Rethinking Punishment: Scotland’s Future and the Future of Justice

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Rethinking Punishment: Scotland’s Future and the Future of Justice

(This article was written in February 2015. Note my pre-Brexit, pre-General Election 2015 naivety in places…)

“Imagine you’ve been burgled,” the professor suggests to a room full of sociology students. “He’s taken all your favourite possessions. How many of you would, if you could, have him locked up in five minutes?” Almost all of the students raise their hands without second thought.

“OK, so what about if you knew this man was a relapsed drug addict? What if his family were deep in debt and he hadn’t eaten for three days? Couldn’t get a job? What if he’d been churned in and out of the justice system without decent legal aid more times than he’d had hot dinners? Is prison still the best place for him now?” The lecturer does not deliver these possibilities with the air of derisive triumph, but rather calmly lays them down for all to consider. Everyone in the room looks at each other sheepishly, as if they have missed a punch-line. The joke is that even sociology students (perhaps the most stereotypically liberal sector of society) fall for the seductive narrative of simple, instant punishment.

Criminologists have a phrase for this: populist punitiveness, or penal populism. It’s the idea that criminal justice becomes less of a moral or practical issue and more a party political one; that parties can tap into a general fear of crime or disenchantment felt amongst victims, in order to garner votes. Being seen to be ‘tough on crime’ raises the political climate to the level of populist, Daily Mail hysteria we witness today in relation to the likes of immigration. With penal populism, we have the tabloid recycling of stock, ‘blue-collar’ criminals, but rarely do we have the contextual story necessary to fully flesh out the nature of the crimes we read about.

The problem with this of course is that it leads to extreme, right-wing approaches to criminal justice, seen perhaps most dramatically in the ‘bang-em-up’ North American model of tough sentencing, chain-gangs and super-prisons. This sits uneasily alongside the progressive liberalism, soft conservatism or centre politics that most major parties wield as their ideological banners in the UK. Yet as Jonathan Simon suggests in Governing through Crime (2007), this increasingly punitive approach to justice found in the US but also (albeit to a lesser extent) in the UK, is not just a pragmatic response to problems with crime, but rather a more comprehensive tool of social governance. The United States has quadrupled its prison population in the past three decades, while the UK’s prison population has doubled since 1993. Accompanied by statistics which show a recent broader decline in the rates of violent crime, these figures might seem perplexing or counterintuitive. Why are we locking up more people when less violent crimes are being committed? The fact is that the prison system is becoming less about justice and protecting society, and more about asserting the long arm of the state in a society where its ‘soft’ role of welfarism is slowly crumbling.

And yet this is not just a process that can be attributed to the state; it is also one accelerated through the punitive appetites of the media. In the past few decades, crime has increasingly occupied a prominent pedestal in media reporting. Part of this problem is the sensationalist and individualistic style of reporting, as well as its predominant focus on so-called ‘blue-collar’ crime committed by those who occupy a lower rung on Britain’s persistently rigid social stratum. In fact, if you absorbed everything the mainstream media told you, you’d be forgiven for thinking that crime was something that only happened in urban areas by working-class youths, or else by the odd drug-hazed celebrity entering a spiral of personal decline. Although this outlook on criminality has been changing in recent years – with revelations of MPs’ expenses, phone hacking, police cover-ups in relation to Hillsborough and child sex scandals, as well as the corruptions of bankers – such interest in more corporate or ‘white-collar’ crime continues to generally focus on the ‘bad apple’ individual over the systemic problems which necessarily contextualise the offence in question. The kind of systemic problems that led to the banking crisis and the institutional racism unveiled by the Stephen Lawrence case.

Media reporting of crime often uncritically accepts the view of criminal justice officials as its source, and while criticism of police failures is sharpening in the UK, reporting of individual crimes still relies often on hysteric headlines and moralising quotations.  A quick glance at the ‘Crime’ page of The Telegraph’s website reflects this emphasis on violent crime and celebrity offending over more analytical crime reporting. The media’s power to shape the population’s perception of crime was famously demonstrated in Policing the Crisis, a 1978 study by Stuart Hall and his colleagues which showed how the press effectively invented the term ‘mugging’. By saturating the public with extreme reports of its occurrence, Britain’s media whipped up a ‘moral panic’, so that reporting of violent robberies increased, and as ‘mugging’ was absorbed into official crime statistics, it was the media’s scapegoating of black working-class youths that became synonymous with this apparently ‘new’ crime itself. We have seen this more recently with the politicisation of youth crime and moral panics about ‘hoodies’, ‘Neds’ and ‘Chavs’ – the demonisation of the working-class, as Owen Jones puts it – following Thatcherite attitudes to the ‘feckless’ poor and New Labour’s ASBO legislation and tougher ‘welfare-to-work’ approach to welfare.

What seems to emerge from this interplay between social policy, crime statistics and media reportage is that mainstream media often frame the overall picture of crime through a neoliberal ideology of individual responsibility. While this might help foster the confidence of victims to come forward – for example in cases of rape – it also means that whole sectors of society become demonised as ‘risk’ populations, and with the media’s uncritical reliance on official crime statistics, we often get a distorted picture of the extent of crimes whose definition may have changed along with shifts in sentencing policy. The demand for moralising, punitive justice stirred up by the media is one factor among many that might explain our rising prison population.

When the media does report broader trends in crime, the problem is that even with articles from ‘respectable’ sources like The Guardian, these trends often remain distorted as a picture of UK crime as a whole. This is because such articles frequently rely on the Home Office’s statistics and the British Crime Survey, which focus only on England and Wales, thus giving a potentially misleading impression about crime and sentencing in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Scotland has had its own criminal justice system going back to the 1707 Act of Union. Traditionally, this system has been seen as more socially democratic, reflecting the endurance of more left-wing ‘Scottish values’ against the encroachment of neoliberal punitiveness. The Scottish approach, then, has conventionally been seen as ‘softer’, offering a more holistic method of dealing with low-level offenders in particular. The Children’s Hearing system is exemplary of this, whereby offenders below the age of 18 are referred to a Children’s Panel which considers both young offenders and victims within a welfare context, paying attention to a child’s needs and how this plays out in the local community. Within the court system itself, sentencing is more flexible and is judged on a case-by-case basis; with the exception of murder, judges are not forced to impose any mandatory sentences.

However, somewhat paradoxically, following devolution in 1999 Scotland’s unique approach to justice has apparently become diluted. The Scottish Government, especially in the early days of the Labour-Lib Dem coalition, increasingly absorbed more Anglo-American ‘risk-based’, populist and punitive trends. This so-called ‘detartanisation’ of Scottish criminal justice is seen in the hardening of a two-tier approach to justice, related to changes to legal aid and to the plea-bargaining system that reflect a move towards efficiency-based procedure. For example, there is a shift into an implicit approach of ‘sentence discounting’. This encourages early guilty pleas in exchange for more lenient sentences; but while it might cut the court’s legal fees, it is obviously profoundly unjust to foster a system where the accused are quickly churned through the system to drive efficiency. It risks threatening human rights if innocent people are being encouraged to plead guilty – even if it is to be ‘let off’ quicker. Moreover, it creates, as Dorren McBarnet puts it, a two-tier justice whereby some have access to a jury trial while the justice of everyday court procedure is diluted by this trend towards relinquishing the right to trial. There is a class issue here too, as more affluent defendants can afford the advantage of personal legal aid. If the quality of legal aid available to all is weakening, then so is social democracy.

Scotland’s somewhat disturbing move towards more efficiency, risk-based and the ‘punitive turn’ of Anglo-American justice is also evident in policy changes within the justice system. There are tougher approaches to community sentencing, which include increasingly invasive methods of surveillance, a re-emphasis on punitive elements and a strict adherence to ‘risk assessment’. In recent years Scotland has also seen the reintroduction of ‘Youth Courts’ for 16-17 year olds, representing a turn away from the ‘child-centred’ welfarism of Children’s Panels and resulting in what has been called a ‘Burberry court’ – named after its predominant association with prosecuting working-class offenders. With measures such as these, Scotland risks joining the trend towards a ‘decivilising process’, whereby public discourse on the working-class echoes the Victorian rhetoric of the ‘undeserving’ urban poor. Our newspapers are unfortunately awash with moralistic, personal attacks on benefit claimants, ‘junkies’ and ‘Neds’, and this filters down into the increasing alienation and demonising of whole communities that already face multiple forms of social exclusion and economic deprivation. A New York-style ‘zero tolerance’ clamp down on ‘antisocial’ conduct is born out of the desire to show a ‘clean’ image of Scotland. We should also acknowledge the impact of (and not just upon) business, as space itself becomes increasingly privatised and issues of beggars, public drinking and young people ‘hanging around’ become criminalised in an effort to preserve the ‘modern’ image of an increasingly service-based, leisure and consumer-driven economy like Glasgow’s. There is a whole other issue here about the ethics and targeting practice of private security firms (used, for example, in nightclubs and shopping centres), but that’s a story for another occasion.

The_Old_Tolbooth.jpg
Img Source: Wikipedia // Edinburgh’s Old Tolbooth: established in the 14th century, it was used by the Burgh Council and early parliamentary meetings, as well as being the burgh’s main jail. Incarceration, punishment and physical torture occurred regularly in this prison and after 1785, public executions were conducted. The buildings were demolished in 1817.

With this problem of criminalising the poor, we turn to the matter of prison itself. The thirst for punitiveness which seeps through the layers of British society has of course contributed to a steadily rising prison population not just in England and Wales, but also Scotland. Yet the ‘prison works’ ideology famously championed by Michael Howard in the 1990s clearly oversimplifies things. While prison has a place for violent offenders who pose a danger to the public, in its current state – especially with all-round cuts – it isn’t working as it should, as figures from the Prison Reform Trust prove. Nearly 50% of adult prisoners reoffend within one year of release. This failure to encourage desistance from crime is not just a waste of taxpayers’ money and a risk to the public but also reflects upon the need for a greater emphasis on rehabilitation in prisons. There is a whole concatenation of needs associated with vulnerable inmates. The decaying walls of old Victorian jails tend not to be equipped for elderly or disabled prisoners. Young people have an array of social, educational and psychological requirements which are not always met in prison. Prisoners who require psychological rehabilitation, the likes of violent or sex offenders, would do well not just to be cordoned off altogether but to be integrated with normal behaviour via appropriate treatment programmes. For female prisoners, there may be separation from children or family: since there are fewer women’s prisons, female offenders find themselves disproportionately further from their homes. In England and Wales, nearly 50% of female prisoners are reported as having a history of domestic abuse. In Scotland’s only women’s prison, Cornton Vale, two thirds of its inmates were on suicide watch in 2013.

Related to these mental health issues is one persistent problem that I would like to linger on: the issue of alcohol and drugs within Scottish criminal justice. It is difficult to look at many crimes without recognising the role that legal and illegal substances play. Indeed, a recent study conducted by the Howard League Scotland showed that two-thirds of young offenders reported being drunk and 39% on drugs at the time of their offence. Alcoholism and drug addiction seem to pervade prison statistics at all levels, and these problems, stemming from a complex array of social issues, must be treated properly if we are to readdress our approach to criminal justice in Scotland. As it stands, drug users are sucked into the broader decivilising process whereby working-class individuals are excluded from mainstream society, often via criminalisation. People do not take drugs in a vacuum. For example, the association between heroin addiction and poor housing estates is not because of some moral failure but stems from issues of related social deprivation such as unemployment, poverty and localised problems with crime. Areas of deprivation are also more likely to be policed, which means it is possible that working-class users are often targeted by the justice system more than their comparatively affluent counterparts.

Drug charities and various studies have persistently reiterated the links between ‘problematic’ hard drug use and deprivation. One key issue here is that drug users are often ‘recycled’ through the justice system without receiving adequate treatment, and thus fall back into committing drug-related offences upon release. Perhaps, as the Scottish Centre for Criminal Justice Research has argued, we need to acknowledge that ‘reoffending’ itself is a flawed concept which focuses only on legal rather than behavioural criminality, and unlike the notion of ‘reintegration’, cannot do much good for recognising indicators of successful desistance from crime.

Some steps are already in place to tackle this issue by directing offenders towards the correct treatment. The 1998 Crime and Disorder Act saw the introduction of ‘Drug Treatment and Testing Orders’ (DTTOs) in Scotland, which demonstrate a specific aim to, as the Scottish Government website puts it, ‘reduce or eliminate an offender’s dependency or propensity to misuse drugs’, and to more broadly address the scale of drug-related offences in Scotland. There has also been the introduction of special ‘Drug Courts’ which tailor sentences to assist with the work of DTTOs and break habitual cycles of reoffending linked to drug dependency. Findings have suggested that these measures are proving somewhat successful, by improving the offender’s accountability and making drug testing and treatment mandatory, as well as helping to avoid a custodial sentence which might merely intensify the problem.

We shouldn’t, however, overestimate the achievements made possible by these measures. Although the Global Commission on Drug Policy has argued for a ‘public health’ approach to drug crime – the kind being adopted by the likes of DTTOs – these should be situated in conjunction with a holistic and therapeutic approach that looks at the opportunities possible for the individual out-with the cycle of drugs and offending. To call someone a ‘junkie’ is to other them; to recognise their illness but also to categorically distinguish them as different from oneself, as morally inferior. While the issue of decriminalisation is beyond the scope of this essay, the question of how we represent offenders and drug-dependency is certainly relevant to a broader imperative to rethink crime and justice outside of the punitive narratives supplied for us by political and mainstream media discourse. A socially just future Scotland would be reflexively critical and aware of the structural conditions that lead to concentrated drug crime (including de-industrialisation and housing) and would take steps to recognise them in its treatment of offenders.

Such a socially just future is not completely beyond the current horizon. We can start sowing the seeds of optimism in relation to the issue of women and imprisonment, with the Scottish Government’s recent decision to cancel plans to build a 500-capacity women’s prison at Inverclyde. Following talks and activist pressure from a number of sources including Woman for Independence, the Howard League for Prison Reform and a campaign by the Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, the decision reflects the potential for a more reflexive, discursive and collaborative politics which Scotland can offer towards its justice system. Too many women are held on remand in prison, far away from their families, which raises an unnecessary risk of psychological and social harm. Rather than throwing short-term, low-risk women offenders into a new ‘super-prison’, the government can proceed with plans to divert them from incarceration altogether into alternative sentencing, or into more appropriate community-based units. Ideally, we can build on this small success and move towards an approach which does not make justice a party political issue but one based on a pragmatic appraisal of what works, as well as a foundational interest in social justice, extending not only to the individual offender and victim but also the societal conditions that cannot be detached from the crime itself.

Could this, then, be evidence of ‘re-tartanisation’ following the SNP’s occupation of government? Certainly, since 2007 we have seen various measures taken to reduce the rate of short-term sentences in favour of more constructive community sentencing. There have also been serious initiatives rolled out to tackle organised crime and efforts made towards corporate and cybercrime, which suggests an increasing recognition of the fact that organisations and companies cause far more societal damage (whether economic, environmental, social, political or personal) than the average ‘street’ crime.

Moreover, accompanying these policy shifts has been the more general impact of the Internet on mainstream media narratives. Indeed, the ease of access to a plethora of publications from non-profit organisations gives us the power to be critical and reflexive about the stories told to us by television and print media. It is easier to hold governments, journalists and the justice system to account when we have instant access to the latest statistics, and the possibility of corroborating and comparing these statistics with those gleaned by different studies, or with different nations. To some extent, it is up to us, as readers and consumers of media, to rethink our attitudes towards justice – and what that means exactly.  Rather than passively absorbing, we should be actively critiquing.

Where can Scotland go from here then? It seems the biggest challenges are to resist the continual Anglo-American ‘punitive turn’, whilst remaining ultimately part of the UK; to reconcile local, national and international demands in an increasingly globalised world where crime crosses borders; to move forward with a pragmatic rather than party-political approach to deciding justice policy. Scotland is often compared with Scandinavian nations such as Norway, and perhaps these models provide what might tenuously be an optimistic blueprint for the future. Treating prisoners like people instead of demonised ‘others’ (consider that under UK law prisoners do not have the right to vote, and the Con-Dem coalition’s recent attempts to ban books from prisoners which were thankfully ruled unlawful by the High Court) is the way forward. In Norway, where prison staff are encouraged to foster positive relationships with inmates, and where the emphasis is on education, training and psychological treatments, the reoffending rate is the lowest in Europe. Your punishment is the loss of liberty; everything else should work towards re-habituating the offender into a fulfilling role in the community. Giving a person a chance to reconcile themselves with opportunities they might not have had before conviction is surely the best way we have (short of whole-scale societal change) to not only reintegrate someone, but to protect the public from future reoffending. The media is a big part of the problem, as I have suggested, but it can also have a positive role in making us rethink justice. We need to stop looking at examples such as Norway’s as ‘luxurious’ and a ‘waste of taxpayers’ money’ and think practically about how we can learn from them, and in the process not only save our own government a lot of the money lost through crime and reoffending, but also work towards a more just society.

 

Things to check out:

  • The ‘Discovering Desistance’ blog http://blogs.iriss.org.uk/discoveringdesistance/ – explores why people desist from offending. There’s lots of interesting research on there and a documentary, ‘The Road from Crime’, in which an ex-offender turned probation office looks at what we can discover from those who have ‘desisted’ from criminal behaviour.
  • Lesley McAra’s important 2008 article in the European Journal of Criminology, ‘Crime, criminology and criminal justice in Scotland’ in which she puts forward the concept of ‘detartanisation’ to explore how devolution has paradoxically resulted in a ‘less Scottish’ model of justice. To what extent, we might ask, is this still happening, or has there been a turnaround since the SNP’s occupation of government?
  • Factsheet from the Prison Reform Trust with statistics detailing who makes up the current UK prison populations and the problems many of them face. Useful for grasping the extent to which those from more working-class or deprived backgrounds are imprisoned, but also issues of gender, age, race and ethnicity in prison: http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/Prisonthefacts.pdf
  • Photos from a Norwegian prison: http://content.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1989083,00.html
  • More information on women in prison: http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/womeninthecriminaljusticesystemscotland.pdf
  • Document on the relationship between alcohol and crime. Useful for grasping the extent to which many offences were fuelled by alcohol, but also for considering what policies might help to reduce this problem in the future. http://www.ias.org.uk/uploads/pdf/Factsheets/Crime%20FS%20HM%20May%202013.pdf
  • Really useful publication from the London School of Economics analysing the global ‘war on drugs’ and the problems of mass incarceration related to this approach. Considers how different policy approaches to drugs might work as well as detailing the failures of current systems. Situates the problem of drug related crime and social harm by placing the local and national problem of drugs and their policing in a global/transnational context. http://www.lse.ac.uk/IDEAS/publications/reports/pdf/LSE-IDEAS-DRUGS-REPORT-FINAL-WEB.pdf

 

 

On Brutalism

Photo by Subflux: https://www.flickr.com/photos/subflux
Photo by Subflux: https://www.flickr.com/photos/subflux

One of the first things you notice when you come to university in Glasgow is the building that passed you by on the open days: Boyd Orr. Orr…ore…or? With such connotations of alchemy, alternation and mechanical process – the extraction of mineral from rock – you’d be forgiven for thinking this building might have that rare quality of metallic extraction. The glint of some loveliness got from the mined core of the earth – or at least some relic of its crust. Boyd Orr himself, as Wikipedia tells me, was a Scottish teacher, doctor, biologist and politician, who also bagged himself the Nobel Peace Prize for work relating to wartime nutrition. Fitting, perhaps, that this man who dabbled in the arts of healthy eating would give his name to a building that some have found physically repulsive and ugly – if anything, unhealthy.

Still, nutrition involves mining particles of food for their usefulness. Finding all the vitamins as a geologist might take ore from a rock. There is something abject about all this: wrenching nature inside out, textually taking apart her insides with the bland incisiveness of a knife (the linguistic thrills of science course-books). The molten loveliness of erosion, rocks, temporal process – we can reduce them to names and building blocks.  And so we have Boyd Orr, that building of much usefulness and much disgust. The beast of a building that somehow you find yourself in, day after day, traipsing up the stairs for lectures, waiting for someone to give you their jewels of information. You came here thinking you’d be living the Harry Potter high-life in the extravagantly gothic main building, chased by ghosts and granted with turret views. Instead, you end up four floors up in a building that sends its gross sneer across the otherwise lovely architectural landscape of the West End.

Source: theglasgowstory.com
Source: theglasgowstory.com

Whatever you might say about Boyd Orr – with its dirty-white panels, greying windows and greyer walls, with the greenish mould that creeps up its underside like seaweed on a rock and the ugly stark jut of its body against the surrounding skyline – you must say that it is a fine example of Brutalist architecture. The heyday of Brutalism was the period between 1950 to the mid-1970s, a reaction to the modernism of the early twentieth-century. Most examples of Brutalism tend to be found in governmental or institutional buildings (university libraries, shopping malls, high-rise housing), whilst corporate buildings have always favoured a more glassy, futurist chic. The thing that strikes you first about a Brutalist building is its sheer expression of, well, concrete. It hits you with the blunt materiality of a prison or fortress, and you know, it does take a while to get used to going inside. Sometimes it seems impossible that such a monolithic block is carved out inside with such things as canteens and toilets and classrooms. Part of its statuesque aura relates to its positioning: right on the corner of University Avenue and Byres Road, where the surrounding buildings are much smaller or indeed older (and prettier for that matter). There’s no getting away from this eyesore, this monument to an industrial modernity that seems now to be receding in the mise-en-abyme of contemporary metallic panelling, plexi-glass and plastic coating.

Edinburgh's Scottish Parliament Building. Photo by UncleBucko. https://www.flickr.com/photos/unclebucko
Edinburgh’s Scottish Parliament Building. Photo by UncleBucko. https://www.flickr.com/photos/unclebucko
Glasgow School of Art. Photo by gillfoto https://www.flickr.com/photos/gillfoto/
Glasgow School of Art. Photo by gillfoto https://www.flickr.com/photos/gillfoto/

Like the rest of Glasgow’s culture, its architecture is a tale of two cities. There’s the legacy of our colonial history, with flourishes of opulence on every corner; but there’s also the leftovers of 1970s ‘slum’ housing, the crumbling tenements where once upon a time (and, unfortunately, perhaps still today) a whole family would share a bedroom and washing was done at the ‘steamie’. In one street you might have a bizarre Art Deco number next to some crumbling sandstone tenements, or a gleaming new-build sprung up alongside Victorian houses with massive (single-glazed and listed) bay windows. There’s the black-and-white nostalgia of the Gorbals and then there’s the grandiose Park Circus, sat atop Kelvingrove Park looking out with picturesque views over the city. There’s the famous Carpet Factory, the Rennie Mackintosh Art School, the various churches, mosques and synagogues with their unique homage to Roman and Eastern styles. There’s the uncomfortable fact that much of Glasgow’s beautiful marmoreal and sandstone glory is built on the slave trade. We also have the bug-like SECC resting next to the Clyde as if we were in Sydney, the Royal Concert Hall that crowns the top of Buchanan Street, the new Hydro that more than anything resembles a UFO. It’s definitely a city of eclectic architecture. While we might not have the equivalent architectural (and indeed financial) notoriety of Edinburgh’s Scottish Parliament building (which in my family alone has been called ‘horrible’, ‘interesting’, ‘a waste of money’, ‘too modern’ and ‘more of an art gallery than a parliament’), we were in 1999 designated the UK City of Architecture and Design, beating the likes of London, Liverpool and of course, Edinburgh. You only have to reflect on the response to last year’s Art School fire to recognise how seriously we take our physical landscape and architectural heritage (even if it is often covered with ad posters and graffiti).

Photo by Susan Casey https://www.flickr.com/photos/susancasey/
The Gorbals, 1968. Photo by Susan Casey https://www.flickr.com/photos/susancasey/

Anyway, back to Brutalism. The key word related to its style, aside from concrete, is perhaps ‘function’. Stripped to its core elements, Brutalist architecture involves repeated ‘modular elements’ which are grouped together to form the whole. This is the raw fragmentation of modernism, here transformed into something with instrumental purpose, something solid that seeks to counteract the airy dissolution of modernity. ‘All that is solid melts into air’, Marx said. With Brutalism, the response is to make things as solid as possible. How ironic that Marx predicted a revolutionary dissolution of oppressive social structures, whilst the ‘proletariat’ in question remain literally trapped inside buildings which encase them in a physical manifestation of the very (metaphoric) solidity which binds them socially – the hard class structure, the poverty cycle and so on. And perhaps also ironic that some of these buildings were erected at a time when industrial labour was entering its decline in Britain and elsewhere, especially in Glasgow towards the end of the 1970s, as Thatcher came to power and that mineral source of wealth and opportunity (going back to ore of course) – mining – was dissolved from the national economy.

There is also the uncanniness of paradox attached to the fact that when one observes a Brutalist building, it is often difficult to discern its function due to the sheer vastness of its functionality. This relates back to what Edmund Burke in 1757 defined as ‘the sublime’:

The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature […] is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.

Burke was talking about the sublime as it was caused by scenes of nature: mountains, chasms, forests that seem to stretch on forever. However, as urban landscapes increasingly eat into our countryside, it seems fitting that we might consider the vastness of their proportions – or indeed, their ugliness – a kind of sublime in themselves. What else do we feel than a kind of passionate ‘horror’ as we find ourselves faced for the first time with buildings like London’s Trellick Tower and Barbican Centre or India’s Palace of Assembly? All those pattern-like repetition of squares resembling a Kantian ‘mathematical sublime’, whereby an overflow of signifiers stretching out into tedious infinity bears the threat of all meanings, distinctions and associations collapsing into one long metonymic chain leading to nothing but more signifiers. It’s enough to give you a headache, and quite ironic that Boyd Orr is next to the equally hideous though somewhat-smaller Mathematics Building.

Trellick Tower. Photo by Martin Hearn https://www.flickr.com/photos/martinhearn/
Trellick Tower. Photo by Martin Hearn https://www.flickr.com/photos/martinhearn/

Central to Burke’s idea of the sublime is the notion of the pleasure associated with terror: as we gaze at something which overwhelms us, we find ourselves staring into the abyss of meaninglessness, on the sheer precipice where representation itself collapses. St. Augustine suggested that the ugly was that which embodied formlessness in its lack of beauty. This aesthetics of excess or hideous terror appears curiously inappropriate for a style of building whose very purpose was built on form as function. We might think of Frankenstein’s monster, whose ugliness stems not only from the fact that he is composed of the flesh of dead cadavers, but also his sheer pointlessness – the fact that he is a ‘blot upon the Earth’, as Mary Shelley has him lament. Might we consider the likes of Boyd Orr a horrible, monstrous ‘blot’ upon our sacred streets? Or is this more than a question of mere aesthetics?

As Romantic poets readdressed the Neoclassical distaste for the gross pointlessness mountains (favouring, as Alexander Pope’s Windsor Forest perhaps best exemplifies, a view of nature as ordered and harmonious) by fetishising the psychologically disruptive experience of the sublime (in the way that Coleridge, de Quincey et al also favoured the psychologically disruptive experiences of opium), today’s generation are raising Brutalism to idolised status rather than rejecting it as a mere eyesore. Sure, you will have the many students who moan about Boyd Orr’s appearance on their campus, but you will have an equal number of enthusiasts on the likes of Tumblr posting Brutalist architecture onto their blogroll, alongside your Banksys and softcore erotica and fan-fiction all that other Tumblr jazz. Stark black and white photographs record an almost antiquarian fascination with the aesthetics of these buildings and their value as some relic of a solid past we can’t quite get back to in our shiny era of crazy postmodern architecture.

Photo by Tom Donald: https://www.flickr.com/photos/clearwood/
Photo by Tom Donald: https://www.flickr.com/photos/clearwood/

But is there an ethical problem underlying this fetishising of some Brutalist buildings? They are, after all, often the homes of many people living in relative poverty. Sometimes, these buildings are just down the road from areas of affluence and architectural extravagance. I don’t need to mention specific areas for you to think of places in Glasgow, because there are certainly many. It’s a problem related to the way that urban decay is appropriated as a kind of dark backdrop upon which a white, middle-class guy sorts his life out. There’s always been the ethnographer’s dilemma of how ethical it is making a living out of describing poor conditions without doing anything about it politically or practically. I suppose what I’m getting at though is that there’s something a bit more uncomfortable about using these buildings as ‘cool’ aestheticism, a mere viewing-spot on the blasé scroll of online photography. Still, I don’t think there are clear answers to this; and maybe it’s good to share images, because sharing raises awareness.  You just have to keep in mind the whole problem of ‘poverty porn’, and the notion that by glorifying certain buildings you are also glorifying a particular experience of poverty, however unintentional your actions.

Photo by  https://www.flickr.com/photos/22087304@N07/
The Red Road flats. Photo by <p&p> https://www.flickr.com/photos/22087304@N07/

Indeed, this perhaps is what made me so uncomfortable about last year’s plans to demolish the iconic Red Road tower blocks and transmit the demolition live as part of the Opening Ceremony of the Commonwealth Games. While it is of course good that the Games involved building new, much more accommodating and safer houses to replace these crumbling relics of Glasgow’s past, I don’t agree that it should’ve been broadcast to add a ‘bang’ to the Opening Ceremony. London gets magnificent fireworks for the Olympics, we get…glorified demolition? Destroying a symbol of poverty doesn’t destroy poverty itself, however easy it makes it look. Luckily, these controversial plans were scrapped in the end after much public opposition (which just shows again how much Glaswegians care about their physical environment and the social consciousness within it). Regeneration is underway with the Games’ legacy and of course it is a great thing, but there is no need to sanctimoniously erase history in front of the world to show that you’re doing it.

jg-ballard-high-rise

This points to the whole issue of Brutalism’s somewhat brutal decline since the 1980s, especially in Britain. Vocalised distaste from public figures, the association with urban decay, problems with graffiti, cramped living conditions and its starkly cold, almost totalitarian appearance, all contributed to this decline. Another contribution to this decline perhaps came from British Literature’s concrete guru, J. G. Ballard, as his novel High Rise (1975) documents a dystopian, Lord of the Flies situation where the closed conditions of a high-rise building lead to a swift degeneration of the residents lives. The enclosed spatiality of place itself gives rise to a carnival of savagery and violence, where primitive desires are unleashed in this isolated environment. The opening line perhaps gives you a good indication of where Ballard is going with this novel: ‘Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.’ There is a strain of dark humour running through the text, as well as the shock value of its exposure of human nature placed in its urban limits. You get the sense that Ballard secretly revels in both the sheer surreal ugly inhumanity of it all, whilst critiquing the politics of urban planning that might one day lead to such a scenario.

Overall, I’m not sure where my position on Boyd Orr lies. There are days where I’m walking to uni along Highburgh Road and when Boyd Orr looms out of a cloudy winter sky my spirits sink like a puddle of snow slush. But there are times when you can’t help but notice the strange beauty of copper-coloured sunlight flashing upon its windows at dusk, as if a thousand eyes were staring out of those cold, impersonal walls. I think there’s value in preserving these buildings, not just because they possess a kind of chic urban sublime, but because they remind us of the ideals our society once held, even if they were misguided, flawed or impossible. I suppose I’d rather stare at the stark reality of an ugly monster, a decrepit Boyd Orr, than lose myself in the illusory surfaces of the glassy Wolfson Medical School, or the kitsch blue and green panels of the neo-Brutalist Fraser Building. I’d rather a chunk of dull glowing ore than a perfect rhinestone…

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The Fraser Building opposite Glasgow Uni Library