Architecture and Ideology
by Elias Blum
I did my PhD at the University of Glasgow. It’s a fine University and I’m rather proud of having studied (and for some time also having taught) there.
If you visit the University of Glasgow, and stand in the middle of University Avenue, you can see in front of you the University’s Main Buildings. It looks exactly as a University should look – a gothic revival structure which, with its cloisters and dreaming spires, pays homage to the monastic roots of universities.
If you turn around, however, you’ll see the Boyd Orr building – a monstrosity of brutalist concrete.
One cannot contrast these two sets of images without seeing them as a visual sign of the malaise in Western civilisation in the 20th century, not only in academia, but also in wider culture and society.
It was John Ruskin, father of the gothic revival and grandfather of the arts and crafts movement, whose architectural sketches contrasted the mechanical dehumanisation of the Victorian workhouse with the humane medieval institution of monastic almshouses. The same contrast can be seen today.
On the one hand we have the gothic revival Main Building, with its lofty search for transcendence and excellence, rooted in Western Christendom. Even the University’s motto on the iron gates – ‘Via, Veritas, Vita’ (‘the Way, the Truth, the Life’) reminds us that academic life is not simply a matter of understanding or manipulating the world, but of reflecting in it God’s glory and of equipping us to play our part in the new creation that is being brought into being in Christ.
On the other, we see the grotesque product of the stark utilitarianism and positivism. One could see it as the psychological scarring of two world wars extruded into cold concrete. It is looks like what happens when we reject hope, faith, beauty and the aesthetics and values of the Christian tradition: everything turns ugly.
This architectural observation has an important bearing on the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Much of the blame for the disaster has rightly been blamed on neoliberalism. Indeed, with its cost-cutting and its outsourcing, its elevation of private profits over the common good, and its mania for deregulation, neoliberalism was at least partly responsible for the disaster.
But Grenfell Tower, like the Boyd Orr Building at the University of Glasgow, was built before neoliberalism kicked in, at the tail end of a long period during which social democracy had been the dominant mode of thought and of policy practice. Social democracy – in the particular form it took in post-war Britain – must also bear some of the blame, for having built the bloody thing in the first place.
For all its many worthy achievements, post-war social democracy was trapped in a functionalist, materialist, bureaucratic mindset – the mindset that gave rise to the Brutalist horrors, like Grenfell Tower and the Boyd Orr, which still mar our cities.
I think of the words ‘social democracy’, the image that comes to mind is of grey concrete towers. That’s not not an attractive image. I do wonder whether part of the left’s electability problem stems from that sort of aesthetic association. It’s dull, dreary, uninspiring. Certainly not aspirational.
The words ‘Christian democracy’, on the other hand, bring to mind rather different and more attractive images. If the welfare state had been built by Christian Democrats rather than social democrats, then perhaps Grenfell’s residents would not have been stacked vertically into the sky as if they had no intrinsic value. Perhaps they would have been housed in ‘Garden City’ cottages, at street level and their own front doors, with swings and flowerbeds and vegetable patches. At least, that’s how I imagine it.
If the left wants to really improve the human condition, it has to start thinking in terms of the whole person. We are not just homo faber or homo economics, but people with hearts, souls and sensibilities. Man does not live by bread alone. We need bread, yes, but also roses. Beauty, imagination, faith, tradition, belonging, a search for something bigger and better than ourselves, all have a place in the good life.