Current efforts to define a popular standard for beauty in building echo historic debates, says Timothy Hyde, but the judgments of law courts have often been more significant than the court of public opinion

“What an ugly building.” This commonplace judgment has in its frequent repetition become something more than just a frank opinion. It is shorthand for the equally common presumption that the architectural profession in the UK is far removed from the concerns, ideas, and feelings of the public. The values of the architect – social, cultural, and above all aesthetic – are not those of the common person.

From this presumption arise initiatives like the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, a governmental body given the task of improving design quality specifically by attending to ‘popular consent’, and chaired by the philosopher Roger Scruton, until he was dismissed in response to comments made in a magazine interview. More opinions will be gathered, from citizens, builders, technicians, architects, and others, examples will be studied, praised, or derogated, and guidelines and policies will be drafted. One suspects, though, that the debate will continue, and that the public and the profession will be pitted against one another time and again.

Taste and style have been the tools used in British debates on architectural ugliness for more than 200 years”

The debate over the new Commission, like debates on the many predecessor initiatives to formulate rules that would temper architectural improprieties, confines aesthetic judgment to the categories of style and taste. Taste (individual judgments of aesthetic objects), and style (in overt forms of historical revivalism like ‘Georgian’ architecture or in the subtle form of advocacy for immutable ‘principles’ of architecture), have been the tools used in British debates on architectural ugliness for more than 200 years.

The continuity of the debates is remarkable. Today, ‘letters to the editor’ complain about novel skyscrapers in the City or endorse the listing of works of brutalist architecture. Two centuries ago, a reader wrote to the editor of the Morning Post to deride John Soane’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields as a “palpable eye-sore”, and the revival-minded architects of the Cambridge Camden Society were rebuked by an ecclesiastical court for favouring an architectural style so intently that they violated theological principles in their restoration of the Round Church in Cambridge.

Continuing to view these persistent debates on architectural ugliness through the lenses of taste or style, however, would lead only to more definite segregation of aesthetic judgment, only reinforce the useless fiction of an unbridgeable divide between ‘what architects think’ and ‘what the public thinks’. What the recurrence of the style wars obscures is the recognition of the many venues in which the confrontation and reconciliation of profession and public actually take place. These are not editorial pages, symposia and social media, but rather courtrooms, committee rooms, memoranda and law reports.

What the recurrence of the style wars obscures is the recognition of the many venues in which the confrontation and reconciliation of profession and public actually take place”

When Soane, on more than one occasion, sued his detractors for libel and lost, the cases became part of the legal formulation of the modern conception that architecture criticism is not actionable because a work of architecture is not an embodiment of its creator. When the ecclesiastical court ordered the removal of the stone altar designed for the Round Church by the Cambridge Camden Society architects, a precedent was set that would be invoked a century and a half later to oppose the placement of Henry Moore’s sculptural altar in Christopher Wren’s St Stephen Walbrook.

Committee minutes reveal that MPs questioned Charles Barry’s Gothic Revival design for the new Houses of Parliament not out of hostility toward the style but due to worry that its delicate ornament would not be durable enough to resist the polluted London atmosphere. That their concern was merited quickly became clear, and architectural judgments about style subsequently promoted by Alfred Waterhouse and others were bound up with legal judgments in nuisance law as a new set of statutes emerged to regulate the environment of industrial Britain.

Since the creation of the Town and Country Planning Act in 1947, architecture has made ever more frequent appearances in hearing rooms, has been contested and defended as often by solicitors and barristers– perhaps more often – as it has by architecture critics and public figures. These appearances, like those in libel cases, nuisance law, and ecclesiastical courtrooms, are in fact crucial transactions between the profession and the public. Whatever the fate of individual buildings under discussion, these appearances contribute toward the formulation of new social instruments and ideas.

The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission – in whatever form it now takes – and other present and (inevitably) future committees, hearings, and legal bodies, need not be approached as decisive venues of aesthetic judgment according to preferences of style and taste. But nor should one presume that aesthetic judgment is separate and detached from such venues. It is precisely the judgment of ugliness that should signal the proximity of architecture to the frictions, uncertainties, and possibilities of the social realities from which it is made.