Caustic style will subvert Scruton's beauty crusade, by Chris Brown

Last month I went to the inaugural Colin Amery Memorial Lecture. It was delivered by Sir Roger Scruton, the new chair - for now - of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission (BBBBC).

The event was deprived of communities secretary James Brokenshire’s presence by Brexit, but a range of Conservative luminaries and leading architects did attend. As the architects sat seething, I was struck by the similarity of message between Scruton and leading architect Lord Rogers. Both are strongly urbanist, rejecting urban sprawl in favour of polycentric cities.

The similarity ends when the discussion turns to architectural style. The audience tittered when Scruton was asked what modern buildings he liked, and he cited Frank Lloyd Wright, whose best-known building was completed more than 80 years ago. Scruton is decidedly most comfortable in the Roman era.

Scruton could make an excellent member of the BBBBC, but the tone of his lecture - rude and disparaging at times - suggested he lacks the skills required to chair the task group. The secretary of state will have been offered a choice of candidates but, new to the job and a non-expert, he was entitled to assume all were suitable for the role. It will now be interesting to see whether the private sector funders of the BBBBC reconsider their investment in the light of Scruton’s sometimes personal attacks on a range of architects.

It will also be interesting to see whether opposing voices are invited to serve on the commission, and, if so, whether they accept, given the chair’s description of them as ‘half-educated’.

This all seems a shame. Scruton speaks clearly about the negative impact of the past few decades of volume housebuilding, warehouse and supermarket developments and the importance of good urbanism. His understanding of land economics – blaming high land values for many design and placemaking ills while decrying urban sprawl– seems weak, but that isn’t the contribution he would be making to the commission.

Scruton’s view that modernism is over-dominant in today’s architecture is widely shared. But disparaging some of the world’s top architects may not be the best way to achieve a rebalancing, particularly if it results in his ejection from the chair, a boycott of the commission by significant stakeholders, or its termination before it has even started. We should be talking about how to build more beautifully, rather than the objectionable behaviour of the discussants.

I wonder if former transport minister John Hayes, now Sir John, was a candidate. He has been possibly the leading advocate of beauty in the built environment in the wilderness years since the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) was defenestrated. If you were committed to giving jobs to your mates, he would perhaps have been a safer choice.

Chris Brown is executive chairman of Igloo Regeneration


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