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On Beauty vs Quality at the "Better Design for Better Places" Conference

Thursday 28th February, 2019

On Valentine’s day the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) held the “Better Design for Better Places” conference, seeking to raise the bar for design in the built environment. It drew together some of the thinking floating around since the announcement of the “Building Better, Building Beautiful” Commission and addressed the “Better” element of #MoreBetterFaster - the hashtag increasingly being used by government types when tweeting about housing delivery.

Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth opened the conference which a speech, in which he stated:

“We must aspire to beauty”

This gave me pause, and I pondered the statement for the rest of the day as I attended various panels and breakout sessions. Is aspiring to beauty the best way for us to ensure that we create good, successful places? Is beauty necessary to create good design? And what do we even mean when we talk about beauty?

We are told that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, meaning that our ideas about beauty come from inside us; they are intensely personal, subjective and emotional. Beauty is often a quality we ascribe to those we love, but love, as we’re also often told, is blind. Beauty is temporary; Shakespeare describes beauty as “a vain and doubtful good; a shining gloss that fadeth suddenly; a flower that dies when it begins to bud”. When we’re planning development that should last for decades, should we be grasping for something so transient?
How do you use something so slippery and volatile to guide policy, design and construction?

Here I’d like to make a case for beauty’s more reliable cousin: quality.

Where beauty is subjective, quality is logical; you can measure quality. Quality can be found in robust, durable materials that will weather decades; in a family home with well-designed storage space; in blocks laid out to create safe, legible streets. As we saw in the architectural style wars of yesteryear beauty can be divisive, but quality is uniting – we can all recognise it when we see it. Quality lasts; its appearance improves with age, as it develops a character and patina in response to its environment and the people who live in it. Beauty is narcissistic, defensive of its own image. The most important aspect of quality is its generosity of spirit; it leaves room for the inhabitants of a place to make their mark, make it unique, make it their own.

So, in the spirit of Valentine’s Day, I’d like to suggest that we abandon the superficial pursuit of beauty and steady our course, cultivating a lasting passion for quality. Quality is what will enable us to love the places that we live, not because they are beautiful but because they are ours.

As Paul Watson of MADE said at the final conference session:

“You don’t have to be beautiful to be loved – you can be characterful, quirky, you can have history”

Vicky Payne: Senior Consultant, Planning and Urban Design

 

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