On Tuesday 24th November I contributed to a fantastic session discussing the role of beauty in architecture and development. It was a high calibre panel with very insightful thoughts.

I was asked whether the Government’s proposals in the White Paper would help or hinder the delivery of beauty.

On a very basic level, the slightly flippant answer is: No. Of course the White Paper won’t hinder the delivery of beauty. That is because “beauty” hasn’t been something to aspire to until this point – so the only way is up.

The aim so far has been to produce buildings and places of real design quality as promoted by the NPPF and the National Design Guide.

The genesis of the emergence of “beauty” stems from the Government’s advice from the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission (BBBBC), and the work by Create Streets. Living with Beauty rejected some of the tenets of modernist architecture, and what is seen to be the “ugliness of buildings that are unadaptable, unhealthy, unsightly and which violate the context in which they are placed”.  

Instead, Beauty is seen by the BBBBC as a benchmark that all new developments should meet and includes everything that promotes a healthy and happy life, and “makes a collection of buildings into a place”.

The White paper provides four main proposals, all of which are recommendations by the BBBBC:

  1. The introduction of locally popular design codes either to influence permitted development in the style of historic pattern books; or as part of a master planning process for a site in a “growth” area where design will be front loaded in the new Local Plan process.
  2. A chief officer for design and place-making will be introduced in every local authority. That may lead to c300 new posts across the country all required for people with the requisite experience and skillset.
  3. The Government will consider how Homes England’s strategic objectives can give greater emphasis to delivering beautiful places.
  4. What has been termed “Fast track for Beauty”. An express route through planning if your project meets certain criteria that objectively shows that it will be “beautiful”.

These proposals convey a very clear aspiration to get design on the agenda, and to respond to what the BBBBC deemed the “falling median of design quality” – a criticism aimed largely at volume housebuilders on developments with supposed little contextual relationship, and often in areas of low land value.

In my presentation I focussed on two main areas.

First, at heart of the matter, is this idea of “beauty”.  

Everybody responds to architecture in different ways and that is because buildings trigger and refer to memories of where we’ve seen them before, similar forms, during different parts of our lives.

These associations can lead us to pass verdict for what they symbolise rather than what they are. Those reactions evoke strong responses to new development. We see that often in the planning process.

In fact, it is this malleability that contributes to different forms of development being championed or rejected at different times. That is because our thoughts on “beauty” (or conversely, what is ugly) are not static. The classic examples are the Georgian and Victorian terraces that were thought to be superfluous and old-fashioned in the early parts of the 20th century, but are now cherished, and in some ways fetishized as the very definition of architectural beauty.

But this is to say that beauty is purely aesthetic. In my reading, and as expressed by Christophe Egret in his presentation, beauty is more holistic and relates very strongly to place-making.

Whose form of beauty will prevail in the White Paper? 

So circling back to the White Paper, if our sense of beauty is quite individual, and impressionable, then whose form of beauty will prevail when considering design particularly at the local level?

Here, I turn to Design Codes and Pattern books which are seen not as the panacea for good design, but certainly as a way of contributing towards a predictable planning framework, and one that is democratised.

Design Codes are not new. They have historic pedigree and are commonly used now to inform both new development (e.g. outline planning applications) and to ensure the quality of existing areas are not diluted by new development.

Broadly Design Codes work for places where there is a consistent character. But our urban environments are often inconsistent and varied due to buildings of different periods, different styles and different scales. This is often what contributes to their charm.

So who will prepare these codes?

Probably developers in the case of sites in “growth” areas where local authorities will be stretched having to, essentially, determine all of the site allocations at once early in the Local Plan process.

And Codes can be complicated things, that require expertise from specialist consultants, and that comes with cost – and so favour, naturally, larger developers who can absorb the upfront costs.

Our clients also have to be mindful that Codes do not restrict the ability of developers to differentiate their product or even have the flexibility to reach the aspiration of the “Good Ordinary” in a deliverable and viable way – a point well made in Zack Simons #Planoraks blog.

Also, and finally, the White Paper does say that the local community will have to have “effective input” into each design code to be given weight in the planning process.

So there will be a very serious need to ensure that the design codes are polyvocal, representing different parts of the local communities. Otherwise how can you prove what is locally popular?

Concluding thoughts

Returning to the main question one final time. Will the proposal help or hinder the delivery of “beauty”?

My answer is foggier than when I started. If the aspiration is to get design onto the agenda, then I think it’s successful – we’re discussing it now in the mainstream.

But only time will tell: a) how the beautiful agenda will land as policy; and b) what the unintended consequences are, because there always are unintended consequences.

Check out the video below for more views from the webinar.