The UK is in a housing crisis. Wages are out of tandem with house prices. People are stuck in rent-reliance on the promise of one day buying their own mortgage. Were grocery prices like house prices, £450 would be the price of a week’s supermarket shop for a family of four. Some answers to this are obvious: build more affordable houses, raise the minimum wage, regulate private rent, and reinvest in council houses as a local-government revenue stream. About the latter: the sell-off of council houses in the 1980s perversely led to councils indirectly paying private landlords to house people through benefits; absence of council housing, therefore, is a cost rather than a saving. More contentious answers are that older people who have accrued disproportionate wealth (thanks to growing up at a rosy juncture) give up some of their wealth or space to young people; UK ‘levelling up’ policy incentivise living in cheaper areas; friends collaborate to pay communal mortgages at co-operative rates.
Here, though, I do not wish to put forward an economic argument. Instead, I wish to argue against the bottom line rationale that houses be assembled, irrespective of plot distancing, appearance, and location. To this, I often hear the rejoinder that ‘people need a roof over their heads!’, as though that somehow justifies design limitations and lack of buyer choice in UK housing. For one thing, those who genuinely need a roof over their heads, the homeless, are unlikely to have a partner to share (ergo sufficient income to repay a mortgage) even in the cheapest priced development complex. In that regard, this appeal to people needing roofs over their heads is a red-herring, a distraction device, away from pressing social issues that cannot be fixed through more brick, glazing, and mortar alone. For the homeless, simply giving them initial helping money (an ‘investment’ if you like) is the most economical way to get them ‘contributing to society’, meaning working and saving towards achieving as much as they wish. New builds are rashly built to assuage house demand, 240,000 houses per year, but these builds ignore more humanistic and democratic demands. Such new-builds are ugly, predictable, and couched in lifeless communities where neighbours seldom speak with each other; they comprise cookie-cutter homes without much heart, character, or community spirit.
The organic house market ruins houses. The highest bidder for land gets the land to sell houses for the highest price in the slowest span to maintain excess demand. New houses are built as cheaply as possible, too, without regard for aesthetics or for what citizens and buyers prefer (such as cheaper houses that look great). Opposition to new builds is deemed valid only if the build breaks a precedent, endangers health, or is badly managed. Aesthetic reasons never count, so opposition on these grounds is commonly deemed irrelevant nimbyism. The notion that citizens protest a new build because it is a new build near them however is quite circular. On the contrary, citizens reasonably expect houses to be built but want a say in the extent and in the kind to be built in their home village, town, or borough. Hence I contend that developers must gain approval from councillors, yes, but local neighbourhood citizens and prospective buyers as well; those who are to appreciate or lament properties’ design for many years to come. Some sceptics reject this contention for its assumption that citizens’ opinions about aesthetically pleasing building styles should matter on the same epistemic field as costs because ‘It’s just their opinion, beauty is in the eye of the beholder!’ (I’ve written a satire on this sentiment here.)
On the contrary, citizens’ aesthetic opinions should be encouraged since communities must have some share in what their own environments come to look like, or how new homes will mature within their communities. Developers should have a duty to consider citizens’ opinions. Builders and Developers should have a professional principle – an analogy to the Hippocratic Oath in medicine: to keep structural beauty and longevity projections in mind as well as practicalities of locale and scale. Of course, local planners and councillors will have to stipulate these stringent controls as a precondition for approval. Otherwise, given the profit-motive, no change will be made. But even by the logic of good business, building homes that consumers find appealing is both rational and ethical. The pinched demand for houses determines that ‘developers can build whatever and consumers buy-up’, much as people with only one supermarket within fifty miles must accept whatever is on offer; such a rigged arrangement serves not buyers but sellers at scale that merits citizens’ consternation.
Civic groups, without a financial stake but an aesthetic stake, even campaign against hideous builds in London; a movement I invite you to join. I offer 12 rules for building designs that I hope prompt others to lay ground rules – ahem – for land development near them. I explore a cities comparison, a buildings comparison, scenarios, the politics, and some counter-arguments below. All of this however is based on the empirical question I hope to be tested.
What would developments look like if citizens democratically approved them and had input about their appearance?
If they were asked, then approved designs in London would presumably resemble designs popular throughout the world. Florence for instance is aesthetically preferable to London for many. A sceptic would point out ‘Yet more people come to London!’ The tourist numbers say so. Those numbers, however intimidating, are misleading. So many plane boarders visit Dubai and Beijing, for examples, not because they choose from behind the veil of ignorance—a hypothetical zone where decisions are perfectly open, fair, and with complete information—or in the tourist supermarket-earth, but because a.) Dubai is a massive hyperconnected airport that many air-travellers must pass through b.) The most common nationality is Chinese. Factors of scale, numbers, and aeroplane conveyance can interfere with extrapolating from visitor statistics. For one thing, the rate of Florence visitors, accounting for its size and job opportunity difference, is greater than London. 11.4M international tourists holidayed in London, a capital city with 8.9M citizens, whereas 5.4M visited Florence, a city with 350K citizens. Among UK cities, smaller prettier ones get disproportionate visits whilst London gets a ridiculous number as a world-famous metropolis.
These tourist statistics however are not tourist statistics per se; they are travel statistics. Tourists and travellers are different. Travellers are on the way somewhere for work or home; tourists are where they want to be, venture and explore.
A hazard of investigating democratic aesthetics, in research questions especially, is the conflation between popularity and value, salience and efficacy, the familiar and the available. Visitor numbers can become confused with visitors’ choices, the frequented cities with the aesthetically popular, and the familiar occupy precedence over the foreign. Rather than considering ‘the favourite cities’ or ‘best designs’ self-evidently, specific good sampling is demanded. Whereby ‘good’ and ‘bad’ designs are graded into pragmatic better or worse options from asking people to vote between alternative designs that best fit-in to a location. Such sampling should include tourists who travel to destinations not for business but for pleasure.
The reason why it should include them is to incorporate other variables interfering with aesthetic pleasure—as much as plausible in our chaotic emergent system of air travel. Some critics say air travel system preferences are too complex for fruitful analysis, but that is a get-out-of-jail-free card for directionless policy and for urban developers with closed minds and purses. The argument that international cities are so confusing erroneously follows to an argument that ignoring aesthetic desires is virtuous. The reason to proudly be ignorant is that you need not know; intangible social forces take care of themselves. (A side note: contrary to the happy-go-lucky dogma, Adam Smith actually used the invisible hand once as an example of good protectionist economics where English capitalists favour England and the local public good rather than a global, neoliberal, market. The first use of ‘the invisible hand’ was an astronomy lecture and the third in Moral Sentiments.)
Interfering factors include job interest, romance, governance, family obligation, danger, travellers’ financial limitations, climate, nations’ financial strife, and the inevitable unknowns we shelve under ‘random’. A refugee travelling from Syria, for instance, cares more about Berlin security than Berlin design choices. A revealing rejoinder against aesthetics, it is, that ‘caring about aesthetics is a classist/elitist/first-world problem’. Yet this example can be turned around as a fortunate first-world problem to solve. Because most citizens’ baseline-lives afford aesthetic—rather than impoverished, developmental—problems. Consider when a Berliner marries a Venetian, a Londoner, or a Praguian. The evaluation of where to live in compromise takes necessities for granted; comparing so-called luxury aesthetics and luxury opportunities, therefore, comes to matter a surprisingly great deal. Especially since development converges on providing necessities to all around the world; first-world problems are future world problems (if climate collapse allows). Extruding from immigration, international tourist stats, and downright visitor reviews reveals some relevant facts here: Venice is elected prettiest, Prague prettier, Berlin charming-yet-dull, and London ugly-yet-exciting.
The trade-offs between obligations, wants, and job offers make it probable our hypothetical couple would live in a family-tied city with job-tying opportunities. Thus London > Berlin, Berlin > Prague, Prague > Venice, on an opportunity scale. Yet, on an aesthetic scale, the logic inverts: Venice > Prague, Prague > Berlin, Berlin > London.
Tourists go from their convenient cities to prettier inconvenient cities (and for a reason). Under a neutral gaze, however, were our couple to move somewhere new in Europe regardless of family or friends, Prague best succeeds in its design scale (aesthetics) and job opportunity (ethics). The claim, therefore, that ‘liveable’ cities are the modern ones which are never valued for their beauty does not correspond to any strict causal sacrifice. (For example, one charm of Venice is its quiet waters, which enjoy no car noises.) That economically efficient or convenient cities (Toronto, or say, Melbourne) must be uglier for economics mistakes association for causation. Zurich, Vienna, Munich, and Helsinki boast few towers and comparable, some better, life enjoyments with plentiful economic incentives.
Aesthetic appeal is also an obvious income source via tourists and a subtler income source via cheerier workers. And I mean ‘cheerier’ seriously rather than flippantly: elegant symmetrical greenery strewn surroundings elevate subjective wellbeing, whilst mess encourages cortisol, a stress hormone, to become chronic and excessive – and work achievements, entrepreneurial innovation included, grow out of happiness in a flourishment feedback loop. Urban planning for the sake of citizens is, therefore, serious business. Wealth is useless unless invested in wellbeing, flourishment, fulfilment. Those terms may seem vague. Because they are vague. Misery though is tangible, and, non-negotiable. As Daniel Kahnmenan and modern medicine agree, redressing suffering and disorder is easier and more urgent. An axiom of medicine is that while health is vague, illness is clear. An axiom of economics is that development is complex, yet developing nations deserve the prosperity of Denmark or France. Making urban spaces less bad, ‘better’, is similarly more reasonable than making them ‘good’ which is too fuzzy and too debated.
Beauty Is Between The Beholders and The Beholden
To offer a Syrian example, Aleppo is a terrible place to live for ethical and didactic reasons. No one in their right mind and with ample opportunity would choose to live their above nicer alternatives; many wish it were different. The same is true of broken inner Detroit. And if you grant that fact, it follows that there exist worse urban environments which necessitate their logical opposite: better ones. Such as Berlin, maybe. As Bertrand Russell said, some critics claim no truth exists yet they are quick to claim falsehood which rests on the other side of its logical coin. The same applies in aesthetics, however. The ethics and didactic principles of urban space are shared and indicated by its aesthetics. Libertarian ideology murmurs ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder but never murmurs ‘ugliness is in the eye of the beholder’. Because ugliness, such as a ruined city, is far more agreed on. If you disagree you do not merely have different tastes—you have an aberrant taste. For a more banal example, disgusting faeces just is disgusting and if you disagree that is an aberrant taste that goes against what the democratic majority value and believe should be put on show in public.
But that is an extreme example, you may say. A reduction to absurdity, perhaps. You might even whip out the Latin dictionary, or browse Reddit for fallacies. Nonetheless, the extreme example shows how silly libertarian ideology-defined taste is; if it is wrong in one case it must be granted it can be wrong in others. The distaste for human waste, to rehash the example, is an evolved adaptation with ethical significance. Biology decides for us here. With didactic and aesthetic implications, too, as babies are taught to manage and contain their waste and deem it unworthy of exhibition. Even in far-out postmodern art, shit is never used without a pattern and context and much of the time disgust is on the agenda. Building aesthetics more obviously can be said to be no problem of aesthetics but of ethics and of didactics as well.
Just as in a university, knowledge never stops at departmental walls, the borders between those words—didactic, ethical, aesthetic—are intangible and markedly conventional. In short, what is good for taste is most often what is good for teaching and behaviour as well. They liberally reinforce each other.
Ruined Aleppo is ugly, tragic, and edifying. A lesson in how humans should never live and political economy never work. Contemporary inequality plus free market shares-in-tragedy mean the city will never rise from ashes to embody a better and prettier world. The older architecture advertised Islamic Renaissance values; its indiscriminate destruction is telling, for advertising a rejection of them; its lackadaisical replacement a telling indictment against Syrian misgovernance forsaking heritage, citizens, and values alike.
Architecture signals where a civilisation works or fails. Mexico City and frontier China are floundering. Favela slums in Mexico City and empty cities in China espouse two varieties of real dystopia, first where planning malfunctions and second where planning functions too well for utilitarian, minus humanitarian, ends. The open prison for Chinese ethnic minorities included. (China, though, does serve as an example of previously impossible urban redevelopment being achieved in mere years.) Architecture works like a litmus test between excess acidity and alkalinity, between the too freely emergent mess and the too tyrannously planned order.
Prosperous civilisations range in the zone between liberty and rules and it tells in their architecture. Rome, Florence, Paris, Tenochtitlan, Kyoto, Fenghuang, have their prettier architecture in keeping with their aristocratic period. Mexico City replaced Tenochtitlan; the city was better off and prettier off before colonialist trade. Japanese themselves visit Nara and Kyoto for their beauty and inhabit Tokyo and Nagasaki for its jobs. For Chinese Fenghuang is prettier, and more Chinese, than its globalist megacities. The better sides of Rome, Paris and Florence are the older ones, where the new-town cashes-in tourists who sleep-and-leave the new town to visit the old.
After the Great Fire of London, the city had to be replanned, and the best English architect created a plan to make a classical London:
Admired by Issac Newton and Blaise Pascal, Christopher Wren was permitted to build Saint Paul’s Cathedral and 45 other London-worthy buildings. His grand plans, though favoured by The King, Charles II, were rejected by Parliament for their expense. (Some things seldom change…) Across the channel and 187 years, France’s Napoleon III approved Eugene Haussmann to remake Paris and, humble size factored-in, it is now the most sought after city for international visitors. Napoleon III and Hausmann made an executive decision that discounted commerce and worked and still works, well enough.
To this day top-down regulation preserves the Paris cityscape where the London cityscape is left in the richest hands. The Parisian towers are exceptions instead of norms. The admired historical cities (remember the above?) became charming because the economy was aristocratic and mercantile. Today a dictatorship of the developers makes London mercantile without policymakers mindful of aesthetics for The Public Good.
Aesthetically, London is more aristocratic than Renaissance Florence; aristocrats and merchants served citizens back then, whereas corporate landlords buy to make a personal profit. Many debates in Florence circled around how, for example, to place Michelangelo and his three Davids for the glory of Florence. The public good, the city, was an ethical end by itself and buildings were a means to please and preserve rather than a means to sheer growth alone. Immanuel Kant and Human Rights doctrine say morality principally means to treat people as ends-in-themselves rather than means to other ends. Yet Londoners are treated as a means to more and more growth. Oddly the addition of more people seems to have the inverse of rational, Kantian, expectations and diminishes the ethical outrage. If it were that bad why would so many people never complain? Because they are busy working and earning rent of course, and moreover, have never been told they can care, nor that they have rights over the stage space they live out their lives within. Feasible it is that it is not false consciousness, but absent consciousness that their opinions can matter about their environments. A democratic Londoner has less representation and rights in the shape of London today than a Florentine did in aristocratic Florence. Because at least aesthetics for Florentines was a value whereas in London aesthetics seldom make it to the negotiating table.
The fact that English and Germanic-speaking cities, Melbourne, Toronto, Vienna, recur in liveable lists deserves research. A cynical interpretation says that since Anglo-American publications and media are dominant they are biased to favour more similar cultures minus American problems. The joke goes like this, ‘America but nice, visit Canada.’ Audience and publishers and data miners, too, are biased. More interestingly, the dominant ideas affect the selection. Perhaps no African, Latin American or Central-to-South Asian city makes the list for this reason. The Economist, for example, will never evaluate Nepalese or Indian farming communities and favella-cities as an ideal. It wouldn’t even occur to them, because The Economist presupposes they never count. Aesthetic ideals also are contaminated with Anglicised people preferring Anglicised arrangements. Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore are notably the most occidental of oriental countries and gain the lionshare of Western praise. As a Briton, I’m biased too. And biased against new London in many ways and towards foreign alternatives – it is not national perspective alone. Besides, everyone is biased. The contingency of our judgements does not render judgements void. The important choices mean bias comes in; I am biased against climate change denying unsustainable builds, for another example, too. And favourable cities live beyond the Anglo ‘livability’ map, like mentioned Florence and Paris. Pre-colonial Mexican, Japanese, and Chinese cities hold their own charms and assets against monochrome monotony or randomised colour splashes that pass for The Modern City.
Every Society Has Temples
Temples and pyramids are conspicuous throughout any civilisation. Today, though, what counts as a temple has changed. Corporate towers outflank and outranks cathedrals, mosques, and pyramids. Professor Joseph Campbell, who studied mythology and inspired Star Wars declared that “If you want to see what a society really believes in, look what the buildings on the horizon are dedicated to.” You may find it jars your ears to hear towers be called ‘temples’, but they are temples. GlaxoSmithKline, Adidas, and HSBC exist in our imagination and their symbols remind us to serve them and normalise their existence into ‘nature’. This nature and their towers, however, were invented in the 1880s. The objective – that is physical, inarguable – the existence of those towers and their companies’ names is no more proof for their businesses’ objectivity than pyramids prove the sun god is a reality or churches prove Abrahamic stories a fact. They subsist in minds; never exist in nature. That they are never seen as temples is just more evidence of the power of their religion and its advocates. Ancient Egyptians and Roman Christians never believed they were serving invisible entities without good reason either.
Humans confuse importance with size so it is dispiriting that towers never advertise humanist values but these neoliberal assumptions. As Foucault avers, unquestionable assumptions are the most powerful. Power is the capacity to change many humans’ scripts and stages. And normalising power, authoritative power, is stronger than violence. First-order, oppressive power is obvious: you are manipulated. Second-order power is invisible: you are earning status or money. The second kind of power is strongest. A boss who has to threaten, negotiate, and coerce is a boss with tentative power. Only the weak have to use force.
The Palladian Oath
Who has more applause than doctors? In Europe, salaries and patients love doctors. Doctors are useful, heroic, moral, intelligent, sociable, wise, and compassionate. An inverse of the halo effect (whereby the attractive seem more virtuous) means doctors are also more desirable. Doctors are no gods but most are heroes because, along with evocative esoteric knowledge, they care for The Public Good. They take the Hippocratic Oath:
I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.
I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.
I will remember that there is an art to medicine as well as a science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.
I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient’s recovery.
I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.
I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.
I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.
I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.
If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long-experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.
If only such First Principles were acknowledged everywhere! In the USA, for instance, trust in doctors dwindles under private sector health. Cardiologist, and AI guru, Eric Topol says so. Good American doctors still do what they can to fulfill their oath; philosophers and architects lack one even to fulfill. That is, albeit partially, why suspicion and disdain for them are rife. Philosophers should tailor a Socratic Oath, architects abide by a Pallidoian Oath. Overtreatment, therapeutic nihilism, and a disrespect for previous discoveries pervades in urban planning, design, and architecture. You would never get a surgeon doing showier surgery for the novelty, but you do get architects and corporations doing just that with the environment, making a showy armadillo design before an elegant building. Andrea Palladio is to architecture what Socrates is to philosophy and Hippocrates is to medicine. And Palladio valued conformity, uncreativity, and elegant buildings for all regardless of function and status. Any building deserves, for Palladio, classical grace. Today architects want to show off and create brand-new and fun and striking designs; postmodernist architecture demands eternally pushing boundaries within a budget. This creates narcissistic towers locals never consent to which are deliberately ugly for the shortsighted sake of attention and novelty.
Creativity is different from goodness and charm – creatively making a monster is no good thing. Frankenstein and Heisenberg were creative but few wanted them to create what they wanted to: a superhuman chimeria, and a Nazi owned atom bomb. There are aesthetic reasons pilgrims come to Pallidoian architecture and never to the £200,000 Walkie Talkie by Rafael Viñoly, except, as Londoners say, for the view its Sky Garden offers to look elsewhere: ‘the best view is looking out from it.’ For sure, The Walkie-Talkie is a building with charms such as its high-security ‘sky garden’, which was a concession to political pressure, but its appearance suggests it was incorrectly built compared to straight-line equivalents. Indeed, its concave features had to be semi-corrected as its refracted light melted cars below it. At first blush, it looks like an accident.
Andrea Palladio in his Four Books on Architecture laid out rules for architecture. Rather than desiring to be special or avoid influence, he embraced his betters. Rather than stand on the shoulders of classical scientists, like Newton did, he stood on the foundations of classical architects. Architects today should do the same. London already boasts classical buildings which follow the classical example Pallidio cherished: calm, harmonious, and dignified. Hence London retains the elegant legacy of its first commercial building in The Royal Exchange, the British Museum, and the main library at University College.
Nevertheless, the principles never fall into absolute sameness, Palladio above offers an angular edge to an arched roof which gives an Italianate spin to Grecian ideals. Local colour is important; when intelligently applied. Consider the bilateral symmetry 10 Downing Street enjoys in Georgian style. Chelsea, Kensington, Mayfair, Bloomsbury boast the same time-tested example. People (and even politicians) will pay a hefty sum to live in them. Yet few build them, neither in their style nor in their material, nowadays. If you doubt the necessity of a Palladian Oath, consider the stark comparison of the two political buildings below.
How could there not be a Palladian Oath?
11 Rules For Better Cities
- Follow good imitations and classical elegant procedures proven to work, be admired, and that would be voted for.
- Bilateral symmetry.
- The golden ratio.
- Where possible: three or five or seven openings to each side.
- Where possible: the length is three fifths of the width and the height is three fifths of the width.
- Conform and cohere to its neighbours.
- Imposing buildings be dedicated to The Public: consider the British Museum, Saint Pauls, and Colleges.
- Use local materials and forms to draw on the unique place rather than universalise cities to monotonous highrises
- Design denser cities, buildings close to each other, rather than urban sprawl.
- For housing shortage: build a range of democratic buildings between 1-10 storeys which share the same template as their neighbours but may consistently vary in their arrangement.
- Follow spatial-rights rather than land-rights: Londoners have a dominant share in the skyline beyond ten storeys.
- Build for walkers and inconspicuous public transport rather than cars.
- Build greenery, trees, into streets rather than consolatory parks alone.
- Build districts with multiple-purposes rather than for business or for residential. Mixed districts are profitable data processing, minimise commutes, and make more dynamic and lively thoroughfares and settlements.
- City offices must consider elegant sustainability an economic and social imperative.
- Planning offices must refuse vested financial interests; the duty is to disapprove as much as to approve. Building anything isn’t self-evidently good even when profitable-for-now. Building is more meddlesome than preventing building in Londoners’ neighbourhoods. Contemporary standards in Edinburgh New Town and Java Island Amsterdam are held as prime examples of what to allow.
- Public squares under 30 meters in diameter which offer containment and social confluence points perfectly average between claustrophobia and riotous intimidation.
This blog post has been a ramble. Nonetheless the inability to squeeze these ideas into a neat narrative need not discount them. Plenty of ideas in philosophy, art, and science have not met majority expectations or manifested in a strange form. Instead of rejection, these ideas incipiently invite people to consider and test them. If you think the design claims or rules are silly; come up with your own and put them forward. The housing crisis we have been in for decades needs time-honoured answers like rent regulation, council houses, new builds, and the like, but so do the designs and urban environments that have passed time-honoured aesthetic traditions. Rather than black boxed processes belonging to developers and built precedents, development rules should open to citizens’, and prospective buyers, having a contribution in locally built aesthetics. This amounts to a brash question in search of a serious answer.
What would developments look like if citizens democratically approved them and had fair input about their appearance? We may never agree on designs entirely, but no democratic process is about all agreeing, but a majority agreeing well-enough for the greatest good. I am ignorant about how to go about it, and testing this question; I am open to suggestions.