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Beauty commission would have councils become witchfinder generals

Paul Finch

The call for local authorities to name and shame developments that lack beauty is flawed and wrongheaded, argues Paul Finch 

The clumsily named Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission (BBBBC!) has put considerable effort into its first report. There is much sensible stuff in it, of the sort that you can find in previous documents produced by CABE, the RIBA, the Town and Country Planning Association and Uncle Tom Cobley.

Because the commission is the creation of the current political administration, it is a history-free zone in relation to the policies and initiatives of previous regimes. For example, it was axiomatic in the Blair/Brown era that good design and placemaking, allied to sustainable community development, were at the heart of government funding programmes. Indeed, there was an umbrella programme, called ‘Place’, to which all public bodies had to genuflect.

Oh well. The BBBBC has important recommendations, which are more or less the same. It is all about placemaking. And who can say this is not important? The Farrell Review about these matters – produced when architecture was the province of the Department of Culture, rather than the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government – urged the introduction of ‘place reviews’ rather than fuddy-duddy old ‘design reviews’, as though design could only operate in the straitjacket of buildings.

There is one big elephant in the room in relation to all this, which the BBBBC references but only to say that it is a difficult area: just what is beauty exactly?

The report claims it cannot be defined any more than truth can – and here we go, straight into Keatsian territory where ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty…’ This is dangerous territory, as the AA’s Mark Cousins famously pointed out in a lecture series on ‘The Ugly’. If beauty equals truth, then ugliness equals lies. It is a short step to the identification of ugly women as witches.

The commission’s requirement to aid and abet a more successful housing programme is based on a double falsehood

Without meaning to, no doubt, the commission wants to turn local authorities into witchfinder generals, as the AJ noted last week, inviting them to ‘name and shame’ developers who have had proposals rejected because they lack beauty (ie, they are ugly). It would be a brave local planning authority that did so, however, because aesthetic prejudice is not a reason for a planning refusal.

Prejudice of another kind crops up in the BBBBC world-view. Suburbs (excluding Poundbury, pictured, natch) are not a good thing. The answer to the housing shortage is garden cities/towns/villages, you see. Modernism has got it all wrong (shades of Quinlan Terry and his views about it being devil’s work), along with town planners and planning, government, housebuilders and local authorities (always under-funded even though they get paid planning fees, unlike the old days).

Poundbury©marilyn peddle

Poundbury©marilyn peddle

The report, in short, is a curate’s egg, with some always-welcome rehearsals of old chestnuts (Sunand Prasad and Paul Monaghan arguing that architects should be retained after planning and that the failure to insist that planning conditions are enforced is a problem). But much of this is not about beauty but decent design and a decent setting. If that is what beautiful means, then fine, but it would surely be an abuse of language.

The Venice art biennale … a parade of the extreme, the unpleasant, the biological and forecasts of impending doom

In a quest to seek out beauty while in Venice last week, we visited the art biennale, another curate’s egg. I fear the members of the BBBBC would have found little to fit their bill in the parade of the extreme, the unpleasant, the biological and forecasts of impending doom.

The occasional flash of inspiration was to be found, for example in the American, French and Russian pavilions, and I enjoyed the Singaporean take on cultural diversity. I wonder what the BBBBC would make of that extraordinary country from a beauty point of view. Not much, I fear. You can’t help feeling they might have preferred it as a characterful slum.

Still, in Venice you can always find beauty of the conventional sort, both man-made (Canova in the Gallerie dell’Accademia, for example, and an exquisite exhibition of Leonardo drawings, including the Vitruvian Man), or in the fabulous clouds and sunsets that inspired Titian and the rest. Very much a cultural construct, of course.

Back in Britain, there is more gloom about construction and housebuilding figures. One regrets the pigeon-hole that confines the BBBBC and its terms of reference. Its requirement to aid and abet a more successful housing programme is based on a double falsehood:

(a) that we don’t have enough housing because of the planning system; and

(b) that this, in turn, is the result of community opposition because proposals are not beautiful enough.

The reality is that we do not have enough homes because we stopped the local authority and new town programme of building in the early 1980s, leaving ourselves utterly unprepared for the population increases, particularly in London, which were encouraged without being planned for. Beauty had nothing to do with it.


Readers' comments (2)

  • Beauty: The promise of happiness.

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  • Industry Professional

    As stated in the article, beauty is subjective. I tend to think that if something is neat and efficient (as often in nature) then it will usually look right as well. Of course, boxes are neat and efficient but......
    Time shows up what is good and what is bad. Take car design for example. What may initially may appear too bold can sometimes mature and warm to the eye whilst some shapes, which are designed by a committee and that are too safe, can date quite quickly.
    Should everyone not be concentrating more on making buildings more efficient to "save the planet" though?

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