The “beauty debate” isn’t even skin deep

Austin Williams

1033552021 200x300 The beauty debate isnt even skin deepAt a recent architectural debate in south London, the Strata Tower, the landmark building in Elephant & Castle was lambasted for its ugliness.

Dubbed the “Electric Razor” for its three huge wind turbine blades at the summit, the Strata has been equated to a piece of “chav” architecture that wears its environmental credentials like a Fred Perry logo. It has been criticised for its brashness and its “stridency”, two descriptions which, in the past, would have been proud synonyms for high-rise structures. Today, however, this flagrant behaviour is as unacceptable in our civic architecture as anti-social behaviour is in our civil society, it seems.

For example, one of the sins of the Strata is that it flaunts its green credentials at the very time when “eco-bling” – as architect Howard Liddell describes it – is becoming an embarrassment for the refined chattering classes. It is easy to forget that energy-saving tokenism (like David Cameron’s domestic wind turbine) has been the staple of environmentalism for the last decade. But look-at-me architectural sustainability is too crude for many these days. For them, the Strata is an architectural symbol of oafishness juxtaposed against their standards of civilised refinement: it is Ryanair as seen through the lens of Virgin Atlantic business class.

Recently, this moral high-ground has taken the form of a debate about “beauty” versus ugliness. Beauty has been an unspoken, unconscious ambition for architects for many years, but all of a sudden the “B”-word is being shouted from the rooftops. In architectural circles these days, you can’t move for books, articles, debates and conferences on the subject of beauty. Why, and is this something to celebrate?

In some respects, the use of the phrase “beauty” is simply a snobbish attempt to distinguish the architecture critic from the grubby realities of the construction industry and understandably “beauty” is an intellectually ambitious project, which is bound to contain elitist conceptualisations. However, that tends not to be the debate we’re having about beauty these days, as beauty is not undergoing a rigorous intellectual resurgence; rather a meaningful debate about “beauty” has become confused and diminished. Rather than demands for “beauty” reflecting a resurgence in aesthetic judgement and cultured debate about the poetics of architecture, in today’s environment the critique of “beauty” has merely become just another social policy lever.

For example, CABE – the soon-to-be-defunct architecture quango – wants to get the public to engage in a Big Society debate about the beauty of their surroundings in order to generate social capital. It advocates beauty as ‘an unexpected route into civic involvement’, which is a pale shadow of Alain de Botton’s phrase ‘Beauty is something to be found, rather than passively encountered’. Such is CABE’s infatuation with building social capital that it wants communities to be engaged in an instrumental search for beauty in order to create a sense of togetherness. As such, the search for “beauty” is no better than a family hunt for Easter eggs.

Ben Rogers, Associate Fellow at the IPCC (and son of Lord Rogers), prefers the “Happiness Agenda” model, describing the potential for beauty to challenge the ‘limits of narrowly economistic approaches to growth’. He wants people to engage in open-ended debates about the relative beauty of their locality, to ensure that ‘cutting the deficit does not become an excuse for lowering standards’.

So on the one hand, CABE wants beauty to be a catch-all mechanism to actively engage people in their community; while others want to intellectualise the same process in the hope that such involvement will regenerate social contentment. Neither of which has anything to do, necessarily, with beauty.

Here we see that the “beauty debate” isn’t even skin deep. Instead, it follows the ubiquitous social policy approach to architecture that we have seen for a number of years and which was explored at the Happy-Clappy Architecture session at the Battle of Ideas festival. This instrumental use of the notion of beauty is lamentable.

Conservative ex-cabinet minister John Selwyn Gummer observes that ‘Britain is only now emerging from an era that eschewed beauty. We should welcome a society realizing what it has missed’. Gummer’s guilty atonement for the sins of The Sixties echoes Roger Scruton’s belief that Modernism destroyed the eternal beauty that spans the ages. Indeed, it was 2,000 years ago that Vetruvius spoke of venustas (beauty) as the universal law of proportion and symmetry. But no-one in today’s society seems able to grasp the ethereal, abstract concepts of beauty with only a few notable exceptions.

The very reason that mantownhuman – which I am a co-founder of-  is organising the Critical Subjects Architecture Winter School in London on 17-18th November is to refresh the mind; to free design students from the habit of seeing their work in terms of outcomes, policy initiatives, sustainability criteria, instead allowing them to refuse to justify their decisions in terms of “measurables”.

This type of abstraction is not well understood today. Architects have lost the ability to imagine, conceptualise and defend their work in its own terms, which is hardly surprising given that in 2005 the Royal Institute of British Architects demanded an ‘evidence-based research framework for demonstrating the social, environmental and economic value of design.’ This kind of utilitarian approach to beautiful and functional architecture has corroded both notions, to the extent that the RIBA now organizes conferences that ask: ‘Can we value beauty, measure it or define its role in policy?’ It seems that the architecrural establishment can only recognise, and defend, beauty if it ticks a governmental box or two.

In this climate, to suggest, like Keats, that ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all’ would leave many architects confused and reaching for an academic research paper or the smelling salts. Through all the confusion, we certainly need to reclaim beauty, but actually, we need to reclaim it from those very philistines who are pretending to defend it.

Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project. He is convening  mantownhuman’s Critical Subjects: Architecture & Design Winter School held at the Kowalsky Gallery in central London on 17-18 November 2010. It is sponsored by Eckersley O’Callaghan Structural Design, DACS and Blueprint magazine. See: He produced the Battle of Ideas debate Happy-clappy architecture: designing for well being on Saturday 30 October.

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  • Oscar Weird

    Architecture is a very important issue, and while buildings are just the result of capital investment, their form does tend to reflect the order of the day. ‘Beauty’ on the other hand, is entirely subjective. I cannot divorce buildings from the reason they were built. When I see a cathedral, even the one down in my native Glos, I see a powerful churchman raising a shrine to his own grandeur, keeping the muddled masses in line. Go to Rome and you will see monuments to people spending others’ money over millenia. Go to Paris, and what impresses is the windblown enormity of streets too broad for rebels to build barricades across and where coherent battalions and artillery can circulate easily if need be. Ah, Haussmann, what a visionary.

    Come to Istanbul, and you will see the free market in all its glory, with mile after mile of unplanned concrete tower blocks housing the unwelcome Anatolians seeking a better life in the Metropolis. (Whoops, oh my God, I mean buyuksehir, sorry everyone. Actually, I was born in 1955, but not to worry).

    Modernism was a self-indulgent nightmare, but the postmodern world of gated communities with armed guards on the entrance is a pitiful reaction. Some of the more modern estates are characterised by a neighbourly accessibility, the result of the astonishing ploy of actually asking people what they want.

    Architects are by nature elitist. They sell their projects to property developers who are interested in scoring a high return on investment. As such, they are highly dangerous in terms of the damage they can inflict on everyone’s environment. What is needed is a rational approach whereby the workings of the city can continue while the enclaves amidst the office blocks and highways are designed on a human proportion, so neighbours can meet and stroll. What is not needed is a divisive postmodernism where the rich and gormless hide behind high walls, and the rest of us look on and wonder.

  • Dorothea

    Beauty is subjective, it’s true: but there have been rashes of ugliness that no-one could deny. Perhaps computer graphics can be used to give a more realistic picture of what an area will look after after a development, than those pretty colour-washed drawings that made the ugly, shoddy 1960’s buildings look moderately attractive before they were built. And who could possibly have thought that solid concrete (no matter how dramatic and clean when new) was going to look anything but ugly and grubby after a year or two?

  • Milouthedog

    Why can’t we see architecture as something that responds to the needs and the finances available at a given point in history? Architecture isn’t necessarily elitist, viz the 60s and 70s housing estates which people presumably clamoured to get into at the time to escape their drafty late-Victorian suburban semis. Now the latter have become upmarket and many of the nice, modern, warm flats are sinks. Our perception of beauty changes depending on what we see, like, and/or grow to like.

  • LuluB

    This reminds me of arguments made by designers who use fur, those who feel an alternative or a man-made replacement is insufficient and could only result in a compromise of design principle, when that argument could be countered with a plea for greater creativity and pushing the limits of what can be done with certain materials and restrictions. “Beauty” in architectural design is worth some economic compromises, but designing something that will result in unsustainable energy use and poor utilization of passive resources, is a harder case to make. Some compromises for the sake of beauty are acceptable, but architecture isn’t like sculpture in that it exists for the sake of observation and meditation, it is a natural-resource-consuming, thing of function that is utilized by the public: This is where “art” and “design” diverge.

    I think what’s most important about the “sustainability” vs. “aesthetics” debate, is that both must reach a point of harmony in order to feel “right” by the public. Many architects may pull the snob card, here, and claim that the consistence of their personal design aesthetic is paramount, but this is where powerful, compelling design isn’t always compatible with social life and urban fluidity. You can be a great architect but a poor engineer or urban planner. You can be a great artist, but poor architect. “Austere” might make a strong, symbolic design statement but may seem anachronistic and non-engaging to the public that uses it as a social space. Some art pieces are great to “visit” in museums, but not suitable to live with or work in and some architectural design amounts to nothing less than a jarring museum piece, one that locals can’t “get away from”.

    “Urbines” might be viewed as obvious and ostentatious, but while functional, they also act as powerful reminders and social symbols. They remind people of our environmental responsibilities and force people to consider “beauty” in a new way. It’s about more than simply form following function or the glorification of form; it’s about showing the public the beauty in a form that might otherwise (or has classically been) viewed as anything but–to take the awkwardness and strangeness out of sustainability design and make it feel less alien by allowing it to evolve, allowing the public to grow accustomed to certain designs by finding ways to weave it harmoniously into the land and urbanscape.

    Gills and webbed flippers could be viewed as “ugly” by those who don’t live underwater. This is where great artists, designers and architects can really “show their stuff”: If they can take “strange” and make it feel accessible and beautiful for the sake of The Common Good, then they are great, indeed.

  • Tom Bolton

    CABE’s research asks people about beauty: does it matter to them, where do they find it, who should experience beauty? Although beauty is much debated by architects and critics, it does not form part of the language of public debate. There’s a strange taboo around discussing beauty, perhaps stemming from a feeling that it’s only of personal, rather than public relevance. Yet CABE’s films are full of unprompted, detailed discussion about the future of Sheffield, touching on the historic and the new, the glossy and the tatty, the exceptional and the ordinary – all prompted by questions about a subject often seen as frivolous or irrelevant. Beauty is fundamental to architecture, but it’s also a subject on which everyone has a view, unlike the technicalities of planning or design. Is this an instrumental, box-ticking, catch-all, social policy lever? Or is it simply asking people about something that matters to them and, for once, taking their answers seriously?

  • MSpaeth

    Without an argument that defines for its use “beauty”, “aesthetics”, “social policy”, and all of the “isms” that accompany hundreds of years of art and architectural history, and in fact without a shared understanding in society of what the role is of an architect, it is extremely difficult to sort out the multiple equivocations made in the arguments of Austin Williams’ “Manifesto”. Provocation and debate have always been necessary tools of freedom and democracy and of learned individuals, but even debates need boundaries in order to make sense of them.At some point too, freedom, whether exercised by an architect or activists, requires boundaries–imposed by self and society. Freedom to create, especially when it comes to buildings in which we must live and work together, risks ego-anarchy if that freedom is determined solely by architects and designers–especially those whose interests are motivated by securing contracts with property developers and municipal leaders whose ambitions in turn are often economic before they are aesthetic. Poor people in “functional” housing projects, even, are pleased to have roofs over their heads. This does not mean that they dislike low density, gardens, water, proportion, curves, light, space, and detail. The “green” trends, while admirable theoretically, are clouded by issues related not only to bureaucratic “box-ticking”, but also by claims of higher costs designed to drive up prices for all of those individuals seeking gain from longer and longer “value” chains, and even by energy industrialists, investors and financiers who enjoy any game that will increase their revenues through carbon trading, electricity trading on stock markets, and any other scheme that will likely mire us all in a continued global financial crisis. For all of us NOT to understand and to discuss the implications of policy decisions related to climate and energy (and the manipulations by those who seek to gain financial advantage through them), is to serve as accomplice to the next wave of crises.And finally, beauty. It seems that the only individuals who typically deny the immeasureable phenomenon of beauty, in nature, proportions, emotions, and form are those who adhere to agendas they’ve either inherited and not questioned–or that they insist on promoting for reasons that are difficult for me to fully comprehend (even if I am not naive to some of the historical, financial or social reasons). To my mind, there is a direct correlation between humility and the creation of beauty. Ego, per se, can co-exist with humility, but without humility and empathy, an architect or artist or any “creative” human being for that matter, cannot begin to care about, much less create, beauty.

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