ARCHITECTURE, as the saying goes, is the art we all must live with. In recent years there has been a fightback against modernism and a renewed yearning for building beautifully. As Jacob Groet of the Orthodox Conservatives says in this essay, the aesthetics of the built environment are very important in how we feel about our place in the world – a fact the Left understood only too well. As the evil genius Le Corbusier said in Towards a New Architecture: ‘A house is a machine for living’ and ‘We must create the mass-production spirit. The spirit of constructing mass-production houses. The spirit of living in mass-production houses. The spirit of conceiving mass-production houses.’ The utopianism of the modernist and brutalist schools he inspired and their obsession with buildings as machines reduced form to mirror function. Utterly rejecting as it does an organic sense of time and place, it is inimical to social conservativism. Spacewise it is not even very efficient: as the pressure group Create Streets has shown, it is perfectly possible to build beautiful human-scale housing that matches the density of the tower block.
Of course, it is wonderful that the importance of beauty is, however belatedly, being recognised, but we have been here before. During the late 1980s Prince Charles led a fightback, championing traditional architecture and more than ruffling the feathers of the architectural establishment in the process. However, he largely failed, despite widespread public support. Although it is true that the quality of many modern buildings has somewhat improved (from a very low standard), urban Britain has continued to get uglier. Unsurprisingly this has led to a militant NIMBYism that is a major factor in the lack of much needed housing development today.
A central reason for failure was that market solutions to the questions of beauty were never arrived at. Such a statement may seem downright crass, attempting to put monetary value on something unquantifiable, but nonetheless some metrics are available. Modern buildings in glass and steel have high initial sales values, appealing as they do to the brash and up-and-coming, but age very badly: no one wants last year’s model, whereas traditionalist, organic forms of architecture have lower initial sale value but higher resale value as they age like fine wine.
Currently there are no financial penalties for developers who leave us with buildings that look impressive for five years and like eyesores for another fifty. I therefore suggest a simple tax reform: give developers a slice of the Stamp Duty Land Tax on every resale of a development for say, thirty years, after they were built. Higher sale prices would lead to higher revenues, therefore incentivising building with long-term aesthetic desirability in mind. It would also have the effect of smoothing out developer cash flows. A second reform would be to allow local people binding referenda on major redevelopments, with councils and developers putting forward their case for the desirability and practicality of various schemes.
Another way of increasing the aesthetic appeal of our shared spaces would be to reduce the amount of unnecessary or aggressive information within them, particularly advertising. In a world of material plenty where only 30 per cent of our income goes on essentials, the role of advertising is mostly to make us consume products and services we don’t need. Whether you regard it as benign or malign, much of advertising is certainly a form a psychological manipulation. In our information, device and data-rich society where we can choose what media and advertising we wish to consume, there can be no moral case for our involuntary consumption of it in the public square. Indeed, I would go further: there should be a new right to information sparsity. Our shared spaces should become oases of calm where we can, if we choose, rest our minds from the sensory overload of the digital age. A start can be made by reducing the garish, 1970s-style backlit signage that still dominates the high street – in a world where we can find a shop by just searching on our smartphone, such in-yer-face vulgarity is utterly unnecessary. Instead, we should introduce much stronger aesthetic controls on shop branding. Who knows, by making our shared spaces places of beauty and calm, we may attract thriving communities back to them.