-OpEd-

PARIS — Between all the brutal Brexit fireworks, the British government took an initiative of rare poetic dimension by establishing a "Building Better, Building Beautiful" commission.

According to its official terms of reference, the commission's task is to "develop practical policy solutions to ensure the design and style of new developments, including new settlements and rehabilitating city centers, to help grow a sense of community and place, not undermine it" and vows to "do so with popular consent." Like any other commission, it will have to produce a report, which is expected to be submitted to the Minister of State for Housing by the end of 2019. Even impoverished by its exit from the Single Market, Britain will be entitled to a makeover.

It's easy to laugh off such bureaucratic pretensions. Will Her Majesty's Cabinet, unable to produce a coherent strategy on its relations with the European Union, get involved in the color of its people's shutters?

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Modernity has forgotten the merits of aesthetics — Photo: Alex Liivet

But this commission is not trivial. It's chaired by Roger Scruton, one of the most famous English philosophers, author of a reference book on The Aesthetics of Architecture. Scruton is conservative in the British sense of the word (and therefore anything but reactionary): He's an heir to Burke, who considers attachment to tradition as the best guarantor of freedom, and spontaneous order as the surest path to progress. Scruton sees the need for roots as a way to strengthen the individual in the face of impersonal market or state forces.

Scruton logically abhors the buildings designed by Le Corbusier and even more so those of his successors, a negation of history and its complexity, an attempt to eliminate relationship in favor of an abstract universal. And he advocates a model of architecture based on both the local environment and human experience, in other words: a need for a home. Scruton is definitively throwing away functionalist theories, and is giving the ornamental back its rightful place. The previous obsession with utility is a promise of obsolescence.

Without succumbing to Scruton's nostalgia, we must admit that our modernity has completely forgotten the merits of aesthetics. It's nowhere to be found in the criteria of "well-being" and remains largely absent from political discourse. Development heralds like Steven Pinker, convincing when analyzing violence reduction or educational progress, don't devote a single line to the issue of aesthetics.

There's nothing more subtle to define than the judgment of taste.

I believe that for the first time in the history of Homo sapiens, the vast majority of us are living in the midst of the non-beautiful. The charm of old European cities is reserved for a few tens of millions of happy few: from Lima to Johannesburg by way of Baltimore, Beijing, Sao Paulo, Montreal, Moscow, Delhi, Cairo or Bucharest, the concrete facades and the hodgepodge of brand logos all look the same. On the other hand, everyone marvels at the Andean villages, the Chinese countryside or the half-timbered houses of Normandy. It's as if the necessities of mass construction in the last century had put our anthropological need for beauty on hold.

I readily admit that there's nothing more subtle to define than the judgment of taste, a subject of metaphysical controversy since Plato, and I am wary of Scruton's flights of lyricism on the "meaning of the sacred." But it's also difficult to deny a kind of aesthetic common sense: Why else do tourists flow to the "historic city centers" rather than the suburbs? Why else are traditional Romanian houses, with their beveled roofs and bright colors, irresistibly more attractive than new constructions financed by the diaspora? Isn't there a form of anti-fragility in respecting one's heritage, to use Nassim Taleb's expression? When it successfully withstands the centuries, at the cost of a thousand successive improvements, hasn't an architectural form proved its worth?

State-of-the-art contemporary architecture has largely integrated the contextual imperative, but it is slow to become more democratic. It's up to all of us to put aesthetic reflection back at the heart of our way of life, by ceasing to consider beauty as a luxury. Advances in technology and materials should allow us to dream of a world that is more open, more prosperous, and, yes: less ugly.


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