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What is ‘beautiful’, ‘attractive’ or ‘popular’, anyway?

A focus on design administered through design codes and the NPPF must not become narrowly prescriptive, argues Félicie Krikler

Reforming a ‘culture of mediocrity’ is at the heart of the government’s reactionary plans for the National Model Design Code. New development ought to be beautiful, green, and considered in both character and style. It’s a popular aspiration, appealing to a public united against modern ‘brick boxes’. The only problem is a critical one; who defines what’s ‘beautiful’, ‘attractive’, or ‘popular’, anyway?

The government speaks volumes about how local design codes should reflect the rich diversity of our architectural preferences, yet its idea of ‘beauty’ is coloured by a distinctly Victorian typecast. In its vision for verticality, expressed through tall windows and porches, traditional materials, and terraces, the government ought to be wary of their stylistic appropriateness in distinctly local settings. Modern architecture which embraces and adapts tradition, but is not altogether led by it, shouldn’t be ignored in favour of merely replicating past precedent.

We must ask ourselves what we want out of new housing. Greater emphasis on decoration and detailing over simple, but high-quality, materials does not necessarily precipitate the conservation areas of tomorrow. Many standard bearers of ‘beauty’ today, like the Peabody housing estates of the late-19th century, used standardised designs to great success. Repetition is not incompatible with this agenda, but low quality is.

"The evolution of our built environment is a deeper story of trial and error"

Giving legitimacy to this more fixed definition by leaning on what’s ‘provably popular’ reduces scope for flexibility in design. Rather than driving standards of quality, new policy risks building-by-prescription, diminishing the appetite of more adventurous architects to introduce local-led concepts for want of planning consent. Was this rigidity what the ‘fast track for beauty’ had envisaged?

We didn’t build places now considered pinnacle ‘beauty’ through continuity and acceptance alone. The evolution of our built environment is a deeper story of trial and error, competing visions and tastes.

What’s ‘attractive’ ought then to be tested in the crucible of public opinion, rather than stringently defined by it. That means providing more avenues for community involvement in the design process, and a requirement to show how design adopts features of its local environment. Policy that makes this easier would serve the objective of making beauty central to the planning system.

Félicie Krikler is a director at Assael Architecture

Image credit | iStock



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