Let's not be shy about beauty

The Tories should rediscover their pre-crash aspiration to "beauty" in planning and architecture, even if most new developments are destined to fall short of this elusive ideal
Ben Rogers
19 November 2010

The Roman architectural authority Vitruvius famously suggested that there were a trio of values against which all building should be measured.  The 17th century writer Henry Wooton translated these - the three points of the 'Vitruvian triangle' - as 'commodity', ‘firmness’ and 'delight', though architects today tend to talk about functionality, sustainability and beauty.


A few years ago Oliver Letwin, The Conservative’s policy supremo, gave a series of talks arguing that if the Conservatives were elected, they were going to do policy, especially planning and architectural policy, as if beauty mattered.  He argued that Labour policy was too instrumentalist - it was too concerned, in effect, with 'commodity' and ‘firmness’, at the expense of 'delight'.  


Since the election this seam of Tory thinking has gone underground, considered no doubt too 'soft' for these difficult times.  Letwin's speeches and essays were published before the crash, and can be seen as a response to growing concern with ‘post material’ values among voters - a concern now overshadowed by more pressing worries about the state of the nation's finances, tax rises, unemployment and cuts.

On the same day that the Government announced it is going to measure happiness and well-being, CABE, the Government’s advisor on architecture and the built environment, and the Arts and Humanities Research Council launched a series of essays by philosophers, historians, economists, writers and architects, People and Places  that picks up Letwin’s line of thought and explores it further. Does the public care about beauty? Is it too subjective or simply too subtle a thing to be the object of public policy?

That Conservative politicians like Oliver Letwin – or for that matter David Cameron – care about beauty is perhaps not that surprising.  They represent wealthy and extremely beautiful, largely rural constituencies, where people can afford to worry about the beauty of their surrounding, and given the pressures of development, have good reason to do so.  Yet we almost all have reason to care about beauty, and a series of conversations CABE and the AHRC conducted with people on the streets of Sheffield strongly suggest they do.  Many of these people approach the subject tentatively, but quite a few talk with eloquence about the places they find beautiful – often green spaces – and the important place these places hold in their lives.

As the philosopher Glenn Parsons argues in his essay, beauty must qualify as one of the ‘great goods of human life’ – one of those goods which we all have reason to want. Why? Because beauty is best understood as an unexpected or surprising perfection. We call beautiful those things that are far more perfect than we are, in our imperfect world, entitled to expect. And the experience of this extraordinary or ideal perfection is in turn important to us in all sorts of ways.  It is consoling, it inspires hope, it makes us aware of our own imperfections while lifting us out of ourselves.

It is, it’s true, rather a long step from Parson’s fine philosophical analysis to Letwin’s desire to rehabilitate beauty as an object of planning and architectural policy.  But not that long.  Of course we can to some extent find beauty without the aid of public subsidy or  public planning. We can locate it in books and paintings, on holidays, in our homes and among friends and family. But given the amount of time we all spend in the public realm and public buildings, we have every right to look to government to promote it too. 

Perhaps the strongest criticism against Letwin’s argument is this: it is simply setting the bar of planning and architectural policy too high to demand that places and buildings be beautiful. It follows from Parson’s analysis that beauty is, of necessity, rare.  Clearly a government can no more mandate beauty in new buildings than it can require brilliance from its film makers or genius from its scientists. 

But that should not prevent planners and policy makers raising their aspirations, and getting beauty in their sights, even if most new developments are destined to fall short of attaining this elusive ideal.

In fact, despite the very mixed quality of a lot of new buildings - especially new housing – a sustained push by the last government, and funding for bodies like CABE, saw a step change in standards of public architecture and public space – albeit from a very low point. There is more and better design support for local planning authorities and developers than there was, and more is expected of them. In a small but telling example two of the finalists for this year’s Stirling Prize [announced Monday 2 October] are state schools. But it’s also true that we heard a lot more about functionality and sustainability than we did about beauty in the New Labour years.

With the CABE’s future now hanging in the balance – the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has withdrawn funding – but with the government apparently still believing there is more to life than GDP, perhaps Letwin and his colleagues should dust down their old speeches affirming that beauty does matter.

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