The race is on to see whether British Prime Minister Theresa May or American President Donald Trump will win the bilateral infrastructure beauty sweepstakes. At least we know Britain has entered. May’s Transport Minister John Hayes recently gave a speech, “On Beauty in Transport,” laced with a great deal of profundity in regard to what citizens of a civilized state deserve and by right ought to demand from their government, and not just regarding bridges, highways and train stations.
(Trigger Warning: Hayes is a member of a cabinet dominated by the prime minister’s Conservative Party. The reader is advised that any agreement with Minister Hayes’s remarks on beauty in no way requires or implies agreement with Hayes or May on any other matters.)
Hayes quotes the critic Richard Morrison describing Euston Station, which was once an elegant exercise in pedimental archways but is now … well, let Morrison tell the tale:
Euston is one of the nastiest concrete boxes in London: devoid of any decorative merit; seemingly concocted to induce maximum angst among passengers; The design […] gives the impression of having been scribbled on the back of a soiled paper bag by a thuggish android with a grudge against humanity and a vampiric loathing of sunlight.
Hayes then remarks: “For better or worse, transport hubs like Euston frame our working days, and punctuate our working lives. When transport design is done well, it raises expectations.” As for the “old stations such as Paddington and St. Pancras,” Hayes adds, quoting the philosopher and architectural theorist Roger Scruton:
The architecture is noble, serene, upright. The spaces open before you. Everything is picked out with ornamental details. You are at home here, and you have no difficulty finding the ticket office, the platform or the way through the crowds.
Hayes describes how beauty serves to aid utility. Today utility is conceived by most of our leading aesthetic theorists, and by modern architects, as untied to beauty, whereas the reverse is true: Utility without beauty eventually will lose its usefulness as ugliness and sterility erode our care for a structure’s maintenance. Eventually, as Scruton has pointed out, such a building will serve best as an opportunity to make way for a prettier building.
That is, if beauty ever wins its own sweepstakes with the muscle-bound iron horse of modernist utility – and who cares whether May or Trump leave the starting gate or reach the finish line first – as long as they get there. I see more and more reasons nowadays to hope that I needn’t warn readers not to hold their breath. In her transport minister May has a head start, but Trump could trump May by using his as-yet-unproposed infrastructure program to rebuild Penn Station in its original, classical McKim, Mead & White style.