Can We Still Create Beautiful Cities?

Edwin Heathcote looks at "fumbling attempts at creating new forms of urbanity" and "new ideals of beauty" in cities like Milton Keynes, Rotterdam, and Dubai, and asks if we can still create urban beauty, or if it's even desirable in the first place.

January 14, 2013, 12:00 PM PST

By Jonathan Nettler @nettsj


Is there a formula for creating beautiful cities? Certainly the City Beautiful movement thought they had cracked the code with their focus on "picturesque parks, tree-lined avenues and bombastically classical civic and cultural buildings."

But, as Heathcote explains, beauty in cities can come in many forms: "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."

For Heathcote, contemporary cities may be better served by focusing on the "everyday delights" of juxtaposition and surprise, rather than grand statements, to infuse their environments with beauty. 

"There is a beauty of sweeping panoramas and dazzling views but there is also the thrill of the unexpected, of serendipity," he says. "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."

Heathcote concludes with remembrances of several such beautiful moments in cities.

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