What good is beauty?

“We are here to revitalize your community.  Make it beautiful againRestore its energy.”  Who could say no to that?  Meeting the community is important for developers and architects.  It’s a gesture of good faith to those our projects will impact.  It is also humbling.  Our best laid plans are often met with concern, or outright disdain.  And too often, we turn away from these challenges to stay busy, keep it moving, and expand our practice.  We ally with capital interests in a battle against public resistance.  Owners against stakeholders, who “don’t know what’s best for them”.

Towers were the cheapest solution for housing the urban poor.  Their builders were defended by Architects who, grateful for the work, rationalized their extreme efficiencies as “the way of the future.” (drawings by the author)

We each see the world’s problems through our own lens.  For designers, the question is aesthetic.  I became an architect so that I could use my creative gifts to heal our society.  Finally, after years of volunteering while spending my days designing luxury houses, I can integrate this mission into my career.  I’m contributing to some projects that will bring investment to economically depressed places.

But do these projects serve their community, or merely exist there?  Architects try to distill the highest quality from a limited budget.  Some nobly strive to make beautiful spaces available to all.  Meanwhile, people with low incomes must focus on rent prices, property taxes, and the stability of community ties and services.  Our creative, perhaps moral, ambitions can pose a real threat.  No amount of good intent can compensate people displaced by gentrification.  When we set out to “improve” a neighborhood, we enter the cycle of conquest and re-conquest in our adopted homeland.

Le Corbusier’s “Plan Voisin” for the redevelopment of central Paris   SOURCE

Le Corbusier, a benevolent God?   SOURCE

Our nation worships competition.  I can reason that a few talented individuals will be motivated to succeed by the ennobling spaces I design.  But for the uneducated, elderly, disabled, and weary, an influx of energetic young residents pursuing their dreams may be a crushing blow.  And as human beings, we protect those who may not be able to support us, our society, or even themselves.  I’m not strict with religion, but I haven’t heard a Utilitarian explain our innate mercy.  My understanding is that life is a gift; anything given the chance to exist is sacred.  And our success is immeasurably owed to forces outside our control.

We all can make a difference.  I think anything done with care and compassion, even a small act, has value.  We can’t predict how wide it will resonate.  What was built for the Rockefellers, Hearsts, and corrupt Popes have endured to benefit the entire public, because of their objective beauty and quality.  But it’s still worth talking about the big plans; ideals that we can never fully achieve, but should measure ourselves against.

More important than making beautiful cities, is ensuring that residents of every culture and economic class benefit from them.  Is the central problem capitalism?  Is it the weight of our history, the legacy of systemic oppression and scarce opportunity?  Is it a problem for government, private citizens, teachers, or designers to solve?  How can we build progress like a tide, that lifts every boat?