Forget politics for a minute; I know it’s hard, but bear with me. If conservatism is a moral and social disposition of gratitude and appreciation for an inheritance of permanent creations, then we have a strong obligation to make beautiful things that naturally draw out the devotion and protection of our children.
One of the most important insights of the recently deceased Roger Scruton was that this obligation to create beauty applies as much to our buildings and city streets as to painting or literature. Scruton came to this realization out of his deep conviction that the task of conservatism is to make ourselves at home. In much of our activity we are “home-building,” erecting — in the face of change, neglect, and decay — the permanent symbols of a settled form of life.
Some architectural commentators claimed to dislike the intrusion of Scruton’s political values into the discussion of buildings. But of course, it would be impossible for politics not to enter that discussion. For Scruton it was no coincidence that much of modern architecture was conceived by Communists, socialists, and, sometimes, fascists who promised their state sponsors that they were building utilitarian “machines for living.” Just as Communist movements claimed to create equality while actually creating a new, aristocratic party elite, so too did architects who claimed to be devoted to democratic man begin to admire themselves as singular geniuses, erecting buildings conceived as sculptures that stood out from and often rebuked their surroundings.
Traditional architecture was a more-humble craft, a discipline of copying and adapting well-conceived, time-tested patterns, built to human scale and form to withstand the trials that Nature imposes on all human habitat. (Scruton eventually became a champion of Prince Charles’s development of Poundbury, the community on the edge of Dorchester that has oddly been deemed “experimental” because it relies on traditional architecture and town planning around a main street.)
In his entertaining documentary on beauty, Scruton shows deftly that by building machines exclusively for one purpose, modern architects ended up creating useless buildings. Once the business or government agency for whom the building was designed no longer found it useful, it was unable to be adapted to a new purpose the way that traditional buildings in London and Paris have been re-adapted as homes, businesses, offices, restaurants, and cafés over the centuries.
This was a strong argument against progressive architectural theory, but Scruton’s insights into architecture provide a challenge for conservatives as well: At the heart of his vision is a view of sociability that cannot quite accommodate the egoism of the individualist. Scruton was a champion of traditional urban planning, because it is on streets, passing between shops, pubs, and retailers back to our homes, that neighborliness is best fostered and exercised.
Privileging the social life of a community over the easy profits that can be made from cookie-cutter suburban developments would be a challenge to many local elected officials in our red states, who have often preferred sprawl to functioning towns. But it can be done, with far-sighted town boards and homeowners who conceive of themselves and their buildings as part of a community that outlasts them. It just requires viewing one’s own ownership of a piece of land or a home not just as an investment to be repaid later, but as a trusteeship. This is the opposite of the revolutionary mindset favored by devotees of creative destruction, the mindset that wants to raze the world and build it anew each generation — beauty requires humility, after all. But its upside is enormous.
Scruton believed that beauty was part of the solution to the housing crisis that afflicts so many towns and cities in the Western world. Developers who work on tight timelines do not devote themselves to great works of architecture, and current homeowners oppose the construction of tower blocks that can make street life deteriorate and depress home values. But to slow down slightly and build homes according to the older principles of planning and construction yields cityscapes that are not only pleasant, but densely populated, and that no longer seem to depress values, and so no longer attract political opposition. This is part of the work he was doing for her majesty’s government at the time of his death. It’s up to the rest of us to carry it on.