But when you compare the glories of traditional architecture to the stuff we build now, it’s hard not to be, says Michael Gove, our man in the bicycle clips with the neatly knotted tie
How conservative are Conservatives allowed to be? None of us want to think of ourselves as stereotypes, and of all the stereotypes people have traditionally run away from, few have been as unfashionable as the identikit traditionalist. Its permissible, of course, to have a weakness for tweed and heather but blend that with an attachment to Bulldog Drummond novels and a collection of royal family commemorative porcelain and you teeter on the edge of self-parody.
It’s acceptable, just, to love Wagner and Dostoevsky, but combine high culture with anything tie-wearing, claret-drinking, church-going, a moustache, kippers for breakfast and you are a Stereotypical Fogey, located culturally somewhere between Tory Boy and Ted and Ralph.
In a spirit of full disclosure I’m happy to admit that I do have some embarrassingly Tory tastes (Wagner, Dornford Yates, thick-cut marmalade), but I hope that I don’t fall completely into the stereotype trap by at least preserving other passions and preferences (The Proclaimers and Irvine Welsh, Heroes and Greek, Pret’s Yoga Bunny Detox and taking my espresso macchiato).
In a spirit of full disclosure I’m happy to admit that I do have some embarrassingly Tory tastes (Wagner, Dornford Yates, thick-cut marmalade)
There is one area, however, where my tastes are so achingly, terrifyingly, horrendously conservative that I fear to share them with the readers of Building. Architecture.
I have to confess that I am a believer in pillars and a lover of orders, a sucker for Doric and Corinthian, and also, perhaps even more recklessly, a devotee of perpendicular and the Puginesque.
I can recognise the beauty of some modernist buildings and can even be persuaded, intellectually, that there are trends in postmodernist building that compel admiration. But my heart doesn’t leap when I look at them, and certainly there is nothing I know that has been built in my lifetime as ravishing as the work of Palladio, Wren, Vanbrugh, Barry, Lutyens or Adam.
Volume housebuilders produced homes in styles that were debased, rather than modernised, versions of traditional architecture
Now I know that whenever a fogey like me (even one with a rather more famous mum and therefore rather greater powers of patronage) talks like this the P words get thrown at us. Our tastes are nothing more than an open door to pastiche. If we had our way the country would be a mess of little Poundburies. Why can’t we just pilaster off?
As far as I can see, the vehemence of the counter-reaction is proof that I’m onto something. Great architecture of the past took an historic language and updated it. The Georgians respected the rules that govern building in the classical style and modernised them. The Victorians approached the traditions of English perpendicular and the gothic with appropriate respect but also re-invigorated and re-interpreted them. They had an approach to the built environment, both public and domestic, that was rooted in a respect for the human eye, the human scale, the human heart. But we’re not getting that now. There are few architects I know of seeking to re-interpret traditional principles, few buildings that are recognisably a fresh development of these great traditions.
In the last 60 years or so there has been a double break with tradition. The modernists led a revolt against architecture on a human scale and replaced it with a vision which was more bracingly mechanical and intellectually austere. And there was also a breach in the relationship between the public and the domestic. Whereas public commissions (including for large-scale social housing) reflected the new imperatives of modernist thinking, domestic architecture for private purchase became divorced from high quality design. Volume builders produced homes in styles that were debased, rather than modernised, versions of traditional architecture. Even when there was money available, the sort of new dwelling being built was much more pastiche than homage.
And I’m sure that’s one of the reasons why there’s been so much popular resistance to new development. Because the public associate new buildings either with brutal modernism, postmodernist whimsy or lowest-common-denominator commercial. If more new building respected the tastes that history, tradition and the human heart had sanctified over time then I suspect we’d have more new building. I know that the cost of the planning system makes good design more expensive. And I sympathise. But if we want to live in a country that is responding properly to the demand for new homes, and therefore a country that believes in social mobility, maybe we should rediscover the beauty of conservatism.
Michael Gove is shadow secretary of state for Children, Schools and Families