Do buildings need to be beautiful?

ResPublica's report A Community Right to Beauty is a creatively provocative pitch to Government, councils and planners to put the idea of ‘Beauty’ at the centre of thinking about development. The report’s subheading – ‘Giving communities the power to shape, enhance and create beautiful places, developments and spaces’ ­–prompted the panel and audience to pose a familiar question faced when attempting to convert pressure-group enthusiasm into visionary strategy. How do we generate and open up interest in these issues beyond the ‘usual suspects’? These suspects, of course, tend to start with the people in the room.

The event was chaired by co-author of the report Caroline Julian and the panel included: Phillip Blond, ResPublica's Director; Terry Farrell, architect and urban designer; Loyd Grossman, Chairman of the Heritage Alliance; Nick Herbert MP, former Conservative Minister; Dame Fiona Reynolds, former Chair of the National Trust. 

What they said

Loyd Grossman, the gain of the Heritage sector and the world of cooking sauces, is journalism’s loss. Grossman displayed a compelling mix of erudition, flashy bon mots, and deep passion for the subject. On the issue of public engagement, Grossman cited public agitation for preserving the Brutalist beauty of Preston Bus Station, once slated for demolition but now a Grade II listed building (see also our feature on Cafe Royal Books and architectural photography). This can be seen as the antidote to the abstract and academic notion that Beauty is ahistorical.

Dame Fiona Reynolds’ reminded us of the forgotten lore of Beauty from poet John Keats’ line in Ode on a Grecian Urn, “Truth is Beauty”, to early 19th Century American conservationist John Muir who believed that “Everyone needs beauty as well as bread…” The quote is from Muir’s travelogue, The Yosemite, and the quote continues, “Places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.” This is also a reminder that as Reynolds’ reflected, Beauty was a more instinctive idea in a more religious age, when natural Beauty was regarded as an expression of divine purpose.

Talking points

A Community Right to Beauty suggests that while anxiety around new development is clearly a factor in creating much-needed housing, “research has previously shown that 73 per cent of people would support the building of more homes if well-designed and in keeping with their local area.” It adds fuel to the long held belief among some designers that good design is essential to the broader well-being of the public, that said it is also arguable whether the modern language of design (fuctionality, form, usability) is less attuned to notions of beauty. 

The panel reminded us that there is a need to change the language of debating the development of buildings and public spaces. It suggested that re-introducing the idea of Beauty as a necessary requirement in considering proposal would help shift the agenda onto a space the general public could engage with and be inspired by. A questioner from the floor reminded us that currently Beauty as an idea belongs to the ‘cosmetics’ industry. But as Dame Fiona Reynolds elegantly pointed out, “Beauty is more than skin-deep.”

You can download A Community Right to Beauty here

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