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The Beauty-Utility Grid
The architect Robert Venturi said buildings were either Ducks (whose exteriors advertise their function) or Decorated Sheds, where the ornament is independent of the contents.
This idea has wider applications: for example the British Constitution is a Decorated Shed, if you accept Walter Bagehot’s separation of its parts into ‘dignified’ and ‘efficient.’
William Morris shifted the focus to the customer, saying that everything in our houses should be ‘useful’ or ‘beautiful.’
The linguistic disparities are thought-provoking - our government functions, sometimes efficiently, but is it useful?
Similarly, modern art and edifices may be ornamental, but are they dignified or beautiful? I suggest that as a general rule, artworks nominated for a Turner prize ought to be returned to store, and architectural blueprints liable to earn an industry award should be left on the drawing board.
I’m not sure that these creatives are aiming for anything so bourgeois as beauty. Instead they court attention by being odd or shocking: Emin’s dirty unmade bed, Viñoly’s ‘Walkie Talkie’ office block (fast becoming retro as phone technology advances.)
However, if we’re going to apply practical and aesthetic criteria, perhaps the following schematic will help:
In A1 we find Classical and Palladian designs; in C3, disasters like Ronan Point, an ugly people-stacker that collapsed lethally two months after completion.
British Army dwellings are often A3, unlovely but functional: not only soldiers’ barracks but the concrete low-rise hutches that housed my family and others in 1960s Kent. The Army’s philistine soul is shown in its partial destruction in 1904 of the mediaeval St Nicholas’ chapel on the coast at St Ives, Cornwall; fortunately a local outcry halted and reversed the vandalism.
Many quirky commercial ‘carbuncles’ operate as intended and qualify for the A2 slot; but some iconic structures have problems. One is Paris’ guts-on-the-outside Beaubourg, now facing a five-years’ closure for repairs.
Another candidate for B2 is our local new(ish) Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. Although it opened under the incoming coalition government in 2010 the funding was procured via PFI in 2006 under New Labour. It cost £545 million to construct but the total bill over the 37-year agreement will run into the billions; another score for ‘Brownomics.’
From a distance the QEH looks like three packets of Polo mints. Entry is via a spacious atrium and it is rumoured that the intention was to make the place reminiscent of an airport, despite its central urban location. Inevitably it won a number of prizes including an RIBA Regional Award.
However the curved corridors mean one cannot keep watch on all the ward entrances from one point; and we heard there are (or were) other niggles such as not being allowed to put up the usual relevant posters and notices on the walls, which have to be kept pristine; and the laundry arrangements - ‘dirty’ room at one end of the long passageway, ‘clean’ at the other. Perhaps these and other causes of nurse dissatisfaction contributed to the problems with staffing levels noted in the Care Quality Commission report from 2019 which nevertheless gave the Trust an overall rating of ‘good’; but a review in late 2021 downgraded that general assessment to ‘requires improvement.’ As the saying goes, ‘success has many fathers, failure is an orphan,’ but clearly the QEH is not unbeset by problems.
Extending this diagrammatic analysis to the political field again, would it be completely unfair to place ex-PM Blair in C1? He was handsome and personable in 1997 but the young revolutionary who surfed into office on a huge wave of goodwill and hopeful expectation turned out to be a wrecking tsunami. ‘Why was he born so beautiful? Why was he born at all?’ Perhaps he too was a Decorated Shed.
Just a thought.
Republished from the Bruges Group blog
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