The “beauty debate” isn’t even skin deep
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: www.mantownhuman.org. He produced the Battle of Ideas debate Happy-clappy architecture: designing for well being on Saturday 30 October.Tagged in: Battle of Ideas
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