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?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Apprentice Telesales & Marketing Opportunities

£10400 - £14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing, ambitious, en...

Ashdown Group: Deputy Editor (Magazine Publishing) - Wimbledon - £23-26K

£23000 - £26000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Deputy Editor - Wimbledon...

Ashdown Group: Editor (Magazines/Publishing) - Wimbledon - £26-30K

£26000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Editor (Magazines/Publish...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

An unelectable extremist who hijacked their party has already served as prime minister – her name was Margaret Thatcher

Jacques Peretti
A Del Tajo la Reina's bull falls during the second  

Spain's torture of bulls has hit a gruesome peak this year – and no thanks to the EU

Mimi Bekhechi
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

That's a bit rich

The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

Britain's Atlantis

Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

David Starkey's assessment
Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

'An enormous privilege and adventure'

Oliver Sacks writing about his life
'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

Orthorexia nervosa

How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

Set a pest to catch a pest

Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests