An interesting experiment is about to be conducted in London. A public-housing authority has constructed exact replicas of elegant early-Victorian townhouses on one side of Union Square in Islington, of the kind much coveted by bankers and lawyers in the nearby financial center, the famed (or ill-famed) City. The authority will rent these houses to relatively poor families at a steep discount. The scheme is revealing from at least three points of view: architectural, social, and politico-economic.
Architecturally, the houses are a reproach to the criminal stupidity, barbarity, and incompetence of postwar British architects, who made so much of urban Britain a visual hell. Whoever built the houses has followed the Victorian pattern exactly, without the need to leave his trace on it as a dog does with a tree. Recognizing that he could do no better, he has done the same; the result is more important than the architect’s need to prove his originality. Such replication might have been the dream of the population, but it has been the nightmare of architects, with their egoistic need to prove their supposed artistry.
Socially, the experiment may help determine whether architecture has an effect, for good or ill, upon social pathology. Will people, given elegant houses, behave more elegantly? Some hypothesize that what is granted to people without their personal effort or desert will produce no beneficial effect; but grounds exist for the opposite view. From a casual study of what one might call the epidemiology of graffiti, I think that even supposedly antisocial types are capable of aesthetic discrimination. I’ve noticed that, on the whole, they confine their efforts to the brutal concrete or otherwise hideous surfaces of the modern urban environment and leave architecturally meritorious buildings and surfaces alone, even in otherwise grim areas. In other words, their graffiti are an aesthetic commentary, albeit an unconscious one, on the world in which they live.
The politico-economic effects of the experiment are less happy. To live in such housing is an enormous privilege, since of course the supply is so limited. This hands enormous patronage powers to those who administer the project, supposedly on behalf of the general public. It is not difficult to imagine the corruption, both political and financial, that will result. The liberal newspaper, the Guardian, heralds the scheme as “a magnificent, two-fingered challenge to the notion, fashionable in some political circles, that people who cannot afford to live in expensive areas should not live there.” In other words, the project is a triumph for “social justice.”
But where justice is concerned, the effect is precisely the opposite. Under normal circumstances, people must make enormous effort and sacrifice to live in such accommodations. To grant them to people by political grace and favor, or even just to a lucky few, is the opposite of justice. There may be good reasons for doing so—despite such schemes’ tendency to devalue personal effort in favor of seeking political or bureaucratic influence—but justice is certainly not among them.