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Beauty may be in the eye of the gas-holder

Could pylons be regarded as art? Or the gas-holders now being gleefully demolished? asks Paul Finch

As I was saying last week, people care about their environment and there may be votes in it. News that a £500 million fund is being created to bury unsightly pylons in areas of outstanding natural beauty is indicative of how an emotional relationship can evoke a political response.

This is something Labour needs to think about, given its jittery hold on electoral support.  The third time I heard Chuka Umunna telling the Today programme that the party was ‘up for it’ (the election that is), I had to switch off the radio. What is it supposed to mean? That the opposition intends to fight the election? What a surprise. Why do intelligent politicians end up spouting demotic drivel?

If they spent more time telling us about their policies and the underlying thinking behind them, the obsession with personality/celebrity might fade. Hopefully this would not mean an endless diet of Farage-ist saloon bar clichés, Ed Balls confirming he is still in denial about his useless handling of the economy last time round, or self-satisfied George Osborne failing to explain why he is borrowing £300 million a day and increasing the national debt while David Cameron plays Lady Bountiful at home and abroad.

Debate might focus more on housing, schools, transport, cities - and also the countryside. Which brings us back to the question of beauty, a subject little discussed in the corridors of power, since it is not susceptible to Treasury analysis, nor something that can immediately be monetised by the private sector.

The only major politician in recent times who has ventured to comment on beauty is Oliver Letwin, the rather dreamy philosophy don/politician, a nicer version of Keith Joseph.  Ten years ago, Letwin was complaining that, when it came to the value of beauty, poor inner-city areas were not being given the same consideration as parts of the countryside. He regarded beauty as part of the same coin as sustainability, and thought it should be the guiding principle behind green policy. He also suggested that the better-off had the chance to ‘buy themselves out of ugliness’, creating a form of social injustice. We could do with a few more Oliver Letwins in our political life, and a few less smooth-faced plutocrat Tories who have made money out of photocopiers, or Labour ex-political researchers who have never had a real job. Neither make much intellectual contribution to our current debates.

An interest in beauty is bipartisan, as Richard Rogers among others has long proved. He often quotes the Athenian oath requiring that we leave our cities more beautiful than we found them, and once remarked that a building without beauty was construction, not architecture.

It is not impossible for a neo-functionalist to reconcile the idea of aesthetic pleasure with the more formal programmes of most buildings, but the worst aspects of commercial modernism evoked the idea that 1 per cent of a construction budget should be made over to art. As Charles Jencks has pointed out, looked at historically, this is a woefully low percentage. The Egyptians in their grander public buildings were probably 90 per cent art, for example, and this was a reason for opposing the 1 per cent policy - it’s just not enough.

Could pylons be regarded as art? Or the gas-holders now being gleefully demolished? I am reminded of John Constable’s observation: ‘I never saw an ugly thing in my life: for let the form of an object be what it may - light, shade, and perspective will always make it beautiful.’ Could this be true of pylons in an area of outstanding natural beauty?

As Oliver Letwin might say: discuss.

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