“Very few faults of architecture are mistakes of honest choice: they are almost always hypocrisies”.
There is perhaps no greater testament to the genius of John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice than this claim. Though Ruskin had jotted down this reflection in the mid-1800s, I came to experience the full force of its meaning in London back in 2017 in an encounter that I am still unable to make head or tail of.
I studied for a year at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and was staying in a student accommodation that was wedged in that strange stretch of road between Peckham and Camberwell. On one of my first nights in my new accommodation, I was standing on the common-room balcony with a group of fellow students; all of whom were strangers to me. The balcony overlooks a cluster of ugly tower blocks, where working class people are crammed like sardines into tins of vast ugliness. Being from a working class background myself, I felt my heart sink upon the sight of the tower blocks. I know through experience that such buildings are not truly fit for habitation. The only thing ordered and uniform about them is the consistency of their ugliness, and continuous council/housing association rules make it impossible for people to decorate their homes as they see fit. Such architecture alienates not only with its ugliness but with its inability to ever be transformed into a home, a place for dwelling, and an extension of our personalities and communities.
I was not expecting what came next. Much to my horror, a small group of people around me began to compliment the tower blocks. Their compliments were not even in passing – they were an infectious swoon that placed a romantic, and at points even mythological, emphasis on the imposing presence of the tower blocks. I would later learn that none of these people had actually lived in, or even been inside, such buildings – most of them attended private schools, and had never worked a proper job, enjoying free roam of their parent’s credit cards. This opened my eyes to a phenomenon that I can now only describe as the ‘fetishisation’ of the working class. Anyone who is truly working-class knows just how brutal the reality of living in such places can be. Not only are they so ugly that they alienate anyone existing in them from any sense of homeliness, but they are also often dangerous hives of crime. However, for people such as my former neighbours, the buildings represented a patronising fetishisation of the working class as a kind of noble savage, who finds salvation in the hard toil of labour, the anxious struggle to pay the bills, and raising a family in unsuitable, tiny apartment blocks.
This fetishisation of the working class is nothing new – in fact, it dates back centuries. Take, for example, Marie Antoinette’s Hameau de la Reine, or the ‘Queen’s Hamlet’. This rustic though ultimately fake village was essentially a mock-up of a working French community, complete with a mill, farmhouse, and dairy. It was a space where the Queen and her aristocratic friends could play commoners, pretending (albeit not very convincingly) to be your average working Frenchman of the time. The inspirations for this come directly from mainstream liberal philosophy, particularly the Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose concept of the ‘noble savage’ inspired the upper classes to essentially live-action roleplay being a ‘savage’ so that they might once again – or for the first time – connect with their untainted, uncivilised, human nature. It would appear, as demonstrated in my example above, that such a patronising mindset towards working folk has not entirely been erased.
Pointing this all out, of course, earned me the label of ‘classist’. I was an enemy of the proletariat, dehumanising them and their communities for supposedly refusing to acknowledge that these were great arenas of bustling, colourful working class life. If only I didn’t spend so much time looking down my nose, they suggested, I might finally have a clear enough vision to see just how egalitarian and edgy this all was. The irony of this, of course, was that I was the only proletarian in the whole bloody place. But obviously, none of my real experiences mattered – my critics had, after all, learnt to drop their ‘T’s’, which in their minds transformed them into working men straight from a Dickens novel.
My disgust for such architecture comes not from reactionary snobbishness but from my first-hand experience with it. Unlike my revolutionary comrades, the interiors and exteriors of council flats and concrete high-rise buildings were quite a familiar sight for someone with a working class background like me. The people I knew living inside of them hated it, and whenever I would visit or stay over in such places, this hatred became not only more apparent but increasingly shared by myself.
You’d have thought that the crime of Grenfell Tower would have finally opened the eyes of such people, but that does not appear to be the case. Even in a post-Grenfell society, there is not even a murmur of finally doing away with these monstrous buildings, many of them being mere erect safety hazards. Yet still, the motions of champagne revolutionary students are in full swing. For many, tower blocks are a romanticised symbol of radical politics that they can gawp at during term time before retiring back to their cosy Sussex family homes. The tower blocks are their own Hameau de la Reine. The presence and appreciation of such ugly architecture is yet another example of that hypocrisy Ruskin wrote about: they claim to appreciate it, but they dare not sleep under such a roof.
But it is a hypocrisy not so much of taste, but social class and politics. This is why I wish to propose that it is not critics of modern architecture and housing development who are the bigots, but rather that it is modern architecture that is deeply classist. Millions of hard-working men, women, and children are forced to live in these concrete blocks; almost always against their will, as they are often reserved for those in the most desperate situations. However, those who design them, make their money off them, and praise the buildings to the high heavens would never actually step foot in such places. They make their millions and then shoot off to their chateaus in the South of France, leaving the working classes stuck in a house that is designed to never be a home.
Much of modern architecture, and the herding of working class people into the buildings by the ruling classes, is classist tyranny in plain sight. Working class people, especially the poorest among them, are given by modern architects and town planners these concrete blocks to live in. This is a reflection of a certain mindset towards the working class: that we plebs ought to just be happy that we have a place to sleep and eat. The price of this is not only aesthetic, nor is it limited to the realm of homemaking in general, it is also about safety. In Grenfell Tower, at least seventy-two people were burnt alive because of this attitude towards building.
During my year at Goldsmiths, I started reading the works of the late Sir Roger Scruton. I discovered, after reading some of his writings on political philosophy, that Scruton had published a grand treatise on the subject of architecture titled The Aesthetics of Architecture. I got hold of a copy of the book and read through it rather feverishly. After reading the book, I slammed it shut, and could have cried ‘Finally! Here is a man that gets it’. Scruton’s harshest left-wing critics would claim that he was a mere reactionary opponent of ‘the people’, but The Aesthetics of Architecture would suggest otherwise. I am not one to believe in champions of ‘the people’ and I find the phrase itself rather Orwellian, but Scruton was not far off – at least in regards to architecture. The reason I could have cried out is that Scruton was the first thinker that I had read on the subject of architecture that truly believed that everyone, regardless of their social class, status, or wealth, deserved not just a building to live in, but a home.And that is the key word here: home. Working class people should not be living in concrete arenas, only to be gawped at and fetishised by the chattering classes and the architectural establishment. The working class, like every other group of people, deserves a sense of dwelling, homeliness, security, safety, and beauty. We need not accept this hypocritical tyranny.
There is a way of building homes that incorporates all the key values of homemaking: beauty, security, accessible communities, and the freedom to decorate your home as you please. There is a way to build better, and that way is to build beautiful.