The London-based author Alain de Botton recently released an engaging 14-minute video on his thoughts on what makes a city attractive. The honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects proposes six key qualities that attractive cities possess, unhealthy namely
* A balance between consistency and variety
* People’s activities being on display
* Compactness of cities and of public spaces
* A balance of features that make it easy to orient oneself on the one hand, and mysterious enough to permit enjoyable exploration on the other
* A limit on all but buildings of exceptional civic value to five-storeys high
* The use of locally-sourced materials and architectural styles that reflect local ways of life.
De Botton says that these six qualities define a beautiful city, and that we know beauty when we see it — it’s reflected in the statistics for where people choose to go sight-seeing. However, we’ve succumbed to an intellectual confusion about what beauty is, and a sense that we are powerless to change things. As a result, greedy developers have free rein to build ugly but profitable buildings that make us feel alienated. De Botton concludes with a rousing call for the citizenry to work with government to produce developments that conform to his six principles and are therefore beautiful.
I recommend watching it, and I’ll assume that readers of this post have done so.
The purpose of this post is not to expose the contradictions in his post, although contradictions there perhaps are. To take the most problematic example, on the one hand he declares that we all have a good understanding of what beautiful cities look like (just examine the tourism statistics!); on the other he seems to assert that we are lumbered with a kind of ‘false consciousness’ about cities, particularly as regards privacy. (To de Botton, the ability of some people in Cartagena to peer into their neighbours’ homes at will represents some kind of ideal; surely even if it is an ideal it is one that is highly dependent on the character of the neighbour).
Instead, the point is to firstly critique a couple of his more specific recommendations; secondly to argue that his belief that no-one has built anything conforming to his six principles in decades could not be more wrong; and thirdly to argue that his recommendations may simply exacerbate the main problem he complains about. Continue reading