers, of their resident populations, and of the visible symbols of urban civilization. Buildings without facades, which violate organic street plans, trash harmonious skylines and dwarf their neighbors, have mutilated our neighborhoods and unsettled those who live and work in them. It is partly because of the modern ways of building that the flight to the suburbs became inevitable. And when that happened city centers lost their law-abiding guardians and declined into dangerous wastelands punctuated by fortified towers.

Like Prince Charles, I see this as an unmitigated disaster, and like him I blame architects for much— though not all—that has gone wrong. In particular I blame the schools of architecture, which adopted the rhetoric of the modernists and gave up teaching the things that architects should know. Aspiring architects attending the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in the early 20th century would study the classical orders. They would learn how to create facades, how to draw the human figure and to compose buildings in relation to it, how light falls and shadows gather, how scales fit together, how moldings work, and how apertures are framed: in short, how to design a building that fits in like a smile, rather than one that stands out like a carbuncle.

That is not what aspiring architects would learn today, either at the Pratt Institute or anywhere else that trains students in “urban design.” The heritage of architectural wisdom has been swept impetuously away, to be replaced by courses in engineering, econometric drawing, and the creation of groundplans. The main thing that an architect is expected to know today is how to hang a curtain wall on a steel and concrete frame. Size, scale, detail, appearance, light, shade, and grammar are no longer of real significance.

And if the Big Commission involves sweeping away some historic townscape, as Le Corbusier proposed for Paris and Algiers, that is no concern of the architect. If it involves dumping horizontal slabs of concrete across a carefully composed nest of vertical houses, or sweeping up whole populations into high-rise blocks, and giving them nothing to do in them apart from mugging their neighbors on the stairwell—then so be it. That is what it means to belong to the modern world. The Big Commission is everything, and it should be executed in modern materials, so as to be true to our times and to the Zeitgeist that is now at large in them.

How do you confront this way of thinking, and how do you undo its legacy? I agree with Prince Charles that these are among the most serious questions now confronting us. And the debate in which I took part illustrated the extreme difficulty of making any headway. The complaint issued against modern architecture—by the Prince of Wales and many others—is not about the masterpieces of modern architecture; it concerns the ordinary buildings that have sprung up in our towns and that seem designed to violate the urban fabric.

Architects have become careless of the city and its inhabitants, more concerned to draw attention to themselves and their creations than to fit modestly into their surroundings, as good manners demand. And the result is seen by the rest of us as a threat, comparable to loudmouthed insolence on the subway or drunken puking in the street.

I therefore proposed three common-sense principles: settlement, modesty, and fittingness. We build in order to dwell. And to dwell is to dwell among neighbors, who have as great an interest in how we build as we have ourselves. A town is a home, where strangers settle side by side and enjoy a shared sense of belonging. Its streets are public spaces, and the facades of its buildings stand in a personal relation to all who pass them by.

Furthermore, genius is as rare among architects as it is among the rest of us. Most buildings will be the creation of talentless people, who are simply doing a job, like you and me. The less they try to be original and expressive the better. To pretend to these qualities in their absence is to jettison the three most important social virtues, which are modesty, humility, and the ability to act as though others are more important than yourself. Most of our beautiful towns were not the work of architects but of modest builders, working with materials that they understood and on a scale that does not challenge our perceptions.

The third principle follows. Buildings should fit together in a public space that is accessible and friendly to all of us. This is most easily achieved if there is a shared repertoire of details, materials that blend and do not come apart visually at the joints, and proportions that can be emulated by each new addition to the townscape.

Those three principles imply that architects should not be learning how to obliterate townscapes with steel frames and curtain walls or to extend their Babelian structures to the stars. They should be learning the rules of architectural grammar— such as were contained in the pattern-books composed by Asher Benjamin, and used by the anonymous builders of the towns and villages of New England, old Boston included.

Our opponents (Stephen Bayley, Alain de Botton and Sean Griffiths) responded with two ideas: that you cannot adopt the old classical grammar without creating “pastiche,” and that architecture must move with the times—it must be new, creative, adventurous, breaking the mold, just like music, painting, and literature as the modernists understood them.

During the debate these arguments were repeated ad nauseam. But they involve a failure to see what architecture is. It is not a private gesture, to be understood as the expression of some original state of mind. It is an attempt to settle in a territory, and to claim that territory as ours, the place where we and our children belong. How I build affects you, my neighbor, as much as it affects me; it affects future generations and strangers whom I will never meet. And if we are to live as people should we must surely take the interests of all those others, as best we can, into account. On the whole modernist architects don’t live like that—they don’t have to. They earn vast fortunes from destroying the settlements of others, and spend the result on some dream home on a mountain top, from which they descend from time to time like wolves in search of the next thing to devour.

As our debate proceeded, I was struck by the way in which all arguments for the old idea of settlement were instantly scoffed at: tradition, order, scale, grammar, modesty—all were regarded as part of the one great architectural crime called “pastiche” (a crime committed, if we are to take the accusation seriously, by every building from the Parthenon to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine). What ordinary citizens think about these things, what they want and hope for, did not matter. Novelty, transgression, gigantism, originality—these are what citizens are henceforth going to get, since they are required by the calling of the modern architect.

Future-addicts have a habit of despising those who resist them, whether ordinary people or their high-placed defenders. Stephen Bayley managed to accompany every reference to the Prince of Wales with a smirk or a snigger. Léon Krier, who created the new town of Poundbury for the prince, in a style that harmonizes with the old town of Dorchester next door, was overtly scoffed at as an anachronism. And when Quinlan Terry, the anti-modernist architect who has done so much for colonial Williamsburg, stood up to denounce the education that he had received at London’s Architectural Association, he merely identified himself as a target. Here was someone who believed in permanent values, in order, decency, dignity, and tradition, and who was even dressed accordingly in suit, collar, and tie. Our opponents responded with a burst of laughter. To encounter someone who believes that we can learn from the past, when architecture is about building the future, induced a fit of pitying amazement. And yet, behind their laughter and their empty invocation of a future with no visual connection to the past and no concern for traditional values, I sensed a kind of facetious nihilism, a clucking contempt for ordinary decencies founded on nothing more than the inability to believe in them, or in anything else.

Intelligence Squared, which organized the debate, asked for a vote before and after the speeches. We began from a hopeless position, with a majority clearly against us. But 120 voted “don’t know” at the start, and of those the majority voted with us at the end. Which means, I believe, that we lost the vote but won the argument. Which is only reasonable, given that there were no arguments, but only dogma and rhetoric, on the other side.

Roger Scruton, the writer and philosopher, is most recently the author of Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged (Encounter Books).

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About the Author
Roger Scruton is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book, How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism, has just been published by Oxford University Press.