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The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’s measures will create a shambles

Paul Finch

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. 


Readers' comments (4)

  • Paul is right about the beauty red-herring. It's a simple and plainly evident fact that most planning authorities, including those in cities, struggle to judge what is good or bad architecture. It is slightly chilling to learn from Mr Boys Smith that ‘we need to move democracy upstream from development-control to plan-making.’ Translation: the government obviously requires an even bigger fan for the architectural shit to hit. In this situation, the definition of architectural beauty will obviously become a free-for-all, a kind of deadly civic satire, a salient example of which was Mayor Boris Johnson's contribution to the design of the excellent new London Bridge Station. The obviously pointless and rather crude metal gubbins connecting the canopies were a bitterly conceded sop to his original demand for a single massive overarching canopy over the platforms. He also suggested that gargoyles might be added to the street elevations. Jay Merrick

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  • In light of the total failure of this design body, should the RIBA or another industry body be publishing its own guidance to the government on how to unlock the planning system and assess design quality?

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  • Jay Merrick - Boris Johnson would be a good subject for 21st century gargoyles, bur preferably the version before it got a haircut to quality for being voted prime minister.

    Just one point about Amin Taha's home and office - Paul Finch's comment is absolutely right, but isn't there another aspect to the debate about this building? - that it 'fiddles' with the building line in quite outrageous fashion, and that this sets a precedent with massive implications if it's not addressed here and now.

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  • The 'Beauty Consultants' are already here. Last month the applicants wheeled in a 'Townscape Consultant' to tell the appeal inquiry why building 10 storeys of flats behind our listed parish church would improve the setting.

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