Why Do We Love Paris but Hate Frankfurt?
In “How to Make an Attractive City,” a new video from the School of Life, London-based Swiss writer Alain de Botton offers a cheeky, thought-provoking, six-point manifesto on the need for making beauty a priority in urban architecture and design.
“So few cities are nice,” de Botton, the founder of Living Architecture, a British organization that commissions leading architects to build holiday rental homes in the U.K., says in the video. “Very, very few out of many thousands are really beautiful. Embarrassingly, the more appealing ones tend to be old.”
We might be getting better at making things like cars, planes, and phones, he says, but we’re getting worse at building beautiful cities. De Botton, who authored The Architecture of Happiness and is a popular speaker, argues that the idea that beauty is subjective is a half-truth. Maybe we can’t wholly agree on what beauty is, but we all know ugly when we see it. And the world’s cities, plagued with developer-led building and a lack of government oversight and public exigence, are becoming increasingly soulless and unlivable, even as the world’s population becomes more urban.
No one’s ever willingly taken a holiday in Frankfurt, Germany, de Botton says.
Courtesy of melquiades1898/Flickr
“We think that no one has a right to say what’s beautiful and what’s ugly,” de Botton says, noting that there are “good reasons” no one vacations in Frankfurt, Germany, or Birmingham, England. “[L]et’s stop being dangerously relativistic about this. Yes, there is such a thing as beauty. Sydney and San Francisco and Bath and Bordeaux have it, and most other places don’t. The proof lies in the tourist statistics. Let’s stop saying that beauty is just in the eye of the beholder. That’s just a gift to the next wealthy idiot who wants to put up a horrible tower.”
“It’s not a mystery why we like some cities so much better than others,” he says. “This is a manifesto about how to make attractive cities. There are six fundamental things a city needs to get right.”
This square in Telc, Czech Republic, is pretty because the buildings are the same width and height, creating order while allowing the creativity in form and color.
Courtesy of Party Lin/Flickr
Order and Variety
Balance, symmetry, and repetition are pleasing to humans, de Botton argues. A love of order is one of the reasons people love Paris, he says.
But excessive order, he points out, “feels alien.” The key is to create the kind of “organized complexity” that comes from establishing parameters, like a square (above) in Telc, Czech Republic, where every house is the same width and height, allowing an orderly framework in which individual buildings can vary in form and color, creating the kind of character that we love in a neighborhood.
De Botton argues that people are happiest when they live in densely packed areas where the human comedy is on full display. Lively street life in neighborhoods full of activity makes us happiest, he says. But many modern cities are full of dead industrial zones and “brutally anonymous” office buildings cut off from street life.
Good cities are compact, de Botton says. Through the later decades of the 20th century, the assumptions that humans don’t like living around one another and that making it means having your own plot of land in the suburbs led to isolation, soulless sprawl, and wasted resources. A compact city like Barcelona, Spain, uses a fraction of the energy of sprawling Phoenix, Arizona, de Botton argues.
All of the most beautiful compact cities have human-scaled squares where people can gather. Ideally, the squares are no more than 100 feet (30 meters) in diameter so that you can make out a person’s face on the other side—lest they become alienating. Squares give us a break from the confines of home and allow us to bask in the cheering company of others in uplifting surroundings, de Botton says. Yet nobody’s built a good square on the planet for decades, he says.
Piazza di Santa Maria in Rome is an ideal example of the art of the public square.
Courtesy of daryl_mitchell/Flickr
Orientation and Mystery
By definition cities are huge, but the best cities offer a mix of big and small streets. But too many cities prioritize vehicles over humans, de Botton says. A city should be easy to navigate for both humans and vehicles, with big boulevards for orientation and warrens of alleyways and small streets to allow us to wander and create a sense of mystery and exploration.
Modern cities are all about the big, de Botton says, but the ideal human scale is five stories high; anything more starts to make humans feel insignificant, small, and trivial. But our cities have been largely hijacked by commercial interests, he says, advocating that we stop making the collective mistake of allowing large corporations to hog the airspace in our cities, building shrines to industry rather than things we care about. “Towers have to be worthy of their prominence,” he says. “They must be aligned with our best interests and long-term needs.”
The deadening sameness of cities is a problem, de Botton says, emphasizing the need for cities to use locally sourced materials and build architecture that is born from the specific culture, climate, history, and social traditions of a given place.
What Makes a City Beautiful?
Most of us would probably be content to say that beauty is subjective. There may be a measure of symmetry or scale in what makes a person, object, or landscape attractive, but ultimately, beauty’s not inherent to the thing. It’s in the eye of the beholder.
But in the case of cities, beauty is objective, argues Alain de Botton in a provocative new video—and saying that it’s not is a danger to the quality of urban life.
“Cities are a big deal,” narrates de Botton. “We pretty much all have to live in them. We should try hard to get them right”—in part, by a more “scientific” approach to what makes cities pretty or ugly.
The philosopher, author, and founder of London’s The School of Life lays out six qualities of attractive cities:
- Order (buildings should be uniform in appearance and layout—to a degree);
- Visible life (it’s nice to see people walking the streets and working in shop windows);
- Compactness (don’t sprawl);
- Orientation and mystery (a balance of large and small streets should allow for efficient travel… and for getting lost, on occasion);
- Scale (a building should be five stories max, unless what it stands for is really worth more air space);
- A sense of the local (Melbourne should look a little different from Barcelona, because its cultural and geographic qualities are different).
De Botton has no problem pointing out which cities meet these standards (Paris, New York, Barcelona) and which ones don’t (Phoenix, Munich, but also, “most cities,” all over the world).
What’s the problem in those ug-urban places? Lack of political willpower, and behind that, an intellectual confusion about what beauty is. “We think beauty is subjective, and so no one should say anything about it,” he says. “It’s a very understandable qualm, but it’s also horribly useful to greedy property developers”—the ones who erect hideous, poorly placed skyscrapers and apartment complexes.
The places tourists go, de Botton argues, is a measure of how beautiful we find those places.
There is such a thing as objective beauty, says de Botton. The proof? Tourism statistics. The places people go for leisure, he argues, is a measure of how beautiful we find those places.
Now, that’s a troubling metric, by de Botton’s own standards; Dubai, Lima, Miami and Los Angeles have all recently topped rankings of the world’s urban tourist destinations, cities that, in their global appearance, stretch even the most generous definitions of beauty.
But beauty is an essential quality to live-ability. Multiple studies have shown that the perception of living in a beautiful place is strongly correlated with happiness—more strongly than even things like safety and cleanliness. “Character,” or aesthetic distinctiveness has also proven itself key to economic vitality.
De Botton might not quite get tourism stats right, but his message is on point: We—or really, planners—should get more scientific about measuring the beauty of our cities, and that requires less shyness around staking an aesthetic opinion. It’s been a long time since looks carried much weight in city planning, and de Botton’s manifesto is a clever (and good-looking) push to relight that interest.
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As recently as 1800, a mere 3 percent of the global population inhabited urban areas. By 2011, more than half the world’s population lived in cities. By 2025, the number of people living in metropolitan areas is forecasted to reach 70 percent of the world’s population.
The dramatic rise of cities and urban living around the world relates directly to the rapid pace of economic development and improvements in living standards. People flock to cities to create and take advantage of unique economic, social and cultural opportunities.
The density of cities and human industriousness combine to produce efficient, effective exchanges of knowledge and information that spark new business ideas and break-through innovation. Cities’ large pools of talented, skilled workers are key drivers of global economic growth, scientific discovery and cultural creativity.