The report of the Building Better Building Beautiful commission was released in January. It began with a quote from the late Sir Roger Scruton, one of the chairs of the commission: “Like the pleasure of friendship, the pleasure in beauty is curious: it aims to understand its object, and to value what it finds”. The difficulty of valuing beauty is well-known, as is the difficulty in enforcing ‘standards’ of beauty. Sadly, though not unexpectedly, this report does not provide the solution.
Beauty on its own terms
The report’s recommendations – supporting the sustainability of developments, actively rejecting ‘ugly’ buildings, and fast-tracking ‘beautiful’ ones – are all decent steps, but they do not dig deep enough into the reason why The Barbican or Bedford Square are uplifting places, while your average new development is not.
Great architecture, as with any art form, requires a deep expression of both human craftsmanship and imagination – two factors which are impossible to value objectively. While it is beyond dispute that beauty is subjective, architectural greatness can ooze out of a building, intangibly influencing all who experience it. Like it or loathe it, this is part of the building’s value.
It is notable that neither the term ‘craftsmanship’ nor ‘imagination’ feature in the commission’s report – emblematic of its reluctance to admit that cultivating a higher standard of architecture, like any art, requires time, money, creativity and training. In short, giving power back to the architects.
The inefficiency of beauty
What stands in the way of this higher standard is not a lack of talent. There is no shortage of supply of imaginative and talented architects – especially in Britain. However, in modern times an architect is rarely free to construct the building they desire, with ever greater constraints imposed by a market that perhaps fails to recognise the value of what they do.
Individuals often do understand, but demand for homes is now so great that buyers are not afforded the luxury of buying based on aesthetics. While Victorian villas were competitively designed to win over members of an affluent middle class, many developments can now afford to comprise mainly bland boxes of diminishing dimensions.
Not every home has to be a masterpiece, but in the drive for construction brought about by our housing crisis, we should not lose sight of the long view. Architects and developers know how to build beautifully, and want to produce quality products, but can find themselves frustrated by the often-competing demands of policy, price and a need to maximise the economic efficiency of land.
The commission’s report does support some regulation on building standards: minimum window sizes and ceiling heights, for example. But to really succeed it must declare war on ‘efficiency’. Beauty is many things, but it is very rarely efficient in the economic sense.
Even in these times of housing shortage, we should look to give greater priority to championing great design, and to building homes of greater architectural merit on a given site, even if this means an economically inefficient use of the land. Doing so will make the true value, and the true efficiency of these sites immeasurably greater.
Thomas Parfitt is an account executive at Camargue