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Beauty first says Stephen Bayley

Jonathan Schofield interviews the 'design guru' prior to his city lecture 'Architecture is more important than politics'

Written by . Published on February 16th 2010.

Beauty first says Stephen Bayley

It's good for the soul to lift your eyes to the skies, or to lovely buildings, and think beauty, in all its abstract and physical forms. This belief lies at the heart of Stephen Bayley's (pictured here) March lecture at BDP's Manchester HQ on Ducie Street.

Great design has moral qualities. It is honest, witty, disciplined, yet right for its function or location.

Bayley is a posh Scouser who studied History of Art in Manchester between '69-'72. Over the years he has become a respected design commentator, a regular 'name' columnist in the broadsheet and design press. He can also court controversy.

One of his several books is 'Woman as Design' (2009) which looks at how the physical form of the female has been used as a symbol in art. Germaine Greer disapproved. Others thought it magnificent. American writer, wit and author of Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe, has said of Bayley “I don't know anybody with more interesting observations about style, taste and contemporary design”.

His lecture title in Manchester is 'Architecture is more important than politics'. The gut-reaction to this is, what on earth can he mean? Has he gone mad?

“It's simple really," Bayley says. "I think that the environment we inhabit affects our behaviour in more positive and negative ways than politics does. If you have dignified buildings and public spaces people become more industrious, more responsible – happier.”

He pauses as if this were a truth engraved in stone. Before I can react he 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."

Have you got any instances of this, I ask, or are you shooting scatter-gun from the hip? Could we name names?

"Peter Mandelson," Bayley says without a moment's hesitation. "When I worked on the Millennium Dome as Creative Director I would say to Mandelson, who was looking after the project for the government, that 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 of design. 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 horse shit was exactly what the £750m was spent upon. At least Bayley had the good sense to resign two years before the Dome opened. But his blanket criticism of politicians and politics is surely wrong. Even a little crazed maybe. Politicians are the oil (definitely in Mandelson's case) of a democracy, a necessary evil. Who else will lead?

And some politicians seem to realise the importance of the built environment. In the recent Manchester Confidential interview with Sir Richard Leese, the Council Leader said: “We have to improve the physical environment where people live so they want to settle and invest there. They have to feel the area they live in is attractive.”

Bayley seems surprised a politician would say this.

“Well, that's good to hear, but hardly typical. Maybe we could do with an Aesthetic Party. All the main ones are all pretty much the same, indistinguishable. Of course this is a Utopian thought, but 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 politicians 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.”

Confidential whole-heartedly agrees. Maybe every Council should have an officer dedicated to beauty, saying things such as, “you can't build that school it isn't beautiful, let's do that it is beautiful”, maybe beauty should be taught in schools, objective principles of beauty that is, not just subjective opinion.

Chips has the 'stand-out' factor

“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. So building with beauty and building with quality affects the well-being of those who live close to it. 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.”

Give me an example of such a building, I ask.

“Chips in New Islington,” he replies. “It's an optimistic structure. It stands out, makes that bit of Manchester more interesting. It shows the possibilities of being individual in design. People intuit from buildings such as these that the person who designed it was genuine, it is an expression of authenticity about the intent of the designer to make the area better.”

Confidential likes Chips too and thinks it boosts Ancoats. A final question: does Bayley think that British design and architecture is better than it was in the early seventies when he was at Manchester Uni.

“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 Modernists did, beauty should no longer be the preserve of the privileged, or maybe live according to the quote of the old Italian Communist Party, 'the best salami for everyone'.”

Bayley's enthusiasm is infectious. Despite the apparent 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 is one of Manchester's greatest architects, the man behind the remarkable First Church of Christ, Scientist in Victoria Park from 1903. He would arrive at his office at 78 Cross Street 'wearing a large black cloak, lined with red silk, a flat, broad-brimmed hat and brandishing a silver handled cane'. When a trainee architect came to the practice Wood would ask the trainee to draw a vase of flowers, so they “might better understand beauty”. Bayley would have approved no doubt.

After all a little more consideration of beauty in our designs might make a world of difference.

Edgar Wood's vision of beauty: First Church of the Christ, Scientist, Victoria Park

Stephen Bayley will be presenting 'Architecture is more important than politics' at the first annual pro.manchester lecture on Wednesday 3 March at the BDP offices on Ducie Street. Tickets are £40 plus VAT from www.pro-manchester.co.uk

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5 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

snFebruary 17th 2010.

glad Jonathan flags up some of Stephen's holes.

“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."

and what would he suggest in the place of (a flawed and highly imperfect, natch) parliamentary multiparty democracy?

perhaps a few wise men to hold sway?

Planning officerFebruary 17th 2010.

Beauty sounds like a fey concept to promote, but I'm right with Bayley on this. How often do you hear at the planning stage of a development, let's make this beautiful. I'll tell you how many times. Never. This is sad. It's not the way the Town Hall or great Cathedral builders approached these things.

Thomas MemFebruary 17th 2010.

Great piece, strange man though isn't he?

GJHFebruary 17th 2010.

'Woman as Design' = 'Ladyshapes' starring Alan Partridge.


HopingFebruary 18th 2010.

Great piece. If only when it comes to beauty eh?

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