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September 16, 2008

More Scruton

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Here's a beautiful, many-sided, and stimulating new interview (conducted by Diederik Boomsma) with the British philosopher Roger Scruton. Islam, architecture, conservatism, the nation-state ... Loads going on here.

One of many fab passages:

Question: If modern architecture and modern art is so ugly and devoid of meaning, why don't more people criticize and oppose it?

Answer: Everybody criticizes modern art and architecture except the professional critics who know on which side their bread is buttered. We are returning to a more humane architecture, thanks to Leon Krier, et al., and the New Urbanist movement. What would it take? Enlightened patronage, such as displayed by the Prince of Wales; a spirit of defiance towards pseuds like Rem Koolhaas and Daniel Libeskind, a willingness to tell the truth about people like the fascist Le Corbusier and the communist Gropius, and a decision finally to say that the city is ours, not theirs.

Bonus points:

  • Another long interview with Scruton.
  • A blogposting I wrote about how rewarding I've found it to wrestle with the thoughts of humane conservatives. I'm no conservative myself, but I've certainly learned a lot from exploring the works of smart and classy righties.



posted by Michael at September 16, 2008


Here's more about my feelings about Scruton (and Krier, Salingaros, Kunstler and the New [Sub-]Urbanists in general):

1) I'm highly skeptical of self-proclaimed urbanists who live in small towns or in the countryside (e.g., Mumford, Kunstler, etc. and now apparently Scruton). While they are of course entitled to live wherever they choose, I'm skeptical that such people have much of value to say about real CITIES.

From the interview:

Q: "You have recently moved to America, and now split your time between rural Virginia and England . . . ."

Q: "Professor Scruton, in addition to writing and teaching, you run a rural consultancy together with your wife, and a farm. Is your farm profitable, or is it more of a hobby?"

A: "Very few farms are profitable, and ours exists more to establish our identity as a rural consultancy and ideas factory. Our neighbors turn grass into milk and make a loss; we turn grass into ideas and make a profit. We keep horses of our own, which we look after, and allow our neighbors to use the pasture for their cows: cows too, viewed from the window, can easily be made into ideas. We also keep chickens, and occasionally pigs, which we turn into sausages, after their brief time as ideas."

- - - - - -

2) In my opinion, Scruton displays a misunderstanding about cities in the following quote:

"I mean architecture which respects the street as the principal public space, which recognizes that FITTING IN IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN STANDING OUT, and which is capable of changing its use, as all great architecture changes its use over time."

If he were only talking about a plethora of structures by orthodox modern starchitects, I would agree with him. But from other statements of his, I also get the feeling he means the Empire State Building, etc., etc.

3) Here's another example of what seems to me to be his anti-urbanism. (I'm typing in a hurry and I'm not sure if this is from MB's link or an essay regarding Jane Jacobs that Scruton wrote.)

"Modernist housing projects, which stack people vertically instead of allowing them to live side-by-side in streets, cause estrangement and social disintegration."

The problem with modernist housing projects in my opinion (and, so it seems to me, in the opinion of Jane Jacobs,, too) is not what Scruton describes (which sounds like it was inspired by passages in "A Pattern Language") but with the fact that they surround the highrises with empty pseudo-surburban open space ("tower-in-the-park") and have relatively low densities, little commerce, little diversity of building types and uses, etc.

- - - - - - -

3) I think Scruton also misunderstands the role of rules and "planning" in city development.

Here's a example from an essay he did on Jane Jacobs after she died:

"The question that Jacobs has bequeathed to us remains unanswered, however. How do we get out of the mess? If the problem is planning, how can we plan to avoid it? And is there no distinction between a good plan and a bad plan? Wasn't Venice planned, after all, and Ephesus, and Bath, and a thousand other triumphs of urbanisation? Just to allow a free-for-all is to replace the city with a shantytown."

I orginally found this Scruton essay on the Open Democracy website and posted a comment on it. The comment no longer seems to be attached to the essay (while my e-mail address is still subjected to frequent spam from this website!). (If I find a draft of my comment in my e-mail account, I will post it later.)

I don't have time at the moment to comment as fully as I did in that post, but I think the areas that Scruton considers "shanty towns" are likely the most beloved parts of New York City (e.g., Times Square, SoHo, Wall St., etc.) -- and other lively, successful American cities too.

4) As mentioned previously, the Scruton idea of urbanism seems almost soley based on aesthetics (as opposed to Jacobs' urbanism which is also based on social functioning, political functioning and most of all on economic functioning).

Here's more from the Scruton essay where I think he illustrates his lack of interest in, and understanding of, how cities work socially, politically and economicly (and also displays a lack of understanding about Jane Jacobs's work):

"Thus Helsinki, which grew within the constraint that no building must rise above the height that would entirely fill the street with shadow, developed during the 19th and early 20th centuries into one of the most genial and people-friendly of places. Similar rules have preserved the urban character of Geneva and Washington, just as the law demanding the use of Roman pan-tiles has preserved the landscape and townscape of Provence.

Constraints on materials, styles, heights, and sizes, rather than on functions; recognition of the street as the primary public space, and of pedestrians as the primary users of it; preservation of façades and street frontages, while facilitating change of use behind them: all such remedies, which are slowly emerging (for example in the renewal of Baltimore and other damaged American cities) and which have been powerfully advocated and illustrated by Leon Krier at Poundbury and by the New Urbanists in Italy and America – all owe an incalculable debt to Jane Jacobs.

But they also illustrate the way in which her own preference for "spontaneity" over "planning" cannot, in the end, be sustained. It is not planning that has destroyed the American city, but the wrong kind of planning directed towards the wrong kind of things."

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on September 16, 2008 6:42 PM

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