The ugliness around us

British Transport Minister John Hayes recently proked criticism after a speech to the Independent Transport Commission in which he spoke of the ugliness of Britain’s transport architecture and the importance of making our public and industrial buildings more beautiful. Why give us a “trivial and twee” homily on aesthetics, carped the critics: aren’t there more pressing issues, such as air pollution and affordable housing, to worry about?

But I’m with Hayes, says Clare Foges. The look of our public spaces isn’t a secondary issue; it has a direct impact on people’s well-being. The rich can buy their way “to sights that soothe the soul”. But “what if your constant visual diet are the wind-whistling plazas, in 50 shades of grey; the corrugated retail warehouses; the blank faces of municipal buildings; the graffiti and litter; the asphalt and concrete”? We fret about preserving the beauty of listed areas, yet let a “garish corporate free-for-all” spawn elsewhere, as if the look of such places didn’t matter. It does. As the naturalist John Muir said: “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread”. And those with less bread need life-enhancing public spaces all the more. (Clare Foges, The Times).

I entirely agree. Architects have ceded their roles to engineers, whose sole preoccupation is making sure the cheap steel and glass stand upright and won’t be blown over. Opposite our apartment there was, until recently, an elegant building, put up about 30 years ago, but which apparently didn’t make money. It has been demolished and the visuals of the replacement show a hideous monstrosity with nothing whatsoever to commend it. Henceforward we will have our view blocked by a building clearly designed by steel and glass engineers intent on making the building look cheap and tawdry. The local council planners did not even notify adjacent residents that this was going to happen. Even less did they insist on a design that fitted the immediate environment in an old part of the city with rather attractive Edwardian buildings around it. Protests elicited no response. And I won’t, in public, even mention the rumours about where the money for all this came from. I’m sure the reader’s imagination will fill in the gaps!

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