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What is beauty and is it important?

10 May 2019 Author: Michael Vout

Two key questions related to beauty are what is it and is it important, and for planners this includes the additional issues of what is its role in good places and does a place need to look beautiful as well as being functionally good or successful?

Building for Life 12, the industry standard for the design of new housing developments published on behalf of the Design Council Cabe, Home Builders Federation and Design for Homes, is one of the most established methods of assessing good urban design.  Its criteria help us create places which ‘work’ to effectively address social, environmental and economic needs.

The look and appearance of something is inexplicably linked to how it is produced and how it works. Appearance is not simply the result but an active contributory factor in the design.

However, the only criterion which appears to come close to addressing the issue of beauty is criterion 5: does the scheme create a place with a locally inspired or otherwise distinctive character?

Similarly, the recent Better Design for Better Places conference only marginally addressed our understanding of what beauty is and the role or contribution of beauty in creating good places.

Commentators on the subject have stated that the concept of aesthetic discrimination (and thus the ability to express and articulate distinctions and opinions between ugly and beautiful) did not arrive in England until the 17th century. 

Kant & Laver

According to Immanuel Kant, the basic tenets of beauty (described in The Critique of Judgment) run along these lines:

  • We enjoy something because we find it beautiful, rather than find something beautiful because we enjoy using it
  • When we find something beautiful, we expect that others will find it beautiful
  • We enjoy the beauty in things independent of their intended purpose

Identifying beauty is complicated by the fact that what we collectively deem to be beautiful not only differs between different groups, cultures and societies but this judgement also changes over time.

In his work Taste and Fashion, English author and art historian James Laver identifies a ‘cycle of fashion’:

Indecent:       10 years before its time

Shameless:   5 years before its time

Outré:             1 year before its time

Smart: —

Dowdy:           1 year after its time

Hideous:        10 years after its time

Ridiculous:    20 years after its time

Amusing:       30 years after its time

Quaint:           50 years after its time

Charming:     70 years after its time

Romantic:      100 years after its time

Beautiful:       150 years after its time

Vitruvius & Papanek

In De architectura, the Roman author, architect and engineer Vitruvius asserted that there were three principles of good architecture:

  • Firmatis (Durability) – It should stand up robustly and remain in good condition.
  • Utilitas (Utility) – It should be useful and function well for the people using it.
  • Venustatis (Beauty) – It should delight people and raise their spirits.

For over 2,000 years these principles have remained key to our understanding of good design and are notable for their enduring power as well as the acknowledgement of beauty. They have been repeated in various forms over the centuries. One can see an extremely close parallel in the Design Quality Indicators developed by the Construction Industry Council in the late 90s.

Another seminal work, Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World, contains the concept of The Function Complex. One of its fundamental aspects is that it embraces aesthetics and the less ‘tangible’ aspects of design as part of function.

In other words, the look and appearance of something is inexplicably linked to how it is produced and how it works. Appearance is not simply the result but an active contributory factor in the design. Further, that design is fashioned by the meanings associated with a product as well as when and where the product was created.

Lessons for our time

These works, seen together, seem to offer a few pointers to help us deal with contemporary issues in planning.

  • Both Vitruvius and Papanek make the case that aesthetics and beauty are an integral part of the design process. The way something looks and the meanings and associations involved effect the way something is constructed and practically functions, and equally, the way something is constructed and practically functions affects how it looks.
  • Whilst beauty is not a constant, static property, there appears to be some broad collective common ground regarding what is regarded as beautiful within certain parameters of culture, society and time period.
  • When we plunder local character in search of clues to the design of new development, perhaps we should not only be seeking local identity but searching out those things which are beautiful.
  • What we collectively regard as beautiful is significantly influenced by the likes and dislikes across all mediums of the times we live in and is indeed often  ‘decided’ (as opposed to just influenced) by what we see in the media and what ‘the experts’ present to us as ‘in style’.  Thus the fashions of the catwalk or Meghan Markle’s latest outfit of today become versions you can buy on the high street tomorrow.

An expanded version of this article is contained in the Spring 2019 edition of the RTPI West Midlands Regional magazine Tripwire.

Blogs do not necessarily represent the views of the RTPI.

Michael Vout

Michael Vout

Michael Vout is a planner, urban designer and landscape architect, and Hon Secretary of RTPI West Midlands.