The fear of beauty is destroying our urban environment

'Politicians' unwillingness to talk about design, architecture and aesthetics is total'

Share
"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.

"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 London

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas