Twenty years ago, the late, lamented Commission for Architecture & the Built Environment published a document on design review, including a section on “what makes a good project”.
This listed 12 factors that should be taken into account when assessing proposals, then added: “Finally, we should not be afraid to ask about a building: is it beautiful? If it is, then the resulting lifting of the spirits will be as valuable a contribution to public wellbeing as dealing successfully with the functional requirements of the building’s programme.”
The late, lamented Richard Rogers wrote a long article for The Guardian some years later, in which he questioned why we seemed so reluctant to talk about beauty and design; more recently, led by the late, lamented philosopher Roger Scruton, the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission argued with some success that the planning system had been at fault in ignoring public desire for, however you phrase it, ‘beautiful’ buildings and places.
Where is the definition of beauty robust enough to survive a public inquiry?
Government policy in this area has changed considerably, a trend likely to continue with Michael Gove heading the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. He seems to have abandoned his former belief that the design of buildings doesn’t really matter and there would be nothing wrong with locating schools in disused supermarkets (I am not making this up). Now he is presenting himself as an aesthetic standard-bearer, a champion of ‘long life, loose fit, low energy’, and possibly as an enemy of high-rise.
His unlamented predecessor, Robert Jenrick, announced last July that “beautiful, environmentally sustainable and life-enhancing communities are at the centre of widespread planning changes”. His ‘Building Beautiful Places’ plan, it was claimed, “will mean good-quality design will be paramount, with local communities put at the very heart of decision-making to help shape their towns and cities”.
The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) would be amended so that the residents and planners “will find it easier to embrace beautiful, practical design while rejecting the ugly, unsustainable or poor quality”. The changes set an expectation that all councils should develop a local design code – an illustrated guide setting standards for a local area – with ‘input from local people’.
Alarm bells rang in respect of all this. Is a ‘code’ a ‘guide’? Where is the definition of beauty robust enough to survive critical scrutiny at a public inquiry? Who is to say what is ugly? And in any event, why is that word associated with being unsustainable or poor quality?
Richard Rogers liked to tell the story of the Parisian woman standing next to him looking at construction work being carried out on the Pompidou Centre. She asked him what he thought of the building; on being told he was the architect, she hit him with her umbrella!
Plenty of people will never acknowledge that commercial property (or anything non-classical) can be beautiful, or that tall buildings can ever be anything other than blots on the skyline. No doubt some of them will busy themselves as self-appointed beauty gauleiters, adding more complexity and difficulty to a planning system that frequently appears geared to stopping things rather than enabling them, as a House of Lords report has just noted. This is particularly frustrating for the housebuilding industry, which is now going to need to show why all its individual products and estates are ‘beautiful’. More cut-and-paste consultant reports will be the outcome.
One body that is addressing this issue in a positive and constructive way is the Royal Fine Art Commission Trust, chaired by the author and critic Stephen Bayley (your correspondent is deputy chair – interest declared).
The trust has launched its Building Beauty Awards programme (www.buildingbeautyawards.com), supported by Ballymore, inviting public and professionals to nominate buildings, engineering structures and landscape/public realm designs for consideration. From the discussions we have had on this subject, the world of commercial architecture will most certainly be welcome and its outcomes considered. Get entering!
Paul Finch is programme director of the World Architecture Festival