“Beauty is vanishing from our world because we live as though it did not matter”
The modern world seems devoid of beauty. Don’t take my word for it though. Look around you. Glance up as you’re going to work, shopping, socialising or indeed doing any task that involves you travelling through an urban environment. I haven’t seen a building, monument or statue that was built since the 1950s that made me want to stare and appreciate it for merely existing. Post-modernist thinking has done many things to our society (the vast majority of them negative), but it certainly hasn’t provided a sense of awe or wonder to our architectural environment.
The quality of our built environment should be as important to us as the condition of the natural one. Depressingly, you probably spend more time in the built environment than you ever will in a Waldenesque reverie. But for all the protection and attention that is afforded to the natural world (quite, rightly so) the destruction or repurposing of many of our buildings continues unabated and indeed it is too late for most of them now. They have already been rendered to dust and rubble by the ceaseless march of so-called ‘progression’ or have been abandoned to Mother Nature who has been a slow but steady agent of reclamation.
Post-modernisms destructive tendencies were the most prevalent during the 1960’s and 50’s indeed they only abated because they had largely destroyed what came before them. In the architectural equivalent of the Beecham railway cuts that isolated many communities from their hinterland, this architectural devastation has had long-lasting consequences and has often left our shared spaces shorn of beauty.
Wherever you see a hideous office block, a shopping centre, a retail park, or a high-rise, it’s a reminder of the destruction of something more beautiful in order to make way for it.
On the more positive side and fortunately for us, some of these more destructive plans envisaged during the 1950s and 60s were halted. For example, there were plans to rip the heart out of the centre of Glasgow with its fine old Victorian buildings and replace them with what can only be described as Soviet-era housing for the masses. To be fair, Glasgow City Council merely pushed the Soviet era housing out to the Greater Glasgow area, and thus became one of the largest homeowners in Western Europe, but at least the City Centre was spared.
Differences in style between traditional and post-modern architecture can be even more jarring when an older building has a newer, supposedly more flamboyant annexe thrown thoughtlessly against it. The original part of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh (at least the main Hall) is all wrought iron columns and has a beautiful glass ceiling stretching the length of the Hall. The newer annexe that tells the story of Scotland from its ancient geology to the present day is pretty much what you expect. Weird angles in chalky beige with inbuilt display cabinets.
The other major Scottish museum, Kelvingrove in Glasgow, for some reason has largely been untouched by post-modernism and is all the better for it. Museums are particularly important as they can utilise their architecture to prime your mind for what you are about to see. They aren’t just warehouses for cultural goods, they should be part of the experience itself and they ought to reflect this.
What we have decided to house our more modern political institutions in has not fared any better. Compared to the grand neo-gothic splendour of the Palace of Westminster or the neo-classical styling of Stormont in Northern Ireland, the Scottish Parliament and the Senedd in Cardiff are post-modern abominations. If you didn’t know the Scottish Parliament was there you would think that it had been teleported en-masse by an utterly alien culture next to the grey, lithe buildings of Edinburgh’s Old Town. Indeed if you approach it from the Royal Mile down from Edinburgh Castle you only see glances of it before turning a corner (the first official internal building you pass is the gift shop. Really) and it’s revealed in all its ‘splendour’, utterly incongruous to the local area, sitting almost directly across from the Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Scotland. If it wasn’t for the armed police officers , security staff and ‘airport’ style metal detector you could be forgiven for thinking that you were walking into a large branch of Costas. It’s all curvy moulded wood, low ceilings, stone flooring with a hint of coffee wafting through the air.
I suppose the architectural ideology behind these modern parliament buildings is to reflect Britain’s diminished role, at least from the days of Empire. A ‘people’s parliament’ if you will, that is supposed to be welcoming and to foster equality. But I don’t want to be welcomed, sometimes I want to be awed. I want a sense of presence and importance and history, that this is where laws are made and ideas debated even if the majority of us can’t be part of it.
No doubt if Westminster was rebuilt now it would be along similar lines to the regional parliaments of the United Kingdom. Indeed if Portcullis House is anything to go by then it’s safe to assume that this would be the case.
Even our transport infrastructure isn’t immune. The iconic Forth Rail Bridge compared with the recently opened Queensferry crossing is another case in point. The Forth Bridge looks imposing, yet elegant. Its bright red hue in direct contrast to the dirty blue of the tidal estuary below. The Queensferry crossing in an impressive feat of engineering but you could be driving across any major bridge across any waterway in the world it’s so bland and identikit.
The quote at the start of this article was from the conservative philosopher and expert on aesthetics, Roger Scrutton, who has recently been appointed as the unpaid chairman of the ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful’ commission earlier this month. Almost immediately and predictably the left has called for his resignation as his views don’t fit the current social-justice paradigm. The fact that he was appointed is a positive sign. However, what one man can do now is debatable especially after so much has been lost already.
All post-modern buildings make me want to scurry by, not looking because there is nothing to look at. They are utilitarian. Disposable. With components that are designed to last 30 years and then fail thus beginning the cycle anew. Why would you wish to look at something so nondescript and devoid of meaning?
Like most areas of endeavour in the 21st century, it’s likely that our future buildings will be cheaply built, uninspiring, ugly, and built not with future generations in mind, but for economic expediency.