Janet Street-Porter: Brutal buildings just breed brutal people

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The Independent Online

Alain de Botton, who specialises in what I call philosophy-lite, completed a three-part series on television last night entitled The Perfect Home. Alain is an engaging and self-effacing presenter, and that's part of his charm. He certainly wasn't coming up with a lot of controversial opinions about architecture, but he is very good at making us consider our everyday lives from an unexpected angle.

In this series he mused about why we can't agree on how to live and what to build, and rightly pointed out that for many religions, architecture is believed to induce serenity and happiness. The problem with the Protestant philosophy is that you can be happy anywhere - Jesus can be found in a warehouse prayer room in Chelmsford with plastic chairs and nylon carpet.

Alain described Dubai - where a huge, new development is planned with 18 themed villages surrounded by five golf courses - as "a bit of a mess philosophically and visually".

Why are the British so feeble about matters of taste - and why can't we get newly built houses that don't look like something out of Toytown? Will all the new estates in the South-east and the Thames Gateway promised us by Mr Prescott make us any happier? After watching this programme, I fear not.

Last night, BBC2 took a different perspective on happiness with a new series presented by Mark Easton. The Happiness Formula featured a survey which revealed that far fewer people consider themselves happy today than in the 1950s. Even more revealing, 80 per cent of those who took part thought it was the Government's job to make us happier rather than wealthier.

In the tiny kingdom of Bhutan the government has done just that, banning plastic bags, advertising for junk drinks and MTV. Is this mind control or creative democracy? There are all sorts of other controversial issues that Bhutan's rulers have yet to deal with - immigration and tourism, for example.

But the idea that the British government should somehow sort out our problems, is, I'm afraid, just plain hogwash. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Alain is on to something by linking the built environment to a state of mind. There is no doubt that brutal buildings produce brutal people - and after presenting a television series myself about Britain's ugliest buildings entitled Demolition, I can honestly say that ordinary punters get far more worked up about bad building and the misery it causes than anyone in the office of the Deputy Prime Minister, our planning supremo.

Happiness starts with feeling that your immediate surroundings are welcoming, of the right scale, and user-friendly. I am absolutely sure that the gangs of hoodie-wearing yobs waiting to receive their Asbos from the local judiciary will generally come from very deprived urban environments. I also believe that families who live in tower blocks with malfunctioning lifts, or on sink estates with poor transport, no local amenities, few shops and no playing fields, will also produce citizens who are not happy and likely to commit crime. It's so patently obvious, isn't it?

Every time the Government allows gardens to be classified as brown field sites and built on, every time they allow another Tesco retail box to be built in a field, and every time they permit developers to build street after street of identical little brick boxes, they are simply constructing more misery.

So there is a way for the Government to contribute to our happiness, and that's to care about architecture as much as we do.

A once-great shipyard takes a bow

May Day on Tyneside was celebrated in spectacular fashion. More than 14,000 people (myself included) crammed into the Swan Hunter shipyard for a performance by the Pet Shop Boys of their soundtrack to the epic Eisenstein film Battleship Potemkin, accompanied by the Northern Sinfonia.

With a backdrop of a clear, blue sky and towering cranes, the setting couldn't have been more poignant - for the yard is building what could be its last ship, HMS Lyme Bay. In today's local elections, Labour is trying to regain control of the city council from the Lib Dems. The city is re-branding itself but work in the manufacturing industry is below the national average. The MoD ignored Swan Hunter in December when contracts were awarded to build two warships at four other UK yards. Now the shipyard has to bid for the remaining 40 per cent of the contract - a humbling experience for a once-great yard.

* The BBC has just been castigated for its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its reluctance to use the word "terrorism" where appropriate. Equally worrying, was their decision to broadcast a television interview with the convicted paedophile Gary Glitter from the prison where he is serving a three-year sentence for molesting young girls in Vietnam.

Using what might be termed the "Michael Jackson" defence, Glitter claimed that he had let young girls into his bed because they were afraid of "ghosts", and that he had never slept with anyone under-age. There was absolutely no justification whatsoever for transmitting this pathetic piece of self-aggrandisement on the one o'clock news on Tuesday, and then repeating it at 6pm and 10pm, by which time hundreds of viewers had quite justifiably rung in to complain.

The story was a bit of "celebrity" journalism with no news value, and should have been canned.