SURELY we all want to live in pleasant surroundings – and is there any reason why we cannot? This desire is reflected in house prices, where there is a premium for traditional houses in leafy surrounds. So why are modern buildings and residential areas so devoid of charm? The builders of Edinburgh New Town, and later the Victorians, did give not us the cheapest houses but set store on creating townscapes of character: it was axiomatic that both a balanced aesthetic proportion and non-functional “frills” were essential elements of housing.

This all changed with the rise of modern functionalism in the 20th century: a belief that designing for function was far more important than consideration of form. Accountants also entered the scene, so the aim was always to build the cheapest structures compatible with function. The results were the box-like housing, the characterless schemes and the concrete jungles of Scotland’s new towns.

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At the time it was imperative to implement major building programmes and the mindset appeared to have been “let’s just build houses as cheaply as possible and not worry about namby-pamby aesthetic frills.” However, although cheaper to build in the short-term, the long-term cost is now becoming apparent. Many of the post-war developments are being restructured, and it could be argued that the soulless housing estates and high-rises have contributed to almost intractable social problems.

It was not always like this. Towns and villages were once few and far between in rural Scotland but come the 18th century many new towns and villages were created across the country. These did not just arise haphazardly, but were built to strong aesthetic principles. The large farm houses, and even the humble but ‘n ben, were built to a defined aesthetic proportion using the design formbooks of the day.

These new rural settlements, such as Ullapool, Dunkeld and Grantown-on-Spey, together with the traditionally-built urban centres, are now the mainstay of the tourist industry: people just like the look of these places. You cannot imagine tourists flocking to modern housing estates! And modern cities across the world, with their towering rectangular buildings, and out-of-town shopping centres, tend to all be the same with a rather soulless feel: the presence of people seems to be an afterthought. They may provide for the needs of business, but are one-sided in not providing for the needs of the soul!

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But there is hope for the future, the prime example being the new town of Tornagrain east of Inverness, which is being built as if people mattered: aesthetics, proportion and variety are key to the design. This is also the case with many small-scale rural housing developments, including social housing, which often have a pleasing aspect in tune with the surrounding vernacular buildings and landscape. However, it rarely applies to the numerous new housing estates being built around our towns by the large companies: would it not be great if the companies responsible for most of the new builds gave greater thought to design? To actually design places pleasing to the eye? Surely this would also make new development more acceptable to the surrounding communities, thereby lessening planning controversies?

The lack of care given to creating our new urban landscapes applies equally to our rural landscapes. Developers – assisted, it must be said, by the Scottish Government – are transforming our countryside at a greater rate than ever before. This is particularly noticeable in our uplands, where the previously expansive, undeveloped vistas are fast disappearing under a plethora of dams, windfarms, fences, forestry plantations, vehicle tracks, mast and pylons. So much so that there is the beginning of rumblings from rural communities about the impact of all the developments being foisted on them; particularly as any concerns tend to be overruled by central government in Edinburgh, far removed from the locations in question. The tourist brochures still say “Come to the wild Highlands,” but within the next few decades there will be little wildness left.

Scotland is suffering the fate of everywhere else on the planet: development everywhere, nature in full retreat and no room to breathe. The accountants are winning and Distinctive landscapes and townscapes are being swamped by a soulless uniformity. Why are we letting this happen?

James Fenton
via email