The Politics of Architecture

30 April 2013
Ben Pentreath

A lighthearted midweek post. Honest.

For those American readers who’ve never heard or understood of weird British politics, let me explain a few things. We’ve got two main political parties, just like you. Labour and Conservative. Both of which turn every year more and more American; in style, image and lack of substance.

But unlike you, we have a lot of minor ones. Because no one wants to vote for the major ones, the minor ones are rattling the cage of politics right now. Right now, in fact, they hold the balance of power: our Coalition government is a mix of two groups (the Conservatives, who have teamed up with the Liberals) who, charmingly, pathologically hate each other, it seems to me, more than either of them hate the other side. Weird, but true. Are you with me so far?

Well, there’s a new kid on the block. They are called UKIP. In fact they’re a very old-fashioned kindof kid, but in the last 3 minutes they’ve been making rather a lot of hot air because no-one had ever taken them seriously before and suddenly they are… if not quite winning votes…  at least stopping the Conservatives from winning votes. Because they are almost more conservative than Conservatives, without necessarily being crazy religious gun-totin’ gay-hatin’ fruitcakes, like your Conservatives over there in the New World.

So all sorts of conservative folk have decided the Conservatives have let them down (by teaming up with those Liberals) and they’re going to take their vote elsewhere, thank you very much too.

UKIP stands for the UK Independence Party and for years they’ve stood on the basis of one thing only. They want Britain to get out of Europe. And they hate the Euro, and they really hate Immigration. What I’ve always found odd about this is that my gut feeling is that by far and away the biggest supporters of UKIP seem to be a variety of fat, rather crude, doubtless charming-under-the-surface-but-I’ve-never-quite-seen-it, retired English people who’ve decided to live their latter years in Spain and spend the whole time complaining about the friggin locals. Which, of course, they can only do because we’re part of Europe, otherwise they’d still be scrabbling about in the cold and rain in some desperate suburb of a northern city.

Of course, my dear mum threatens to vote UKIP all the time, but I wonder if she ever has?

My politics has always been pretty simple. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. You leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone.  Let me do what I want in the bedroom and I won’t try and stop you from fox hunting or wearing a brass cross around your neck at work, if it really is important. You be civilised to me; I’ll be nice back.

Oh, and my second rule, is always try and look at every problem from the opposite point of view.  Clearly no good if you’re looking for a strong leader, but luckily I spend my weekends pottering around in my veg garden instead of deciding how to lead. It’s the politics of understanding.

Without wanting to get personal, I’ve only ever voted Labour in my life. Which is weird because if you looked at me you’d think I was a nice true blue Tory (that’s slang for a Conservative, for the American audience. You see, it’s all being explained here). Well, I probably am a true blue Tory, at least by nurture, if not by nature. Like: obviously I should want lower high rates of taxes and all? Yes, but I always think it’s a bit more… interesting… not to vote in one’s own personal interest. Don’t you?  Voting just for yourself seems, hmmm, rather narrow-minded.

OKAY OKAY I HEAR A COLLECTIVE YAWN, why de F**K is ben pentreath ranting on again?

Well, back to UKIP, if you will.

Yesterday, I happened to discover a rather weird video that some nutcase supporter of UKIP has placed on You tube.  At time of writing, it has 64 views. Obviously I expect that number to rise dramatically now that I’ve brought it to the attention of thousands of metropolitan sophisticates just like you.

Here it is.  If you’re in your office, please put your headphones on. The swelling soundtrack is critical to the mood of the film.  If you’re reading at home, please turn up the volume button.

Why am I so fussed?

Because 38 seconds in to this piece of drama, BUILDINGS THAT I HAVE DESIGNED OPEN THE FLIPPING FILM. HELLO!?!?!??!?!

As the dramatic music swells, the dreadfully-filmed video swoops around a group of houses called Woodland Crescent, that I designed years ago now, in Prince Charles’s development in Poundbury. The grainy film effect is slightly sinister, a little creepy. The score makes me wonder if by 1 minute and 7 seconds I’m about to witness some dreadful murder. No: we are just learning that this is how UK Independence Party wants Britain to look.

Okay, okay, I appreciate that once you’ve put a building up – it belongs to everyone. A fact that from time to time I think might be forgotten by one or two Starchitects, who I sometimes think are just designing for themselves. But nonetheless, this is rather taking it too far. At 1 minute 35 more buildings that I’ve designed (this time in Scotland) pop up.

At which point, I couldn’t help thinking: GUYS, please leave me alone, if I leave you alone!!

So. I know that for centuries buildings have been political things. No more so than in the 20th century: Mussolini, Albert Speer, Stalin, I know, I know, Classical architecture is deeply totalitarian blah blah.  Oh god, even worse, then there are the counter arguments, about meaning in architecture, and 20th century modernists using everyone as little lab rats, and the fact that Greece was the original democracy…….. and…. well, you can see why I want to throw myself off a cliff when politicians and pundits start talking about architecture and vice versa.

For me, I just want to design a few nice houses. I want them to look nice, I’d quite like them to fit in, I want people to be happy there, I want them to be well-proportioned and well detailed and I want the people who are building those houses to feel a little sense of pride that they’ve made something worthwhile at the end of the day.  (I’m not sure that if you’re a bricklayer for a volume house builder you necessarily feel that).

What’s this all about? The trauma, perhaps, of finding out suddenly that I’m a poster boy for a political party that I think is a joke?  Needing to get a few things off my chest?  Or merely proving the rule that you should never drink 4 glasses of wine while composing a blog about politics one evening?

We had a good laugh about the UK Independence Party in the office this morning. But, in all honesty, I’d sooner they’d leave my buildings out of it.

17 comments on this post

Deborah Wagnersays:

I have just happened upon your website, Ben. I watched the video before reading your post, so I took it on its merits with no backstory on the party. I am, I should point out, a far-left liberal with some knowledge about design, architecture, etc. and am in no way a Luddite. However, I am so in favor of this movement, you have no idea. Given what East Cambridge (Massachusetts, USA, where I live) is going through with the repurposing of the Sullivan Courthouse and jail, a 22-story brutalist blight in the middle of three-story 19th century neighborhood, something needs to be done in the US as well. My husband says he has never seen a building with “Implode Me” writ so large across it – but they won’t, because it is full as asbestos and there is money to be made on 22 stories of square footage, even if the top sixty feet are bright orange. We are stuck with it. There is glorious modern architecture – but this is not it. Nor is Boston City Hall at Government Center, was so overrun with mice after 40 years that people would not put their handbags on the floor. I expect a properly built structure to keep vermin out for at least the first 100 years, and it if can manage not to look like an old air conditioner when fashions move along, that’s a plus.


For me, any building typology that engages stylistic elements visible in the video can only encourage reactionary fandom so I wouldn’t be surprised at the free advertising. This is not a debate about classicism or modernism but about views that it was always better in the good old days and this is to me an alarmingly dangerous world view.

Unhappily the UKIP video is now private. Love your work Mr Pentreath. Architects and especially students need to realize that the Venice Charter has become a licence to print Modernism. Viva the architects that produce buildings that look like they have always been there.

domestos goddesssays:

Oh Ben. Now I truly love you.


Um, I think this *proves* the rule that you should only post after 4 glasses of wine! 🙂 That music just is ridiculous!


I would hope the people building the houses/temples of aesthetics would feel more than just a little pride. If you have ever had a bad plastering job, I am sure you will understand.

S Louisesays:

That might explain why I like this blog so much Mr. Ben Pentreath.

As others have pointed out the UKIP video does highlight some important architectural considerations. They should most definitely be high on the agenda – but I’m not sure if it should be a political one. Architecture, for me at least, has always been about taste first, functionality a close second. That’s why leaving such decisions to civil servants / the incumbent party who might be voted out in a few years’ time usually brings disasterous results. But of course they are the ones who hold the purse strings….or in some cases are in the pockets of the giant corporations who build these monstrosities…and therein lies the dilemma. We need an expert (=good taste), long-term, practical vision unfettered by the restrictions of lobbying.

UKIP’s vision for the future of this country’s architecture is commendable, but I’d like to see where / how they are going to house everyone once they’ve forbidden all housing estates and tower blocks. I’d like to see how they’re going to pay for the restoration and renovation of historical buildings (I’m no architect but I’ve always been told renovating is much more expensive than buliding from scratch?) If UKIP was a business I wouldn’t invest, as it seems that they don’t even have a business plan.


Canada has Tories, too- not as interesting as their British cousins though their party has been through a few changes over the years from Progressive Conservative back to plain Conservative after reuniting with the splinter reform party. Like you I’m a Tory in certain aspects- great respect for the monarchy & history and I certainly like law and order. Like you I’m also gay & fairly liberal on social policy and could never vote for Republicans here in the US, though it might benefit me economically. The sensible Republicans are long gone and I don’t think they’ll be returning anytime soon. I’ve always envisioned UKIP as a British version of the Tea Party nutters we have; older,anti just about everything & always going on about the invading “hordes”. Though as you pointed out, they’re not gun fetishists- one of the Tea Party/NRA types recently said he would tell the parents of the kids shot at Sandy Hook to “go to hell” for wanting to restrict his second amendment rights. Because obviously background checks are far worse than 20 slaughtered children, right? Ugh. While it may not be as civilized as one would like in the UK at least you’re not living in a nation that is stark raving mad.

Charles Smithsays:

It is unfortunate that you can only see the UKIP question through a liberal filter. To allow the level of immigration on the British people without first obtaining consent is highly undemocratic. Moreover, to refer to those who now live in Spain as “fat and crude”, is to refer in the same way, to the same DNA, that Won the second World War, and built the many buildings and machines of lasting and wonder. No! Those that are “crude” are those that group together those they do not know, or have not met, and without asking them what talent they have or what talent they could be given and to discard them with distain. Having got that off my chest I really love your architecture and no I don’t live in Spain!

Suzy O'Briensays:

Ben Pentreath is fabulously entertaining, especially after 4 glasses of wine. A great read.


I felt like I was watching a nazi propaganda film – it was so heavy-handed! crazy –


Bravo to UKIP for its position on historic preservation and supporting artisan workers; I agree with EC that UKIP should be given credit for raising this as a political issue, because, it is – though, interestingly, in America, historic preservation is most definitely a liberal (Democrat) cause. (Because just like how Conservative Republicans don’t want you telling them what they can do with their guns, they don’t want to be told what they can and can’t do with their property. OH! But this principle doesn’t apply to one’s body. Confused? Rightly so.)

Wonderful comment overall by EC. You have a great blog, and great readers. Love the dialog here.


It’s clear that this discussion is actually about building regulations and the planning process. Both of these, especially planning, are by definition, political areas. We might agree that UKIP are mad, but at least this video brings the discussion about vernacular architecture to the fore. Usually, it is very much in the political background, and we have the madness of the local and regional plans to contend with, unchallenged, as a result. Of course we all know that the dismal architecture of the post-war years stemmed directly from political decisions. [To Sylvie – I’m sure you had a great time living in Cripps, but that’s not quite the point. Certainly there is a place for experimental architecture – but you can’t exactly criticise a tourist for thinking that a particular, unique, historic view has been defiled, as indeed it has been. In east London, in Cambridge suburbs:- fine, modernism isn’t spoiling much. In a historic area, an architect’s/college’s spur-of-the-moment decision to have a witty juxtaposition of old and new irreversibly changes the character of an area. This style of post-war academic building had a specific overt political/social purpose, as I’m sure you’re well aware.] The left conspicuously, continually, identified with modernism. Look a soviet art! Look at our wartime government posters! Look at the whole pattern of post-war development! Listen to recordings of Goldfinger! Of course modernist architecture now has the socialist cultural baggage it has. Contrastingly, it’s far to simple to say that classicism is the language of totalitarianism – if that’s what’s taught in architecture schools then it’s a woeful indictment of their sense of and connection with history. For a start, it has a much longer history than modernism – fascism engaged and copied with a particular derivative of it only. BP might feel uncomfortable designing smaller houses, not tower-blocks, and being seen as conservative. But this isn’t really a question of C20th history, it’s about the future.

All the historical debate about modernism slightly misses the point: what building rules would you change? The 1774 legislation was so successful because it not only caused a great social improvement by ensuring that buildings were built to better/larger/more hygienic standards, but also was drafted with an eye to the aesthetics of the buildings which would be built in conformity to it. The contemporary acts are not so sensible. Ridicule UKIP by all means, but no main party has suggested amending the contemporary building acts in a sensible way. The result? Ugliness at best, and social collapse, as is well documented. Perhaps they might, if an architect comes up with good recommendations. Carefully drafted legislation might even provide more jobs in on-the-site skills, by discouraging prefab components. BP – any suggestions?
Ditto the planning system. Isn’t the regional/local central planning mad? What’s wrong, or even particularly right-wing, about suggesting that local democracy would lead to better planning?

The thing is, if we laugh the whole debate off as a nonsense because we don’t like the participants, the legislative framework will continue to allow buildings which you, by being a reader of this blog, are almost certain to consider awful. Wouldn’t that be a shame?


In vino veritas, indeed!

The video made me feel like we were in Braveheart but without Mel Gibson (he would LOVE UKIP!)


Dear Ben, a few years ago I was back in Cambridge for a few days and took the kids on a punt ride. We passed Saint John’s College and Cripps building, where I used to have my rooms. Another punt full of tourists passed by and the guy who was doing the tour pointed to the “modernist monstrosity” that Cripps building was supposed to be. I could have drowned him on the spot. I adored Cripps. Not only because I spent there some of the best years of my life but also because it was so wonderfully designed. I recently read in a book that the wise people of Saint John’s wanted it to last at least 500 years (yeah, not 6 or 7 years… 500). The stone, the windows, the wooden floors: everything was carefully chosen with this in mind. Anyway, my point is that you are absolutely right: a good building is one in which people are happy to live, with an great attention to details and to the life of the people inside… and from that point of view (sorry, guy on the punt) Cripps is perfect, brutalist (brutalist?) as it is. UKIP’s video made me shiver (which was the point I suppose) because of the abysmal lack of culture that make them put in a same bag Norman Foster and the jerks that “designed” the housing towers that are demolished in the film. Terrifying!


Tragically, if you work in a more or less historical style, you get lumped in with Conservatives, Tories, Neo-Troglodytes, whatever. Modernism has always been identified with the Left. Never mind that some Lefties were/are pretty conservative in “personal taste” terms– Orwell hated central heating.

And anyone who doesn’t fall into line, on one side or another, is out in the cold, with no tribe for protection. Look how Christopher Alexander got beaten up. I don’t think you can escape making political statements in your work. Or in your writing, dress, mannerisms, food choices, etc. Your choices define you, in the eyes of others, at least. The attitude is: “you’re either with us or against us…”

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