Home    Site Search   Contact Us     Subscribe



Lesson Plan #3: Beauty and Sustainability in Architectural Education

We were greatly heartened to see architecture students call for a curriculum change to address the social, political, and ecological challenges of our time, and we want to say something about how their proposals intersect with the work of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission.

By Nicholas Boys Smith and Roger Scruton
August 22, 2019

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series on the future of architectural education created and curated by Dr. Nikos A. Salingaros, Ph.D., Professor of Mathematics, winner of the 2019 Stockholm Culture Award for Architecture, and co-winner of the 2018 Clem Labine Traditional Building Award. See Lesson Plans #1 & #2 at the end of the feature.



Building Better, Building Beautiful

More than 1,500 architecture students recently signed An Open Letter to the Architectural Community: A Call for Curriculum Change. In the letter, they highlight the role that architecture can play in addressing the social, political, and ecological challenges of our time. They call for architectural education to be reshaped so that the next generation of architects are equipped with the knowledge and skills that they need to help in addressing these challenges.


We are currently jointly chairing the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, a U.K. government initiative whose task is to provide ideas on how the design of new developments can help to grow a sense of community and place. One of the things that interests the Commission is the education of planners, architects, and others involved in the design process. We were therefore greatly heartened to see architecture students taking such a serious and public-spirited interest in this question, and we want to say something about how their proposals intersect with the work of the Commission.


A question sometimes put to the Commission is whether beauty is a distraction from the things that really matter. Surely, it might be suggested, what is really important is addressing social and environmental problems. Beauty is a luxury and a sideshow, and we should not allow concern for it to distract us.


Our fundamental response to this is that addressing social and environmental problems and building beautifully are normally deeply complementary. Building beautifully is not primarily a matter of adding decorative extras to buildings – it is a matter of approaching the design of our settlements in a different way, so that they are places where people are at home with their natural and social environments.


The key is the geometry of urban form: neither sprawl nor high-rise

One important aspect of this is urban form. In the 20th century, the form of new settlements tended towards low-density suburbia on the one hand, and high-rise on the other. Although both of these urban forms do sometimes work for some people, they are also both problematic, socially and environmentally, as well as aesthetically.


In a low-density suburb, there will not normally be enough homes within walking distance of a local High Street to make such a street financially viable. The walkable High Street (Main Street in the U.S.), with its cafés and restaurants, post offices and pubs, churches and schools, is then replaced by the out-of-town shopping center, accessible only via the motorway. For similar reasons, it is difficult to have an effective public transport system in a low-density suburb: It is impractical to have bus stops and train stations within walking distance of homes that are so thinly spread. So again, people end up getting in their cars.


Cities built like this tend to be unattractive. One reason for this is because they lack the kind of varied street life that imparts to our old cities so much of their spirit. They also tend to lack the kinds of beauty that comes when many individual buildings unite into a great urban form. Our beautiful old towns and cities, Bath and Edinburgh, Prague and Siena, Damascus and Kyoto, are beautiful not because each individual building is a great work of art, but because together the buildings form something far greater than the sum of their parts. As the old saying goes: ”The greatest artwork in Paris is the city itself.”


But zoned, car-dependent cities are not only unattractive – they also tend to be socially troubled and environmentally unsustainable. They are immensely wasteful of land. In a small country like the U.K., to build our cities this way would mean losing most of our precious natural landscapes. Dependence on cars leads to massive carbon emissions. At the same time, communities are weakened. A city disaggregated into housing estates, shopping centers, and business parks tends to lose what Ray Oldenburg famously called its ‘”third places,” those places between the office and the family where community is built, like pubs, libraries, churches, and local parks.


At the other end of the spectrum from suburbia is high-rise. There certainly are beautiful skyscrapers, and groups of skyscrapers can be sublime things, as in New York. But very often the addition of high-rise housing to a historic city is unattractive. The reason for this, again, is that it is harder for high-rises to combine with other buildings to form an aesthetic whole that is more than the sum of its parts. High-rises in Britain and elsewhere are normally set back from the street, isolated from other buildings. They have no fronts or backs, and their windows seem to look out over the remote horizon, rather than facing the street below.


Vast settlements were built like this in the eastern half of the European continent during the decades in which it lay under communist rule. There is a quality of wilderness to such places: They illustrate the great gulf that lies between building large numbers of buildings close to one another, and building a true city.


Building typology influences our health and wellbeing

But high-rise ”urban landscapes”’ like these are not only problematic aesthetically. There is a large and growing literature in psychology and sociology documenting the effects of high-rises on individuals and communities. Most studies indicate that these effects are negative, including higher levels of depression and anti-social behavior, lower levels of social engagement, and markedly impaired child development. These effects are partly a result of a building’s aesthetic character – people are depressed by living in ugly places – and they also feed back into making buildings uglier: a settlement with unloved and deserted public spaces becomes ugly, even if it was attractive to start with.


High-rise buildings also have mixed and often troubling environmental effects. Although they use up less land than suburbia, they can normally only be kept warm in winter and cool in summer by massive artificial heating and cooling, requiring much more power than other kinds of housing. They are not sustainable.


Is there a solution to this, a solution that avoids the aesthetic, social, and environmental problems of suburbia on the one hand, and of high-rises on the other? For the answer to this, both of us have long sought inspiration in the cities of the past, the cities that were built across Europe and Asia from ancient times up to around the Second World War. The buildings of these cities were two or three floors high at the lower end, five or six at the upper. They stood closer together in streets and terraces, punctuated by churches and civic buildings, and forming the great urban ensembles to which tourists flock today.


This way of building is not wasteful of land. Cities like Paris and Barcelona can surpass the densities of post-war high-rises. But the city remains at the human scale, and it can give to each family the dignity of its own front door and the pleasure of its own garden. Because densities are quite high, it can support high streets, thereby creating the walkable and mixed-use places in which a community develops. At their best these cities are at once beautiful, socially flourishing, and environmentally sustainable. We believe that they, suitably updated, are a crucial model for us today.


Urban form is only one example of the relationship between beauty and social and environmental sustainability. But it illustrates one of the key themes of the Commission, which is that that this relationship is a deep and complex one. Beauty is not an optional extra. It is both a cause and an effect of environmental and social sustainability. This is not to say, of course, that aesthetic, social, and environmental objectives are always complementary. Sometimes, there will naturally be trade-offs. But we believe that, in the really important matters, pursuing these objectives leads us back to the same place.


The future of architectural education

What can architectural education do to help here? The Commission is still working on the answer to this, so at this stage we can only offer some tentative thoughts. One is that architects should know more about the latest empirical research in sociology and psychology concerning the effects that different ways of building have on the people who live in the ensuing settlements.


Even a cursory knowledge of this research raises deep and urgent questions about the ways we are building today: the fact, say, that more than 90% of available studies indicate that growing up in a high-rise impairs child development should be absolutely basic knowledge for architects. Yet in the U.K. today there is no requirement that architecture schools provide students with this, and, in practice, few do. We suggest that this is a mistake. Architecture graduates should have an excellent knowledge of the results of recent empirical studies. And they should know how to read those studies critically and thoughtfully, so that they can tell good empirical research from bad, and so that they can think through the implications of good empirical research for their own work.


Second, we suspect students need to know more about the history of architecture and urbanism. Today is not the first time in history that architects have had to respond to the question of how to build beautifully. Nor is it the first time that they have had to respond to the question of how their work can contribute to a flourishing community, or how they can make the best use of scarce resources, or how they can avoid damaging the natural environment on which their community relies. Although the aesthetic, social, and environmental challenges we face now have distinctive characteristics, there is much about them that is as old as architecture itself. And, as we have suggested here, older solutions to these problems are deeply instructive for us today.


British architecture schools are formally required to teach history of architecture, and some do it well. But many treat it in a cursory fashion, especially the history of anything before Modernism. Students are given a canon of architectural solutions that goes back as far as Mies van der Rohe, but not further. But what if the car-dependent business parks and the air-conditioned skyscrapers that are Mies’s legacy are themselves part of the problem?


Students need to know more about how architects and communities negotiated the challenges of modernity in the century between the birth of the modern city and the ascendancy of Modernism, from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries. And they need to know more about how people created settlements before the modern city got started. We are not going to build exactly like the Georgians or the Mughals or the Babylonians. But maybe we still have a lot to learn from them.


Context, coherence, and language

Finally, we think that architecture students need better training in how to weave new buildings into a unified urban fabric. Students today often receive careful training in how to design single buildings, working from the premise of a ground plan. Less often, however, are they taught how to fit one building to another along a street, or how to design enclosed spaces, sky-lines, squares, and alleyways, so as to produce a complete, walkable, and soothing urban fabric.


Architecture, as taught by the Beaux-arts school in Paris and its many American offshoots, was conceived as a kind of grammar. You learned the history of architecture by studying the many ways in which buildings had been composed from their parts, adjusted to the scales, materials, and frames established by their neighbors, articulated in ways that elicited the sympathy and appreciation of the passer-by. And that, to a large extent, was what the beauty of architecture was held to consist in – a general relation of fittingness, of things standing harmoniously side-by-side, in accordance with grammatical rules that belonged to a shared language of form.


Although there has been a heartening revival of interest in context and urbanism in recent years, architecture schools often still fail to impart this kind of shared grammar, and students therefore struggle to design buildings that belong together in a street. This is one reason why, despite widespread efforts to move towards a more contextually sensitive kind of design, new buildings often still present sheer walls of glass to the passer-by, and take the form of horizontal slabs built over the number of stories required, without reference to the place where they stand. The result is too often experienced as a hole in the urban fabric, which destroys the shared space of the city for the sake of a single and transient business.


Only when buildings fit to their surroundings are they truly adaptable, since only then do they acquire a meaning more important than their temporary use. To rectify this educational lack should be one of our priorities. We do not have to teach the Classical Orders or the syntax of Gothic mouldings. But we do need to work towards a grammar of detail that could be applied in the world as it is, using modern materials and scales adapted to modern uses.



Acknowledgment: The authors would like to thank Samuel Hughes for invaluable help in the preparation and drafting of this article.


Nicholas Boys Smith is a founder of London’s new-urbanist Create Streets organization and is now the co-chairman of the British government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission along with Sir Roger Scruton. Boys Smith had replaced Scruton after the latter was unjustly dismissed, but now, with Scruton’s vindication and return, they serve together. He has written extensively on the links between design with high wellbeing outcomes including his books Heart in the Right Street (on Amazon), Beyond Location, and Of Streets and Squares.


Professor Sir Roger Scruton is widely considered to be the greatest living British philosopher. He is the author of many distinguished articles and books, including The Aesthetics of Architecture and The Classical Vernacular, on architecture.



See also:


Lesson Plan #2: A Time of Change
The coming technological changes in architecture will impose a full deconstruction of the way we educate architects.
By Duo Dickinson


Lesson Plan #1 "Signs versus Symptoms": A Reply to the Open Letter from British Architecture Students Calling for Curriculum Change

Asking for radical reforms in architectural education, this courageous appeal could help this latest effort be taken seriously, and not simply dismissed, as previous cries for reform have been.

By Dr. Nikos A. Salingaros


(click on pictures to enlarge)

Nikos A. Salingaros

Sensitive architectural education with intellectual weight reflects adaptive architecture that evolved along with humanity itself.