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Beauty is the beast

Jonathan Schofield interviews Liverpudlian design guru Stephen Bayley who insists 'Architecture is More Important than Politics'

Written by . Published on February 17th 2010.


Beauty is the beast

It's good for the soul to lift your eyes to the skies and think beauty, in all its abstract and physical forms.

This belief is central to one of the world's best known commentators on modern culture, Liverpudlian Stephen Bayley.

When I was doing post-grad studies in Liverpool we honestly looked at giving Liverpool back to nature, demolishing the city centre, as it no longer seemed to have any future, people were flooding out. What the last ten years have shown is that you can rebuild a city – in spite of the politicians - and Liverpool's have been particularly inept

Bayley was educated at Manchester University and then Liverpool School of Architecture. Over the years he has become a respected authority on his subject, as an author, broadcaster and a regular “name” columnist in broadsheets and the design press. He can also court controversy.

One of his 10 books is Woman As Design which looks at how the physical form of the female has been used as a symbol for art and design. Germaine Greer disapproved. The American writer, wit and author of Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe, said of him “I don't know anybody with more interesting observations about style, taste and contemporary design”.

Bayley will be the first speaker in a new annual series of lectures organised by Pro Manchester next month at the BDP studios. He has chosen the title 'Architecture is More Important Than Politics'. What on earth can he mean?

Chemistry

“Simply that the environment we inhabit affects our behaviour in more positive and negative ways than politics do,” he says. “If you have dignified buildings and public spaces people become more industrious, more responsible – happier.”

He pauses. Then goes all tiger. “We reached the end of politics in Britain a long time ago. Lots of people agree that we'd be much better off without politicians. Politicians have more in common with other politicians than the people at large, they're their own little class, a sub-group. In design terms the problem is that they just don't see, or won't see, good design. They don't have that chemistry of the brain.

”When I worked on the Millennium Dome, as creative director of the exhibitions, I would say to Peter Mandelson, who was looking after it for the Government, 'this is total crap, it's terrible.' He would call me elitist and say we're spending £750m so it can't be crap.

”He knew everything about the cost and nothing about the value. We could have spent £750m on a pile of horse shit and he wouldn't have known the difference.”

Millennium Dome: £750m of 'crap'

Most people probably think that's exactly what the £750m was spent upon. At least Bayley, who grew up in Allerton and went to Quarry Bank, had the good sense to resign two years before the dome opened. But I think he's wrong about politicians and politics. They are the oil (definitely in Mandelson's case) of a democracy, a necessary evil. As someone once said (was it Samuel Johnson, Benjamin Disreli, maybe George Orwell? – usually is): “Every Englishman loves his country but hates his government.”

He goes on: “We need to be aware of the notion of providing beauty in our cities. What alarms me is that beauty has become a taboo subject, people in authority never use the word beauty, and it's not only politician's who don't, but even the best known artists never use the word beauty. It would be good to change that. Somehow discussions of aesthetics have been swamped by the need to be cost-efficient. That is important but we mustn't forget beauty.”

Maybe every council should have an officer dedicated to beauty, saying things such as, “you can't build that school it isn't beautiful.”? Maybe beauty should be taught in schools, objective principles of beauty that is, not just subjective opinion?

Unhappy

“Great design has moral qualities,” says Bayley. “It is honest, witty, disciplined, yet right for its function or location. There's no mystery. You can judge design the same as you can a person you like and admire.

”Growing up in Liverpool made me interested in architecture and design. I would wonder how one arrangement of brick, steel and stone could make people content and how another arrangement of brick, steel and stone could make them unhappy. Then I realised you could measure this. The measure is simple: does it make you feel better about things. It's the same with the people you know.”

A final question: does Bayley think that British design and architecture is better than is was in the early seventies when he was studying in Liverpool and Manchester.

“We've learnt a lot,” he says. “But we also repeat mistakes. Perhaps we can say that we're more aware of design. When I was in Manchester, there were very few signs of life. In Liverpool there were even less. Yet look at them now, especially the distance Liverpool has come - it proves you can remake whole cities.

”When I was doing post-grad studies in Liverpool we honestly looked at giving Liverpool back to nature, demolishing the city centre, as it no longer seemed to have any future, people were flooding out.

“What the last ten years have shown is that you can rebuild a city – in spite of the politicians - and Liverpool's have been particularly inept.

”And finally this can all be done within a budget. Good design shouldn't have to cost more than bad design. Let's think like the best of the early Modernist's did, beauty should no longer be the preserve of the privileged, or maybe live to the quote of the old Italian Communist Party, 'the best salami for everyone'.”

Bayley is tremendous fun, his enthusiasm is infectious. Despite the holes in some of his arguments (can we really say our cities are remade if they still have such deep, deep social problems?) he makes some sound points. Especially about beauty.

Edgar Wood, one of the North West's greatest architects and a founder of the region's arts and crafts movement, would arrive at his office 'wearing a large black cloak, lined with red silk, a flat, broad-brimmed hat and brandishing a silver handled cane'. When a trainee artist came to the practice, Wood would instruct him to draw a vase of flowers, so the trainee, “might better understand beauty”. Bayley would have approved, no doubt.

Let's consider the value of something, it's aesthetic as well as its functional qualities before we design.

Stephen Bayley will presenting Architecture is More Important Than Politics, the first annual Pro.Manchester lecture on Wednesday 3 March at the BDP offices on Ducie Street, Manchester. Tickets are £40 from www.pro-manchester.co.uk

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