Opinion: "The beautiful buildings commission is clearly just a front for the continuing attack on progressive ideas"
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Building Better, Building Beautiful commission

"The beautiful buildings commission is just a front for the continuing attack on progressive ideas"

The historicism of the UK's Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission is no laughing matter, says Sam Jacob.


The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission is an ill-informed waste of time that will, in any case, never influence anything. In a few weeks we will have forgotten about it – like all of those other things that you can't quite remember that were supposed to make things better.

But right at this moment there is something pretty sick about it. It resonates in a particular way as Britain sinks further into the Brexit mire, with its plastic jingoism, hollow nostalgia and pathetic Empire 2.0 rhetoric.

Historicism in 2018 is no laughing matter. Nostalgia and right wing politics are thoroughly intertwined, using fabricated images to sugarcoat their bitter vision of the future. Pseudo-olden times cloaks a dark form of nationalism that is at large and emboldened. This is yet another wave of that sickening trope.

Nothing will be beautiful till everything is beautiful

There is a clear link between its aesthetic agenda and the views of the far right. It's also sick that this should be at the forefront of governments thinking around architecture and the built environment when we are in the midst of a housing crisis this government has singularly failed to address, and when homelessness has increased by 60 per cent since 2012. Quick motto: Nothing will be beautiful till everything is beautiful.

The commission is clearly just a front for the continuing attack on progressive ideas about architecture and cities.

Since 1979, as Brett Christophers wrote in the FT on the privatisation of land, "10 per cent of Britain has disappeared from public hands". This wholesale ideological transformation of the terms by which the contemporary city is produced is so ingrained that it can now be left to the market to finish the dirty job.

Developers act as the handmaidens to the ideological destruction of our collectivity, evidenced by Lendlease's decision to sue Haringey council, smarting after a local election that was essentially a referendum on their massive privatisation deal, which was rejected. This anti-democratic sentiment is the subtext of privatisation – especially when its comes to the city. Our collective public sphere – from the ballot box to the built environment – is under sustained attack.

Apparently it's not enough for a right wing ideology to systematically dismantle the city built by the post war consensus; one that aimed for increasing inclusivity and accessibility and provision for all.

It now wants to erase the agency of architecture and planning to hard-wire progressive ideas into the fabric of the world, and seeks to enforce a singular, a-historical fantasy featuring a few fragments of architectural reference that appeal to blinkered, quasi-fascist old white men. Grecian excretions are just an attempt to whitewash history – in every sense of the word.

As an aside, I'd love to know who put Kit Malthouse's tweet together – that one featuring a courthouse in Alabama. It is not an obvious go-to example. In fact it smacks of something happening behind the scenes … maybe something via American New Urbanists, perhaps a feed from a shadowy architectural Brietbart.

One thing they are right about, though, is that modernism was as assault on the aesthetics of the Ancient Regime. It borrowed crude, unmannered and raw ways of building from factories as a deliberate device to explode the inherent hierarchies of Beaux Arts design. Its aesthetic agenda was also its political agenda. Stripped of those old constraints a new world could be made, ready for the modern emancipated citizen.

You and I might see modernism as part of art history, now just another design style, but for the types behind this commission, its revolutionary origin has never been forgotten. The war – tilting at a hundred year old ghost – continues.

In an age where truth itself is under attack, architecture has assumed a strange and perhaps new role

Luckily, buildings are a form of resistance – at least to some extent. In an age where truth itself is under attack, architecture has assumed a strange, and perhaps new, role. It is true. It acts as a document testifying both to itself, and encoding its circumstances within its body.

Constructing a building assembles materials and components, but it also sets the values, ideas and aspirations of that moment into solid form. Buildings themselves – perhaps more than architecture – provide literal and metaphorical friction against contemporary will.

These truths are far harder to eradicate, more difficult to rewrite. But the city itself is a contested site. The stories that it holds, the narratives that it represents are permanently under threat. Not least from partisan outfits like Create Streets, with its blinkered monocultural idea of urbanity that is, in fact, in direct opposition to the real history of the city. History is far more inspiring, far more radical, than so-called traditionalists claim.

To those who have reacted to the commission by asserting that style doesn't matter – that there is just good and bad architecture. Style – or rather taste – does matter. Not because its actually good or bad, but because taste itself is political. "Good" and "bad" taste are really nothing of the sort. Rather they are ways of coding values of class and power into the world.

History is far more inspiring, far more radical than so-called-traditionalists claim

Language matters too. Because language is political too. As much as it is a means of communication it is also a means of exclusion. First in who is conversant: You need to be taught the unnatural protocols of vocabulary and grammar before you are able to participate in the conversations it enables. And this is true as much for architecture as for anything else.

Buildings that quote the past directly do it for a reason. The US Capitol Building, for example, explicitly quotes Grecian architecture because it self consciously wanted to summon a vision of Athenian democracy. It is designed to specifically to signal to all those familiar with Western culture's neo-classical foundation an idealised democracy in order to construct a version of democracy its the present. Pugin's gothic revival treatment of the Palace of Westminster did something very different, but just as explicitly used architectural language to assert a fabricated notion of national identity.

But this is an idea of language that is reductive. Where A means B and always will. We know of course that meanings are far less fixed. A Grecian portico in ancient Greece means something very different to one attached to a two-car garage in 1980, and something else entirely when appearing in a politician's tweet in 2018.

My final advice is to let that commission run its course. Our job is not to fight reductive style wars, but to hold a lamp for architecture and for its many possible languages. To use language as a form of emancipation and for the construction of productive collectivity. To recognise that every project is political and that architecture is a form of resistance.

Photo is of US Federal Building and Courthouse in Tuscaloosa by Deutschlandreform.