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Angela Tilby: Our cities witness to a godless age  

18 September 2020


Office blocks in London

Office blocks in London

THE Roman engineer Vitruvius is believed to have formulated three attributes in constructing good buildings: firmitas, utilitas, and venustas; strength, utility, and beauty — the last of these better expressed as attractiveness, delightfulness.

Our current less-than-vibrant city centres are an opportunity to think again about the built landscape. On my now rare trips to London, and even where I live in Portsmouth, there are plenty of examples of architecture that seems to have been built with attention only to the second of Vitruvius’s virtues: utility.

And what is often completely lacking is delightfulness. It is as though city buildings are conceived by a rigid adherence not to nature, but to geometric abstraction. Such buildings may impress — the London skyscape is still impressive — but at street level there is not much to love. It is hard to feel that quirky human beings could ever feel at home.

What is missing is what fascinates the eye: curves and arches, pillars, turrets, and other embellishments that follow the curve of a street, mirror its corners, and give way to reveal surrounding gardens and parks.

No one wants city architecture to turn into derivative kitsch, but there should be no excuse for the abandonment of delight. I sometimes think that our public buildings, and our soulless flats and offices, are witness only to the godlessness of our age, telling us that we are essentially machines to be packaged into rectangular spaces. Tower blocks, office blocks: the word says it all. Too many squares and rectangles suck the life out of the city. The new Lambeth Palace Library is a perfect example of urban ugliness. Its red-brick box-top pokes out above the trees, drawing attention to a “bold”, “innovative” design that is a rebuke to the historic archives that it houses.

Cities are changing. Long before the pandemic, the move of much retail business online was hollowing out the high street. It seems unlikely that firms will go back to a five-day office week, and, even if they do, many office jobs are threatened by advancing computer technology.

It is a chance for cities to be redesigned. It would be good to have more people living in them, making them more human, more interesting. Yet the signs are not promising. Already there is evidence that redundant office buildings and shops are being bought up by developers and turned into micro-living spaces: tiny one-room dwellings, often without external light. These are surely no more than slums-in-waiting, designed to produce profits for the developers and misery for the residents.

We should have learnt from the Grenfell Tower disaster that when utilitas is the main virtue under consideration, not only is there no beauty: there is no stability, either. It would be a godly adventure to reimagine beauty in the built environment.

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