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How to build a new age of beauty

Of all artists, architects have the greatest role to play in the quest for beauty, says John Gummer

In Britain, beauty has been an unfashionable, unmanly word – acceptable for aesthetes and other exotics, but of questionable taste among men of the world. So, when MP Oliver Letwin used the word last year as a key concept in a political speech, it and he were viewed with some wonderment.

It was certainly seen as a departure, but commentators were undecided whether to treat this as personal, or a new strand in the public debate. Now, the coming of austerity has, far from stifling discussion, made room for a greater consideration of beauty and its importance to the health of the nation.

On this issue, I have always been a subversive. This derived from the consciousness of the huge advantage of being brought up in a Victorian gothic vicarage; educated in classrooms converted from a seriously distinguished classical house; worshipping every morning in a medieval masterpiece; and moving from lesson to lesson among beautiful buildings.

Architects have, of all artists, the greatest responsibility

The effect of that environment is incalculable and the contrast with the lives of those bounded by graffiti-ridden brutalist council estates is humbling. I cheered when education secretary Michael Gove reminded us of Churchill’s insight: ‘We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.’

So it was that, when I was environment secretary in the 1990s, we conceived the campaign to improve quality, insisted that architecture mattered, and demanded that planners take much more notice of design. Architecture remains the one compulsory art form. Individuals can choose beauty in an art gallery or a symphony concert, hearing a great choir or visiting a sculpture park.

We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us

They do not choose the buildings and spaces that make up their environment. Architects have, therefore, of all artists, the greatest responsibility. However, it is important that architectural beauty is not confused with nostalgia. It is inevitable that the buildings that most inspire often come from past ages. They are the masterpieces that the process of time has left, when lesser buildings have long been replaced.

Of course we are moved by the Rialto, by the view of Canterbury Cathedral coming over the Downs, by the roofs of Durham rising up towards that sublime cathedral. Yet our recognition of historic beauty must not hamper the quest for beauty today. If we don’t expect the best from our architects, they and we will make do with the mediocre.

our recognition of historic beauty must not hamper the quest for beauty today

That’s why we should never have accepted buildings like the brutalist Tricorn Centre. It was simply not good enough. The fact that architects have defended so much that is modern and ugly should instil humility, instead of the recent return to a shrill insistence on infallibility. Britain is only now emerging from an era that eschewed beauty. We should welcome a society realising what it has missed and rise to the new challenge.


John Gummer is former chair of the Conservative Party’s Quality of Life task force. He is keynote speaker at the RIBA’s fifth annual research symposium on 23 September, which focuses on beauty.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Agree whole-hearedly. But just how do we achieve it when money is tight? Fine (and truthful) words are all very well but we architects have to deal with reality - which most of the time is of the economic variety - a reality that no doubt the architects of the Tricorn Centre wrestled with. The fact is that architects can only build what scoiety at any given time allows them too. All we can do is be every ready to rise to the occasion when it arrives. For quite a lot of us the occassion indeed never does arrive.

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