Beauty vs. elegance of cities

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The illustration that decorates the home page of a marketing survey of civic elegance. (Zalando)

My former colleague at the Providence Journal, Froma Harrop, who has a syndicated column and a website called This East Side (about that side of Manhattan; she also lives partly on that side of Providence), recently asked me to contribute an essay about a survey that ranked cities by “elegance.” The idea was, I’ll admit, baffling. As a characteristic of cities, or of anything, beauty is easier to define and measure than elegance. But said I’d give it a try.

The survey, “The Most Elegant Cities in the World,” commissioned by the international marketing firm Zalando, ranks New York City as the seventh most elegant city in the world. The top ten are Paris, London, Vienna, Venice, Florence, Barcelona, New York, Bordeaux, Milan and Rome. The selection and their order may be challenged, of course, except that the survey’s data are exclusively numerical.

There is no descriptive analysis at all, at least not that I could locate. The survey’s introduction describes elegance only in the vaguest terms, insisting, as per de rigueur, that it has nothing to do with money, and then blatantly reverses itself in the same sentence (see below). No, elegance derives from the number of fashion schools, a reputation for being “fashion capitals,” the perception of fashion journalists, the presence of UNESCO heritage sites, the number of museums, the degree of cleanliness, whether a city’s entry point is “accessible,” the quality of its architecture and (a separate category) the look of the city as judged by (an alleged) 2,000 architecture journalists, and other facets of civic quality. Here is Zalando’s definition of elegance:

From the grandeur of the Vienna Philharmonic, to the effortless sophistication of the French Riviera, elegance wears many masks. It’s not just the people, but the cities themselves, with their unique architecture and cultural landscapes, that make a destination elegant. Money can’t buy it, and yet billions of dollars flow through the fashion and tourism industries each year to evoke the quality. The secret is that elegance can be achieved with a simple flick of a €2 scarf, a picnic in a beautiful, clean park, and a glass of good quality red wine. Elegance is a question of taste, attitude, and always showing your best side.

This definition suggests how much more difficult it would be to rank elegance than to rank beauty. It shows how unlikely it is to be reliably assessed and ranked by a group of experts, or people who like to think they are experts, selected by the consultant hired by Zalando. Beauty is assessed through the eye, and has a visual specificity that elegance lacks.

How does one assess the validity of a ranking in overall elegance that places Paris ahead of London in spite of their two-one placement (1.26 and 2.09, with 5 being cleanest) in cleanliness? Isn’t cleanliness next to godliness? It is certainly not vital to elegance, at least not by this survey’s reckoning! The two top elegant cities ranked very low in cleanliness, as did all the top ten elegant cities except for Vienna (4.49) and Bordeaux (4.09). Interesting!

I’ve named only the top ten but they were supposedly hewn from the top 80, which were distilled from the top 400 cities, the identity of the other 320 wannabes being unrevealed, not to mention the thousands that didn’t even make the first cut. I can make hide nor hair of this survey, except that it seems to me that the cities on the way up in the elegance sweepstakes are probably doomed to be on the way down in the beauty sweepstakes.

Froma asked me to pay particular attention to the how the architectural qualities of New York were dealt with. However, I had little more to go on than a set of numbers. Paris ranked 5.00 in architecture compared with New York’s 4.49. All the top ten cities except Paris ranked somewhere between 4.00 and 5.00. There being no other basis for judging the judges’ rankings, which in essence said “Very good!” for the architecture of all ten cities without further comment, I told Froma that I’d rather give it a pass.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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4 Responses to Beauty vs. elegance of cities

  1. Pingback: Nine minutes in Budapest | Architecture Here and There

  2. Nikos Salingaros says:


    The term “elegance” has been commandeered to great advantage by architectural culture, and especially by the system’s preferred champions. They all dress in a certain very elegant manner: all in black, the studied insouciance of a scarf (worn indoors and totally unnecessary for the ambient temperature), shoes without socks, a crumpled jacket that, on closer inspection, turns out to be a top name brand that costs $600, etc. All of this is part of a winning strategy for media attention yet is totally superficial — just like those persons’ thought processes. And their buildings. All superficial show but no depth of content. Shallow at about 1 mm. Nothing underneath; nothing living under the artificial skin. The “elegant walking dead”.

    Beauty, on the other hand, is deep and visceral. It is the stuff that life is made of. Let’s not confuse it with elegance.

    The word “elegance” itself is so misused as to become meaningless. No wonder this classification is confusing.



  3. AG says:

    I think the point of “money can’t buy it but millions are spent to evoke it” is the most important part of elegance vs. beauty. However it is quite vague. I do not understand why London is number 2. The architecture is very incoherent and the city itself is more of a hodge-podge. Totally different from Paris, Bordeaux, Vienna, etc.


    • Yes, AG, and what about Prague as No. 39, halfway down the list, ranked below some real clunkers. Obviously the “experts” who did this were not the least bit rattled by modern architecture or the hodgepodge you identify that certainly degrades the elegance of so many cities.

      Liked by 1 person

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