The inaugural Building Beauty Awards were celebrated at a ceremony this week, with Lord Foster of Thames Bank the guest of honour. 

Paul Finch

Paul Finch

This was appropriate on two counts: first, Norman Foster is president of the Royal Fine Art Commission Trust, which organised the awards (with sponsorship from Ballymore); and second, the award was presented in the Foster + Partners Bloomberg headquarters building in the City of London, which many people find beautiful because of its form and detail – although of course it is not to everybody’s taste. 

The overall winner, the magnificent Tintagel Bridge in Cornwall, designed by architect William Matthews Associates and Belgian engineer Laurent Ney, has been entered in the ‘finals’ of the International Building Beauty Prize at the World Architecture Festival (WAF) in Lisbon next week – an unusual example of an award that is launched at a national and international level simultaneously. I should declare a triple interest: I am deputy chair of the commission, was an award judge this year and launched WAF in 2008.

One reason for launching the awards is the fact that ‘beauty’ is now referenced in the UK planning system, albeit without any serious attempt to define it. We are told, in the introduction to the government’s National Design Guide (NDG), that we can make judgements about a building’s beauty, although it is remarkably quiet, not to say mute, about how we might go about making any such judgement.

In respect of ‘place’ the guide is more forthcoming. Elements informing a beauty judgement “may range from a long view down to the detail of the building or landscape”. So a place can be beautiful because of a building detail. Really? This is very odd, given the fact that we are always being told that ‘place’ is very different to ‘building’, as indeed it is.

Measuring stick

Desperate to avoid any suggestion of stylistic preference, the NDG notes: “All design approaches and architectural styles are visually attractive when designed well.” If the definition of beautiful is ‘visually attractive’, why not say so? By the way, the idea that if designed well all architectural styles are therefore attractive is a magnificent defence of Brutalism.

This is not what philosopher and writer Roger Scruton and his followers had in mind when they launched their (successful) attempt to promote the idea of ‘beauty by law’ within the planning system. They managed to get the word inserted into the National Planning Policy Framework, paragraph 126: “The creation of high-quality, beautiful and sustainable buildings and places is fundamental to what the planning and development process should achieve.”

Tintagel Castle and bridge

Source: chrisdorney

Scenic path: Tintagel Bridge triumphed at the first Building Beauty Awards

But the document never says what beauty is, nor how you might measure it. It also implies that something might be well designed and sustainable, but not beautiful.

The former Prince of Wales remarked in 1988 that architect Denys Lasdun’s concrete National Theatre was “a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting”. The best response to this is artist John Constable’s observation: “There is nothing ugly; I never saw an ugly thing in my life: for let the form of an object be what it may – light, shade and perspective will always make it beautiful.”

Levelling-up secretary Michael Gove might ponder this as he considers which products of the volume housebuilder industry to call in for public inquiry, as he is threatening to do, if they are ‘ugly’. Is that the same as not ‘fitting in’? We await a helpful definition.

Planners in the Peak District are getting tough with builders who dare to use Welsh slate rather than that quarried more locally, even though there is a long history of the former being used in the region. Are we going to see an outbreak of aesthetic, material and constructional localism taking hold? That will do wonders for housing production.

Incidentally, if you want to see a wonderful example of material being used out of geographical context, have a look at the London Pavilion in Piccadilly Circus the next time you are around that way. Several decades ago, the 1869 landmark was retrofitted, with the architect Nigel Woolner from Chapman Taylor supervising. He persuaded the then owner, Land Securities, to use Welsh slate on the renewed roof. It looks as good as ever – or at least the roof does.

Paul Finch is programme director of the World Architecture Festival