The role of understated beauty

Let’s do a little Gedanken, or thought experiment today. Let’s think about the effects of the built environment on people and their attitudes.

If I asked you, for instance, to imagine a beautiful urban environment, what would you pick? (This isn’t just a building, or a square, but a place where street after street, from the business areas, to the commercial ones, to the institutional ones, to the residential ones, delights the eye and makes you feel good about life.)

The odds are pretty good that Paris popped into your head — even if you ultimately picked somewhere else. (Even people who’ve never been to Paris have certainly seen photos and film set there.)

In fact, Paris is so predominately “the beautiful city”, that there’s an online test (Slate hosted it on their site) that shows one hundred photos taken around the world of city streets, where you are asked merely to click “Paris” or “Not Paris” — and the average person manages to score 70% or better right.

But what is it about Paris that gets this response?

An attention to little cues that overall add up to an understated beauty.

Signs are kept from dominating the street. Stringcourses and standard windows are used. Windows are vertical, not horizontal. Grace notes exist: wrought iron balconies, capstones, and the like.

The buildings are a good height — typically five to seven storeys — but not so tall as to feel as though they impose over the street. Sidewalks are typically treed, making the street a “living room” for the buildings.

The little touches appear all over the city. An iron fence around a park isn’t just a fence: the posts have sculpted tops, the ironwork is delicate and designed.

From the entrances to the Métro, to the garbage pails, to a bus stop, grace notes are the norm, not the exception. Little (except the most recent buildings) have been built merely for utility. A bridge can be beautiful and carry traffic over the Seine.

There’s also a cultural cohesion at work. The café on the corner — as with so many other cafés on other corners — chooses deep red awnings. You, as a visitor or surveyor by photo, pick up on such cues. They become a set of touchstones, a way of seeing more in a glance (and thus comforting).

Paris is, of course, as infested with chain retail as any other place on the planet seems to be. Yet it is a little less obvious. One does not parade the golden arches to dominate the view; a small sign, much like anyone else’s sign, works much better in the context. So Parisians need not suffer as, say, North Americans do, the endless “look at me!” assaults on their consciousness.

As we, in our communities, think about the future, we can easily become depressed. We think about what energy descent might mean, what a no-growth economy might mean, what the endless replacing of an older urban fabric with concrete-and-glass look-alikes means, what losing local stores to chains means.

We have ended up in noplace. It hurts the mind, it damages the soul.

But it doesn’t need to be like this.

Communities need to take charge of their affairs. People want to live on transit corridors, in real communities, so start designing that for the future. Don’t wait for the latest developer to force you into a “consultation” about their look-alike project; have a community charette (“charette” is an architectural term; in this case, it refers to sitting down and designing how you want things to be with an eye to setting that forward as the official plan and rules).

Attention can be paid to the elements that provide for beauty (windows that line up from building to building, for instance, or reshaping the street to a vertical orientation from a horizontal one).

We don’t have to, in other words, live in a world of the lowest common denominator, pure functionality, and glaring attention-grabbing gimmickry.

And that will make us all happier and healthier, no matter what the future throws at us.


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