Michael Gove is quite right to say that the best British urban plans – the Nash Terraces of Regent’s Park, or Edinburgh’s New Town – make the country more beautiful.
And, if new development schemes were as beautiful as that, we’d all rush to live in them. The problem is, in one of the world’s most tragic acts of wilful amnesia, modern architects have forgotten how to build mass housing beautifully. No wonder we all become Nimbys.
Only recently, I met an enthusiastic, newly qualified architect, her eyes brimming with excitement at the prospect of turning ideas into buildings.
“What’s your dream building, the one you’d build if you had all the money and all the time in the world?” I asked her.
“A glass box.”
“Erm… any particular glass box? Any features you might add to it? Anything you might want to put inside it?”
“No. Just the perfect glass box.”
The drive towards nothingness has been accelerated by the end of the traditional teaching of architectural history in architecture degrees. The architect who was so keen on glass boxes was shocked when I asked whether the classical orders of architecture were taught during her degree.
“Oh no – I’m not sure they’d be very useful these days,” she said, in a tone which subtly implied this sort of knowledge was not only an old-fashioned, fogeyish perversion, but also a positive impediment to free-thinking originality. A few organisations are fighting a rearguard action against this nihilist philosophy – Prince Charles’s Foundation for the Built Environment among them – but they are in a tiny minority.
Meanwhile, the British public – with far better taste than most architects – have gone on buying beautiful, old buildings. The British pay a 16 per cent premium – an average of £38,000 – to live in spa towns, with their older, prettier buildings: properties in Boston Spa cost 98 per cent more than homes in the rest of West Yorkshire.
Across the country, houses built before 1919 have risen in value by more than 450 per cent over the last 25 years, more than any other type of property: partly because there are fewer of them, they’re bigger and they’re in better locations, but also because we so much prefer older, more beautiful styles.
We prefer our new buildings to look old because we know how ugly modern buildings tend to be. The first 20th century building to be acquired by the National Trust, in 1974, was a mock-medieval castle – Castle Drogo, Devon, finished by Edwin Lutyens in 1930 – rather than an archetypal modern building, like, say, a Bauhaus block of flats or a nuclear power plant.
Who could possibly defend the modern horrors inflicted on our cities by architects over the last half century? Along with the dreaded tower block, the urban planners lined up the other three horsemen of the apocalypse – the ring road, the urban highway and the shopping centre.