This month, David Cameron has acted on a significant injustice. The country’s worst post-war tower blocks, built quickly in response to high demand for social housing in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, will be demolished and replaced with more attractive low rise homes.
Some tower blocks are praised for their brutalist, modern style, but in reality, most are hated by the general population and particularly by those who live there. In recent public opinion polls, the reluctance to live in a tower block has been almost consistently unanimous. There’s nothing subjective about it; these buildings are just plain ugly. And ugly surroundings erode aspiration, health and community; they trap people in a cycle of ever decreasing social mobility, and they cultivate crime. They are poor houses to house the poor, which is simply an assault on social justice.
We have lost a public understanding that ‘beauty’ is for everyone. Despite the significant benefits that more beautiful places can deliver, access to them is now deeply determined by class. Our research revealed that only those who come from a high social and educational background, and with an annual household income of above £45,000, are able experience beauty in their local area. Deprivation has as a result become even more evident and entrenched than ever before – embodied in post-war eyesores that have become characteristically known as our local housing estates. This class divide is dangerous, and one that needs to end.
Beauty didn’t used to be a class issue, nor a luxury reserved only for the wealthy. For Plato, beauty was a universal ideal to be discerned and realised by everyone; not an abstract concept only accessible to the wise. For Aristotle, beauty could be found by all people in all things – albeit in varying degrees – and was far more than what simply met the eye: It revealed an object’s or person’s purpose, role in society and place in the universe. It was something to be debated and identified communally, and was central to the realisation of a just society.
Such an understanding wasn’t exclusive to the Ancient Greeks. The 19th Century philosopher, John Ruskin, and his contemporaries believed that beauty is objective and so can be shared and held in common. The Romantics, a movement whose acolytes were drawn from every class, shared with Keats the view that ‘beauty is truth’ – an axiom that inspired the revolutionary and conservative political upheavals that were to follow: the ‘rights of man’ that underpinned the French Revolution and the Burkean view that beauty and truth are in nature and therefore must be universally accessible.
Beauty was not in the eye of the beholder, as the Enlightenment philosophers would have you believe. It is this damaging mantra that has caused us to think so individualistically and instrumentally about beauty, and to reduce its access – physical and intellectual – as well as its benefits and indeed creation, to a mere few in society. Alongside Ruskin, Burke and the Greek philosophers, we must argue that beauty is far more than a façade processed by certain individuals’ minds: it is inherent to everything that exists and holds value far beyond that which can be measured by social and economic analysis. It must be both discerned by and made accessible to all.
Cameron’s pledge to transform some of the country’s most run-down housing estates into more attractive homes is therefore a small but welcome move. It recognises, as our own research revealed, that ugly places impact negatively on aspiration, crime levels, health and safety. It also acknowledges that the creation of more beautiful places is central to eradicating poverty and deprivation, and therefore as a matter of social justice, must be done in service to the least wealthy in society.
But how do we ensure that these eyesores become icons rather than idols? An idol – traditionally understood – is an abstract and material imposition, which is praised by the few and holds no value beyond itself. An icon, on the other hand, is a mediating force. It has a much closer connection to people and its surroundings. Religious icons, for example, are often beautiful objects or paintings that point to a higher purpose. Millions of Christians visit icons every year, not to worship the item itself, but to participate in a communal activity to praise that which it is ultimately pointing to – in this case, God.
There is a very real danger, particularly with pressures on Government to supply more homes, that idols rather than icons will be sanctioned for development. In other words, that what is deemed beautiful and good in the minds of the few – rather than the many in a given community – will be rapidly rolled out. This would radically undermine the value that such developments could offer, and will likely increase opposition to proposed plans. If we are to learn from our Ancient and modern philosophers, we must understand that the creation of beautiful places, and beautiful buildings, must be discerned locally rather than imposed from the outside and above.
To truly eradicate poverty from our most deprived estates, communities need to be granted greater powers and incentives to discern beauty locally and improve their local areas. Granting access to beautiful places must also mean granting access to its negotiation and creation. Government need to let go and witness the creativity that such a move could bring.