Reading Sir Roger Scruton and Architecture

Very few of us will ever be addressed adjectivally. Nonetheless, Roger Scruton (1944-2020) is deserving of such an epithet, and "Scrutonian gusto" first appeared in a sarcastic 1985 Architectural Review piece. The Oxford English Dictionary does not yet include the term "Scrutonian," while it does include Sir Roger's intellectual heroes, those who adhere to "Kantian" and "Hegelian" philosophy; "Burkean" is mysteriously absent, but his intellectual adversaries, such as "Sartrian" and "Marcusian," are included. If Sir Roger had been simply one of the twentieth century's foremost philosophers of aesthetics, would the term "Scrutonian" have adequately captured the spirit of his work? However, Sir Roger's most remarkable wordplay on his surname occurred later, when he began referring to his farm as "Scrutopia," a humorous but memorable neologism that would grow to become a summer school at his rural Wiltshire retreat, attracting guests from far beyond British shores.

If only for marketing acumen, coining Scrutopia was a stroke of genius. According to a web search, much more writers have now used the term Scrutopia than the more dry, academic Scrutonian references found. And one hopes that Scrutopia continues to exist, not just as a summer school or a farm, but as a way of experiencing the world, whether built or natural. To be Scrutopian is to recognise, preserve, and create beautiful places. While Sir Roger was a scholar of aesthetics, art, music, sex, and conservatism, he began devoting a large portion of his time early in his career to improving architecture and urban life. Others in Britain—notably the poet John Betjeman and writer Ian Nairn—had spoken out before his coming of age, but no more articulate spokesperson for saving the built environment has emerged since Scruton rose to prominence in the 1970s. There were also Americans who inspired us to care about cities and architecture, such as urbanist Jane Jacobs and novelist Tom Wolfe; Scruton later impacted conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic, and indeed throughout the world. This Scrutopian movement began before it was conscious of itself and is likely to outlive its most prominent proponent, but it began with a revolutionary thesis—and sparked an ongoing debate with the architectural establishment.

Scruton argued in his seminal 1979 work The Aesthetics of Architecture that architecture is a profoundly moral endeavour, and not simply about constructing functional or utilitarian structures. Louis Sullivan, a notable Chicago architect, popularised the axiom "form follows function," and architects have subsequently been pushed down a path toward subjective taste, with no ability to evaluate comparative aesthetic characteristics. Was a 1960s Brutalist-style skyscraper no better or worse than a Georgian terrace of townhouses in the 18th century? Scruton was disturbed that "[c]ontemporary architects frequently speak of 'design difficulties' and 'design solutions'"; they "either strive to eliminate aesthetic considerations totally or to approach them as one of a collection of problems to be solved." He observed that architects appeared to be so absorbed in abstract theories that they failed to consider other variables, and so set out to demonstrate that "aesthetic judgement is a vital factor in everyday life." Another crucial component is what Edmund Burke, T.S. Eliot, and Russell Kirk refer to as "moral imagination," with Scruton stating that "in imaginative experience, reasoned deliberation, critical choice, and present experience are interwoven." It was vital that "aesthetic judgement upholds an ideal of objectivity and a connection to mortal existence."

As the 1980s dawned and Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan's acolytes shifted the Western world to the right, Scruton was sceptical that conservatism was defined exclusively by "market solutions," as necessary as they were for containing the ever-expanding state and winning the Cold War. Scruton was concerned that certain libertarians, drawing on the beliefs of famed economist F.A. Hayek, were claiming that no city or town planning was necessary. While he lauded the origins of "spontaneous order" and was particularly taken with Jane Jacobs's "sidewalk ballet" of the urban street, he believed it was "dangerous" to abandon any attempt to preserve a greater order. Hayek's thoughts demonstrated that while "civil society" was necessary for the development of "tacit knowledge," once an established order was created, "a conscious effort must be made to defend [it]" since it "can no longer defend itself." Thus, the quality and tone of Scruton's writing shifted from academic to popular intellectual. In 1984, he published an essay on the value of "public space" in Irving Kristol's influential American journal The Public Interest, which eventually formed part of a collection of writings titled The Classical Vernacular: Architectural Principles in an Age of Nihilism. This anthology transitioned from aesthetic theory to more pragmatic involvement with public policy, which irritated those on the Right, particularly Hayekian types.

However, another emerging threat—postmodernism—was already making its mark on city skylines and streetscapes. The early-to-mid twentieth century's high modernism and International Style had begun to decline, and much of it had been replaced by quirky ornamental references to the past. (Perhaps the most emblematic was the 1984 former AT&T Building in Midtown Manhattan, with its pediment resembling a Chippendale highboy dresser atop the 37-story tower.) Scruton was appalled: "To borrow classical qualities as surface ornamentation without the discipline required to use them as guiding principles for architectural thought is to advance further down modernism's nihilistic path." What would have been the alternative? Scruton's "classical vernacular" is not a style or an aesthetic choice, but a method of construction that is both universal and appropriate to certain locations and periods in time. The term "vernacular" conjures up images of living language. Indeed, he makes a point of demonstrating that dynamic places should draw on both tradition and unchangeable human nature to produce structures and streetscapes that elicit feelings of comfort and belonging. "The classical idiom does not so much impose uniformity as it makes diversity pleasant," he writes. At the heart of the Scruptopian initiative is this sense of defining and protecting diverse shared communities. While he frequently extols the English environment (and its villages, towns, and cities), he has also written movingly about the Middle East's traditional architecture being destroyed, in part as a result of the West's military involvement and utopian schemes.

The Scrutopian yearns not just for the pastoral but also the creation of a humane metropolis. Architects can use new technologies, not to reinvent the wheel—consider the innovation of steel girders and beams, which enabled the construction of numerous big structures and bridges—but to maintain a feeling of place and time, as Scruton explains:

During the skyscraper's formative years, the new iron-framed structures took care to demonstrate their connection to the street, with detailing that provided a street-level façade and an obvious relationship to adjacent buildings and the sidewalk.

Such structures soared gleefully into the air and were slotted into the sky by elegant caps and crowns that disguised their bluntness. Even when constructed entirely of mass-produced moulded components, such as the Woolworth Building in New York with its cast gothic panels, they appeared to be correctly constituted of those components and stood to attention in the public square as if awaiting recognition and approval. I am not claiming that the outcome was an unqualified aesthetic triumph, much less a collection of masterpieces. Nonetheless, the skyscraper idiom was an attempt to resist the subsequent trend of draping steel frames with glass or alloy panels, as Mies did with the Seagram building and the hundreds of faceless blocks that followed.

The era preceding the skyscraper was the nineteenth-century railroad era, and even in an age of greed and inequality, public architecture reached new heights with Victorian and Beaux-Arts stations. The harried passenger was nevertheless elevated, indicating the importance of beauty in addition to utility. Unlike our time's featureless superhighways, the railroad attempted to enhance existing settlements, as Scruton notes: "The architecture of its stations, viaducts, and railway furniture did not degrade, but rather enhanced the visual amenity of the landscape and was pleasantly integrated into our cities and towns..." This is why so many people fought to save New York City's demolished classical Penn Station, and why the most significant historical landmarks are preserved and repurposed, even when their original purposes are obsolete: " paraphrase [Louis] Sullivan when it comes to beautiful architecture, function follows form." Beautiful structures are repurposed; just practical structures are demolished." Scruton began his first architectural treatise by concluding that "certain methods of construction are correct, while others are incorrect." It was a somewhat sudden conclusion, however, one must admire the moral clarity expressed. There was, of course, more to say, and as he approached his final decade, by then well established in his own Scrutopia, he brought something more to the fore. Scruton's ultimate goal—for architecture, art, music, and love—was always beauty. Scruton's 2009 book, Beauty, reads as less concerned with winning debates and more frantic to persuade others that beauty must endure—and therefore save civilization. It is about more than Western civilization, as he takes the effort to demonstrate why advocating the classical vernacular is not anti-Western, imperialist, or bourgeois affirmation. "The divisions between means and ends, instrumental and contemplative attitudes, and use and meaning are all necessary for practical reasoning and are not related with any particular social is by no means unique to that place and time."

While we are capable of appreciating civilizations other than our own, we cannot become cosmopolitans. According to him, human nature is such that "our desire for belonging is an integral element of who we are and is the fundamental foundation of aesthetic judgement." To discover the beauty, we must first establish a sense of self-sufficiency and a sense of belonging—in our neighbourhood, city, or region. Because all forms of beauty exist on a continuum, Scruton encourages those of us who are not engaged in creating great works of art but in "everyday life" to seek harmony rather than striking a discordant note: "In the case of urban design, for example, the goal is first and foremost to fit in, not to stand out."

To some, this quickly conjures up images of tyranny, or, in less loaded terms, stifling innovation. A modest stance is another approach to respond to such a basic principle of "fittingness." This is also unappealing in our modern culture, where liberty is characterised by maximum individual fulfilment, leaving little room for Christian humility-inspired qualities. Notably, Scruton never directly enters the theological sphere in Beauty, but concludes that "rational humans" do possess freedom and can select a "route away from degradation toward the sacred and sacrificial." To discover and cultivate this feeling of the sacred in your daily life—particularly in your small patch of the globe, and later in other areas extending outwards—is to be Scrutopian. If it reads nearly like a "new age" self-help book, then those who dismissed Scruton as an old, conservative reactionary may reconsider their hatred. And as more people read and reread Scruton's work, it will help improve the terms of public conversation, so maintaining intellectual conservatism's vitality and relevance. Scruton's name may not appear as a deserving adjective in the dictionary, but his work will continue to spark important debates—and to recognise transcendent experiences, particularly for those who strive to live in beautiful settings.