One of the Scepter’d Isle’s leading architecture critics, Rowan Moore of the Observer, has crafted an utterly despicable if entirely predictable attack on Sir Roger Scruton. Sir Roger is the British government’s choice to head a panel to bring beauty into U.K. housing policy. “Would you trust Roger Scruton to design your new home?” Moore asks mischievously. But the piece contains so many factual errors, half-truths, caricatures and seemingly intentional twistings of Scruton’s actual views, laid out in a fake genial, open-minded way, that most readers will have no idea of the false impression that Moore purposely conveys of Scruton.
This is not criticism but character assassination. Moore’s technique is to mischaracterize an assertion and then criticize the mischaracterizaton. Here I take on only those of Moore’s criticisms that relate to architecture. He notes up front that the current “alarm” caused by the conservative philosopher’s appointment to chair the Build Better, Build Beautiful Commission rises also from Scruton’s “record of past remarks on subjects other than architecture.” Moore refrains from addressing these, and so will I, except to suggest that if they are argued with the same rhetorical techniques as the items in Moore’s architectural indictment, they may be of equally dubious validity.
Because there are so many objectionable passages in Moore’s lengthy diatribe, the way to address them is to assemble and reply to Moore’s mistakes as a kind of running dialogue. It may be read independently of Moore’s piece and of Scruton’s, to which Moore responds; however, many readers will want to read them both side by side, and read Scruton’s lecture as well. The latter, The Fabric of the City, is also linked in my post “Scruton’s first beauty volley.” (This correspondent’s Architecture Here and There blog, subtitled “Style Wars: classicism vs. modernism,” is clearly the best platform for the defense of Sir Roger!)
Scruton, says Moore at the outset, is like a monster in a monster movie whom the audience thinks has been “polished off” but who returns. Scruton, says Moore, is “a throwback to one of the most wearying and sterile phases of British architecture, the style wars that blighted the 1980s.” Moore refers to the heady time when someone, in this case Prince Charles in 1984, finally pushed back against the modern architecture that was ruining Britain (see James Stevens Curl’s excellent Making Dystopia). Scruton wrote his The Classical Vernacular in 1985 and his Aesthetics of Architecture in 1979. But modernism’s critics have not gone away. Charles has been more diplomatic but as insistent as ever against modernism; he has built Poundbury; and Scruton has widened his range of subject, pushing back against “political correctness.” His current appointment along with his knighthood in 2016 attest to his expanding influence. The challenge to modern architecture did not stop when Charles was pointed by his handlers toward other issues. The opponents of modern architecture have multiplied exponentially.
Are the style wars “wearying and sterile”? Surely, if you like modern architecture. If it had not been for the style wars set into high gear by Charles’s “carbuncle” remark, there would probably be no Build Better, Build Beautiful Commission for Scruton to head. That would be dandy for Moore, except that there’d be fewer classicists to bash.
Moore uses the word “vernacular” from the title of Scruton’s book as if he does not know what it means. Not, as Moore says, “buildings that follow the details and compositions of past styles,” which obviously could mean to copy any old building, from the Parthenon to Parliament, or even the Brutalist-style Barbican (1982). In Scruton’s words it means architecture “by which the high rhetoric of the classical orders was brought down to earth in ordinary repeatable prose.” By definition, then, it is hierarchical, modulated, open-minded, modest, available to the wide range of classes and budgets. Moore asserts that Scruton “denigrates ‘modernism'”, by which Scruton supposedly means anything that does not “copy the past.” Yes, Scruton values buildings that are inspired by what he sees as a better time for architecture. In fact, almost all modernism except (supposedly) that begat by starchitects literally copies the past – the recent bad past rather than the more distant good past.
The point of vernacular is that it describes a wide range of buildings, often not designed by architects. “The vernacular” merely means a level of classicism whose beauty is affordable to and admirable to all. Its alternative is the junk that constitutes almost all modernism below the level of that designed by starchitects. “Bad trad,” as poorly design classical or traditional work is sometimes derisively entitled, is not to be blamed on its particular architects, mainly, but on the modernists, who have abolished virtually all tradition-themed education in design schools almost everywhere.
Scruton asserted in his lecture that “all objections to new building would slip away in the sheer relief of the public.” This aligns with my belief that the development process, in Providence and many other places, would not be so difficult if developers proposed projects whose appearance appealed to the public. As things are, the process is difficult, time-consuming and costly in part because developers and their architects must speak out of both sides of their mouths, to city and town design-committee staffers on the one hand and to the public on the other: to “experts” they mouth the usual design platitudes and to the public they try to hint that they might modify the project in a more traditional direction. This “discussion” confuses or misleads the developer, who tries, often in vain, to satisfy both sides.
Moore speaks to this issue by claiming that Scruton’s interest in the style wars means he is unlikely to spend enough time on the commission addressing pertinent issues such as “the interaction of the planning system and the property market,” which are supposedly more vital than aesthetics in addressing the problems that have led to the current housing situation. What Moore tries to avoid admitting is that the problems exist because the industry and the public have very different ideas of what constitutes good design (which is easy to grasp in a glance) and good planning (which is hard to grasp in a glance). This is precisely what Scruton does address, and why the style wars have never gone away. In a democracy, as Charles points out, the public taste should play some role in design.
Moore argues that after Charles’s sharp words about modern architecture, “People of talent and integrity saw their careers suffer. Mediocrities prepared to work in the approved style flourished.” The former might indeed have been talented and honest, but they favored a new model of architecture and planning that was a catastrophe. Yet it was declared by Corbu, etc., to be necessary – without any evidence – to bring buildings and cities up to a new, supposedly higher standard. One big difference between the new model and the old model it rejected was that the old model is democratic and the new model is authoritarian. So in fact, the work of Charles, Scruton and others to slow the dangerous momentum of modern architecture is precisely what was required. That so much of the new traditional architecture was mediocre is not the fault primarily of architects but of the modernist establishment for purging traditional curricula from the schools, as noted above. Bad trad is no worse than and mostly better than bad modernism, some of which, indeed, embraces traditional elements in order to be more salable.
Moore notes that polls show “large majorities for the proposition that new homes should ‘fit in’ with their surroundings but small support for the idea that they should be ‘identical’ to whatever is already there.” But how does he define “fitting in,” and who’s calling for “identical” units in housing these days? Modernists certainly are not for “fitting in” but they have long favored “cookie-cutter” housing projects of a sort opposed by Scruton and his allies. So why does that sentence even exist? It exists because Moore wants readers to consider him and his modernist allies as the moderates, open to compromise, and Scruton as the radical voice of architecture. He accomplishes this by turning reality on its head – painting Scruton as stern and out of step, with Moore sweetly seeking comity in housing policy when, in fact, he’s all-in for modernism – that is, for Order over order. No, he says, it’s Scruton who wants Order.
For don’t you know? Scruton’s a nasty authoritarian! Moore tabulates the indictment in Scruton’s words: Classicism is “a law-governed order”! “Roman building types”! “The history of the implied order”! “The sanctifying of ordinary humanity”! “Principles and motifs set out by grand religious structures”! “The language of the temple”! “Good manners and fitting in”! “The suppression of ego in the interests of a wider community”! Moore quotes a Scrutonian trope: “When we lay a table for guests, dress for a party, or arrange a room … we subject the objects around us to a kind of moral discipline, … fitting the objects to an imagined community of neighbours. The same goes for planning and designing buildings. The most common form of rudeness involves standing out at all costs, drawing attention to yourself whether or not you deserve it.” You must keep your personality in check! The little fork must be outside of the big fork! Clearly, Moore suggests, Scruton is the autocrat of the dinner table – at bottom, an authoritarian.
This accusation is a kind of transference. Modernists are the ones who, for all their egotecture, require that mere humans suppress their egos and immerse themselves in the cubicles, big and small, of modern architecture. Starting in the 1950s, said Tom Wolfe in his From Our House to Bauhaus, “All at once they are willing to accept that glass of ice water in the face, that bracing slap across the mouth, that reprimand for the fat on one’s bourgeois soul, known as modern architecture.” Which architectural style has tried to snuff out its rival? If anything, modernists are totalitarian.
All advocates for any system call for order of some sort. For classicists such as Scruton, it is the order that comes from hundreds of years, even thousands of years of passing down from generation to generation by trial and error in search of the best practices, whether for building a house or a city, for dining, raising a family, ordering a society, whatever. Even in the liberty that tradition upholds there is “implied order.” It is modernism that has sought to overturn tradition of every sort this last century; it is modern architecture that has sought to reshape society by decree of the Big Brothers, Le Corbusier, Mies and Gropius. Their diktat has survived revolts such as postmodernism by jujitsu’ing that critique with an architecture that abandons all pretense of connection with the natural order. They suppress dissent without blinking an eye, and crush any thought of a thousand flowers blooming. Their work is hated worldwide, and yet their control of the industry remains intact.
So the threat posed by Scruton is handled by Moore in the usual manner.
Moore writes: “Scruton’s talks are such fusillades of inaccuracy and outdatedness, such bombardments of fake non-news, that it’s hard to know which errors to confront first.” More transference. Take the inaccurate claim of inaccuracy. For example, Scruton “falsely claims” that Hawksmoor’s Christ Church Spitalfields “was nearly demolished in the 1970s.” But Wikipedia says: “The Hawksmoor Committee staved off the threat of wholesale demolition of the empty building—proposed by the then Bishop of Stepney, Trevor Huddleston.” The web is dicey, but hardly a mention of the church on Google is without its version of how close it came to demolition. Why would Moore make such a claim? Probably because he figured it would hurt and that nobody would check his “facts.”
I lack the immediate information to check most of his claims of inaccuracy, and maybe Moore has gotten some things right. Regarding whether modernists live in Georgian houses, he notes that 18 of 18 recent Stirling Prize winners don’t live in Georgian houses. Well, that proves it! Against Scruton’s claim that modernists ignore beauty, Moore cites the word beauty on the first page of Corbusier’s book Vers une architecture. That proves it! Scruton, writes Moore, says “ordinary people all hate modern architecture.” No, Scruton did not say that. He did state that “ordinary people prefer traditional designs,” and cited a survey that found “support for traditional design is highest among the lower income groups,” who are less likely to have had their innate respect for beauty pounded out of them in architecture school. Scruton’s lecture says nothing near what Moore puts in his mouth, although the tenor of his lecture certainly suggests that he believes that most ordinary people hate modern architecture. And in his lecture he explains why at impressive length, expressed with the finest possible nuance.
To quote Moore, “One could go on.” And indeed we have. But let’s quote a paragraph from Moore’s diatribe:
Some architects continue to give fuel to Scrutonian arguments with projects that are indeed offensive expressions of personal vanity: look no further than this week’s revelation of a Norman Foster-designed “Tulip tower” proposed for the City of London. We can all agree that what happened to Detroit and Reading was in different degrees terrible. Many of us share his dislike of the crude towers now rising in London and other British cities.
I will refrain from calling that paragraph a white flag of surrender. Leaving aside that it’s not just Detroit and Reading that have been destroyed by modern architecture, what does the Tulip Tower have that other modernist towers lack? Not very much. The requisite ugliness and stupidity are there. Shouldn’t the top modernists be relied upon to refrain from “offensive expressions of personal vanity”? On the contrary. Being offensive – rejecting traditions built up over the centuries, spitting in the face of the public, is the whole idea of modern architecture.
Not even I have the patience to challenge each example of the “fusillades of inaccuracy and outdatedness” or the “half-truths and caricatures” that Moore cites in his dishonest characterization of Scruton. No doubt these are honest expressions of Moore’s disdain for Scruton, but for those who are obliged to argue the inarguable – the desirability of modern architecture – concepts like honest and dishonest become indistinguishable.
“If I had to pick a side in any style wars, I would choose that of the modernists.” To judge by Moore’s style of argument, that is understandable. Great minds think alike, they say, or something like that. So let’s be thankful that it’s Sir Roger and not Rowan Moore who has been assigned to put the beauty back into British housing policy.