"Whenever I hear the word culture I reach for my gun." Goering's words have been haunting me over the last four years, since first agreeing to chair the New Labour Government's Urban Task Force. One of the most puzzling discoveries I made during this period is that civil servants and politicians in this country will always shy away from any discussion of even the most commonplace aesthetic values. Beauty makes our public servants nervous.
Again and again while writing the Urban Task Force's report, Towards An Urban Renaissance, I was strongly advised not to use words like "beauty", "harmony", "aesthetic" and even "architecture" if I wanted the report to be taken seriously by those who counted. And sure enough those words hardly appear, replaced by less alarming euphemisms: "good design", "planning" or, better still, "construction". Can we really believe in New Labour's commitment to our architectural environment when the word "aesthetics" continues to cause such waves down the corridors of Whitehall?
In an excellent article in The Independent, Sir Stuart Lipton, the chairman of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) criticises the low standard of much contemporary British architecture. Yet even Lipton, despite CABE's remit to raise standards of public architecture, feels obliged to state that "the improvements we seek are not at bottom about 'aesthetics' ".
But of course, aesthetics is exactly what architecture should be about. The essence of architecture springs from aesthetic judgement and choice from the Parthenon to the Sydney Opera House, from the Greek Forum to Regent's Park, the properties of solid and void, whether in buildings or public space, stimulate the imagination and lift the spirit. A building without beauty is not architecture but a construction, much as music without beauty is just noise.
The means to achieve well-designed cities that serve, rather than hinder, their citizens, are surprisingly simple. Buildings which are well-orientated allow more light to enter. Equally, specifying higher ceiling heights adds very little to the overall cost of a house but immediately adds to the market value. Current planning regulations result in too many floors being squeezed within a given height in order to meet some abstract concept of "tidy" eaves heights. Too much red tape is stifling creativity.
The quality of our built environment is pretty abysmal. The concrete blocks, ring roads and glass boxes of the post-war years do not testify to the fallacies of an aesthetic philosophy or indeed the inhumanity of British architects. Rather, they highlight something far more disturbing: architecture, one of the most visible aspects of public life, has been sacrificed to short-term public economies and private profit.
Today, success is measured by the architect's ability to build the largest possible enclosure for a given budget in the quickest time. That is the definition of success: a big, cheap envelope, no trees, no balconies, no arcades, no public space, no long-life materials. Such embellishment would only, perish the thought, add to the cost.
Why are politicians and civil servants so scared of sounding as if they cared about beauty? Is it a hangover from our puritan religious past, or fear of sounding snobbish and effete? But scared they certainly are. When was the last time that any politician promised to make improving architectural standards a priority along with improving education and the NHS? How often are these issues discussed on Any Questions or Question Time? The politicians' unwillingness to talk about design, architecture and, yes, aesthetics, is so total it crosses all the usual political divides that it goes almost unremarked. Sometimes it feels as if there is a conspiracy of silence.
Yet it seems glaringly obvious to me that raising architectural standards is just as important as raising standards in our schools and hospitals. It is now well established that low quality, ugly environments breed vandalism, crime, ill health and depression conversely, good design encourages social well-being. The quality of our built environment remains a major political issue, even if it is an issue that for so long has not dared to speak its name.
Of course it is true, as the Urban Task Force's report emphasised, and as Stuart Lipton also points out, that investing in architecture and the built environment makes sound financial sense. After all Nash's and Cubitt's Georgian terraces are still standing, and still earning higher returns than any comparable housing. Good design adds to the bottom line: beauty pays. But I look forward to the day when politicians don't feel that they have to justify investment in the built environment by reference to narrow utilitarian values. Roll on the day when they when we learn to value beauty for itself.
¿ Lord Rogers is the architect of the Beauborg in Paris and the Lloyd's building in LondonReuse content