Our cities and townscapes have to reflect the messy unpredictability of those who live in them. Attempts to impose order by micro-managing every masterplan will end in lifeless homogeneity – which is the enemy of beauty
I have just finished reading Alain de Botton’s much-lauded The Architecture of Happiness and I am ever so slightly embarrassed to say, it was one of the best books I have read. It tangled me up and twisted me inside and out with its rich and insightful words.
The book explores how the built environment can make us happy – and seeks to define what is beautiful along the way. The trouble seems to be, however, that once you have found something beautiful, which should make you happy, it makes you sad.
De Botton writes: “The flawless object throws into perspective the mediocrity that surrounds it. We are reminded of the way we would wish things always to be and of how incomplete our lives remain.”
It’s quite rare to come across a flawless object so the incompleteness of your life may not be made apparent to you today, but I thought this weird paragraph was one of the most important in the book. Not only because of the apparent risks involved in coming face to face with something beautiful, but because beauty can only ever be defined by the mediocrity that surrounds it. If beauty is surrounded by beauty, how would we find it?
On a recent train journey to Lincoln, the view of pastures and railway sidings suddenly gave way to a sort of modernist utopia: a new university campus, comprised of a plethora of architectural clichés. One building looked like Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, just extended a bit down one side, with a lecture theatre shoved at the end (I have since found out with painful irony that this building is the architecture school).
Another building was an intolerably trendy little thing, with black cladding and a red box sticking out of the front. Maybe it was a music/theatre venue – it had that look about it. There was a converted railway building with a beautiful original brick wall suffering the embarrassing indignity of having a white glass box stuck on to its face.
There was no room for the mediocre here. But with all these buildings screaming, “I’m beautiful, I’m contemporary”, the ensemble became impossibly confusing. The result was an architectural zoo of clashing modernist styles, making it impossible to appreciate any of them on their own merit.
When we scream, “Look at me”, we run the risk of forgetting about what surrounds us and leaving behind what is important in creating a place of character, whether public consultations are carried out or not.
When we scream, ‘Look at me’, we run the risk of forgetting about what is important in creating a place of character
The vision for the rebirth of the Elephant & Castle will be a fascinating case study. How successful will it be at injecting new architecture into an existing infrastructure, and what kind of change to the temperament of the area will we see? I care deeply about this regeneration, not only because I live nearby, but because it’s incredibly important for everyone that we get it right this time.
If Southwark’s brave and exciting masterplan is not carefully curated, the process could break down into a collection of piecemeal prestige buildings that remain narcissistically self-referential, severed from context, emotional but vacuous.
I would not subscribe to the theory, however, that all masterplans should be punctiliously micro-managed. As we have seen in Lincoln’s case, an intense obsession for singularly contemporary principles can render the entire assembly lacking in any real sense of place. If Wren’s meticulous masterplan for London had ever been implemented, I wonder whether the beautifully tangled London we know and love today would have been as successful.
Well-meaning professionals have been trying to perfect the art of the masterplan for a long time, and many have laid down rules in order to ensure that they succeed. The New Towns Act of 1946, for example, set into law a government directive that could designate areas suitable for “new towns”, several of which were implemented immediately.
Milton Keynes, our most infamous new town, is 40 years old this year and elements of its framework are wonderfully successful. However, it is precisely because the masterplan is so methodical that you end up aching for something unplanned, something unusual and surprising. It is the homogeneity that modernism advocates that undoes its benevolent intent.
Perhaps the real truth is that environments such as cities and townscapes cannot actually be designed. By their nature they are transient, evolving through unforeseeable ebbs and flows of culture and commerce.
It is the fascinating undercurrent of the population, their illicit and unpredictable activities, that are the true attractors shared by all the successful cities of the world. And you can’t masterplan for that.
Tarek Merlin is an architect at SMC Alsop