Print Friendly and PDF
only search

The future is classical

About the authors

Roger Scruton is a philosopher, writer, political activist and businessman. He is a professor in the department of philosophy at St Andrews University and a scholar at the American Entreprise Institute. His home on the web is

Sophie Jeffreys is editor of OpenDemocracy’s Ecology and Place Theme and is a a Conservative District Councillor in North Wiltshire.
The current crisis over planning has been caused less by the shortage of space or an increase in the need for it, than by the disaster of modern architecture and of the aesthetic and ideological dogmas that have animated it.

Jules Lubbock has therefore got hold of the wrong end of the stick in his polemic against John Jackson and Richard Rogers. True, he recognises that planning systems seem to make things worse, and not only in Britain. He accurately describes how they create artificially high land prices and other distortions that make disastrous developments all but inevitable. The solution he suggests is to lift all planning requirements as well as agricultural subsidies.

Such a complete abnegation of responsibility for development can hardly be the way forward. There are far too many examples that suggest otherwise: the pure market is not going to lead to liveable outcomes when dealing with a restricted good like land and location.

But Lubbock is right to suggest that the problem is systemic. It is not enough to say that the answer to bad planning is better planning. For it is not only planning that has gone wrong. In our view, the root cause of the current crisis is the modernist approach to building and construction. The aesthetic of modern development, adopted and adapted from the polemics of Le Corbusier, is fundamentally anti-social and anti-human. Any planning system geared towards modernist building is bound to get things wrong.

Modernism and classicism

The starting place for better development and planning must be a sea change in architectural aesthetics. Modernism should be abandoned and a return made to the classical values that created the first cities of our time.

Our critique is perhaps less aimed at Lubbock than at Richard Rogers. Lubbock is surely right to recognise that the agreement Rogers and Jackson display over the need for “community”, and their mutual desire to preserve the difference of town and country by encouraging a joint urban and rural “renaissance”, is unlikely to change anything. Rogers in particular is a modern architect, responsible for encouraging and constructing buildings that undermine and erode community, by representing the world as though it were inhabited by self-interested machines.

You don’t need to be a time-traveller from the past to conclude that, judged as a whole, the modern movement of which he has been such a vigorous exponent is a failure. Modernist housing is synonymous with alienation, vandalism and decay. Modernist factories and warehouses are universally received as blots on the landscape, whose raw functionality is profoundly at odds with the natural environment. Modernist buildings violate the skyline, the street-line, and the urban texture of downtown areas, with few if any compensating advantages.

Within thirty years almost all modernist buildings lose their original use without gaining another, thereafter to become wasting assets, which can be neither repaired nor demolished without enormous expense. Most important of all, modernism – despite its handful of acknowledged masterpieces – has produced no monumental style.

There is no common language, agreed principles, or polite discourse of modernism, which would permit the designers of public spaces to endow them with the cheerful pageantry of an Italian piazza or the unassuming dignity of Bath. The example of Bath is indeed salutory. When modernist building schemes reached this city, they were imposed by a handful of ruthless developers, aided and abetted by the architectural establishment, and in contemptuous defiance of local opinion and democratic choice. The resulting “sack of Bath” has become proverbial, as an illustration of how a communal and public-spirited environment can be destroyed by private interests exploiting niches of political power.

The classical tradition took, as its central idea, the column, symbol of standing, bearing the architrave with a visible upthrust of rooted strength. The column can be repeated; it has an internal grammar, derived from base, shaft and capital; and also an external grammar, derived from the relations between vertical and horizontal sections, and the correspondence of part with part in a colonnade.

This grammar, expressed through engaged column and pilaster, can be seen in the warehouses of Lower Manhattan, and it is one reason why those buildings are still there, despite having lost their original use and the many uses that have succeeded it. It is the common root of almost all styles that have had lasting appeal to urban residents. The Romanesque and the Gothic, the Islamic mosque and medreseh, the Hindu temple and palace, all give emphasis to the load-bearing vertical, and embellish those points of interaction where arch and architrave are supported. Which is why one of the most loved and visited public buildings recently erected in Greater London is the Hindu Temple in Neasden.

By contrast, the modernist public building is self-centred; it may, like Boston Town Hall, draw attention to the architect and his skills, but it usually pays scant respect to the surrounding fabric. (Boston Town Hall looks like the enormous packing case from which the neighbouring Faniel Hall has been lifted.) Like London’s South Bank, or New York’s Lincoln Center, modernist monuments soon begin to stand out, not for their merits, but for their defects – crumbling dysfunctional survivals from the age of ill-considered and temporary things.

Modernism is not just a failure; it has been a huge mistake. What was wrong with the classical tradition, which had been the common language of architecture down the centuries, and which had lent itself to every conceivable use, and adapted itself to every historical change? Why throw away this legacy of practical wisdom, if the result is so obviously ill-suited to survive? Why do architects no longer follow the example of Michelangelo on the Campidoglio, building not so as to stand out but so as to fit in, and expressing their originality not in defiance of the surrounding context but by means of it?

That tradition was not mechanical or predictable. On the contrary, the classical language enabled Michelangelo not just to build, but to compose, fitting detail to detail in his own Palazzo del Senatore, while matching his work to the other buildings of the square. The strength of his composition is of a piece with the humility through which it was achieved.

So why not continue in this vein, not slavishly imitating the past, but nevertheless using its language so as to stay in communication, as Michelangelo did, with the other builders of our cities? After all, isn’t that what a city is about – the dialogue across generations, which brings past, present and future together in a shared commitment to a place and its meaning?

An orthodoxy that denies the past

Current critical orthodoxy claims the opposite. Architects, we are told constantly, must be true to their time, to their materials and to themselves. Imitation, rule-following, and stylistic formalities are a threat to creativity. Originality, sincerity and self-expression are the only standards by which a building should be judged.

In any case it is no longer possible to return to the classical tradition, which was part of a vanished climate of ideas. To design with columns, entablatures, mouldings and capitals, according to orthodoxy, would be to produce copies – pastiche versions of ancient monuments. Instead of real, affirmative buildings that claim space for human uses, we should end up with stage sets. And this is not just an aesthetic failing. It is a moral failing too. For it constitutes a subtle denial of the real and vital experience of the modern city. Stage sets are suitable only for imaginary life, not for real life. At best they are charming invocations of a nostalgically embellished past.

The critical orthodoxy that established modernism in architecture takes its inspiration from impressionist painting, symbolist poetry, and atonal music – in other words, from artistic movements addressed to an elite. The modern architect was likened to the modern painter – dedicated to re-shaping the language of his art, so as to explore new regions of the human psyche and new possibilities of expression. Aesthetic freedom and experiment were held to be, in architecture as in the other arts, the pre-conditions of authentic utterance.

Classical architecture was therefore seen in the same light as figurative painting and tonal music: the last gasp of a culture from which the life had fled. The fact that the classical tradition is popular, functional, and pleasing to the eye did not deter the modernists: on the contrary, this was simply the final proof that classicism was kitsch.

Anti-democratic experimentalism

This attitude to architecture is what has enabled the modernists to ignore the general public, and to build in defiance of popular taste. Indeed, a favourable judgement from the man in the street would be a warning sign – a sign that those old desires for form, order, cosiness and human scale have been respected. Hence major planning decisions in our cities, in both Europe and America, are seldom if ever submitted to popular vote, and are either pushed through by direct lobbying of the city council or submitted to a panel of experts chosen for their modernist orthodoxy.

Here is the root of the problem with our planning system. The classical tradition arose when cities were built by the people who live in them, in order to protect and celebrate their communal life. Modernism and post-modernism wrongly identify the task of the architect in terms appropriate to the private arts of painting, poetry and music, where endless experiment, and the elite culture which endorses it, are entirely natural. Nobody can object to Schoenberg’s experiments in atonality or to Boulez’s crystalline sound-effects, since people do not have to listen to them if they do not want to.

But their experimental and defiant outlook is not acceptable in a public art like architecture: indeed, it violates the fundamental premise from which all good architecture begins, which is the connection between building and settlement. Cities arise from the human determination to dwell in a place, not for a day or a year; not even for thirty years; but forever.

Permanence vs the eternal present

Urban architecture – and urban monuments in particular – ought to be invocations of the permanent. It is this that makes the classical styles not only agreeable to every age but also adaptable to every use. They are adaptable because they are marked by the will to endure, the collective decision to stand above the tide of appetite and history, and to make a permanent claim to space. This is why we admire the Parthenon, and why architects ever since have returned to it as a model for their work.

In place of this reverence for the permanent, the critics offer us what the early propagandist for modernism, Sigfried Giedion, called “the eternal present”: in other words buildings attached to the moment of their birth, which is simultaneously the moment of their death. Consider Norman Foster’s Law faculty in Cambridge: a building that reaches neither forwards nor backwards in time, and that relates to nothing that is permanent in our nature or our aspirations.

Modernist buildings now have a dèpassè and expensive shabbiness, like the Lincoln Center in New York, which already, after only four decades, requires a multi-billion dollar face-lift. Unlike Michelangelo’s Campidoglio, the Center remains fixed in the moment of its creation. It is not, as is the Campidoglio, a place of study, wonder and pilgrimage. By striving to be “of its time”, and “relevant”, the building was no sooner built than outmoded, carrying into the future only its burden of maintenance costs – a burden inescapably connected with the modernist styles and the materials that they necessitate.

It is entirely absurd to believe that the classical language sacrifices originality, life and expression. The history of Western architecture is a history of classical revivals, each one bringing a new note of freshness, a new conviction, and a new endorsement of contemporary life. The revolution in architecture that was led by Brunelleschi and continued in the work of Michelangelo was animated by a conscious desire to learn from Roman architecture, to understand and internalize its rules and details, and at the same time to produce forms and structures that would be suitable to the life of the Italian cities of their own time.

And what Brunelleschi and Michelangelo did was continued by their successors: by Palladio, Wren, Hawksmoor and Soane; by Cockerell and Barry; by McKim, Mead and White – and by countless other architects with the sense, modesty and respect for their fellow citizens that placed permanent values ahead of transient fashions.

The vernacular art

The classical tradition has another, more political, merit. Unlike modernism, it has provided examples, rules and precedents that were equally the starting point for the highest aesthetic endeavours and for ordinary and unassuming buildings. It was a tradition available to everyone, regardless of talent. It proved capable of creating a spontaneous urban harmony incorporating the humblest residences and the grandest public buildings side by side.

Architecture, it should be remembered, is first and foremost a vernacular art, like dance and clothing. Although there are the great projects, and the great architects who succeed in them, both are exceptions. We build because we need to, and for a purpose.

Most people who build have no special talent, and no high artistic ideals. For them, aesthetic taste is important not because they have something special or entrancing to communicate, but precisely because they do not. Being decent and alert to their neighbours, they nevertheless want to do what is right. Hence repeatability and rule-guidedness are vital architectural resources.

Style must be so defined that anyone, however uninspired, can make good use of it, and add thereby to the public dwelling space that is our common possession. That is why the most successful period of Western architecture – the period in which real and lasting towns of great size were envisaged and developed – was the period of the classical vernacular, when pattern books guided people who had not fallen prey to the illusion of their own genius.

Aesthetic guidelines

The failure of modernism does not lie in the fact that it produced no great or beautiful buildings – the Chapel at Ronchamp and the houses of Frank Lloyd Wright abundantly prove the opposite. It lies in the absence of any reliable patterns or types, which can be used in awkward or novel situations so as spontaneously to harmonize with the existing urban decor, and so as to retain the essential nature of the street as a common home and dwelling-place.

The degradation of our cities is the direct result of the emphasis on the architect, as innovator and visionary, guided by an artistic idea. As a result of this emphasis, ordinary functional buildings acquired, during the twentieth century, no aesthetic guidelines: certainly no guidelines comparable to those laid down by the classical tradition. Buildings arose in our streets as by-products of engineering, rather than as contributions to the urban dècor. The result was the “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 an intelligible relation to its neighbours.

Of course, this does not rule out the possibility of a modernist monument – and indeed, if Frank Lloyd Wright had had his way, America would consist of nothing else: one vast ocean-to-ocean suburb of automobile-fed dream-houses, each a self-contained aesthetic masterpiece, each expressing the individuality of both architect and owner, and each surrounded by its isolating plot of land. But this just means that, for Frank Lloyd Wright, architecture is not concerned to build cities, but to destroy them – and to destroy their natural settings too.

Wright insisted that the old classical houses of the Americans “lied about everything”, having “no sense of space as should belong to a free man among a free people in a free country”. In place of such houses, Wright proposed a democratic architecture for a “morally strong and simple-hearted people”. Yet Wright’s houses are quintessentially aristocratic. They are expressions of belligerent sovereignty, capturing far more space than their owners need. They require an enormous outlay in capital and running costs, with no concern whatsoever for neighbours, the environment or future generations.

The modernists claim that the classical language is no longer available because it expresses a political project, based on hierarchy, tradition, order and control, which we moderns have repudiated, not only in our buildings, but also in our souls. But this criticism is wide of the mark.

Boullèe and Ledoux saw a revised and monumental classicism as the way to capture the new spirit of the French revolution. American architects, from Jefferson to Greenberg, have seen the classical as the true democratic style. Mussolini appropriated the classical for fascism, Hitler for national socialism, Stalin for communism, and the architects of Victorian London and Manchester for the society based on trade.

In short, classicism has no simple or single ideological function. For what it signifies is not the triumph of this or that political system, but the universal human need for permanence, for a present that melds with the past and the future, and for building which is a monument to our brief existence here.

What the modernist would dismiss as “facadism” and untruth is a deeper kind of truth – truth to the life and needs of a human community. As citizens we are concerned with the public appearance of buildings, and wish to find our life endorsed and given permanence by the artefacts that grow in our midst. What Alberti undertook at S Maria Novella in Florence was a task that many architects now share, faced by the bleak discarded wrecks of the modernist period, and endeavouring to re-integrate them as “built citizens”, so to speak, in the urban way of life. And they can succeed, as Allan Greenberg succeeded with the abandoned supermarket in Manchester Connecticut, now a dignified courthouse, and as John Outram succeeded with the Harp Heating Headquarters in Swanley, Kent.

Classicism provides a vision of architecture that is universal in its aim, and comprehensive in its understanding of the relation between buildings and people. According to this vision the goal of architecture is fittingness: buildings must fit to each other and to the urban context; part must fit to part in the composition of the whole.

This demand for fittingness stems from a deep human need. We seek to be at home in the world – to come in from our wandering, and to settle in the place that is ours. Hence we need to match and to harmonize, projecting thereby our common commitment to the peaceful settlement of a common place. We have to return to these principles as the basis for our building if we are to end the disaster of our planning systems in both the developed and developing world, and to reconstruct and renew the experience of community in contemporary settings.

We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.