Get it off your chest

Do you think beauty is in the eye of the  beholder? It’s not….

'A beautiful house in urban landscape' - Image created by Adobe Firefly, an AI generative tool currently in Beta

Beauty, huh, yeah, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing, say it again y’all!

I wonder whether anyone ‘here’ doesn’t think “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”?

This is the story of how our thinking about beauty could be seen as a single movement from certainty to doubt, and from objective to subjective.

Two thousand years we were very clear that, to misquote my grandmother’s ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness‘ that beauty was next to Godliness and beauty was counted among the ultimate values of goodness, truth, and justice. Whether beauty is subjective or objective is one of the most enduring and controversial themes in Western philosophy along with aesthetics and the definition of art.

Vitruvius, (70BC – 15BC) a Roman architect, famously asserted that a building must exhibit the three qualities of firmitatis, utilitatis, venustatis – that is, stability, utility, beauty (or perhaps expressed in in modern terms: symmetry, proportion, and harmony) which reflected the underlying order and structure of the universe.. These values continued in formal architecture, if somewhat discontinuously, for 2000 years. Author of “De Architectura,” considered beauty to be objectively fixed.

According to Vitruvius, these principles could be applied to the design of buildings and cities to create beautiful and harmonious environments. He believed that beauty was not just a matter of personal taste, but a reflection of universal truths that could be objectively measured and defined.

Vitruvius’ ideas had a significant influence on the development of classical architecture, and his work was the chief authority on ancient classical architecture. His concept of beauty as an objectively fixed principle was widely adopted by architects and artists throughout the antique revival of the Renaissance, the classical phase of the Baroque, and in the Neoclassical period,

Beauty continued as a primary theme for (some) medieval philosophers, and aesthetics theory was central to The Enlightenment (1685 – 1815) studied by English thinkers such as Shaftesbury, Hume, and Burke, and Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer in Germany.

One of the key ideas behind the Gothic Revival architecture of the late 18th was the idea that beauty was not simply a matter of aesthetics, but also of morality. This idea was based on the belief that beauty was a reflection of the divine order, and that buildings designed with this in mind would be more likely to inspire people to lead good and virtuous lives.

In the nineteenth century John Ruskin wrote about beauty in architecture as ‘an aspiration towards God expressed in ornamentation drawn from nature‘ in ‘The Seven Lamps of Architecture’ and William Morris of the Arts and Craft movement said ‘Have nothing in your houses you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’.

But running parallel with a post industrial revolution wish for a return to beauty, American and German architects were challenging the need for ornament – “The evolution of culture marches with the elimination of ornament from useful objects” wrote Adolf Loos in his 1910 essay ‘Ornament and Crime’

By the beginning of the twentieth century, beauty was in decline as a subject of philosophical inquiry, and also as a primary goal of the arts. A changing world, in thrall to emerging industrial technologies that brought a democratised and increased wealth to the masses, particularly after the first World War, gave birth to Modernism, an architectural philosophy that has endured for a 100 years and still informs the curriculum of Architectural education. Represented famously, if incorrectly by the phrase ‘Form follows function’ Modernism ensured that beauty was not so much suppressed as forcibly moved from the sacred to the secular.

By the 21st century a renewed interest in Beauty as a rational objective attribute began to emerge. In the 2010s Philosopher Alain de Botton wrote ‘The Architecture of Happiness’ and another philosopher Roger Scruton wrote ‘Beauty’ as a plea for the return of it as a moral value.

It’s curious to note how a similarly value based concept – justice – is far more comfortably held as objective. It is endlessly reviewed, revised and tested, often absorbing major shifts to reflect changing societal views. It is deeply detailed and codified, why could we not do this for beauty?

From 2015 onwards a raft of different groups and think-tanks considered the role of beauty in the planning process and the built environment. Scruton was to appear again, this time as co-author of the definitively influential report ‘Living with Beauty’ by the ‘Building Better, uilding Beautiful’ commission. The thrust of that report recommended: Ask for Beauty – Refuse Ugliness – Promote Stewardship. And in the revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) included the phrase “well-designed, beautiful and safe places“.

The Government confirmed that the term ‘beautiful’ should be read as a high-level statement of ambition rather than a policy test and planning authorities, communities and developers are encouraged to work together to decide what beautiful homes, buildings and places should look like in their area. This should be reflected in local plans, neighbourhood plans, design guides and codes, taking into account Government guidance on design.

A scheme in Ealing was referred to the Planning Inspectorate, where one of the parties placed great emphasis on the concept of beauty. The planning inspector concluded:

‘There is I believe something of a tension between identifying a building as an exemplary piece of design which is an objective finding based on established architectural principles, and adorning a building with the epithet ‘beautiful’, which is a subjective one.’

So, if beauty remains, at least for now, a subjective quality how will an aspiration for beauty be created? In truth it won’t! The new National Model Design Code (NMDC) introduced in January 2021, is a toolkit for designed contextualised local developments, and ‘good design’ is a far more attainable if still incomplete goal.

The NMDC was piloted across the country and revealed that most all the pilots struggled with the notion of beauty and few found it useful in either their analysis, engagement or coding. Instead, codes tended to prioritise tangible issues such as landscape, density, height and building line as the enduring qualities of places that, it was argued, define character.

There is growing evidence, according to the Place Alliance that Design Review Panels (a meeting of independent professionals with architectural and design expertise who assess pre-application) can make a big impact on outcomes. Here in Kingston, it is quite the opposite and the process is opaque and the output improves very little.

Elsewhere, though, The Place Alliance has monitored 32 cases where poor design resulted in application failure as a direct result of the change in the NPPF that said: “Development that is not well designed should be refused” (para. 134, 2021).

The draft Local Plan in section 6 ‘Design and Heritage’ (which it was noted are perhaps odd bed fellows) under its heading ‘Delivering High-quality Design’ states:

  • The council expects the highest standards of design for all development.
  • All development must follow a design-led approach
  • Development will be refused if it is of an unacceptable design.
  • On large or strategic sites masterplans and design codes should be used delivers high-quality design. And should include full engagement with the local community.
  • Development proposals will be supported where they help to facilitate good physical and mental health.

There is everything to play for, and still everything to lose. The good news is there is a potential framework that will help to define both the broad and detailed definition of good design. But we are visual creatures, hard-wired to respond to our exterior world, we can and we must make judgments on what is before us, for our safety, for our well-being for our happiness and delight. The use of the word ‘beauty’ is an up-lifting marvel in a world in thrall to the cold dead hands of those who will make a profit from our basic needs and aspirations.

Postscript: I am great believer in technology, and whatever it’s downsides the fact is industrial, electrical and digital technologies have incrementally brought comparative riches to more of the population than at any time in our history. It could well be possible to define a usable definition of beauty in the built environment using AI, and eventually quantum Computing.

ChatGPT (Chat Generative Pre-training Transformer) is a chatbot launched in November 2022. After talking to it about beauty in architecture, I asked it to write a poem. It’s dreadful of course but better than mine. Enjoy…

Beauty in stone, metal, and glass
A creation that forever shall last
With lines that soar and curves that bend
A masterpiece that can’t help but commend

The design that sets the soul alight
With form and function coming into sight
An expression of man’s creativity
Incorporating history and diversity

Windows that frame the world outside
A place of peace where the soul can reside
A harmony of light and shadow play
A symphony of lines and shapes each day

A building that stands tall and proud
A symbol of man’s engineering avowed
Its grace and beauty an inspiration
A lasting legacy of human creation

So let us marvel at these structures grand
Built with care, by talented hands
For they are more than just a place
They are a testament to beauty’s grace.


See the School of Life video on Beauty here


Tony Lancaster July 2023

Last Updated on July 28, 2023 by Kingston Society