Aesthetics, Beauty and Social Justice in the Urban Environment
“A participatory aesthetic can be a powerful force in transforming
the world we inhabit into a place for human dwelling”
Is the Georgian terraced house more beautiful than the Modernist estate? Do landmark buildings stick out like a sore thumb or do they signify beautiful innovative design. These debates often make for fun, light-hearted discussions - reserving beauty as a matter of taste - but when enshrined within policy, the subjectivity of beauty becomes a matter of politics.
The debate on beauty is not new, architects and planners alike have discussed the topic since the impetus of the planning profession in movements such as the Garden City in the UK and City Beauty in the US. However, the debate resurfaced with an agenda for beauty being introduced within the National Planning Policy Framework in 2021. Here, beauty was outlined as a social objective alongside the Planning for the Future White Paper which aimed to provide a ‘fast-track’ to beauty through the implementation of local design codes. Whilst the subsequent White Paper shifted it’s direction to ‘levelling up’ - the call for beauty within planning policy remains evident, and the conversation of urban aesthetics and their subjectivity remains important.
Given our work as architects, it is of no surprise that we are drawn to the debate. Hannah’s paper ‘If beauty is the answer, what is the question?’, which this piece draws from, is exemplar of architects’ and urban practitioners’ fascination with the topic. Who gets to decide what the spaces we all live in look like and how do design based policies impact agency in the built environment? As mentioned, such questions of aesthetic control date back to the origins of the planning profession. The original 1909 planning act called to “to secure the home health, the house beautiful, the town pleasant, the city dignified and the suburb salubrious”. However, by placing policy over something as arguably subjective as aesthetics, questions of control, agency and power are raised. Public policy holds responsibility for public welfare and as such it requires a considered understanding of public needs in order to avoid perpetuating politically influenced ideals. Put aptly by Robert Jones:
“The concept of public welfare, […] the constitutional basis for aesthetic control of the built environment, becomes transformed into the welfare of a special interest group able to develop hegemonic control over design review processes and the visual appearance of the built environment.”(Jones, 2001:35).
The solution to restrictive policy from a hegemonic viewpoint has often been to widen the pool of opinions. In architecture and planning in the UK, this is increasingly carried out through design review panels and public participation during the planning process. Patsy Healey is well known for her works and research on participatory planning where she acknowledges the diverse nature of the public and the issues which this raises for both distribution and plan-making decisions. Her solutions draw on communicative consensus-building practices, arguing that the participants "learn about each other, about different points of view and come to reflect their own point of view" (Healey, 1997:33).
Despite praise for her work and a growing number of consequent theories surrounding communicative planning, many avoid the contention of aesthetics or beauty specifically.
The aversion to aesthetics within consensus-building communicative practice, can be seen to stem from its subjectivity - It feels wrong to argue that one believes their opinion on aesthetics or beauty to be superior to someone else's. As such, aesthetics are often reduced to a matter of individual taste making the conversation evermore nuanced and difficult to untangle. Looking to philosophy, Kant argues that aesthetic judgements are considered disinterested and, therefore, cannot be proven by argument or reason if attached to purpose or function. Following this line of thought - aesthetic decisions become obsolete in the built environment if there is no need to provide reason and no room for disagreement.
However, it is clear that the aesthetics of buildings and spaces do matter despite serving a function - they evoke emotions of experience and impact the way we interact with them. Whilst this is difficult to articulate or prove, I have found turning to the definition of aesthetics and its etymology useful. Aesthesis translates from Greek as perception and Alexander Braumgarten, who introduced the concept of aesthetics in 1750, defined it as the study of sensory experience. Therefore, aesthetics can be used to define the experience of beauty through perception of the built environment. With such an understanding of aesthetics as experience of perception, one can appreciate its significance in forming the built environment and the role which it plays in social justice through equity of experience.
So how do we deal with aesthetic subjectivity in the built environment?
Is the goal to achieve a consensus on what is aesthetically beautiful or is it to create a diverse plethora of aesthetics to appeal to all? By attempting to satisfy all aesthetics judgements are we left with diluted minimal design and carbon copy architecture?
In architecture, there is a clearer understanding of whose perception of beauty we should be addressing. The building must first appeal to the client or community it serves, then, the needs of those who will interact with the building or space are addressed. Issues arise within this process where designers and architects have the potential to over intellectualise beauty or serve their own tastes rather than their clients or the community involved.
Planners on the other hand are not the designers and instead are there to ensure that the built environment serves the wider public beyond the individual client. This results in controls which consequently impact the design and aesthetics of a building. Whilst there is no easy solution to attempting to satisfy the aesthetic needs of the majority, it’s difficult to see how the answer lies in imposing a set of planning rules and regulations which aim to define what makes a place beautiful. Participatory planning theories and practice demonstrate the benefits of agonism and the importance of creating understanding through contention, and therefore these lessons should be applied to the aesthetic debate. This would shift participation from a mode of achieving consensus through design codes and policy, to a space for creating understanding through shared knowledge and experience. Communication and collaboration within planning processes can then become an education of aesthetics between participants which can help promote social justice and increased equity of experience within the built environment.
Turning back to philosophy, theories of justice and democracy demonstrate the importance of space for communication. Hannah Arendt’s theories illustrate this through the concept of ‘space of appearance’ which acts as a metaphorical domain in which people congregate in speech and action to exhibit concerns for a common object, and engage in collective agency. It is this capacity, to act in unison for a public-political purpose, which Arendt identifies as power, and which has the ability to override and nullify hegemonic control through democracy.
Importantly, Arendt argues that this space must be perpetuated through constant action - it exists through the coming together of actors within the context of deliberating public concern; once this ceases, the space of appearance no longer exists. This confirms the notion that the conversation of aesthetics and beauty should not be enshrined into policy or design codes as it would erase space for democracy. As such, planning policy which attempts to achieve beauty in the built environment is inherently unjust - Beauty and aesthetics are not final outcomes or set visual identities - They are an understanding of harmony and experience within our surroundings. They are not something which can be planned or ever achieved, they are evolving and ever changing. Aesthetics belong in the public sphere where the conversation surrounding them can transform and adapt perpetually.
Berleant, A. (2005) Aesthetics and Environment: Variations on a Theme, Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company
Healey P., (1997) Collaborative Planning: Shaping Places in Fragmented Societies, Macmillan press, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, and London
Jones, R. (2001), Design Communication and aesthetic control: architects planners and design review, Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, 18(1), 23-38
Mouffe, C. (2013) Agonistics : thinking the world politically, London ; New York : Verso, 2013