A Vote (and a Prayer) for Beautiful Architecture

Culture

31 Mar 2012

If you magically brought back to life an ancestor from 200 years ago and gave them a quick tour around contemporary Britain, one of the first things that would most strike and horrify them is how ugly large stretches of our cities and countryside have become.In construction, as in so many other areas, ourtechnological capacities have vastly outstrippedour capacities to control ourselves. It has becometoo easy to create monstrosities and too tricky toweave arguments that could hold back the nextunimaginative apartment block or supermarket.

Unfortunately, ugliness is not a problem that politics is well set up to deal with. A politician who announced an ambition to make Britain not just richer and fairer but also more beautiful would immediately be laughed off the stage for being fey and unconcerned with poverty (as though one couldn’t care about two things at once).

There’s an idea around that no one quite knows what is beautiful anyway, a postmodern dictum that is a gift to substandard property developers, who can deftly bat away their opponents by claiming that they must be snobs for raising objections. Yet the absurdity of this line is quickly shown up by the tourist figures. If beauty truly were relative, there wouldn’t be quite so much agreement on where we want to go for our holidays: which is (almost universally) Bath and Edinburgh, rather than Swindon and Reading.

The need for good architecture ultimately gets ignored because it isn’t recognised for what it really is: a mental health issue. We need well-designed places to help us stay more or less well-balanced people. Of course there are moods when you’re robust enough to take any amount of ugliness, but generally it’s the quality of what you see around you that decides whether you are going to slide gently into or away from despair. That beautiful wobbly bridge across the Thames makes an argument in favour of life, which Shepherd’s Bush roundabout does its level best to contradict.

It is the world’s great religions that have given most thought to the role played by architecture in determining our identity. The main point of a church, temple, mosque or synagogue is to act as a building that can tug our characters towards their optimal points.

A few years ago, caught out by a heavy downpour, I remember taking shelter in a smoked glass andgranite block on London’s Victoria Street, home to theWestminster branch of McDonald’s. The setting served to render all kinds of ideas absurd, among them that humans can be kind and existence worth enduring.

I then made a dash into Westminster Cathedral, only a few metres away. Around the high altar, a mosaic showed Christ enthroned in the heavens, encircled by angels, his feet resting on a globe, his hands clasping a chalice overflowing with his own blood. There was awe and silence. A range of ideas that would have been inconceivable outside began to assume an air of reasonableness. In the presence of alabaster statues of the Virgin Mary set against rhythms of red, green and blue marble, it was no longer surprising to think that an angel might at any moment choose to descend through the layers of dense London cumulus, enter through a window in the nave, blow a golden trumpet and make an announcement in Latin about a forthcoming celestial event.

In the medieval period, Catholic philosophers such as St Thomas Aquinas argued that, rather than being an idle indulgence, beauty matters because it reinforces our resolve to be good; that is why investing in goodarchitecture is so important. Beauty is a materialequivalent to goodness — and ugliness to evil. In thislight, a plainly sculpted door handle which pleases us through its simplicity can function as a reminder of both the virtues of sobriety and moderation, just as thedelicate setting of a pane of glass within a window frame can covertly deliver a sermon on the theme of gentleness.

This moral equation between beauty andgoodness lends to all architecture its seriousnessand importance. Secular architecture may have no clearly defined ideology to defend, no sacred text to quote from and no god to worship, but just like its religious counterpart it possesses the power to shape those who come within its orbit.

Living Architecture’s Shingle House in Dungeness, Kent, designed by NORD, a young Scottish practice
Living Architecture’s Shingle House in Dungeness, Kent, designed by NORD, a young Scottish practice

The gravity with which religions have at times treated the decoration of their surroundings invites us to lend equal significance to the decoration of profane places, for they too may offer encouragement to the better parts of us. The challenge facing modern house-builders is conceptually no different from that which faced the architects of Chartres or the mosque of Masjid-i Imam in Isfahan. Advocates of the pursuit of architectural beauty, whether secular or religious, in the end justify their ambitions through an appeal to the same phenomenon: man’s inability to flourish in equal measure in whatever space he is placed in.

A few years ago, I decided to try to make a practical change to the architectural scene by launching a non-profit organisation called Living Architecture, a kind of Landmark Trust for new architecture that puts up houses around the UK designed by some of the world’s top architects and makes them available to the public to rent for holidays throughout the year. The dream was to allow people to experience what it is like to live and sleep in a space designed by an outstanding architectural practice — and thereby gently to change and raise tastes. One of my favourite of these houses is by a Dutch firm, MVRDV, and hangs precariously off the edge of a hill in east Suffolk, making an argument in favour of style, humour and elegance.

The building of new houses is typically synonymous with desecration, with the birth of neighbourhoods less beautiful than the countryside they have replaced. However bitter this equation, we typically accept it with passivity and resignation. With the tower block, the new antique village or the riverside mansion, we refrain from asking that most basic and incensed of political questions: ‘Why is this going on?’

Yet an investigation of the process by which buildings rise reveals that ugly cases can, in the end, always be attributed not to the hand of God, nor to any immovable economic or political necessities, nor to the entrenched wishes of purchasers, nor to some new depths of human depravity — but to a pedestrian combination of low ambition, ignorance, greed and accident.

A development which spoils ten square miles of countryside will be the work of a few people neither particularly sinful or malevolent. The same kind of banal thinking which in literature produces nothing worse than incoherent books and tedious plays can, when applied to architecture, leave wounds that will be visible from outer space. Bad architecture is a frozen mistake writ large. But it is only a mistake, and despite the impressive amounts of scaffolding, concrete, noise, money and bluster that tend to accompany its appearance, it is no more deserving of our deference than a blunder in any other area of life. We should be as unintimidated by architectural mediocrity as we are by unjust laws or nonsensical arguments.

We should recover a sense of the malleability behind what is built. There is no predetermined script guiding the direction of our bulldozers or cranes. Even when it’s a case of a new supermarket, we should keep believing in that old aspiration of religious architecture: to create buildings that can rebalance and improve what we might as well, with no supernatural beliefs in mind, call our souls.


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