Mitchell Foyle-York

Tyranny in Plain Sight: The Classism of Modern Architecture

“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.

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Faux-Utilitarianism: The Arm of Power

In a post-Enlightenment society, particularly since Jeremey Bentham and J.S. Mill, the ethical culture of our politics, institutions, and society in general, has been captured by utilitarianism. For clarification, when I say ‘utilitarianism’, I am defining it in the broadest application of the word, meaning that the common goal of increasing the ‘good’ or ‘happiness’ of as many people as possible is what fuels our ethical decision making. It is important to say, if I may, that it is not the aim of this article to either prove or disprove utilitarianism. Instead, I wish to explore the degeneration of utilitarianism into what I call ‘faux-utilitarianism’, which now has such a tyrannical grip over the politics of this country that many are not even aware of its presence – we accept it, just as we accept that the sky is blue. 

The processes of public policy research and implementation in this country are dominated by utilitarian motivations. Our political slogans from across the political spectrum – such as Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘For the Many Not the Few’, the Green’s ‘For the Common Good’, or UKIP’s ‘Empowering the People’ – are ripe with utilitarian undertones of a majority-rule common good. Of course, in large part this is due to the nature of democratic elections. In order to receive the majority vote, you need to make the majority of people content. Modern liberal democracy is, almost by its very nature, utilitarian. Within the Civil Service, policies are researched and advised upon through the lens of utilitarianism, in the hope of addressing issues or implementing policies that might increase the common societal good. 

On the surface, this might all sound fine and well. After all, why wouldn’t we want to increase the common good of society, making decisions that will benefit majorities? The more people well-off and happier people are, the better, right? But it is at this point within the political discourse that the curious beast of faux-utilitarianism rears its ugly head. When a political culture is ruled by faux-utilitarianism, we focus so much on the theories and rhetoric of increasing the common-good that we actually lose sight of the effects of its practical implementation. 

A perfect example of this is the political discourse (or lack thereof) surrounding the National Health Service. Whenever the NHS is mentioned, its utilitarian triumphs are praised to high heaven: it has increased the overall standard of health, giving the majority free access to healthcare and medicine, and so on. As MP West Streeting has very recently discovered, to have even the slightest nuance that, even on an extremely surface level, challenges the utilitarian interpretation of the NHS is to write your own political suicide note. Even if what you are saying is true or will improve things, that does not matter, as it is the utilitarian rhetoric that matters more than the utilitarian outcome. To question the NHS, even in the slightest, as an infallible arm of utilitarian ethics is a dangerous heresy, worthy of the wrath of our Eternal Health Leader, Nye Bevan. 

But a spectre is haunting Britain – the spectre of NHS skepticism. Of course most people, myself included, are not suggesting the abolition of free healthcare. But if you look around, you will see and hear deflating groans of dissatisfaction towards the NHS – and they have always been there. During Tony Blair’s time in office, it was people moaning about getting GP appointments too quickly; nowadays it is people moaning about getting them too late. Yet, the political solution to these opposing things is always the exact same: the Government needs an even greater increase of power and money in order to truly establish the utilitarian aim of our social institutions. In faux-utilitarianism, it is no longer the common good as an outcome that matters, but rather the grasping of the political levers by which the “common good” can be controlled. 

We see this grasping of the faux-utilitarian levers as clear as day in the recent news surrounding strike action. Apart from workforces such as train drivers or nurses, industrial (if we can really call it ‘industrial’) action has extended itself from the traditional working-class to the middle classes. Only a couple of days ago, it was announced that Civil Service Fast Stream graduates (earning £28k a year fresh out of university) were moving towards strike action, and the last few years have also been plagued with lecturers and professors striking. This is not to say these jobs are perfect and require no change, but it reveals something very interesting about the faux-utilitarian political system. In the faux-utilitarian narrative, all we ever hear about is talk of increasing equality, yet this exact same society has produced a political framework within which well-to-do bureaucratic servants and academics can strike, and receive establishment sympathy for it. But there is no chance for a minimum wage fast-food worker scolding his hands on hot grills of doing the same. 

So, how is this justified? This strike action is justified by utilitarian rhetoric. They tell us they are not striking for themselves, but for the future of education, students, graduates, patients, taxpayers, and/or broader society as a whole. A McDonald’s worker, for example, cannot wield the weapon that is utilitarian rhetoric. For it is extremely difficult to make a sound utilitarian defence of McDonald’s (believe me, I used to work there). The moral justification of strike actions, particularly outside of traditionally working-class manual labour sectors, is no longer based upon relative or comparative conditions, or even social class, but rather by a utilitarian checklist that is justified by the mere political administration of these sectors/institutions. It is not a nod towards or battle for truth/justice, but rather a self-justification that is designed to fit within the approved framework of faux-utilitarianism in order to justify their own actions. To be valid, you must be able to prove your utilitarian worth, even if there is no proof of a positive contribution to the majority of society. Without this utilitarian worth, your pay, social class, conditions, hours, or discontent, do not really matter. 

But here is the real kicker: it does not matter whether the claims of wielding utilitarian, common-good value are actually true. All that really matters is being able to control the utilitarian narrative, and faux-utilitarianism is precisely this. It is the domination of political discourse and social life through a utilitarian philosophy, but with no interest as to whether we are objectively witnessing utilitarian outcomes. All things politically permissible by the current system are justified by talk of the common-good, yet very little attention is actually paid to whether this common-good is manifesting itself in wider society. What is being defended in modern political discourse is not really utilitarianism, but rather a utilitarian rhetoric that preserves the status-quo of modern liberal politics, that reactionarily allows it to preserve itself against all criticism or change.  So long as it can frame the opposing argument as being un-utilitarian, regardless of the proof in regard to policy outcome, no further justification is needed. And we swallow this en-masse daily.  

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