Beautiful cities are a human right

By Milly Main

It is the natural state of humanity to seek out beauty. When something is beautiful, we are more likely to treasure it as something to be protected and celebrated. Beauty creates community and belonging. Beauty in the built environment is characterised by exquisite architecture and successful city planning. Ugly buildings, on the other hand, invite disdain, resentment or indifference.

Beauty creates community and belonging. Beauty means caring about and investing in the smallest details, from the design of wrought-iron window bars to the mosaic tiles of a courtyard.

As the UK Government’s Living with Beauty report notes, ‘people do not only want beauty in their surroundings. They are repelled by ugliness, which is a social cost that everyone is forced to bear. Ugliness means buildings that are unadaptable, unhealthy and unsightly, and which violate the context in which they are placed. Such buildings destroy the sense of place, undermine the spirit of community, and ensure that we are not at home in our world.’

Unfortunately, in our built environment, ugliness is pervasive ⁠ — both in the deliberate desecration of existing beauty and in the newly designed streets, suburbs and buildings that Australians tolerate. People typically do not intentionally create or seek out ugliness. It is our contention that much modern architecture annihilates beauty and has the effect of repelling and alienating us, damaging our psyches, compromising our mental health and fragmenting our communities.

Modernism introduced a ‘blank slate’ approach to architecture, where thousands of years of tradition, as well as decoration and ornament, were eliminated. If it is difficult to tell ⁠— unless you are a botanist ⁠— that these buildings are in Western Sydney. They could be in Ukraine, Cleveland or Kuala Lumpur.

Take, for example, the ‘big glass boxes’ and skyscrapers that are in the capital cities of every state in Australia. These are indistinguishable from big glass boxes in Houston, Riyadh or Edinburgh. They pay no regard to local character, climate or culture, are often obscenely unsustainable, and turn our cities into alienating, unlovable and transitory places that we would rather escape from after work rather than dwell, linger or make our home. Or, for example, the endlessly sprawling suburbs of major Australian cities, some of which are so inhospitable and hot that they attract media attention. Or, the numerous low-quality medium-density and high-density residential developments that are scattered through cities and denser areas, so cheaply built that they are likely to depreciate quickly and be torn down in coming decades.

When tradition was eliminated, we received buildings designed according to the decrees of the brutalist, Bauhaus and constructivist movements, the whims and predilections of individual architects and, most recently, parametric computer algorithms. This has contributed to the widespread production of homogenous concrete boxes, bizarre ego-driven ‘starchitect’ projects and bland glass installations, which ignore local climate, culture, skills and tradition. (Image: a new structure in Spring Street, Melbourne desecrating a heritage building)

Street Level Australia believes in architectural beauty for its own sake, as opposed to something that is nice to have or follows from the utilitarian function of a building. Beauty is a purpose in and of itself that qualifies and limits other functional goals we might have. We also believe in objective beauty in architecture and design and believe that this aesthetic standard can be identified, described, realised and taught. We are unashamed in our belief that there is a right, and a wrong, way to design and build.

One key objection to this assertion is that beauty is a matter of subjective taste and that beauty, or aesthetic appeal, is in the eye of the beholder. While there is some truth to this, we believe that a rationalist case for beauty can be made and that there is both qualitative and quantitative evidence to support objective beauty.

What is beauty?

Beauty is inseparable from tradition or, in other words, things proven to work. Beauty is prevalent in traditional or classical urban planning and exquisite architecture all over the world, both western and non-western. Over thousands of years, in cities everywhere, people honed successful techniques for maintaining their own wellbeing ⁠ — including walkable, human-scale cities that facilitated community and familiarity. With the advent of the car, the traffic engineer, and modern planning, many of these principles were forgotten, to our own great detriment.

Beautiful buildings command high prices. The more walkable and compact a place is, the more commercial property is worth. On average, doubling urban density is associated with an increase in productivity of between 2–6%. Controlling for other factors, research shows that houses in a traditional style are valued higher (15%) and increased more in value than modernist houses (UK and Netherlands).

This loss was compounded by a global movement in architecture to replace traditional local design with an ‘international modernist’ style that would look the same everywhere. While there has been some effort to reinstate walkability and vibrancy, when town planning, urban design or ‘place-making’ are considered without regard for beauty, often the outcomes are bland, insipid and tokenistic — especially when developments are low quality. Many cities managed to be ‘vibrant’ without employing professional ‘place-makers’.

There is an emerging case from neuroscience that traditional architecture is important to human psychological wellbeing. Traditional buildings are physiologically relaxing, neurologically pleasurable and good for our wellbeing and health. We find the symmetries and patterns of traditional architecture more beautiful because our brains have been physiologically conditioned by evolution to associate its fractal components with safety, security, wellbeing and survival.

Healthy architecture features symmetry and riffs off the fractal forms of nature. ‘Our ancient brain architecture, which hasn’t changed in 40,000 years, directs us to look right at traditional buildings and in most instances, instantly finds the front door’.

Modernist and brutalist architecture, on the other hand, is problematic because it lacks symmetry and decoration. Human brains evolved to recognise faces and respond to the fractal forms of nature. Architecture that lacks this may actually be making us stressed and depressed: it triggers areas of our brain associated with pain. It causes emotional dysregulation because it does not provide the subliminal focal points the brain needs to find unconsciously to smoothly regulate and feel engaged and at home in a place and repels our inclination — called thigmotaxis — to travel close to the edges of places grossly lacking in symmetry. According to this understanding, much of modernist architecture is not beautiful because it has mostly abandoned symmetry, adornment and decoration, as well as coherent references to the fractal forms of nature.

It’s not good because it’s old, it’s old because it’s good.

Further, research demonstrates that the general public prefers traditional architecture. We find it safer, more relaxing and more interesting, and prefer small-scale buildings with a diversified design, many details, warm colours, historical styles and conventionality. On the other hand, people find contemporary architecture boring, unpleasant and stressful. Buildings that are minimalist and asymmetric with little ornamentation and made from fair-faced concrete, glass and steel are literally repellant to people. Why is so much modern architecture objectionable to the average person? It may be due to a phenomenon known as architectural myopia, where architects have been found to consistently disagree with laypersons about the aesthetic qualities of buildings.

Fitzroy, Melbourne: detailed, conventional, historical, and extremely trendy.

Nearly everyone intuitively recognises that there is something about older buildings and places that is fundamentally better and more enduring than what we are building today. Australians engage in their millions in tourism to the old cities and towns of Europe and Asia. Whilst planners and architects assure us that it is impossible to recreate these places, ‘we swarm through Venice, Agra, Rome, Paris, Athens, and Florence as if in desperation that this is our last chance to experience it’. This is a miserable state of affairs, and it is why Street Level was founded.

This building at the University of Western Australia won an international architecture prize. There is a trend to integrate ‘biophilic’ ornament in modern architecture, but it almost always fails because the buildings themselves lack the symmetry and ‘variety of scales that our mind reads as information needed to keep us alive, which is hard-wired into our perception of the environment around us.’ Most people would much prefer the traditional sandstone structures of the original campus.

‘The assumption by so-called ‘star’ architects and their acolytes that only they have the right to insist on the excellence of Modernist ‘icons’ must be challenged: they are wrong. Only those persons who have to live in, use, or endure the sight of what those ‘stars’ impose on the rest of us have the exclusive right to criticize, to weigh in the balance, and decide. Architecture is ubiquitous. It is not a mystery to be guarded and protected by the high-priests of obscure cults: it is everywhere, and the public should be its judges, not a small coterie promoting its own agenda’ — Making Dystopia, Stephen James Curl

Finally, there are some useful proxies for what people consider beautiful. One is that beautiful buildings outlast their function. The best buildings are recycled. Much of what we adore and consider beautiful in our own cities was built before the 1950s. Cities in the world ⁠⁠that Australians flock to every year such as Prague and Barcelona are treasured for their exquisite architecture, walkable neighbourhoods, human scale and successful city planning. Cities such as Melbourne fiercely protect their heritage character through both law and culture, part of the inheritance we enjoy from an earlier era. Barns and factories built in the nineteenth century are now heritage-listed, and are common locations for weddings and wedding photography. It is an odd set of circumstances that we are cherishing old factories, but we disallow ourselves from creating new beautiful buildings.

A wedding taking place at Perth’s Flour Factory venue. It is a former mill. What would our ancestors think of this paradox? We adore old factories, however, it is difficult to imagine our children wanting to get married in many of the new buildings that go up today, let alone a factory. What legacy are we leaving them?
If you were an alien time traveller, which Brisbane would you choose to visit?

Why has this happened?

In the last century in Australia, it became the norm among architects to obliterate, subvert and ‘deconstruct’ traditional styles and forms of architecture, replacing them with modernist and postmodernist ones. Australian architects, like those in the rest of the world, rebelled against classical architecture. Their work ⁠ — first the brutalist buildings which started covering Australian cities after the 1960s followed by the more sharp, chaotic parametric buildings are the most common standard in architecture, particularly civic architecture. These buildings often replaced traditional architecture that had been demolished to make way for new and ‘improved’ modern buildings.

This is failed planning. A study using VR in Oslo found people have less appreciation for contemporary architecture and find it boring, unpleasant, stressful. Respondents preferred traditional architecture and found it more pleasant, relaxing and interesting.

These modernist movements gained so much traction that they completely overwhelmed existing practices, replacing classical approaches to architecture to the point where the skills and knowledge possessed by traditional architects almost completely disappeared as an older generation died off and universities and technical colleges stopped emphasising them. What began as a movement to subvert and challenge its traditional predecessor ended up completely obliterating it, resulting in a strange scenario where strict design rules and approaches honed over thousands of years of human trial and error have been abandoned in favour of the tastes, inclinations and foibles of individual designers, many of whom have no classical training and little knowledge of the traditional architectural forms and styles that they often unknowingly seek to subvert. This is the tragedy of the built environment in Australia.

What is ugliness?

Ugliness is everywhere. It is the strange, crass, alienating, disagreeable buildings that insult their environment and the people who live in it, and often replace or desecrate existing beautiful buildings and streets. Given its ability to cause psychological pain, fragment communities, and compromise mental and physical health, we believe that the overwhelming ugliness and functional poverty of the built environment is a key human rights issue. Because of the pervasiveness of the built environment in all aspects of our daily life, it may be a root cause of many modern psychosocial ailments.

Australians deserve better. They are being failed by planners, policymakers and the private market. There is a lack of choice in the Australian home market ⁠— if you cannot afford a home in a leafy neighbourhood, your main options are the outer suburbs, a big glassy sky-rise or an ugly medium-density development.

Ugliness is not equally distributed. Its worst effects are felt by Australians who live in lower socioeconomic areas, near freeways and in areas where the car dominates the landscape, in newer suburbs with poor amenities and a hostile built environment, and in cheap public housing developments. For this reason, beauty is a key equity issue and should be the interest of anyone concerned with the welfare and wellbeing of the working class and less privileged. We all deserve to have access to beauty in our lives.

‘Beauty is vanishing from our world because we live as if it did not matter’ — Sir Roger Scruton

Conclusion

Beauty is a public good that should be available to all as a fundamental expectation of living in a liberal democracy like Australia, in the same way that education and health are. We believe that beauty valued in the same way we value and invest in technological innovation and efficiency.

We are advocating for the public and private sector to focus on the restoration and rehabilitation of the built environment as a priority and will be generating research to add to the quantitative evidence in Australia on this topic. In short, we want our mission to be as prominent as key mental health and environmental sustainability campaigns — if not more, given its significance and influence. Fortunately, there are examples from around the world that make us optimistic about the fulfilment of our objectives.

Find our more, or join Street Level to become a part of our movement.

Prince’s Quarter, Glebe, Sydney
Ciudad Cayalá, Guatemala (Léon Krier)
New build, London (2007)
New build, Portugal (2005)
Rosemary Beach, Florida
Bourne Estate ⁠— more beautiful public housing in London.

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Street Level Australia

Street Level Australia

Street Level is an association of local groups working to make Australian places more beautiful and conducive to human flourishing by advancing good urbanism