Some Old Time Religion

UK housing chair blasts modernism amid ire over alleged extremist views

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Sir Roger Scruton (Courtesy Princeton University)
Sir Roger Scruton (Courtesy Princeton University)

Conservative intellectual and chair of the UK’s new Building Better, Building Beautiful commission, Sir Roger Scruton, has come out swinging against modernism. The commission’s goal is to provide housing policy recommendations that further the beautification of new developments and foster a sense of community.

The controversial scholar, who has faced calls to resign over his views on race, date rape, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and more, derided modernism as destroying the urban fabric in a speech before London’s right-leaning Policy Exchange think tank.

As Scruton delivered the inaugural Colin Amery Memorial Lecture on November 14, he railed against Norman Foster, Mies van der Rohe, and what Scruton described as a “NIMBY” (not in my backyard) backlash that precluded the building of new housing in dense urban areas.

Calling the housing crisis an aesthetic issue, not an economic one, Scruton posited that “the degradation of our cities is the result of a modernist vernacular, whose principal device is the stack of horizontal layers, with jutting and obtrusive corners, built without consideration for the street, without a coherent facade, and without intelligible relation to its neighbors.”

Scruton claims that as opponents of these non-contextual housing projects force their relocation to the outer edge of the city, it encourages an increasing amount of “void and sprawl.”

The commission chair also got in his hits against the International Style Seagram Building, calling it and all of its imitators “lamentable.” Of the Foster-designed City Hall in London, he described it as an “alien object” at the center of a “growing moral void” that intentionally excluded human-scale interaction. Modernist vernacular in general, according to Scruton, is inherently inferior to the pre-modernist style of weaving together seamless street walls with heavy ornamentation, in particular those in Victorian and Georgian styles, a refrain also gathering in popularity among white ethno-nationalists.

Scruton used the speech as a chance to dismiss his critics, saying that his work at the commission had been “interrupted by the half-educated having their say first.”

He may have been referencing calls from architects and Labour MPs to resign over a long history of divisive comments. In a 2001 article for New York’s conservative City Journal magazine, Scruton claimed that being gay was just as bad as smoking and knocked 10 years off of the lives of LGBTQ individuals. Just this past April, Scruton suggested that one of the 9/11 hijackers, who had studied architecture in Hamburg, was “taking revenge on an architectural practice which had been introduced into the Middle East by Le Corbusier.”

Scruton’s comments on Jews in Hungary forming a “[George] Soros empire” to undermine the country’s national sovereignty, and his close ties to Hungary’s Prime Minister and hardliner Viktor Orbán, have also drawn international scrutiny. Scruton, for his part, has brushed off these criticisms as wholly unfounded and a distraction from the important work he was hired to do.

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