My Night at The Midland

The Midland Hotel, Morecambe, at night

Anyone with an interest in Art Deco will probably already know the story of the Midland Hotel in Morecambe and how, after years of decline, neglect and dereliction, the building, which originally opened in 1933, was brought back into use in 2008 by Urban Splash following a five-year restoration programme. Today, this four-star luxury hotel is managed on behalf of Urban Splash by English Lakes Hotels.

Being a fan of Art Deco myself, I’ve long wanted to stay at the hotel and a recent holiday on the Isle of Man afforded me the perfect opportunity (excuse) to book myself a night at the Midland as a stopover en route to my Manx adventure. One sunny afternoon in August, therefore, my partner and I headed west and, rather fittingly as the hotel was originally built by the Midland Railway Company as their ‘station hotel’, we travelled by train.

The building today is the second ‘Midland Hotel’ on this site as it replaces an earlier hotel which opened in 1848. That first hotel was called the North Western after the North Western Railway company that built it to provide accommodation and facilities for people arriving in Morecambe by train, either for a seaside holiday or to catch one of the ferries that sailed from the newly opened harbour there. As the harbour was tidal and boats could only enter and leave at high tide, passengers waited at the hotel for their sailing, taking rooms or just relaxing and possibly having some refreshment.

The name of the hotel was changed to the Midland Hotel sometime after the North Western Railway Company amalgamated with the Midland Railway Company in 1871. When, in 1904, the Midland Railway transferred first its freight and then its passenger operations to a new deep-water port at Heysham, not subject to the vagaries of the tide, it could have been the end of the hotel but in fact, the hotel continued to attract business and remain profitable. However, structural repairs became necessary and it was eventually decided to demolish and re-build rather than repair and refurbish but the new hotel was to be in the ‘modern style’.

The hotel’s distinctive modernist design, sometimes referred to as ‘International’ or ‘Liner’ style, but more commonly grouped under the ‘Art Deco’ label, speaks the language of glamour and elegance. The architect was Oliver Hill who commissioned sculptor Eric Gill to create the distinctive seahorse sculptures that stand high up on either side of the entrance tower as well as friezes and a ceiling medallion while Marion Dorn created a mosaic image of a seahorse for the floor of the lounge area as well as designing rugs for the lounge and lobby areas. (The seahorse was adopted as the emblem for the hotel and is to be found throughout the building.)

The Seahorse emblem can be found throughout the hote

The hotel was an instant sensation and appealed to a well-off clientele which included not just holidaymakers, but businesspeople and celebrities of the day, including actors and musicians appearing at the nearby Winter Gardens. However, the hotel’s fate was sealed with the outbreak of World War II when it was requisitioned by the government to provide offices for the RAF and also to serve as a military hospital. Although it was derequisitioned in 1946, it was not until extensive repairs were completed that the hotel re-opened in July 1948. The hotel continued to trade but was sold off by then owner British Railways in 1952 and gradually lost its way due to the rise of the package holiday. By the end of the 20th century, after a number of changes of ownership, the building was looking very run-down and a failed restoration proposal led to the building standing empty with the prospect of demolition being mooted until Urban Splash acquired it in 2003.

But back to the present and my own stay at the hotel.

Gleaming in the sunshine

When the hotel was first built, the station was just across the road but today the line stops short, the original station building having been turned into a visitor destination with shops attached, and there is now a walk from the new station to the hotel of approximately a quarter of a mile. Nonetheless, as we walked out of the station that afternoon, the hotel could easily be seen, glistening white in the sunshine against a clear blue sky – an ocean liner awaiting its passengers. Walking up to the hotel, my excitement mounted: entering through the double glass doors into the spacious foyer and lounge area is like simultaneously stepping back in time while also walking onto the stage set of a Hollywood movie. The refurbishment has retained the look and feel of the hotel as it was in its heyday even though some of the components have been re-arranged. Art deco-style furniture, fittings and artwork are complimented by more contemporary pieces, but the overall effect is definitely classy and welcoming.

Having checked in and dropped off our luggage in our room, we headed to the Ravilious Rotunda Bar for something to eat. The bar takes its name from artist Eric Ravilious whose talents were employed to create murals on the walls of the original café. Sadly, they were lost only a few years after they were completed having been painted onto walls whose plaster had not fully dried out and problems with damp caused the murals to deteriorate. Although repaired by Ravilious himself, they were eventually painted over. Today, modern interpretations take their place.

The Rotunda Bar friezes
The staircase

Later that evening, having freshened up, we descended the grand spiral staircase which cantilevers out from the wall (it is impossible not to feel a little like a film star as you make your way down to the lobby!) and entered the Sun Terrace Restaurant where we were shown to our table. It was dazzlingly bright in there as the full-height windows allowed light from the setting sun to stream in. Many of the diners were in fact wearing sunglasses as they sipped their wine, giving a certain ‘Riviera feel’ to the occasion.

The restaurant with views across the bay

We had a delicious and leisurely three-course meal with wine, as we watched passing promenaders taking the evening air. Some smiled and waved – almost as if we were indeed on an ocean liner waiting to set sail from the quayside. The tide was slowly coming in as the sun gradually lowered itself in the sky, turning from bright yellow to amber and then deep red before setting behind the distant mountains of the Lake District across the far side of the bay.

After dinner, I went for a stroll around the outside of the building in the still warm air, looking in at people drinking in the bar and the last diners lingering over their post-prandial brandies in the dining room. By night, the building is every bit as impressive as in the daylight: the whiteness of the walls tinged slightly yellow in the streetlamps but still bright and unmistakable. It had been a perfect evening: I almost needed to pinch myself to confirm that while I might well have been living the dream, I was by no means dreaming!

The following morning, after breakfast served in the Sun Terrace Restaurant, it was time to check out, an ambition fulfilled, and to make our way back to the station to catch the train to Heysham and our awaiting ferry to the Isle of Man, but I’ll save that story for another time.

Need to know:

The Midland Hotel, Morecambe – LA4 4BU. Tel: 01524 424 000 (direct) or 03304 042 677 (for reservations via English Lakes).

Website: https://englishlakes.co.uk/the-midland/

[If you’d like to read more about the hotel’s history and redevelopment, there’s an excellent book that I can recommend: The Midland Hotel: Morecambe’s White Hope by Barry Guise and Pam Brook published by Palatine Books.]

The Northern Belle

Travelling back in time – in which I take a train ride back to the ‘golden age’ of luxury travel to experience fine dining aboard the Northern Belle luxury train.

The Northern Belle – Photo courtesy of the company

The Northern Belle was originally launched in 2000 by Belmond, the company that runs the Venice Simplon Orient-Express (VSOE) and offers a similar standard of service and comfort to its European cousin. With its Pullman carriages and offer of fine dining experiences, the train epitomises the golden age of rail travel.

The train runs day excursions from various departure points around Britain and special events such as trips to the races.  Since 2017, it has been owned by Yorkshire businessman David Pitts who lives in Thurstonland and whose advertising business, DP Publicity (DPP), is based in Wakefield.

Although redolent of 1930s glamour, the Northern Belle isn’t quite what it seems! It actually consists of former British Railways carriages from the 1950s and 60s but they have been extensively and sympathetically re-engineered, refurbished and ‘retro-fitted’ to resemble the Pullman cars of the ’30s. They come complete with beautiful marquetry work, specially commissioned from the family firm of A Dunn and Son of Chelmsford in Essex. This company created panelling on some of the original Orient Express coaches as well as on the Pullman cars used in a number of the famous ‘Belle’ trains of the ’20s and ’30s including the much-loved Brighton Belle.

But enough background – let’s get back to my trip – a day out taken in July 2019!

A very early start!

When we arrived at Kirkgate Station in Wakefield, somewhat bleary-eyed as it was only 6.15am, we were greeted by a representative of the company who checked our names on her list and directed us over to Platform 2 where, in due course, we were joined by over 30 other guests. The train arrived on time and we found our carriage. In true Pullman tradition, each of the dining cars is given a name. In this case, the carriages are named after castles and stately homes, and our seats were to be found in ‘Alnwick’. We were shown to our seats by Thomas, one of the train managers, who then introduced us to Adam, our senior steward for the day (each carriage has dedicated stewards) and assistant steward, Paddy. No sooner were we seated than we were offered a ‘refreshing’ and sparking Bellini. It was only 6.55am but, yes please, I didn’t mind if I did! As the train made its way to our next pick-up point in Huddersfield, we sat back and relaxed while the bubbles did their work.

After gathering more passengers at Huddersfield, the train moved on towards Manchester Victoria for our third and final pick up. While we crossed through, and sometimes under, the Pennine terrain (including travelling through the three-mile long Standedge Tunnel), brunch was served. To start, there was natural yoghurt with ginger-seeped apricots, homemade granola and honey. Next, there was a cooked dish consisting of Bubble and Squeak, spinach and a vegetable ragù. (The non-vegetarians had Scottish Haddock with all the trimmings.) To finish, there was a selection of breads and cakes from the bakery basket and copious quantities of tea and coffee were served throughout.  

Somewhere in the middle of working our way through all that, we picked up the final passengers at Manchester and then made our way, via Crewe, to Stratford upon Avon, the train’s final destination, pulling in at around 12.15pm. Here, the passengers divided. Most had opted to spend the afternoon in the town whereas a group of around 30 of us were taken by coach to Warwick Castle for an afternoon visit. Two and a half hours later, we were on our way back to the train.

Adam, our carriage steward, waiting to welcome us back on board in Stratford on Avon.

The Northern Belle looked absolutely splendid as we arrived back in Stratford. All along the length of the train, doors were open, welcome mats were laid out along the platform and our uniformed staff stood to attention to receive us back on board. The train had been transformed once again and we regained our seats to discover that the tables had been laid ready for the five-course dinner with wine that was to come: beautiful fine china, some still bearing the VSOE legend, elegant glassware, and polished cutlery all glinting in the late afternoon light.

As the train pulled out of the station, we were offered a glass of champagne and canapés and before long, dinner was served. This comprised of a salad of goat’s cheese, pickled beets, and bread to start followed by a vegetable Wellington for main course. (The standard menu was Hot smoked salmon to start and a chicken and ham dish for mains.) Then came the cheese board, followed by dessert – a ‘summer berry Pimm’s jelly, elderflower and lemon verbena cream, and candied orange’. To conclude, there was coffee with petits fours. All the food was prepared on board by head chef, Matthew Green (who comes from Barnsley, continuing the ‘northern theme’) and his team.

Champagne and canapés are served before dinner….

Dinner is served at a leisurely pace with ample opportunity to talk to the stewards and train managers – even fellow passengers if you’re feeling sociable – and it was noticeably much more sociable on board after the champagne and the wine! The train returned along a different route from that taken on the outward journey so there was plenty to see in the evening sunshine as we made an unhurried return to Wakefield – the first dropping off point – and we arrived back all too soon at around 8.20 pm. We deboarded and watched as the train rolled out of the station on its way back to Huddersfield, and then Manchester, slightly envious of those passengers who had remained on board. But for us, the day was over – a short walk home and it was time to put the feet up, bask in the memories of a wonderful day and wonder what to have for supper…….sadly, there were no stewards on hand to serve it!

Need to know:

The Northern Belle will be making several other trips to various destinations from Yorkshire stations this year.

For details see website: northernbelle.co.uk

Telephone: 01270 899681

Cost of the Wakefield to Warwick Castle excursion was £390 per person including a £30 supplement pp for a guaranteed table for two. The ticket price included coach transfers and admission to the castle. Prices as at July 2019.

Are Civic Societies ‘Cultural Organisations’?

When was the last time you participated in a ‘cultural’ activity? My guess is that, as a member of a civic society, you are more likely than not to have done something that might be regarded as cultural – after all, civic society members are sophisticated, discerning, erudite individuals, aren’t we?

Draw up a list of all the ‘cultural’ activities you’ve taken part in recently. What’s on that list? Trips to the theatre and cinema, perhaps? Surely you have visits to art galleries and museums, yes? Maybe you’ve been to a lecture or a concert, perhaps an exhibition? All these things comfortably fit into our shared understanding of ‘cultural’ activities. But are there any civic society activities on your list? Did you recognise that attending a civic society talk, a blue plaque unveiling, or a guided walk might also be thought of as doing something cultural?

The reason I’m asking these questions arises from discussions I have been having in Wakefield recently about the role culture can play in creating jobs and opportunities and thereby helping to support or even trigger economic regeneration. As I am sure readers will know, Wakefield is now home to The Hepworth Wakefield, a modern gallery that opened in May 2011. It has proved popular with many, but not all, local residents and has been a big draw for visitors to the city.

Across the Wakefield district, we also have museums (Including the National Coal Mining Museum for England), cinemas, theatres, castles and art galleries, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and Nostell Priory. So there’s a lot going on yet, surprisingly, in a recent survey conducted by an independent research company for Wakefield Council, some 41% of local residents surveyed said that they ‘never take part in art/culture’.

I personally find this statistic astonishing but it did get me thinking. What was the definition of culture used in the survey, I wondered? And did respondents’ own perceptions of what counts as culture affect the way in which they answered the question? What were the barriers to entry that put people off taking part in cultural pursuits?

Now, for what it’s worth, my view is that the definition of cultural pursuits should include things such as reading, doing family history research, taking part in guided walks and so on. I’d even include watching some television programmes such as documentaries, plays and so on (but we could have an interesting discussion just around that, I’m sure!).

There’s a Facebook page called the Wakefield Historical Appreciation Society which has over 13,000 members: that’s 13,000 people who share an interest in Wakefield’s architectural and social history. There’s a lively Historical Society in Wakefield (and others elsewhere in the district), six civic societies across the district and no doubt dozens of community and church groups, Rotary Clubs, WI associations and so on. There’s a burgeoning art scene in Wakefield, including performing arts, and at least one concert society; even the Yorkshire Philharmonic Choir is based in Wakefield! I’m sure there are many other societies, organisations and individuals contributing to the cultural mix that I’ve overlooked or am not even aware of.

All this cultural activity is made possible by people who work in the arts – whether they be the creative artists and performers or the management and enablers, the support staff both ‘front of house’ and behind the scenes. Also important in enabling cultural activities are the people who commission performers, writers, artists and so on and, of course, the people who provide the funding, either through grants and paid commissions or through audience participation and the purchase of tickets.

So, why is the relevant to us? Well, I often find that when I talk to people about what’s happening culturally in the city, the work of the civic society doesn’t usually get a mention and I have to keep asserting that we are a ‘cultural organisation!’. OK, we’re not a big player, we don’t have the money, but we are a frequent and reliable provider of talks and walks, occasional film screenings and blue plaque unveilings. We’ve written booklets and even occasionally commissioned creative work from others. But have a look at our constitution and you’ll find no mention of culture! There’s mention of architecture, design and town planning, but nothing specifically about culture. Perhaps this is one reason we don’t actually market ourselves as a cultural organisation – and if we don’t think of ourselves as a cultural organisation then it’s not surprising that others don’t either.

I think it’s time for us to think hard about how civic societies position themselves. I appreciate that some smaller societies won’t have the resources or capacity to organise the events and activities that we are able to put on in Wakefield, but many societies will and some may even do more. If we start seeing ourselves as part of the cultural offer of the place where we live, it might just open up opportunities to work with others, to establish new partnerships and maybe even open up new sources of funding. If nothing else, it might bring in more people to our events if we shift our traditional mindset of how we market the things we do.

Let’s bring a bit of show-business pizazz to our programming; let’s turn down the house lights, raise the curtain and put on a show!

The Dakota Bar and Grill – A refined taste of luxury at an affordable price in the heart of Leeds

The Dakota Hotel, Russell Street Entrance

If you like alliteration, you might want to try breakfast in Bradford, dinner in Doncaster and supper in Skipton, but for lunch, it would have to be Leeds and having lunch in Leeds is exactly what I did recently for the purposes of this article.

My first encounter with the Dakota Hotel, located in Russell Street, came about in the summer of 2018 when TopicUK, the magazine I write for, became a Yorkshire-wide publication and held its launch event at the hotel in June. It was a relatively short visit for me, just a couple of hours, but I was very impressed! The friendliness of the staff and the stylish décor left a lasting memory: so much so in fact, that I met a friend there for lunch just before Christmas. A three-course lunch, accompanied by a bottle of wine, cost us around £60 each including service charge but I thought that was quite a reasonable price to pay given the quality of the food, the presentation and the standard of service.  

Based on my earlier experience, it was therefore an obvious choice to recommend to TopicUK editor Gill Laidler that I should include the hotel on my list of places to review for this magazine and that’s how, one lunchtime in February 2019, my partner and I found ourselves settled into a comfortable booth in the subterranean calm of the hotel’s restaurant.

After the hustle and bustle of the streets outside, the Dakota Bar and Grill, which is located downstairs from the ground-floor bar area (there’s a lift), offers a tranquil and fashionable venue, whether you’re looking for a leisurely meal or somewhere to meet a client for a business lunch. We were greeted by restaurant staff Sofia and Ashley who looked after us throughout the meal, bringing menus, taking orders, serving food and pouring drinks. In between courses, I was able to ask questions about the hotel and the restaurant to fill up my notebook. Service was friendly, attentive and courteous.   

At lunchtime, you can choose between the full à la carte menu (which I tried at Christmas), and the simpler ‘Market Menu’. There’s also a separate Vegan menu. It was the Market Menu that we were to sample on this occasion. This offers exceptionally good value for money with two or three courses for £15 or £20 respectively, which really is a terrific price. You get to choose from three starters, three mains and three desserts. A selection of side orders (for which an additional charge of £3.50 each is made) is also available. All the food is beautifully presented. There’s a 10% discretionary service charge will be added, but, believe me, it’s worth it.

Having made our selection, we sat back to enjoy the ambience and admire the look and layout of the room, designed, we were told, by international designer Amanda Rosa, wife of the hotel group chairman, Ken McCulloch. Shiny mirrors, lots of dark wood enlivened with colourful artwork and bright squishy cushions, and subtle lighting that makes everyone look good, all combine to create a very elegant look. There’s recorded music playing quietly in the background and which, as part of the design aesthetic, changes to help to create the mood appropriate to the time of day – one of those little flourishes that you might only pick up on if you visit regularly, or happen, like me, to be doing research for a magazine review!

Ken McCulloch is well-known in the hospitality industry with a long-established track record of opening and running bars, restaurants and hotels. He was responsible for setting up the Malmaison hotel chain. Having sold his interests in that group, he and Amanda moved to Monaco, where, in partnership with David Coulthard, Ian purchased the Abela Hotel, rebranding it as the Columbus, a luxury hotel in Monte Carlo.

Their current project is to create a brand of luxury hotels in the UK. There are now five Dakota hotels in the group with Leeds being the fourth to open. The first was in Edinburgh; then came the Dakota Eurocentral in Motherwell, handy for both Glasgow city centre and the airport, followed by a Dakota in Glasgow. The fifth, opening in May this year, will be the Dakota Hotel in central Manchester.

In preparing for my review, I did some thinking about the hotel name. “Why ‘Dakota’?” I wondered? A quick check on the internet showed that the word derives from the Native American Dakota people, and gave rise to the area today known as the North and South Dakotas, but the word also means ‘friendly’ in the Dakotan language. That’s a really good connection, I thought. What better place to meet a friend for lunch than in a place which literally means friendly? It turns out that I was missing a step: the hotel actually takes its name from the Douglas DC-3 Dakota aircraft which used to fly the New York to Chicago route from the mid-1930s, bringing affordable luxury air travel to the general public and it is this emphasis on ‘affordable luxury’ that lies behind the concept of the Dakota hotels.

Anyway, you didn’t come here to read about history (did you?); you came to read about the food. Well, let me assure you that it was excellent and fully justified my recommendation for the review.

To begin with, we had a complimentary ‘Venetian Dip’, a simple dish consisting of a tomato purée sauce and Mascarpone cheese served with freshly baked bread. Our starters were Roast Squash and Sweet Potato soup for me and a Tofu Salad for my partner. The soup was a meal in itself! The salad, with beansprouts, watermelon, sesame and cashew nuts was also a healthy plateful.

For the main course, we both ordered the Pea and Mint Risotto with pecorino cheese. Temptation got the better of us, though, and a side order of Hand Cut Chips also found its way onto our order. For desserts, and I’m not sure quite how we managed it but research is research, I had the Rhubarb and Ginger Crumble (served with Vanilla Ice Cream) and my partner had the very colourful Eton Mess, consisting of a salad of fresh fruits on a meringue base.

Over coffee, we chatted to Debbie Dobson, Director of Sales at the hotel, who provided me with some more background facts while checking to make sure that we had enjoyed our meal – we assured her we had!

All too soon though, it was time to leave. Hauling ourselves out of our seats, Ashley fetched our overcoats and we climbed the stairs back to street level where we were soon subsumed back into the pell-mell of the crowded streets of central Leeds.

Kevin and his partner dined as guests of the Dakota Bar and Grill, 8 Russell Street, Leeds, LS1 5RN.

Website: http://leeds.dakotahotels.co.uk/bar-grill/

Telephone: 0113 322 6261

Email: enquiries@leeds.dakotahotels.co.uk

The hotel offers customers a discount of 25% on parking charges at The Light underground car park nearby (entry via St Anne’s Street, Leeds.)

The stylish décor of the restaurant

All prices and details correct at the time of my visit – February 2019

Modern Artwork adorns the walls
And let’s not forget the food!

On Beauty

Warwick

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….) 

Natural Beauty?