Architecture and our duty to beauty

We all have a responsibility to make the best of our surroundings. Yet the political classes are reluctant to be arbiters of taste. That has to change, argues Julian Baggini

Monday 20 September 2010 00:00 BST

The seaside town of Folkestone sits between shore and hill, looking out over the English Channel, against the backdrop of the North Downs.

It's a great natural advantage, but one which can be cheaply treated. I remember once, when I was a kid, how almost overnight, in a then largely undeveloped area of the town at the foot of the hills, a huge, bright blue DIY warehouse store appeared. A view that thousands of people took for granted everyday had suddenly been, not quite destroyed, but indelibly stained.

Even then I was struck by how absurd and unnecessary this was. This wasn't about fine points of architectural style. The store was only intrusive because no one had thought to insist that it was a colour that didn't stand out. Since then, of course, I've learned that such thoughtlessness is perfectly normal. We are all familiar with passing by a development and asking, "How on earth were they allowed to put that there?"

The importance of preserving, protecting and enhancing whatever beauty there may be in a particular area is not sufficiently appreciated. People make a fuss about Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), but neglect Areas of Ordinary, Normal Beauty, of which you find plenty in every town and village. These are important but over-looked "public goods", as economists call them. Unlike market goods, you can't realistically charge for them and one person's use of them does not in any way reduce the capacity of others to use them too. The paradigmatic examples are usually fresh air and lighthouses. Beauty in the natural and built environment is rarely mentioned, but it fits the definition as well as anything.

Once you recognise something is a public good, however, it raises a political challenge: whose job is it to supply, regulate or protect it? The only possible answer can be the government and its agencies. But the state is reluctant to take on this responsibility. Politics runs from beauty. In their last general election manifestos, the three main parties used the word "beauty" or "beautiful" only once each, and always in the context of the Great British Countryside. (The Greens, incidentally, didn't mention beauty at all.)

The countryside is the only place where beauty is politically mentionable because everyone agrees that it's wonderful and wants to preserve it. Move into towns and cities, however, and no one is confident of commanding such a consensus. People disagree about what constitutes an attractive urban area, and they also disagree about how important beauty is in the built environment. No wonder public bodies are reluctant to take a lead. When local people are so worried about council tax, rubbish collections, schools and so on, who wants to risk being accused of "wasting" money by prioritising something so vague as urban beauty? What political party or government agency wants to risk setting itself up as an arbiter of taste, and risk being mocked as an Orwellian Ministry of Beauty?

In short, beauty appears to be too fluffy for public policy. Its benefits are not clear and measurable, and its very nature too much a matter of subjective personal opinion. But if politics ignores beauty, then we are in trouble, because it is a public good and it matters when it is not protected. So we are left at an impasse. We have a public good that needs protecting, but no one will do so enthusiastically because no one feels qualified or mandated to make the kind of decisions about beauty that such protection requires.

If we are to remedy this, we need to start by challenging the idea that beauty is too personal and subjective. Obviously there is a great deal of variation in judgements of beauty, but this can easily be overstated. To illustrate this, I recently got more than 400 people to give me their simple judgements on how beautiful they thought certain buildings were. This was a limited exercise, being based on just one external photo of each building, but the patterns that emerged are, I am sure absolutely typical.

What I found was that although there was a certain amount of disagreement, with one exception, judgements always tended towards agreement. You can see this visually by the graph, right, where each line represents a particular building and the vertical axis indicates the popularity of a particular response. The far left of the horizontal axis indicates a judgement of "very beautiful", the middle "neither beautiful or not", and the far right "ugly."

The graph shows responses for five of the 10 buildings, but nine conformed to the pattern. In each case, responses clearly peak around a particular judgement. So for the ultra-modern City of Art and Sciences in Valencia and St Paul's Cathedral in London, the most popular choice was "quite beautiful" and each less favourable judgement got fewer responses than the one before it. This "bell curve" was also the pattern with 30 St Mary Axe, London (The "Gherkin"), Leeds Castle in Kent, Il Duomo in Florence and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. For London's Senate House, in contrast, the bell peaked at a neutral judgement, the same pattern as for the Empire State Building in New York. The much-maligned Trellick Tower in London, in contrast, peaked at "ugly".

The outlier among the 10 buildings was Gaudi's Sagrada Familia in Barcleona. That was the only building to peak twice. The most popular response was "very beautiful" but judgements did not then continue in a steady decline in popularity: there was another bump at "quite unattractive".

What is significant is that this "Marmite" pattern was the exception. On the whole, although people do disagree as to what they find beautiful, there tend to be clear trends and patterns that make it easy to say what people generally find beautiful or not. This should not be surprising, but there is a tendency to point to differences in opinions as evidence that it is hopeless to try to come up with any kind of objective judgements about beauty. But if opinions cluster around a particular judgement, we have at the least a kind of "inter-subjective" agreement.

Critically, this is all we need politically. No one would say that we cannot possible decide how to prioritise public spending because there is no universal agreement. Rather, we simply see that there is enough consensus to mandate a particular programme. In the same way, there is almost always enough agreement about what is and is not beautiful for government and its agencies to decide what needs protecting, without it having to turn itself into an arbiter of taste.

Perhaps even more critically, agreement on what is ugly is often clearer than agreement on what is beautiful. For instance, in my survey, the strongest judgement of all, positive or negative, was made about the Trellick Tower in West London. Of those who took part, 44 per cent thought it was ugly, with more than three-quarterssaying it was quite unattractive or worse. This is important, because the failure to protect beauty as a public good is more often marked by the unwanted appearance of a blot on the landscape than it is by the missed opportunity to create or preserve something truly wonderful. Developers should follow Galen's medical injunction: if we first do no harm, we've already done a lot of good.

There is, however, one interesting complication when it comes to judgements of taste. That is, beauty and ugliness do not necessarily match up with what people like and dislike. In my survey, 39 per cent of respondents said they very much liked at least one building they had not rated as either quite or very beautiful. Even more surprisingly, 21 per cent claimed to have disliked at least one building which they had nonetheless judged to be very or quite beautiful.

What does this mean? How can people dislike what is beautiful, or like what is not beautiful? One reason is simply that "beautiful" is not the only positive aesthetic judgement. Many who very much like the paintings of Francis Bacon or even Picasso would not necessarily call them beautiful. Another is that people often understand "beautiful" in terms of what they think it means as a standard, not what they personally like. Looking at a picture of Il Duomo in Florence, for example, they know that this is archetypically beautiful, and to say that it is not, would be perverse. But, it may leave them cold.

However, none of this is critical, because, the case I have been making for beauty as public good rests on the fact that it does not require us to get into controversial disagreements about matters of fine aesthetic judgement. So, it may indeed be true that "beautiful" is not the only positive aesthetic judgement, but when we are concerned with public space, we are not primarily concerned with making those other kinds of judgements. What we're interested in is simply creating or preserving a shared space that enhances the lives of people who live in it. I might think a building is utterly wonderful but concede that it will impact on a space in ways which will jar for most. Likewise, I may find another development uninteresting and unoriginal, but concede that its very anonymity is what a space needs to maintain its feel and identity. And I may accept that something is beautiful, in the sense that people generally like that kind of thing, while not particularly liking it myself. What matters most in the public sphere is not my own individual preference.

Of course some decisions will be wrong, and of course controversy is inevitable from time to time. But with so much agreement about what is beautiful and ugly, and with no need to enter into more complicated debates about aesthetic merit, there is really no reason for public bodies not to take responsibility for beauty as a public good.

Yet there are some who will insist this is all an irrelevance, a concern only of educated, middle-class professionals. Isn't the harsh fact that beauty just isn't a priority for the average person in the street?

Research to be published next week by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment suggests otherwise. In a nationwide survey, most people said it was important to them that places and buildings in their local area were beautiful. Nor did the statement, "if you are poor, beauty matters less" find much agreement, even among the least advantaged, who tended to think there was not enough beauty in their local area.

It is certainly true that the disadvantaged do not always see beauty as their top priority. In the survey, 50 to 60 per cent thought that in a clash between beauty and affordability, sustainability or functionality, beauty came second every time. But just because beauty is not always the most important thing, does not mean it should be considered a luxury. In a straight choice between decent food and life-saving medicine, it is obvious which you'd choose, but that wouldn't mean you thought decent food was a luxury.

Beauty is not therefore a public good for the middle class only. Nor is it, in the usual run of things, even controversial. We underestimate the extent to which, most of the time, we know and agree on what will improve or protect whatever attractiveness there is in our surroundings, and we certainty know what will ruin it. And there is a mandate to act on this knowledge. There should be no shying away from beauty as a political issue It is as much the job of government to protect Areas of Ordinary, Normal Beauty it as it is to protect the cleanliness of the air.

Julian Baggini was an adviser on the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment's People and Places Project, which will publish its findings and resources next week.

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