According to Keats, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever, Its loveliness increases; it will never Pass into nothingness”.
We all need some beauty in our lives. Beauty, in whatever form, can make us happy. It can improve both our mental and, indirectly, our physical wellbeing. It can cause the spirit to soar and the heart to quicken. No wonder we seek it out. But how do we know that something is beautiful in and of itself? Is our appreciation of beauty something that we learn through others or is it something instinctive, something innate? Does my view of what is beautiful consist with yours? Is it possible to agree universal criteria for what counts as beauty – and would such criteria persist over time and across cultures? Or is an appreciation of what is beautiful entirely idiosyncratic and no more than a matter of personal taste?
I’ve been asking myself these sorts of questions for some time, (not altogether altruistically as I’m preparing a new talk on the subject) but with the government announcing the setting up of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission last year, trying to find answers to these questions has taken on a greater urgency. One of the aims of the Commission is “To advocate for beauty in the built environment”, in effect to test whether or not communities will be more likely to accept new housebuilding on their doorstep if the resulting developments can be said to be beautiful.
One of the ‘occupational hazards’ of civic society membership is to find oneself drawn into discussions about new developments and whether or not they are of good design. If your society is engaged in giving out design awards, then those discussions will be particularly relevant because you will probably need to justify your society’s conclusions to others: something I am very familiar with – been there, done that, and on an annual basis!
As I’ve argued before, I think that good design is something which can be assessed using objective criteria but can such objective tests be applied to a definition of beauty or is beauty very much in the eye of the beholder?
When we talk of beauty, we are really talking about aesthetics, not just visual but about the appeal to all our senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. We might also conceive certain behaviours such as self-sacrifice, kindness, generosity or bravery to appeal to our sense of ‘moral beauty’, while a poem or a piece of prose might be described as having a form of ‘intellectual beauty’. Even the love of one person for another can be described as beautiful.
“How do you spell ‘love’?” asked Piglet.
“You don’t spell it,” said Pooh, “you feel it.”
A.A Milne, Winnie the Pooh
It is clear then that, in our search for the meaning of beauty, we have to go wider than just visual attractiveness. My copy of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1988 – yes, that old!) defines beauty as:
“That quality or combination of qualities which affords keen pleasure to the senses, [especially] that of sight, or which charms the intellectual or moral faculties.”
So, when we search for beauty, we need to explore all the world around us; from that which occurs naturally, as in a flower, a face, a sunset, a landscape, via that taken from nature but which is crafted and improved by man (or woman), such as a precious gemstone, cut and polished and perhaps set into a piece of jewellery, or a landscape shaped and perfected by the likes of Capability Brown, to that which is entirely ‘man-made’, an artefact such as a painting, a sculpture, a written work, a piece of music, or a building, and not forgetting the behavioural forms of beauty already mentioned.
If these then are at least some of the various the types of beauty we might find in our lives how do we recognise such beauty when we come across it? In his The Analysis of Beauty published in 1753, the painter William Hogarth distils the essential visual aesthetic quality of beauty down to the serpentine line, the S-shaped curve line found both in nature and in art as well as in architecture (for example in the ogee arch). Such analysis attributes the property of beauty to being an intrinsic quality of the actual object itself whereas other theories suggest it is in fact the pleasure response in ourselves that confers beauty onto something. If we accept that an object can be beautiful in itself, even when it is unobserved or unexperienced, then it might be possible to derive certain formulae that will allow the objective assessment of what beauty is. However, if we think that beauty exists only in the relationship between the thing observed and the person experiencing it, then it will be much harder to agree that X is beautiful but Y is not for we are entering the realms of personal taste with all its variety and mutability.
Let us assume that a state of beauty only exists when something is experienced and that the appreciation of beauty is something we can learn and, therefore, something that we can be taught. We enter life with the capability of recognising what is beautiful but we need to be guided by others to interpret and value beauty when we encounter it. Our parents and teachers will have a role to play in helping us to see the world through their eyes and to formulate our own responses to the natural and artistic world. They will help us to hone our critical faculties. As importantly, experts and opinion formers will also guide us in our pursuit of beauty; they will direct our gaze to what is delightful and help us to evaluate what is good. It is important though to keep a grip on our critical abilities and not to follow others blindly for fear of being considered uneducated: it would be at best disingenuous to claim to perceive beauty when we don’t feel its existence just because others tell us that something possesses the quality of beauty – shades of the Emperor’s new clothes and all that. Nonetheless, when there is critical acclaim, and that acclaim endures over time, it becomes ever harder to justify a contrary stance.
Perhaps this helps to explain why traditional architecture is valued more highly than more recent styles. Georgian and Victorian buildings have just been with us longer. We’ve grown used to them and, crucially, they have had time to accrete a reputation for excellence and beauty through the eyes of generations of experts and critics, whereas modern buildings just haven’t yet been around long enough to amass such critical support.
On the other hand, what if beauty is not something that we learn but is something that is innate: we are born into the world with a natural ability to discern and discriminate; to recognise the presence of beauty and know when it is absent. We don’t need to be guided – we just know. This suggests that our appreciation of beauty is an evolutionary response. Why might this be? Well, how about sex?
For the human race to survive, reproduction in necessary and for reproduction to take place, the laws of attraction apply. This is true throughout much of nature – think of birds whose colourful plumage, usually found in the male, serves only to attract a potential mate: those exotic colours serve no other purpose – you certainly don’t need colourful wings to fly. Even plants which rely on insects for pollination display colourful flowers (offering sweet treats) to tempt the bees towards them. Human beings are much the same although we tend to think of beauty as being a feminine trait whereas the male of the species is more usually described as handsome, good-looking or, perhaps, ‘rugged’. But beauty also plays another role in the continuation of our species: why do you think babies are so cute? Why are puppies and kittens so loveable? Arguably, it’s part of an evolutionary response to ensure that offspring are cared for and fed so as to guarantee their own survival to breeding age.
There are implications here for our discussion about beauty in architecture. If our appreciation of beauty isn’t a learned behaviour but is in effect bred into us, then our apparent fondness for traditional architecture might somehow be a natural response. The original architects sought to create perfection in their work and we instinctively recognise that perfection in the inherent beauty of that work. In an equal and opposite reaction, our aversion to modern architecture might be a survival technique of its own: be wary of the unknown, let others experiment while we sit on the side lines to see whether the modern stuff stands the test of time and that is safe to live in. We know that, although not without its proponents, modern architecture has fewer adherents than for traditional and classic styles.
Now, I’m not immune to the charms of traditional architecture myself. The architectural hierarchy epitomised in a Palladian mansion, or a finely proportioned Georgian town house, or a Victorian villa property, show just how beautiful traditional architecture can be. I can understand why people would want to live in such properties with their elegant façades, high ceilings and spacious rooms. Such aspirations are, however, probably outside what most of us can afford: not least because there simply are not enough period properties surviving to accommodate everybody who wants to live in one. This means that original examples hold their value well, making them both desirable and expensive. The closest most of us can get to this would be to live in a modern house but built in something approximating to the styles of the past. Fortunately, many of the mass housebuilders are apparently catering to this need: if you want period features, there’s plenty of choice!
Except that the choice is illusory. To do traditional styles well, you need space, good materials and craftsmanship and these are all expensive, so the housebuilders compromise. Plot sizes are minimised and in consequence interior space is limited. Rooms are often small and ceiling heights low; standardised materials and components are used and the detailing found in the original is usually missing so what we end up with is a sort of pastiche in a somewhat bastardized style. They are perfectly all right: in fact, they are probably easier and cheaper to run than an original period property would be and will come with all mod cons built in. But I don’t think we can call them beautiful. One unfortunate effect of this trend is that we see similar house types spreading right across the country. (Anyone remember “Little boxes, little boxes, and they all look just the same”? What we might regard as local vernacular styles giving way to what we might call national piacular style?
And this is where I return to the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. I have been asked by Civic Voice to join the panel pulling together a response to the Commission on behalf of the civic society movement. Should the panel argue that we need more homes built in the traditional style, albeit with more thought given to choice of materials and individual design based on local context, or should we be saying that to meet the housing needs of a rising population, housebuilders need to build in a more contemporary style that maximises the efficiencies of modern construction techniques, possibly through prefabricated designs created on a factory production line and which can then be rapidly, and hopefully cheaply, assembled on site? Does modern housing have to be beautiful to be acceptable to the local community or is it more important that it is functional and affordable?
And if people are naturally resistant to modern schemes because of their design and, to some at least, an apparent lack of aesthetic appeal, is there anything that we, or anyone else for that matter, can do to help change perceptions of what beauty really is (and needs to be) in modern housing developments?
Of course, if beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, and there’s nothing that can be done to change individuals’ perceptions of what is beautiful and what is not, then it’s just possible that we are wasting our time even trying to change people’s minds. Perhaps the question we are asking is the wrong one and no more than a distraction from the real issue. We should forget about beauty, and focus on design? (For which, see my previous article….)