Beauty and the Beast – Considerations (BBC)

When the word beauty is used in the course of conversation, what first comes into your mind?

What is the likely response you will receive if you describe a work of art, figurative or conceptual, as beautiful? What if I describe a building, ancient or modern using this same adjective?

‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder isn’t it?’

This phrase very soon surfaces and has the effect more often than not of closing the conversation down. If beauty is seen as entirely subjective, how can I engage in meaningful dialogue with you? What is there to say when you or I hold such personal viewpoints that we can’t talk about them? 

I have responded to the Governments interim report from the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission (BBBBC). I mentioned this to others in my circle and received the response I have alluded to above. This response prompted me to write this article.

Question 1; Should we ask for beauty?

Do we need to better understand the role of the word beauty in our modern day culture? If the word elicits the kind of response that closes down conversations shouldn’t we do some digging? There has often been been a polarisation between two extremes when discussing architecture  in the UK. Between modernism and tradition. It is easier to avoid inevitable conflict by resorting to phrases that side step the issue altogether. The phrase ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, is quite helpful in this respect. I use it, rather then having to engage with you, whichever side of the debate we may be on. 

The word beauty seems to have fallen out of regular use in the architectural profession. This may be because we are uneasy about it’s meaning. Therefore we hesitate to use it, to avoid giving the wrong impression.

Will it cause more confusion, in the planning system for instance, if we start asking for beauty to be part of the consideration in the design process?  Should we take time out discover if its’ meaning is entirely subjective or if it has objective meaning that can be explained rationally and understood collectively?

How would this be done? One way could be to make consistent reference to what is considered beautiful by the majority of people and communities. The word then regains it’s meaning by association. To suit the very different context compared to say 150 or more years ago, it’s meaning may have to be reconfigured. Given the increased levels of consultation / engagement now being required of the planning system, this might even produce some kind of result.

Alternatively, attempts could be made to re-define the word theoretically for our present age. This is always going to be a mammoth task, living at a time when relativism has affected our way of thinking. At a time when ‘meaning’ is no longer considered necessary.

The word beauty does appear to have been outlawed in the architectural field at least during the course of the 20th century. This is so to the extent that its rehabilitation may now be necessary if we wish the word to regain meaning. 

Exploring the word theoretically may be a parallel exercise, the result of which could help the building industry regain a better rational for decision making. The goal should be to see consistently better results than we often experience in our constantly changing built environment. We all know we can do much better in many instances.

A period  may be required, where essay’s, talks, exemplar projects and critical hypothesis are promoted on a regular basis across the country. This could help us arrive at a better contextual understanding of the word. Is this why the commission appointed a philosopher, Roger Scruton to lead this charge? After all, the classical renaissance in building was accompanied by a multitude of explanatory text from Alberti to Palladio. This was preceded by Vitruvius who helped set certain ground rules as far back as the Roman empire. Even the Victorians had John Ruskin.

Drawing attributed to John Ruskin

Question 2; Should beauty and the ‘spirit of place’ be defined and demanded locally?

Don’t worry, I am not about to go through all 30 questions asked in the BBBBC questionnaire.

When in comes to expressing our views or making judgements, the quality or character of the places we know is given more air time than may be the case with our buildings. There may be two reason for this. Firstly, more of us experience directly the positive or negative effects of our immediate environment. This means we are more prepared to express our opinion than is the case with individual buildings. Secondly, consultation and public engagement that increasingly accompany the planning process today, often engage around place-making. This is acquainting more people with the language of civic design, even if there is a long way to go. 

Should this be the place to start to identify qualities that lead to a good outcomes and which could be worthy of the classification ‘beautiful’? With buildings, bar the carbuncle test, people are generally less certain of how to engage in debate, other than to say what they don’t like. Is it more difficult to say yes to beauty than to say no to ugliness – anticipating Question no 3.

What kind of beast have we created that makes talk about beauty problematic?

Perhaps it started with the declaration that ‘ornament is a crime’ by Adolf Loose in 1910? Perhaps it was the insistence of the early promoters of the new ‘Spirit of the Age’, that sought to overthrow the old order, so making way for the the new architecture of Le’Corbusier and the Cite Radieuse in 1952. Then again, it could have been the evangelical adherence to this new continental import that established the ideology in the schools of architecture. Here, other views were dismissed as irrelevant, giving rise to the dichotomy we are now familiar with. Great credence was given to the gradually dominating modernists. At the other extreme, credence was also given, ironically, to the preservers, of our worthy ‘heritage’ buildings.

Abstract Expressionism in art paralleled greater abstraction in the design of buildings. As we have now discovered, this leads to lack of legibility in the built environment. Natural surveillance provided by the old streets gave way to precincts, walkways, cul-de-sacs and dead ends, in need of CCTV camera’s to provide security. But maybe again it is cheap fossil fuel and the proliferation of cars, fumes and congestion with the complimentary out of town shopping malls that are to blame. Tending as it does to the dystopian ‘geography of nowhere’, this trend has left us with a depressing legacy that only now and then surprises with truly great moments.

Modular Man, Le’Corbusier; Cite Radieuse

Whatever the reason, this dystopian transformation of our beloved highways and byways has crept up on us unawares. We’re not sure that we really like it, but it’s jolly convenient (by car) and many of the buildings are award winners, so it must be good? What are we supposed to say? In this context, the use of the word beauty seems out of place. The experts are the doyens of the language of architecture and so is it they who have inadvertently banned the word from the lectionary?

We may find the re-emergence of the word beauty something distasteful to our rationalist ears. But like it or not, if the current publications from the Government at Westminster are anything to go by. The word beauty is going to start popping up all the time in the UK. Firstly with their interim report from the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission (BBBBC) followed by the recent publication from the Policy Exchange, ‘The Duty to Build Beautiful’. The end of the year will see the publication of the final version of the Commissions BBBB.

Will the convergence of pressing issues like climate change, shifts in demographics, social relationships, economic turmoil and citizens empowerment be the trigger to bring about the kind of changes we need. Such changes could help rehabilitate the word beauty, through building better quality and more authentic buildings, places and communities which would be deserving of the word.

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