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Beauty and the best

Jane Duncan

Aesthetics are more than an add-on to good architecture, they are a necessary part of a successful design

‘When I’m working on a problem, I never think about beauty. But when I’m finished, if the solution is not beautiful I know it’s wrong’ –  Buckminster Fuller

Beauty in architecture affects all the senses – smell, touch, taste and the emotions – as well as the eye of the beholder.  But I believe the importance of true beauty in a place or building is too often dismissed as ‘just aesthetics’ when it should be debated, fought for and demanded by those who seek true value from our work.

All architects strive to create beautiful and delightful buildings or places, but perhaps we could be more conscious about this.

Recent neurological studies suggest that while an individual object’s beauty may not be universal, the neural basis is. Could using neuro­aesthetics, the scientific study of the neural bases for the contemplation and creation of a work of art, influence project design by defining what would trigger an increased number of neurons to fire rapidly?

In classical design, proportion provides the conjunction between good and beautiful. A beautiful building is then understood to be a classical one; so proportion is fundamental to architecture’s claims on the beautiful. 

Corbusier said: ‘The architect, by his ­arrangements of forms, realises an order which is a pure creation of his spirit; he ­determines the various movements of our heart and of our understanding; it is then we experience the sense of beauty.’

The WHO defines health not as the absence of ill-health or access to medical treatment but as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being’

However, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi taught us that beauty or delight are inherent in symbolism and ornament – ‘less is a bore’ – and contemporary architects increasingly use ornament, with Stirling prize winners Caruso St John, AHMM and Haworth Tompkins all masters in understanding the impact of ornament on those who perceive and use their buildings. 

What a building looks like matters.  A building’s aesthetics affect our decisions, emotional responses and the way we feel about ourselves. Some places make us feel happy and uplifted; others decidedly less so.  We may not be able to create spaces that aesthetically please everyone, but certainly we can consciously manipulate spaces with beautiful ingredients to encourage more meaningful, satisfying and joyful experiences.

The World Health Organisation defines health not as the absence of ill-health or access to medical treatment but as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being’.  The built environment is a critical part of this and designing for healthy lives in homes, public spaces and in our communities is a way to limit the increasing pressure on health services.  

Conscious design of living, working and playing environments to improve health and well-being demands greater responsibility from architects, to create beauty wherever we can in our communities, and in places where social and personal interactions are important.

To ensure the wellbeing of users, clients, planners and policymakers should not dismiss the importance of aesthetics in the schemes they are assessing, and architects need to advocate strongly and clearly for the importance of beauty, in all of its forms.

Designed with passion and imagination, the built environment can improve our sense of well-being, enrich our lives, and make us healthier and happier.   

That is truly beautiful.

‘Architecture is really about well-being. I think that people want to feel good in a space. On the one hand it’s about shelter, but it’s also about pleasure’ – Zaha Hadid


Disciplinary Reprimand

On 14 September 2016 the RIBA Hearings Panel found that Mr Alan Budden was in breach of Principles 2.4 and 2.5 of the RIBA Code of Conduct in that he did not keep his clients informed of the progress of a project and of the key decisions made on the client’s behalf, and that he did not use his best endeavours to meet the client’s agreed time, cost and quality requirements for the project.

The Panel decided that the sanction for this be a public reprimand.