Universal Beauty and the Responsibility of Cities


In chapter eight of Anthony M. Tung’s erudite and impressive Preserving the World’s Great Cities: The Destruction and Renewal of the Historic Metropolis, there is a passage that stopped me in my proverbial tracks and hasn’t left my thoughts since. Tung is writing about Amsterdam at the dawn of the 20th century:

As parts of the inner city became slums and were threatened with clearance, and as picturesque canals were filled in to create new roads and better circulation, elements of the historic environment began to be eliminated. Growing numbers of citizens became alarmed and called for preservation of the historic center. In addition, a new ring of speculative housing began to surround the old metropolis. Numerous Amsterdammers began to ask that the expansion of the city meet a reasonable standard of beauty.

They what? They asked that the expansion of the city meet a reasonable standard of beauty? Their chief concern was not economic but aesthetic, not for themselves but for their city. Can you imagine that request coming from the residents of Dallas? Or Los Angeles? Or anywhere in Florida? The asking of such a question emerges from a couple basic assumptions. Firstly, it assumes that the presence of beauty affects one’s quality of life, and that this notion is commonly held. Secondly, it assumes that the course of development undertaken in a city is at least to some extent the city’s responsibility to set. Tung continues:

[H.P.] Berlage himself addressed the problems of layout in 1904 in his influential proposal for a new district of housing in the south of Amsterdam. The architect’s scheme, known as the Plan Zuid, demonstrated an alternative to the unrelenting and efficient orthogonal grids of developers by introducing angular street patterns interrupted by diversely shaped public spaces around which blocks of housing were massed in dramatic configurations. The design followed [Camillo] Sitte’s ideas in creating many small communities within a larger cityscape. Yet much of the civil engineer’s regularity was also kept. Berlage had found a compromise between the need for efficient circulation and the creation of distinctive neighborhoods of individual character.

Several times in the years that followed, members of Amsterdam’s City Council would reject the street-pattern proposals of real estate developers because the plans were unaesthetic: ‘The public way serves not only those living along it, but the entire city, and the municipality must not give permission to something that is in conflict with the universal laws of beauty.’

This is one of the most profound statements of urbanism I’ve ever encountered, and so I’ll repeat it. Heck, I’ll give it its own paragraph (emphasis is mine).

The public way serves not only those living along it, but the entire city, and the municipality must not give permission to something that is in conflict with the universal laws of beauty.

Implicit here is the idea that the city is two things: a social manifestation of the people who inhabit it and a physical manifestation of its natural and built environments. That may sound obvious, but it further implies a short term responsibility on the part of the city to present residents as well as a long term responsibility to future residents. The local powers-that-be are understood to be stewards of the city. Their mandate, akin to that once found in the Iroquois Confederacy, is to serve present constituents without jeopardizing future generations, to allow the city its dynamism without compromising its integrity.

In David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries, the graphic artist Stefan Sagmeister recalls the late designer and editor Tibor Kalman having said, “I have no problem with beauty, but it isn’t very interesting.” He was talking about art, specifically the sort of art that has nothing to say, that seeks only to be admired. Such beauty isn’t beauty at all but rather an approximation of beauty. The idea of beauty is there. Beauty itself remains conspicuously absent.

The beauty being discussed here should not be confused with prettiness, or charm, or quaintness, or sexiness, or the mode du jour. It is not a style. Beauty is the Parthenon. The Pantheon. It is the pyramids at Giza. It is historic Paris, Vienna, Kyoto. It is ancient Varanasi, Petra, Angkor Wat, Babylon, and a thousand other places that stir the soul. It is the alchemical reaction of math and metaphysics, of science and serendipity. Beauty isn’t solely the domain of monumental works, however. It is also found where geography, ecology, and culture harmonically converge. In New England fishing villages, Key West cottages, Craftsman bungalows, traditional Main Streets, narrow and chaotic medieval city centers, industrial-era brick blocks, cobblestone streets, and heartland farm houses. Beauty can be found in the quiet perfection of small-scale modernism, in the lines and patterns of Ray Kappe, the swooping metallic ballet of Frank Gehry, the nearly-kinetic energy of hill homes off Mulholland Drive or in Sausalito or Santorini. There is beauty in Tolkien’s Shire, in Peter Jackson’s Rivendell, in Calvino’s invisible cities. Beauty inspires. It provokes. It allows us to wonder.

A hundred years or so ago, Amsterdammers saw that their city was changing. Modernization was irresistible. Instead of fighting it, they asked their city not to forget the immeasurable value of beauty, and the city obliged. What an incredible notion. Just think: if American cities considered beauty an essential urban ingredient, and if local government subscribed to a Seven Generation-type mentality of stewardship, we wouldn’t have strip malls, six-lane inner city arterials, disposable commercial and residential structures, shopping malls, big box stores, miles of parking lots, McMansions, trailer parks, Stepford suburban developments, communist bloc-style housing projects.

No place is perfect, and Amsterdam has had its share of missteps. But the only reason it is a beautiful city today is because it consciously decided to value beauty. The photos of Amsterdam below are all from Google Maps. I dropped into street view at random points throughout the city and took screen shots wherever I landed.

These next photos are also from Google Maps. They are of urbanscapes in cities throughout the United States, and are somewhat cherry-picked to show the sort of development that occurs when beauty is disregarded. My claim is not that these cities are predominantly ugly, as most contain moments of undeniable beauty. Nor am I asserting that the beauty of other cities should be imported and replicated; each place must find its own. Rather, I’m trying to demonstrate that short term economic speculation too often overrides any consideration of beauty, even in some of our country’s most beautiful cities. The resulting feel is by turns selfish, cruel, thoughtless, vulgar, and cheap. We can do so much better.

Austin, Texas

Baltimore, Maryland

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Chicago, Illinois

Denver, Colorado

Portland, Oregon

San Francisco, California

Santa Monica, California

Sarasota, Florida

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3 Responses to Universal Beauty and the Responsibility of Cities

  1. petersigrist says:

    Great post! Before reading this I saw beauty as completely a matter of personal taste, different for everyone, but the way you describe it gives me hope that cities can actually maintain places that most people find beautiful. The randomly selected comparative photos is an interesting way of illustrating this. Also your description of the many different kinds of settings where beauty can be found. So I wonder how we can determine what the Amsterdam City Council deemed the universal laws of beauty? It’s the kind of thing that’s hard to define and explain in a way that would hold sway in policy debates. But it does seem that there are common things that people find attractive: a comfortable density, tree-lined streets, proximity to water, certain kinds of materials and architectural detailing, possibly. How can we decide upon and encourage the urban settings that transcend style and stay beautiful over time?

  2. Josh Grigsby says:

    Thanks, Pete. I think part of the answer lies in rediscovering ancient city-building practices that we often ignore because of our technological prowess: following topographical guidelines, incorporating natural elements such as forests and rivers into the larger design, using local or locally inspired materials, allowing local climate and ecology to influence design, using local cultural history as a foundation for development. Also, and this goes hand in hand with the first part, I think design/development/building/renovation has to be a conscious act. It has to be done thoughtfully, with cultural, historical, and ecological concerns valued as much as economic ones. Cities should be built to last, and that requires conscious integrity.

    What do you think?

  3. petersigrist says:

    Very well thought out and well articulated. I would love to see cities develop according to these principles, as long as they’re never misapplied in a way that limits experimentation, innovation, contrast, etc. The last part, about things being done thoughtfully and placing cultural, historical, and ecological concerns at the same level as economic ones is also brilliant. I think that would make a real difference. I hope you’re called upon to write the bill that makes these things happen!

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