John Hayes

I’m declaring war on ugly architecture

I'm declaring war on ugly architecture
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This speech by John Hayes, the transport minister, was first delivered on October 31

Politicians speak a lot and sometimes they speak sense. Too rarely they challenge orthodox assumptions and more rarely still take action to turn back tides. This evening I will challenge an orthodoxy, and give notice to the determinist doubters and defenders of the indefensible that, during my time as Minister of State for Transport, in respect of the built environment, I will turn the tide.

My case is bold, controversial, and, to some, provocative. Yet the view I will articulate here is widely shared; sometimes falteringly, even guiltily. But shared nonetheless. For me the core of my case is startlingly obvious. Yet it is rarely put and, when put, often derided.

The rarity with which the case for beauty is articulated is explained partly by timidity, and partly by unwillingness to challenge modernist determinism; by the surrender of many decent people to the Whiggish notion that the future is bound to be better than now and, in any case, there isn’t much we can do about altering it. The aesthetics of our built environment – including our transport architecture – has suffered from what Sir Roger Scruton has called the Cult of Ugliness. Yet there are signs that we’re on the cusp of a popular revolt against this soulless cult, and we must do everything in our power to fuel the revolt. Now, because of the government’s colossal investment in new transport, we have a unique opportunity to be the vanguard of a renaissance.

My first point ought to be beyond doubt. Yet, it must be made more starkly and more bluntly. It is this: the overwhelming majority of public architecture built during my lifetime is aesthetically worthless, simply because it is ugly. This assertion is not so much challenged by defenders of contemporary architecture as dismissed out of hand. They say that yes, I might find it ugly (or sometimes, more politely, ‘some people’ might), but that’s nothing more than my subjective personal judgement – and as such, of no significance. Or, alternatively, they defend much of what is built, because it is functional.

Most argue that it is utility that counts; practicality and convenience trumps all. As His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales says in his wonderful book, Harmony - ‘Modernism deliberately abstracted Nature and glamourised convenience.’ This detachment from the past, with its reverence for all inspired by the natural order means, in the Prince’s words, that:

'We have become semi-detached bystanders, empirically correct spectators rather than what the ancients understood us to ‘be’, which is participants in creation.'

Some modernists seem to suggest that we’ve grown out of a need for beauty, that a love of beauty is the sign of an immature or unsophisticated outlook. And some of our enemies say and - still more sadly - believe that to pursue the purely functional is intrinsically efficacious. Others cling to a tired desire to shock; a sad addiction to the newness of things. They echo Reynar Banham, who said (in his 1955 Architectural Overview):

‘in the last resort what characterises the New Brutalism in architecture […] is precisely its brutality, its bloody-mindedness.’

The most stupid of all those we face and fight claim that our industrial and public buildings are bound to be bland, or even ugly, that they need be nothing more. It may be that there are even those who still cling to what must have driven some of the post-war planners: that to strive for the beautiful after the horrors of the twentieth century would be to pursue mere triviality or sentimentality. Perhaps they think it better for our architecture, like all our arts, to revel in the suffering and brutality of the human experience.

Well, yes, life is sometimes ugly. Which is precisely why we must create all of the sublimity of which we are capable – to enthral and inspire; to counter the disappointment and harm which are bound to be part of human frailty. Be warned! The descendants of the brutalists still each day design and build new horrors from huge concrete slabs to out of scale; rough-hewn buildings, and massive sculptural shaped structures which bear little or no relationship to their older neighbours. Consider swathes of the worst of our towns and cities; then say that I am wrong.

To respond in detail to these objections, we might draw on the great philosophers. Plato, through Aristotle, Hume, Hegel and Burke; and as the battle I intend to wage may become bloody, I probably will. For they have all affirmed beauty as a thing of universal human value. But for all the intellectual paucity of the brutal, modernising so-called ‘progressives’ - the case for ugliness in architecture falls on one straightforward fact: people don’t like it.

They crave harmony. The Prince of Wales foundation for Building Community has found that 84% of those asked want new buildings to reflect historic form, style and materials. Take a walk through a typical British town or city. Most of our urban areas are an ill-considered patchwork of buildings old and new. But which buildings, I ask you, will invariably be the shabbiest and neglected, the most disfigured by vandalism or scarred by graffiti?

It is usually the relatively modern buildings – those built within my lifetime – including the transport infrastructure such as roads, bridges, post-war bus and train stations, and car parks. The rare exceptions are normally those modern buildings which have not yet had time to sink into the neglect for which they are surely destined. And which of our buildings are typically the most-obviously treasured?

Older buildings, shaped by vernacular style, where architects and craftsmen have taken care that what they imagined and constructed fitted what was there before, and are not just useful to their inhabitants but, through form and detail, lift their spirits, nurturing individual and communal. What’s happened in our built environment is mirrored in much else. I deeply regret brutality and disharmony whenever it’s found. But it is less pernicious in what can be avoided. By contrast, transport architecture, however, is used by everyone; it is ever present. And there is something profoundly elitist about the way ugliness has been imposed upon it.

In so many areas of design, ugliness and destruction remain rampant, unchallenged by those with the power to prevent it. It is rewarded by critics and investors, eager to associate themselves with the momentary shock of brash novelty, or greedily building what is cheap and easy. Convenience! A by-word for the credo of those that can’t see what is wrong or don’t want to. Few of the culprits would choose to live or spend their own working lives in the structures they make.

We have had enough of the desecration of our towns and cities. And I believe that it is transport that offers a way forward. The government has begun a once-in-a-lifetime programme of investment in our transport infrastructure. Building new roads, new railways and new stations, as well as overhauling those already here. We’re spending billions on Crossrail, HS2, Crossrail 2, new roads and bridges, hundreds of new trains. Throughout it all, we have a precious opportunity to do more and do better. And transport is the perfect medium for leading the way to the public realm of the beautiful, for these reasons.

First, because so much transport design already gives us a direct link to the past, to a more aesthetically demanding age. And in this, we’re fortunate that so much of our Kingdom’s transport was built before the twentieth century, in an age of a different orthodoxy, when beauty in design was expected. Kings Cross, St Pancras, Paddington and Bristol Temple Meads, yes. But also the classical portico of Huddersfield station. The ecclesiasticism of Carlisle. The gentle gothic of Great Malvern. And hundreds of other stations, all distinctive, and all welcoming and refreshing to the tired traveller.

It’s telling, too, that unlike the 1970s office blocks which litter our city centres, much attractive transport architecture is attentively preserved, even after it has outlived its original purpose. That includes much rail architecture, such as Monkwearmouth Station, north of Sunderland city centre, now a museum; Camden Roundhouse, built in 1846 as an engine shed for the London and Birmingham Railway and now one of our best concert halls.

And there are examples from other transport modes too: the Wolseley car showroom on Piccadilly, now the famous restaurant. These structures testify that transport design can be beautiful, and that beauty – far from fading – grows and endures.

The second reason that new transport design matters so much is that it is an architecture of the people. Our busiest stations are used by millions every day. Their design has a profound effect on the well-being of those who pass through.

The critic Richard Morrison is right about Euston station. He said:

Euston is one of the nastiest concrete boxes in London: devoid of any decorative merit; seemingly concocted to induce maximum angst among passengers; The design […] gives the impression of having been scribbled on the back of a soiled paper bag by a thuggish android with a grudge against humanity and a vampiric loathing of sunlight”.

For better or worse, transport hubs like Euston frame our working days, and punctuate our working lives. When transport design is done well, it raises expectations. As Roger Scruton has written about the “old stations such as Paddington and St Pancras…”:

The architecture is noble, serene, upright. The spaces open before you. Everything is picked out with ornamental details. You are at home here, and you have no difficulty finding the ticket office, the platform or the way through the crowds.

Many of us will recognise these contrasting experiences. They prompt us to ask - why can’t all buildings be designed with concern for form and detail? If we learn from this experience, and seek to replicate the best in our new infrastructure, we have great power to satisfy the people’s will for structures that enhance our sense of worth by affirming our sense of place. Ours can be – must be – an age in which aesthetic quality of the public realm soars.

The final reason why I believe transport presents a remarkable opportunity for beauty is that, in a number of cases, transport is already beginning to counter the blind orthodoxy of ugliness. There is St Pancras, and Kings Cross, where – dare I say – the original station is enhanced by its extension, its glory revealed, its new addition is like a child, unique, but recognisably spawned from its parent. There’s also Blackfriars, transformed from a subterranean nightmare into a station with the world’s best platform views.

We might even claim the Boris Bus, which, at very least beautiful, certainly has style. Further afield there’s the British-designed Millau Bridge in France, a striking, graceful structure which, like the best Victorian viaducts, complements and enhances its environment. Let no-one say it can’t be done. It has been, and by our generation.

Now we have an opportunity to build on these all-too-rare successes, to make aesthetics a matter of public policy. And that’s exactly what I have a mandate to do. But more than that. It is my mission.

For our roads, I have established a design panel and had its role written into the Highways England’s operating licence. Its membership includes the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community, the Design Council, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, Natural England, and many others.

On HS2, we have established a design panel almost 50-strong. I will be looking closely at its remit, role and appropriateness. I expect to do more and do it better. No more soulless ubiquity. No more demolition of our railway heritage. No more sub-standard, conceptually flawed buildings. No more excuses, in the guise of ergonomics, for an ignorance of aesthetics.

May one place be our totem; our guide to the future, our chance to signal the renaissance. We will make good the terrible damage that was done to Euston, by resurrecting the Euston Arch. Recently, I have seen its stones, pulled from the River Lea, where they were ignobly dumped in 1962.

I support the Euston Arch Trust’s great ambition to see those stones stand in Euston once again as part of the rebuilt arch. And we will want to plan our work in the coming weeks. What a statement it will be of the revolt against the Cult of Ugliness, of our new orthodoxy. We can and will turn back the tide.

My certain conviction is unwavering. We will beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly to new elegance, style and beauty. So be warmed - or warned - when I speak next I will set out when and how. How we will change what is built and what is saved – roads, rail and beyond. Some who did the damage to our country were crass and careless. But some wrought monstrous havoc knowingly, wilfully. All of them Philistines. Well now the Philistines have met their David.