In praise of Prince Charles (and traditional architecture)

Happy birthday, Your Highness Your Highness

Fashion and politics are both dictated to some extent by status signals. Some political and cultural ideas become associated with high status, and some with low, so that when someone complains about ‘political correctness gone mad’ without knowing irony they send a signal that they are at the lower end of the pecking order. Most people want to be high status and so adopt the politics and attitudes associated with the elite, just as they once adopted their accents.

In architecture, the vast majority of people prefer traditional, vernacular buildings, and indeed NIMBYism decreases considerably when they are presented with such. Traditional buildings are associated with better subjective well-being and also increase in value at a faster rate than modernist styles, indicating their popularity. And yet this form of architecture has come to be seen as low status, the equivalent of reading the Daily Express or attaching a St George’s Cross to your car. Back in 1987, psychologist David Halpern conducted an interesting survey of students to rate buildings by their attractiveness, and found that almost everyone had pretty similar tastes; all except architecture students, whose favourites were everyone else’s least favourite and vice-versa, and the longer they had been students the more this reversal was pronounced.

Now of course there is a place for every type of architecture, just as there is a place for every type of music, but the situation we had reached was as if all radio stations played nothing but experimental, atonal jazz all day, when most people would rather Beethoven and the Beatles; no doubt if you worked in music you might well rather hear something eclectic than listen to a Lennon-McCartney number for the ten-thousandth time. But the fact that so many modernist architects chose to live in a traditional Georgian or Victorian home suggests that their artistic preferences are at least partly down to status marking rather than genuine aesthetic choice.

Often bad ideas can remain dominant because they cost high-status people little to support them. I suspect that now the tide is turning on architecture partly because the housing crisis means a far wider swathe of the middle class can no longer afford to live in a pretty home, and so are quite open about speaking out in favour of traditional styles. It is why I advocate a massive expansion in Georgian-style house-building: Make Beauty Affordable Again, as the London Yes In My Back Yard group put it.

Read it all there.

What do you think?