HAYES IN THE HOUSE: Beauty as a right
Timeless beauty is the foundation of human fulfilment. The medium through which we perceive truth and divinity, it is the manifestation of the spirit, lifting us above the dull urgency of drab modernity. Much that is lovely is God-given – the glorious majesty of nature at our disposal each day. We can try, by what we build, to enhance this gift or we can neglect it.
We know intuitively that beauty matters, which is why we work to beautify our homes and gardens. Why too we visit in such numbers the best creations of men – from cathedrals and great houses to art galleries and parks.
Yet despite all this, aesthetics has been largely banished from the national conversation by a combination of relativism and utilitarianism. The former propagates the crass notion that all design is of equal merit because beauty is subjective - ‘in the eye of the beholder’. The latter insists that any difference in the character of architectural design undermines the supposedly desirable concept of egalitarian ubiquity.
Others dismiss the topic as ‘elitist’. They couldn’t be more wrong: as the think tank ResPublica has demonstrated, whilst the wealthiest people live in beautiful places and have access to green spaces, those on lower incomes miss out – unable to buy their way out of ugliness. Tragically, this results in demonstrably poorer outcomes as their sense of belonging is diminished and their health deteriorates. These days, simple things like significantly sized gardens, in which families can have fun, have become an economic luxury, as many poorer urban residents are condemned to a concrete box in the sky.
Beauty is not an abstract idea – it is a daily imperative. As I said during the House of Commons debate which I led last week, beauty, whether in the laughter of a child, the scent of a rose, a glorious landscape or the setting sun, makes life more joyful. During that debate, I called for Government insistence on good quality design for all developments, for surely we appreciate the link between beauty and behaviour. After all, it must be much harder for someone to approach the world with confidence and kindness if they are confronted daily by the grey concrete ugliness of the place in which they live; surely much harder to prevent disorder in areas that build anonymity and cement division. When people take pride in their homes, neighbourhoods, towns and cities they are infinitely more likely to take pride in the way they live their lives, relate to their neighbours and respond well to their surroundings.
At an event in Westminster last week, Syrian architect Marwa Al-Sabouni eloquently detailed the devastating consequences that architectural segregation has had on Syria. It is a powerful warning about the consequences of housing estates divided between rich and poor. If we do not live alongside one another, it is so much easier to denigrate those who are not familiar.
Isn’t it telling that this nation’s elitist, modernist architects, planners and technocrats, who foist ugliness upon us, often choose to live and raise their families in Georgian and Victorian houses, or retreat to gated communities’ detached from the undesirable outcomes they have created?
There persists a mistaken idea that we have exhausted the supply of beauty. In fact, not only can we recapture a beautiful built environment – we must! Whilst we are obliged to build more houses, it would be the height of short-sighted folly to believe that quantity matters more than quality. Indeed, a study released by British Land estimates that better design could save the UK economy an estimated £15.3billion by 2050, whilst also increasing our happiness and improving our health.
Tree-lined streets, ample green space and high-quality design rooted in local character are realistic, overwhelmingly popular and cost-effective ambitions. As his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales articulates perfectly: ‘We can’t have a future without the past. There has to be a sense of timelessness a living tradition that helps to maintain that sense of identity and belonging’.
Our journey through life should be the pursuit of the sublime and in the search for absolute truth beauty is the compass which guides us.