Building beautiful matters for our collective health

In Building Beautiful, a superb collection of essays published last week by the think tank Policy Exchange, the architect Marwa Al-Sabouni reflects that “if people are made to exist on the margins of society in ugly environments, and if they are deprived access to beautiful ones whether by cost or government choice, they are likely to live with resentment”.

As Churchill put it, we shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us. Attractive design is not trivial; more and more studies show the places we live in can have profound effects on our wellbeing. Beauty can slow heart rates, reduce cortisol levels, raise our eyes above the mundane, inspire us to hope and dream. It matters.

Clare Foges’ article in The Times of London today eloquently pointes out that “ugly developments demolish Britain’s spirits” and “better design could improve the nation’s physical and mental health. Read the full article here. 

Although defining the aesthetic that is healthy for a community can be fraught with varying opinions, there is a truth that holds steady as Ms. Foges points out, “Polls show remarkable levels of agreement on what most people find desirable: green spaces, tree-lined streets, walkability, garden squares, architecture on a human scale. This is not to suggest that all development must scorn modernism (which can also look attractive), or that we should cover the nation with neo-Georgian pastiche, but surely planning must take into account what most of us tend to like?”

She continues, “In the late 1940s the Attlee government created the first national parks, protecting the spaces that are loved by millions. We need a similar level of ambition today, to build places we can be proud of, where people can live happier lives. Like our ancestors we must aim not for adequacy but for harmony, elegance and style — for as the 19th-century environmentalist John Muir suggested, “everybody needs beauty as well as bread”.



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