Beauty, Happiness, Oh, and Truth too - Prof Ruth Reed on successful Urban Futures
My overriding take from the hour during which Professor Reed shared her thoughts gathered from over 20 years in professional practice as an architect and her extensive global experience was the importance of 'beauty'.... So elusive, hard to pin down, instinctively recognisable and easy to dismiss, it was an essential element in delivering quality of life and 'well-being'.
Teasing out the values contributing to well-being Ruth Reed suggested that 'comfort', 'contentment', 'protection', 'good health', 'vitality', 'security' and 'joy' were key values and ones which had been a concern from Aristotle onwards.
Aristotle had famously quoted, "Happiness depends on ourselves," with social reformer and philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, on reviewing the sources of pleasure and pain, apparently coining the phrase, 'well-being'.
Today, with politicians looking to quantify notions or measures of happiness, such as 'Gross National Happiness' (GNH as opposed to GNP), well-being had become a highly desirable political goal.
The New Economics Foundation (NEF) had been prioritising the interaction between personal and social well-being.
Some economists, in line with the "if you can measure it, you can manage it" approach to life, had even come up with a formula for GNH: Wit = α + βxit + εit, with 'W' being the reported well-being of individual 'i' at time 't', and 'x' as a vector of known variables, including socio-demographic and socioeconomic characteristics....(but which I couldn't help feeling might have been rather more wryly annotated by the likes of Flann O'Brien, as 'wot.anε-Jit').
In considering the interaction between personal and social well-being Prof Reed cited four key determinants - beauty, social interaction, memory and nature.
An Ipsos MORI survey had recently found that most people want beauty in the built environment. In fact, 80% of those questioned wanted this and 40% expected their Council to provide this.
Ruth Reed quoted a (sagacious) 13 year old as saying, "If there is no beauty in your life, just horrible stuff, you're not going to be a nice person".
But the beauty Prof Reed was referring to was not simply skin deep, but a beauty in performance and aesthetics.
Architect, writer and educator, Jeremy Till, had noted that perceptions on beauty between the wider public and architecture students diverged more and more widely the longer these students were involved in architecture raising an issue around opportunities for greater dialogue and quality of discussion.
Good design provided the human social being with choices, not conformity around their social interactions. 'Good fences make good neighbours' as Robert Frost observed in 'Mending Wall', with Prof Reed noting the higher life satisfaction of home owners as opposed to renters.
A CABE study of beauty in 2010 had noted the importance of memory, or the emotional and historical characteristics of a place.
Martha Scwartz in designing Dublin's Grand Canal Square had observed that she would repeatedly visit a place, building up layers of experience underpinning and enriching her initial experience. By building on this approach she was able to create a vibrant and flexible public space encouraging people to spend time there, creating a healthier public realm and offering a unique and viable alternative for families in a newly created sustainable urban environment for Dublin's waterfront.
CABE had also noted that the more intense the urban experience the more nature matters to people when they come across it, with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, amongst others citing the importance of green spaces as places for people to unwind and connect with nature.
However, the central question of how to put a value on well-being remained and in attempting to do this six values had been proposed by CABE -
1) Exchange Value - or the added financial value of well-designed houses or offices having a more readily available realisable value.
2) Use Value - a greater efficiency in use, in turn saving money or generating greater efficiencies
3) Image Value - for example through buildings such as Selfridges in Birmingham which provide a 'consciousness of identity' and a value that it would be impossible to purchase
4) Social Value - for example as recognised through the recent Guardian Award to the new Library of Birmingham for the social impact it had already made through the work of Carillion, the builders in providing work experience and getting people back into work
5) Environmental Value - needing to be at the top of the list, given our targets to reduce carbon use by 80% by 2050, in Prof Reed's view. She cited John Christopher's house in Worcester as an exemplar leading the way which was being studied by her colleague, Prof Lubo Jankovich, for its everyday and scientific values as a case study for future learning.
6) Cultural Value - with a need to underpin or reinforce popular or recognisable cultural values adding to the sum of the parts in the experience of a place.
For Professor Reed, good design was all about 'adding up' or the summation of the elements involved.
Good design could reduce truancy in schools, improve productivity, communication and good practice in offices, hospitals, businesses and our experience of social environments.
The articulation of these benefits remained elusive but essential to moving forward our appreciation of the benefits of good design and its impact on society.
Today, Tuesday 19th June Glenn Howells of Glenn Howells Architects will be speaking with Phil Jones of Phil Jones planning on Residential Futures from 12.30pm at the Birmingham Made Me Entrepreneurs Store, the Mailbox.
Prof Mike Brown will speak from 5.30pm, same venue, on Britain's Most Admired Companies.
Tomorrow Ian Callum, Director of Design, Jaguar will be joined by Stuart Wood, Chief Engineer, Triumph, Prof David Bailey, Coventry University Business School, Neil Cheeseman, Zytek, Kate Rock, Dunlop and Prof Adrian Cole, Birmingham City University to debate Automotive and Low Carbon Futures from 12.30pm
For more information on the Birmingham Made Me Design EXPO visit Birmingham Made Me
To vote for Best Midlands Brand or Innovation visit Idea Birmingham