“The purpose of evolution,” wrote Joseph Brodsky, “is beauty.” And, if the zenith of civilisation is the city, then surely it follows that beauty is also the ideal of urbanity. In the imagination, or the memory, it often is. Think of the approach to Istanbul, Venice or New York from the water, each shimmering above its own reflection. Or, perhaps, of the mountains rearing up behind Rio or the cherry blossoms in Kyoto.
Some cities have had beauty imposed on them. Paris was planned as the City of Light, a place of tree-lined avenues and urbane squares in which height, mass and ornament were meticulously controlled to create harmony. Other cities achieve beauty through their setting, San Francisco or Sydney with their bays and sweeping views. Others still become beautiful through the skill of their architects: Siena, Vienna, St Petersburg or Barcelona. And some become beautiful merely because of the intensity of their urbanity, Hong Kong or Manhattan with their bristling clusters of towers and sparkling city lights.
But what is beauty in a city and is it something we can still create? Is it even desirable in the first place? Perhaps we have lost the knack of creating beautiful cities. Whether it is Milton Keynes, Rotterdam, Shenzhen or Dubai, contemporary cities are excoriated for their fumbling attempts at creating new forms of urbanity, new ideals of beauty. As in art, the pursuit of beauty has become slightly taboo.
When the great Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer died last month aged 104, the man who created the symbols of the city of Brasília was criticised for creating buildings that, while elegant, often didn’t work, sacrificing function for beauty. The critics are right. Brasília has failed to reconcile the informal and the formal, its traffic and its walkability. But whereas most modern architects and planners have been castigated for creating buildings that are both ugly and that don’t work, at least Niemeyer got it half right. The criticisms do, however, reflect the difficulty, or even the impossibility, of building beautiful new cities.
The last time urban beauty came under real discussion was more than a century ago when the City Beautiful movement flourished in the US and beyond. A response to the squalor of the tenement quarters in big cities, the movement aimed to put picturesque parks, tree-lined avenues and bombastically classical civic and cultural buildings at the heart of cities from Washington, DC, to Canberra.
In putting parks at the centre of cities, the idea of the City Beautiful represented an acceptance that nature should be at the heart of the city, even if the landscape was artificial in its emulation of the natural. Nature and topography certainly play a part in the construction of beauty. Central Park is so mesmeric partly because of the contrast of its green expanses with the density surrounding it and partly because of the way the bedrock of Manhattan, the essential topography of the island, comes crashing through in the form of rocky outcrops. London is not a conventionally beautiful city yet its huge royal parks have become models across the world. But beyond greenery, topography defines beauty through grandeur, through a sense of the sublime and the danger of being overwhelmed. Istanbul, Manhattan, Hong Kong and Venice are exciting because of a Calvino-esque absurdity, the squeezing of unbelievable density on to islands and archipelagos.
This, however, is all about grandeur, spectacle, the beauty of scale. These are the beautiful cities of cliché and fairy tale. You could equally argue that too much beauty hinders a city. Think of Venice, the sinking tourist city mired in its own past, a city that has become a theme park of decaying beauty.
London, a city to which the epithet “beautiful” can be applied only sparingly, has been threatened with losing its Unesco World Heritage status with dull, yet increasingly strident, towers impinging on historic views of Westminster and the Tower of London. In other cities, such as New York, Chicago, or Hong Kong, skyscrapers are the essence of the city. In London, it is more difficult, particularly as so many towers are so poorly designed, but this municipal carelessness does allow the city to adapt, to keep itself relevant. That is part of the reason London has been able to maintain its status as a trading centre for six centuries.
Perhaps, instead, we should look for the beautiful not only in the macro but in the micro. In that way we might be able to find life-affirming beauty in even the dullest metropolis. There is a beauty of sweeping panoramas and dazzling views but there is also the thrill of the unexpected, of serendipity. To wander from a tight, dark alley into a small square with a fountain. To find yourself in a courtyard in which the line between public and private is unclear – whether in a Beijing hutong or an Italian cloister. Or the momentary transformation of a city square to a market or a fairground, these are among the real thrills of urbanity.
The London garden square, for instance, has been used ad infinitum as an exemplar of density and greenness. What once made it special, though, was its element of surprise, coming across a square of brick terraces surrounding an elegant garden after wandering through ramshackle tenements. Its beauty is, in part, in its contrast from its surroundings, in the rhythm of density and intensity that distinguishes the city from the suburb.
To compile a list of the most conventionally beautiful cities would be nearly pointless. The panoramic beauties would win every time. But these are tourist views. The moments of beauty that affect the lives of city dwellers are those that are more private or, perhaps, more meaningful than the familiar views. If anything, it is these everyday delights that define life in cities. For me, it might be the alleys of St James’s in London, and the little cobbled yards behind. It might be turning off Budapest’s busy ring road into a tightly packed street and into a musty apartment block courtyard with the smell of Sunday lunch hanging heavy in the stairwells. Or perhaps the collage of iron fire escapes leading the eye up to a New York roofscape populated by ad hoc water towers and the Chrysler building behind. These serendipitous moments of juxtaposition and surprise keep the city alive.
“Beauty,” wrote the Marquis de Sade, “belongs to the sphere of the simple, the ordinary, whilst ugliness is something extraordinary.” We often concentrate on the ugliness of cities, the desire to escape to the country or the suburbs, or at least the rarefied quarters of luxury. But perhaps it is precisely because beauty is in the ordinary that we are just looking for it in the wrong places.
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Beautiful moments in cities
Emerging from the darkness of a sottoportego in Venice and finding the shimmering light of the Grand Canal opening out before you.
Stumbling from the banal wide streets of Beijing into the complex warrens of hutong courtyard houses.
The snaggle-toothed incongruity of a Victorian walk-up tenement, with its fire escapes and faded signs for long forgotten brands on its walls, dwarfed by the scale of a neighbouring commercial skyscraper.
Moving from the bustle and traffic of Regent Street through the dark, Piranesian grandeur of Air Street into the backstreets of Soho.
A view of the wonderful wavy patterns in the pavements, which seem to reflect the watery nature of a city once destroyed by earthquake.
The city seen at night from Mulholland Drive. David Lynch captured it in the eponymous movie, a film noir vision of an illuminated grid or a chessboard in which the inhabitants’ actions seem to be controlled by destiny.
Mongkok’s sparkling street markets at night hemmed in by vast cliffs of apartment dwellings.
The beams of light admitted from the ceilings at the Grand Bazaar in which the fug of trade, cigarette smoke, tea steam and conversation congeals in an essential mist through which the strong sunlight cuts like a razor.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic