Trying to measure ‘beauty’ is notoriously tricky, says Paul Finch
‘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.’ John Constable’s ringing declaration should be borne in mind by the worthies now trying to impose a reworked Aesthetic Movement on the planning system.
The worthies in question run the clumsily and illiterately named Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission (BBBBC!), which this week produced an interim report on how we can solve our housing problems at a stroke: make all designs beautiful and thereby achieve instant planning permissions.
As Silly Season stories go this is not a bad one. The announcement from the interim chair, Nicholas Boys Smith, starts to give the game away: ‘Redeveloping abandoned out-of-town retail parks and ugly old supermarkets would deliver something much more beautiful …’ Check the equivalence of ‘ugly’ and ‘old’. Pensioners look out.
That is the problem when you start exploiting words like beautiful for political purposes. If a design is not beautiful, does that mean it is ‘ugly’? Should you give permissions to designs that are competent, but not to the visual satisfaction of local planning authorities – nor, indeed, the general public, who (of course, of course) should be ‘given an earlier say in the development process’.
‘We need to move democracy upstream from development-control to plan-making,’ declares Boys Smith. Hurrah! Let’s hear it for ‘beautiful’ masterplans and the sages who can spot the beauty in them at a thousand paces. And let’s, by all means, enjoin councils to ‘have confidence in saying no to ugliness – with authorities celebrating examples of bad schemes they have turned down and used as examples to encourage beautiful design’. Let’s put architects in the stocks!
But not Ash Sakula, whose Malings housing scheme in Newcastle is cited as an example of ‘beautiful building’. On the Constable definition it clearly is, but I would describe it as characterfully robust rather than applying the ‘B’ word. I feel fairly confident that some members of the public would regard it as ugly, because of its scale and form. But so what? Is aesthetic prejudice about to triumph? Let’s hope not.
The National Planning Policy Framework is very clear that designs of obviously poor quality should be refused. If only it were always observed. Trying to insert phoney measures (and measuring ‘beauty’ is notoriously tricky) will be a formula for a shambles, no doubt benefiting an exciting new breed of ‘beauty consultants’.
The awful lesson from the Amin Taha appeal
I spoke briefly last week (along with other soldiers in the fight for rationality) in favour of Amin Taha’s Clerkenwell building. The occasion was the appeal against an enforcement notice; Islington Council and in particular its planning chair, an architectural technician, are trying to destroy a first-rate contextual home and office. The technician, Councillor Klute, described one aspect of the design as ‘bizarre’ and the overall building as ‘hideous’. This is the sort of drivel we will have to put up with in spades if the Beauty Brigade gets its way.