In an odd but quietly very important way, works of architecture ‘speak’ to us. Some buildings, streets and even whole cities seem to speak of chaos, aggression or military pride; others seem to be whispering to us of calm or graceful dignity, generosity or gentleness.
However, a dominant strand of modern opinion doesn’t think it matters very much what our buildings speak to us about. It is deemed pretentious or over-sensitive to suppose that something as external as a building could really have much of an effect on our inner mood. We’d rather see ourselves as able to generate our psychological states independently of the colour, shape and texture of the walls.
And yet a more modest, permeable idea of who we are would accept with good grace that we remain in truth, very vulnerable to the voices of the largest, most public objects in our environment. Our inner states are heavily open to influence and we may be as harmed by architectural ugliness as we are by moral evil. Our spirits can be decisively sunk by a grid of city streets designed without any talent or care.
In modern commercial society, buildings are seen largely in terms of finance, cost and return on capital. Politicians impose some restraints on developers. There are frequently a few rules about height and environmental performance. But the full range of the kinds of damage that ugly buildings create for us has not been recognised or granted political expression. There’s nothing unusual in this. Many forms of public harm can be real yet ignored; it took many decades for industrial pollution of rivers to be interpreted as any real threat to the public good.
If we better understood the impact that ugly architecture has on our lives, its power to sap our spirits and give assistance to our worst selves, we’d surely legislate against it. But as yet, no politician who announced an intention to make the built environment more beautiful would prosper — or even be deemed sane.
In the utopia, architecture would more fairly be interpreted as a branch of mental health, with a crucial role to play in public contentment. And bad design would — at last — be interpreted as the crime it is to the health of the collective spirit.
If you enjoyed this article, many of its ideas are explored further in the new book What Adults Don’t Know About Architecture (for children) and What is Culture For?. Sign up to The School of Life newsletter to receive articles, updates and special offers directly to your inbox.
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Founded by the philosopher Alain de Botton, The School of Life is a global organization helping people to find perspective and resilience in the face of life’s challenges. We share ideas through a range of channels, including books, eBooks, films, virtual classes and tools for emotional well-being.