Bringing beauty back to the city

  • Themes: Art

Cities have been reduced to centres of soulless materialism and their citizens to non-stop consumers. If we hope to create beautiful surroundings, a rethink is required.

The Vessel at Hudson Yards, New York City. Credit: robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo.
The Vessel at Hudson Yards, New York City. Credit: robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo.

This essay originally appeared in ‘City, Civility and Capitalism : A Historical Perspective‘ published by Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2020.

Reframing the concepts ‘city, civility and capitalism’ allows an examination of a future that acknowledges a need for a different approach to urban development in this age of climate crisis.

Globally-accepted spatial, cultural and economic valuations are being challenged to accommodate the new normal that is rapid urbanisation combined with catastrophic ocean rise. One may see this as an opportunity for urban planners and neighbourhood regenerators to recast new strategies toward a more humane and aesthetic-centred approach and step away from business-as-usual solutions. Previously taboo concepts such as beauty and happiness are now legitimately entering discussions on how policy and the built environment can be shaped. Contributions of such disparate disrupters as citizen activist Jane Jacobs, non-profit urban advocates Create Streets, and humanist royals including the Bhutanese king Jigme Sigme Wanchuch and Great Britain’s King Charles are being re-evaluated, and they are being upheld as exemplars rather than outliers.

Rethinking the ‘city’ as ‘townscape’ marks a return to urban ordering that recognises the importance of human scale, attachment to place, and visual harmony. Much of the new buildings in cities and the space around them – ‘public plazas’ – have been characterised by what has been called ‘Corbusianity,’ that which is influenced by the tenets of the modern movement of the early twentieth century, resulting in unornamented surfaces and abstracted forms. This approach to urban planning lacked the ability to generate the messy vitality that Jacobs characterised as an ‘intricate sidewalk ballet’ – that informal interplay of social interactions amongst many players of all ages, characteristic of an authentic place. The Corbusian order of things, which advocated for a break with the ‘specificity of both past and place’ resulted in a reductivist style vacuum and an elitist aesthetic culture which labelled charm in architectural and urban design as bourgeois, and therefore unworthy of use in contemporary practice. Even today any historic visual reference on a new building is often labelled ‘false sense of historical development,’ ‘Disneyland’ or ‘pastiche’ by both the historic preservation community and mainstream modern architects. There is growing acceptance that certain visual environments affect mental wellbeing, and that this can be objectively assessed through qualitative research for use in evaluating healthy aesthetic environments.

Citizen activists understand that mainstream corporate and governmental placemaking solutions often fall short, and are taking matters into their own hands. An example is the London-based non-profit organisation Create Streets, which recognises the power of research and public outreach, and actively conducts independent interviews with pedestrians to understand how environments and buildings are perceived by their users. Create Streets’ stated aims are ‘to advance the education of the public in subjects related to the built environment.’ They are dedicated to understanding ‘the associations between urban form and mental and physical health,’ and provide training to community groups for neighbourhood planning and urban design activities. Given that twentieth-century urban planning and development has predominately instigated an autocentric mindset that has privileged cars over humans, organisations such as Create Streets are increasingly at the forefront of educating citizens to trust their instincts and voice their concerns when the built environment threatens their health and wellbeing. Their bottom-up approach to research is conducted through one-on-one polls and surveys regarding simple aesthetic preferences, and yield results that can be used by designers and policymakers to shape the look and feel of a neighbourhood development.

Alternatively, a top-down approach to neighbourhood planning yielding successful results began in 1996 when the then Prince of Wales, who has a long-standing interest in architecture and design, donated 400 acres of land that had belonged to the royal family since 1342 for a development. Poundbury in Dorset was planned to meet local housing needs without creating yet another car-dominated, single-use-zoned housing estate. It is being built in several phases, and stands as an exemplar to developers, architects and urban planners for new village creation. It is built with robust traditional materials, in styles drawn from the past, and is mixed-use – from factories to shops to pubs, and its housing accommodates 35 per cent low-income families. The low-income housing is mixed with market rate housing, removing the stigma of segregation by income. The aspirations of King Charles, and his visionary urban planner Leon Krier, have resulted in an authentic place, which, whilst previously mocked by the press and architectural elite, is now being accepted as ‘a real place’ rather than the ‘Potemkin village’ it was dubbed whilst it was being developed.

When it comes to the question of civility or good manners we can turn to the idea of civitas – an involvement in the affairs of the city, implying an assumption of belonging to the physical aspect of the built environment. A citizen’s physical and visual engagement through the thoroughfares, public squares and buildings within the traditional city in the pre-modern era usually meant the civic realm you were moving through was built by your grandfather, or his grandfather, and so forth. Every successive generation did not generally destroy the previous generation’s built environment, but rather added to it incrementally as needed. World wars, Haussmann’s famous tabula rasa for Paris, and London’s great obliterating fire of 1666, of course, serve as stand-ins for numerous exceptions, but the general rule was to conserve the best of the past generation’s efforts and to build cumulatively, carefully, and for the ages. The criteria for conservation would have been whether a building was stable, purposeful, and lastly, pleasing to look at, that is, beautiful. Vitruvius’s three-legged stool of firmness, commodity and delight could not stand without delight, and as such, beauty holds as much weight as fitness and stability. Fiona Reynolds reminds us that the UK Planning Bill of 1919, the first of its type, had as its aim ‘the home healthy, the house beautiful, the town pleasant, the city dignified and the suburbs salubrious.’ She goes on to express the important role of beauty in the built environment:

Beauty is not a luxury we can have only when we are rich; it is a way of shaping the changes we need and want so that they make a positive contribution to everyone’s lives, as well as protecting the things and places we most value… With more than eighty per cent of the world’s population now living in urban areas, we have to devote more energy and commitment to making them beautiful, satisfying and human places to live.

Trystan Edwards, an architect and urban planner of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, wrote Good and Bad Manners in Architecture, a treatise on town planning which analysed and judged the new buildings in and around London. Edwards, like others of his generation, was reacting to the new ideology of modernism when he decried ‘the fatal doctrine of the priority of the plan’ which, the modernists said, should form the basis for the composition of the façade. Generations upon generations of architecture students have since been indoctrinated with the notion that the plan is the generator of the public face of the building, to the detriment of the visual built environment. Edwards’ premise was that buildings, like people, are instead duty bound to appropriately present themselves to the public. His anthropomorphic analogy sounds quaint today when one looks at the current comportment and dress of the public. However, there are still standards of behaviour for citizens: one doesn’t generally shout on the street, for instance, and the point could be stretched that buildings, like people, should be mannerly, play well with others, and if at all possible, be beautiful.

Since Edwards’ era, there have been ever more threats to the traditional city. Neo-liberal monetary policy’s influence on the shape and space of expanding urban realms on a global scale has had what many consider to be deleterious effects on the civil nature of cities. In pondering the juxtaposition of civility within the context of the city one cannot help but observe that the new order of global city-building is tending toward two anti-social constructs – increasing privatisation of public (civic) space, and the building of spatially assertive stand-alone buildings divorced from cultural contexts, such as Canary Wharf in London and New York’s Hudson Yards, both urban developments which bear no references to their locale’s climate, history, materials, scale, proportion, or urban context. The urban sociologist Leonard Nevarez, cited by the scholar Robert Adam, observes also that historically preserved zones are not exempt from globalised city-building, indicating that gentrified historic districts are usually closely tied to economic incentives of globalisation. In the case of New York’s Gansevoort Meatpacking District, one of many global examples, gritty slaughterhouse squalor was transformed in the span of fifteen years and now features such universally recognised modern talismans as a Hermes boutique, a Tesla showroom and a major contemporary art museum.

Scholars such as Anna Minton and Robert Adam are increasingly concerned that ceding public space to corporate interests compromises potential public dissent, essentially replacing the public in public squares with consumers in private squares. This is becoming a well-recognised aspect of modern city life, where newly-created ‘public’ space is in reality private property ostensibly open for the benefit of the public, usually traded at a cost to the neighbourhood for increased height or density. These capitalist-branded buildings and consumer squares don’t generally contextually respect their building neighbours, preferring to go it alone through distorted shapes and shiny skins. In many cases, such as in extreme auto-centric environments like Dubai, the buildings may not even acknowledge the presence and accommodation of humans and their fragile and sensitive needs (such as knowing where the door is). These public plazas also tend to have a sameness of design, something that Jonny Aspen, the Norwegian professor and urbanist calls ‘zombie urbanism.’ This is the privatised square with neat and tidy street furniture, lacking in social life, which cannot overcome the chilling effect of territorially patrolled and controlled commercial interests. By leaving place-making to corporate interests, city governance is relinquishing its responsibility for protecting the commons, setting dangerous precedents for the future of democratic discourse.

Can capitalism (GNP, Gross National Product) co-exist with GNH (Gross National Happiness)? GNP is a primitive tool, with accumulation as ostensibly the only measure for success. Such a blunt instrument has driven us to this current desperate place of mass consumerism, contributing to the degradation of the environment. Looking at alternate models, Bhutan developed an entirely different measure of their country’s success, calling it the Gross National Happiness Index, which measures the collective happiness of their nation. This concept was adopted as an indicator in 2008, and espouses a holistic approach to development. The four pillars of GNH are: good governance; sustainable, equitable, socio-economic development; environmental conservation, and diversity; and preservation and promotion of culture.

There is a Bhutanese GNH Commission that evaluates and implements policies and measures the happiness and wellbeing of the populace of almost one million. In June 2019 it was announced that salaries of teachers, doctors, nurses and medical staff were to be raised, with these professions becoming the highest paid civil service positions in the kingdom, in recognition of the long hours, job stress, and worth to the nation. This overhauls the current civil servant hierarchy that rewarded administrators with the highest pay and perquisites. This type of legislation is demonstrating to the world that Bhutan’s commitment to evaluation and improvement of living standards is an ongoing experiment. The areas of interest are not just the expected ones for governments such as education, health, and the environment – also included are community vitality, time-use, psychological wellbeing, and cultural resilience and promotion.

A discussion on development and how it is tied up with core values and motivations of a municipality invariably leads to questions of how economic globalism physically manifests itself. Putting the small nation of Bhutan aside, by contrast, a current example of development on a mega scale is the latest, and largest, developer-led urbanism in American history: $25 billion to date. Hudson Yards, located on the far western side of midtown Manhattan in New York is a mixed-use project, consisting of retail, residential, office and recreation – all built to international style standards. At a time when New York City is undergoing massive change in the form of gentrification and is suffering from the same digital retail apocalypse as the rest of the country, Hudson Yards arrived fully-formed and leased, complete with a Thomas Heatherwick art stair to nowhere described as ‘a triumph of vapidity, banal to its hollow core.’

Perhaps the public has had enough. Michael Kimmelman, the architectural critic of the New York Times called Hudson Yards ‘a supersized sub-urban-style office park’ and a ‘relic of dated 2000s thinking.’ He goes on to say: ‘it glorifies a kind of surface spectacle — as if the peak ambitions of city life were consuming luxury goods and enjoying a smooth, seductive, mindless materialism with each building existing chiefly to act like a logo for itself.’ Even Forbes magazine, whose founder Malcom Forbes enjoyed the use of his helicopter, unabashedly named Capitalist Tool, perched atop his yacht often seen anchored in the Hudson River, reports that the shared physical space that Hudson Yards development has created is ‘illusory and inauthentic’, and is ‘more concerned with matching the grandeur of Dubai or Singapore’ than its context in New York. But the critics don’t stop at the public space, or what such a project represents in an increasingly unequal world. One critique says the building and material choices of the global one per cent developer class are inherently wrong-headed. Oliver Wainwright of the Guardian writes: ‘Walking through Hudson Yards feels like browsing a cladding depot, where panels of curtain-wall glazing, brushed aluminium and bits of stone collide in a wonky collage’ and describes it as ‘bargain-basement buildings by the yard’ and a ‘blunt vehicle for making money.’ Returning to the concept that our forefathers were building for the ages, we may be ready to revisit how authentic architecture is made, and how it meets the street and engages with its users. Hudson Yards and its failure to impress just may be the bellwether that our love affair with GNP, and its narrow measure of consumerism, may finally be coming to an end.

The collective mainstream media criticism directed at Hudson Yards is not surprising given that most people know the difference between when they are being treated as consumers or being respected as citizens – and reporters and architectural critics are human after all. A commercial mega development in New York is not unprecedented, so it is not the size and scale of the project that is generally derided. The Rockefeller Center in midtown was the Hudson Yards of its time, but the difference between the two is stark, coming down to the design. Rockefeller Center features an orderly and rational public space design which is monumental but not imposing. The chaste and well-crafted quality of architect Raymond Hood’s limestone clad buildings work at all scales, unlike Hudson Yards which is already showing signs of deterioration. Modern architecture is meant to dazzle from afar, but often literally and figuratively falls apart when examined up close due to tectonic failings. The materiality of Rockefeller Center; the stone and sculptural ornament, all lend delight to the experience at the human level. The New Yorkers among the Hudson Yards critics are perhaps nostalgic for a city that is no more: Jane Jacob’s New York; and the New York poignantly described in Vanishing New York, a blog turned book which describes itself as ‘a bitterly nostalgic look at a city in the process of going extinct.’ What is being pined for are the small, fine-grained development projects, such as nineteenth-century developer-built Greenwich Village, unlikely to be built today given that it does not contain within it a system that encourages diverse ownership of capital. Hedge funds, insurance companies, global corporate funding – none are interested in the incremental and the well-made, but rather, are looking for short-term profits and too-big-to fail projects. By being large enough, local municipalities may even subsidise projects – as Hudson Yards was with $6 billion of taxpayer subsidies. Municipalities are looking to place large bets, not small, and this excludes the developer who might just be in it for the long term, not simply until the next shareholder meeting.

Increasingly, the future is associated with a settlement pattern defined as urban. By 2030, approximately five billion people are expected to live in urban areas, placing density of human settlement at the forefront of concern for those policymakers, scholars and professionals hoping to pave the way for a more humane and sustainable urban future. Data from the United Nations Population Fund shows over half of the world’s population currently lives in cities, which themselves have grown by 30 per cent in the last fifty years. In assuming that we are to design cities which can meet the goals expressed in the United Nations Brundland Report, including development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, it is imperative to bear in mind the values which sustain positive human development. Social wellbeing, environmental protection, and responsible fiscal generation – all should be under consideration when evaluating and managing the inevitable changes to cities as populations escalate, oceans rise and climate becomes more unpredictable.

GNP growth trajectories are tied to increased carbon emissions, currently ebbing and flowing with the economy. Decoupling growth from greenhouse gas is said to be possible, but it must be done through policy, as leaving the change to market solutions will not take us out of the climate change nosedive. And it is not just environmentalists and academics who are espousing fundamental change. The former director of the World Bank Christine Laguade said at the 2016 World Economic Forum in Davos, ‘We have to go back to GDP, the calculation of productivity, the value of things – in order to assess, and probably change, the way we look at the economy.’ Joseph Stiglizt, the noted Nobel Prize winner said in 2018, ‘What we measure informs what we do. And if we’re measuring the wrong thing, we’re going to do the wrong thing. If we focus only on material wellbeing … we become distorted in the same way that these measures are distorted; we become more materialistic.’ There is need for action that transcends the market and leaves room for addressing, not just economic growth, but environmental and social sustainability. Doing this presupposes a closer look at the values that are guiding society today. Our lives and the lives of future generations depend on it.


Anne Fairfax