The Permanence of Beautification

We cannot fail to be struck by the great return of beautification and ornament in contemporary discourse in architecture and urbanism [1] These themes originally belonged to the world of humanist and classical architecture. In no way does this imply a return to this type of highly characteristic architecture, or even to the way it approached projects. The reference to the categories of the esthetic of classical architecture is, however, neither incidental nor gratuitous. Rather, it is a symptom of a convergence of situations and questions on which it is important to dwell on.

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Salvation Army Shelter City, Le Corbusier, architect, 1929. © FLC / ADAGP, 2021

Pierre Caye, Philosopher, Director of Research at CNRS

February 26, 2022
14 min.

The Five Hallmarks of Urban Beautification

Beautification is central to the economics of the Ancien Régime, which was characterized by development without growth. From the great plagues of the end of the Middle Ages to the death of Louis XIV in 1715, Europe experienced a period of economic stagnation, shaken by intermittent crises that were often violent, but didn’t, however, prevent the continent from developing amenities, erecting buildings, and creating institutions. This approach became systematic during the seventeenth century as a result of a spurt of growth, which was nevertheless minuscule by today’s standards. In every instance, the idea was to transform material poverty into high symbolic value, status, and artistic wealth. This is the deeper meaning behind what is referred to in European history as the “Renaissance,” which extended well beyond the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The city was assuredly the privileged operator of this transformation, being the place where the proceeds of taxation and land rents accumulated, thereby driving an economy based on handicraft and construction, as well as on the increasingly sophisticated know-how in these fields.[2] Beautification is nothing other than the expression of this kind of transformation, which aims to alter reality at low cost, accounting for the countless constraints (both financial and legal) that stifle action. Beautification is by no means demiurgic—it operates on what is already there, at the margin, in small touches. It consists less in transforming reality than in reconsidering and redrawing the contours, to the point that the prime responsibility of technique lies with disegno. Urbanism in the Ancien Régime is accordingly referred to as an “urbanisme frôleur,”[3] which conveys the idea of lightly brushing against the city in passing—with a few exceptions, it spares itself from any large-scale works and is partial to relying on the convergence of countless initiatives (both private and public), orchestrated by its regulations, to get things done. Percier and Fontaine, the architects of the Napoleonic Empire, though in a later and ambitious period, were to have some of their interventions described as a mere “patching up” (rapetassement).[4] In a sense, the contemporary European city lends itself better to beautification—being better equipped, denser, and heritage-led, it naturally calls for restoration and rehabilitation, due to the importance given to what is already there. It, too, must face severe financial constraints arising from its debt burden, while also organizing the collaboration between a growing number of protagonists destined to share the same values and criteria in their interventions—which corresponds exactly to the functions of beautification when considered a specific modality of urban development.

Beautification arises at the same time as the city becomes functionalized. It is closely related to the process of city-becoming-machine—earlier, it accompanied the implementation of regulating layouts and zonings that were supposed to foster the flow of circulation and hygiene; now, the theme of beautification is making a comeback even as the application of artificial intelligence to urban management is progressing under the blanket term of “smart city.” Beautification is therefore still associated with a sort of modernity, which is itself only modern due to its intelligence of the functions and needs that these functions fulfill—it is therefore indeed the beauty of function. This is a misleading phrase, however, as there is nothing functionalistic about beauty. In beautification, function isn’t what leads to form, and ornament doesn’t necessarily aim to magnify the structure and its operational logic. The relationship is turned upside down, as the architectural embellishments that are unique to beautification purport to contribute to function. What is beautiful in itself works better, as beauty fosters both the appropriation of function by society and the elevation of human beings through the fulfillment of its duties. In the Vitruvian triad of Firmitas, Utilitas, Venustas, none of these terms dominates the others, rather they all nurture and reinforce one another. The triad highlights the tight interconnection between aesthetics, practicality, and durability in a fully bijective relationship, whereby beauty isn’t only the effect of function, but also contributes to its very effectiveness and durability. There isn’t that big a leap between Palladio, who makes his preferred form of façade composition (following the Ionic order and eustyle intercolumniation) the most perfect of balances between solidity, usefulness, and beauty, and William J. Hopkins (Professor of Physics at the Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry in Philadelphia), who, in his book on telephone lines,[5] in the midst of the industrial revolution, highlights the role of beauty of the new American landscape, deploying the dense lattice of its telephone network, in contributing to the technological impetus of the United States.[6] It is as though function was divided into a main function, both simple and purely utilitarian, and a second function, both beautified and beautifying, which magnifies the main one to wrest it away from its determinism and its “machine system” (machinisme). In a contemporary situation where functions are becoming virtualized and made invisible as a result of artificial intelligence, it is all the more important to proceed to their duplication, which not only elevates them, but also, more fundamentally still, makes them visible and therefore more human and less mystifying. This operation of the duplication of function is very ancient and forms part of the fundamental operations in ancient ethics. In De officiis,[7] Cicero differentiates what is utile from what is honestum—in other words, what is fundamentally useful from what is worthy and contributes to elevating human beings. The first architectural theorist who discussed beautification properly, well before Voltaire, was Leon Battista Alberti[8] in his treatise On the Art of Building. To do so, he employs the verb honestare, which means both to beautify and to dignify, and thereby conjoins beauty and dignity very closely—the beauty of dignity, the dignity of beauty. The ancient utilitarianism displayed in De officiis anticipates something subsequent utilitarianisms overlooked in their blindness: that our choices—even (and particularly) the most selfish ones, more often than not reflect our ignorance of what our utility and interest really are. Only the beauty of action and its conditions can enable us to judge the validity of their usefulness. Beautification then places itself at the service of what I venture to call a critical utilitarianism or functionalism.

“Patching up” as practiced by Percier and Fontaine: erection of the wrought-iron fence around the Louvre colonnade, Journal (Tome II), Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine, architects, 13 March 1826.
For a long time, beautification proceeded by tracing new straight thoroughfares that cut through the urban fabric, widening streets, developing promenades, and opening parks to the public. What mattered was to multiply the number of perspectives, providing as many invitations to strolling and wandering as possible with one place calling for another. To beautify—today as in the past—consists in dilating space. To dilate space doesn’t mean expanding it without measure, or dissolving the city into infinite expanses of cookie-cutter suburbs at the cost of exorbitant waste and artificialization of land. To the contrary, the idea is to create, within the very density of the urban fabric, spacing and rhythm, which further enriches urban itineraries and thus gives the impression that, for a given area, space is wider, freer, and more generous. Paris is one of the densest cities in the OECD, precisely because it has continuously been embellished, thereby making its density bearable. Dilating the city then amounts to fostering a sense of ease, freedom, and majesty, with only minimum use of space and overcoming a great many constraints; or providing for places that can space out the fullness of the physical and social interactions that weave the urban life, so that the singular life of each of us can find its own pace and respiration. Dilating space makes it possible to loosen the grip of the functional machine which the city is admittedly an instrument of, but also, once beautified, the remedy. For this reason, dilation is the very condition of beautification, the expression in any case of its success, and the privileged operator of this critical functionalism that we just mentioned. It provides an opportunity to loosen up the machine and temper its operation, without, however, putting it on hold.

Through the development of public squares, the tracing of roads, the opening of gardens, and the development of public entertainment and theaters, beautification eventually generates public space. Public space is also what results from the city’s dilatation—the moving from the enclosed spaces of private life to the open spaces of public life. Beautification in the Age of Enlightenment took on a strong political dimension and contributed to shifting the meaning of citizenship. The city becomes the “public thing”—literally, the “republic.” This dimension is particularly present in Voltaire’s publication entitled On the Beautification of Paris (Embellissements de Paris) (1749). Voltaire’s work, and, in particular, the considerable importance afforded to architecture and urban planning, aren’t devoid of ambiguity from a political point of view (an ambiguity ingrained in any urban beautification operation). There is undoubtedly a conservative Voltaire, who turns beautification into an instrument of power and political communication, as reflected in The Age of Louis XIV (Le Siècle de Louis XIV) (1751). There, he viewed the beautification of the city as consisting first in symbolically instituting authority, and in translating it into stone, in order to “identify within the untidy city the signs of order and harmony that is achieved through power and on which society rests.”[9] He identifies authority as using beautification operations to focus our gaze on places where power is exercised and on display, thereby expressing its mastery over space and things, on the built environment and landscapes, and therefore, on populations. On the Beautification of Paris gives a completely different interpretation of the political dimension of urban planning. Voltaire considers it up to the citizens themselves to take charge of the beautification of their city and—this is the very crux of his message—encourages them to do so, as the prime responsibility to do so lies with them. Beautification—far from serving the cause of such or such authority—then contributes to freedom and self-enfranchisement. It is the expression of urban life and its drive, as well as the instrument of its attractiveness. Voltaire’s short text is a prophetic announcement of the affirmation of a life that is worth more than power (substituting the city to the king) from the moment when—and this is an important qualification—it is instituted in beauty and in the dignity of its living environment. Here again, we find Cicero’s lesson from De officiis.

There is one last point that characterizes beautification. In contrast to the French embellissement, the English word expresses very clearly that it is the “making of beauty.” Beauty is made just as the objects that it embellishes. Further, the object is only really produced as its beauty is composed. This is a perplexing idea—for philosophers, the specialists of esthetics, beauty isn’t constructed; rather it derives from the application of the symbolic to ordinary materials and expresses its successful application; beauty is, as such, different every time, and, therefore, unpredictable. This kind of beauty remains inaccessible to beautification, however. In this instance, beauty comes out as being a case of pure technique and recipe, calculation, process, standards, and patterns—running the risk of becoming indifferent to esthetic perception and blending into the landscape. The constructed and normalized nature of beautification explains the ease with which it is made to serve the production system, in the form of decorative arts or design, ultimately becoming an active part of production. Practical use then replaces the distinctively esthetic experience. The considerable success, from the fifteenth century to the early twentieth century, of Vitruvius’ De architectura is then easily understood as it it proved capable of providing a coherent and comprehensive palette of tools for both design and production which were capable of generating beauty under all circumstances—well beyond the sole art of building. Vitruvianism isn’t simply an easily recognized all’antica artistic style, but more fundamentally a paradigm—a paradigm of beauty, of the kind that can be produced, as well as a production paradigm, of the kind that produces beauty and dignity, and that only produces objects to make these two manifest and available. The productive system is radically changed as a result. Beautification isn’t simply a critique of function anymore, it also becomes a critique of production.

The contemporary productive system uses beautification more than ever before in order to spread and gain legitimacy. Nevertheless, one can only wonder whether there exists a new paradigm that could renew the principles of the making of beauty, i.e., an art that is not only capable of making beauty, but, better still, of contributing, through this singular creation, to the transformation of the productive system. Vitruvianism is admittedly worn-out, having entirely lost the power to inspire action and transformation that it previously wielded—yet, what tends to replace it in terms of beautification is struggling to take up its role, especially in terms of critique. Beautification generates beauty that is placed at the service of the distribution and consumption of goods, and not objects placed at the service of beauty and the dignity it procures to our uses. We are in an in-between situation, which accounts for the difficulties that beautification has in reimposing itself as an operative artistic category.

The Place of Ornament

Ornament is the privileged instrument of beautification, in so far as it closely aligns to the five hallmarks that we have reviewed above in order to better define it. Ornament expresses above all (and better than any other approach) the frôleur and non-demiurgic nature of art, which is capable of transforming reality through minimalistic means. Ornament is an emphasis on details, which, when meaningfully multiplied, ends up forming a whole. Ornaments are put to use, not to destroy, but to connect, thereby bringing together what already exists in a unified sphere—something Pierre Patte calls “total beautification” (l’embellissement total).[10] The grace, if not the gratuitousness of ornament, also marks the reversal of functionalism where beauty contributes to function as much as function does to beauty. Ornament still serves to arrest the viewer’s gaze, to highlight frontal perspectives, to punctuate the architectural promenade, and, as a result, space out the city and dilate the perception of the city. In addition, ornament proposes a beauty that is accessible to all, with no cultural or social prerequisites, that comes in forms that are conducive to its dissemination. Ornament is indeed a universal paradigm in art and perhaps the most universal one in the general history of art. Ornament has existed in all times, past and present, and among all peoples, both East and West. The reason why we are indeed witnessing its return is that it is, for all the reasons above, an art that is in line with modern globalization. Furthermore, it is present in all arts, in music as well as architecture, and in the decorative arts as well as religious and sacred arts. In reality, there is no artistic activity that is exempt. Whatever the obvious differences between the various ornamental conceptions and models specific to every functional, artistic, historical, or geographical situation, the invariants that connect and bring together their various manifestations are inevitably attention grabbers. The fact of the matter is that ornament also takes on—and there lies the source of its universal reach—a strong anthropological dimension, accompanying the hominization process, and contributing to fashioning our protective cover against exteriority.

Entrance to the sede dei Tolentini of the IUAV university of architecture in Venice (Italy), Carlo Scarpa, architect, constructed after his death by Sergio Los, architect, 1985. © Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, 2016 Entrance to the sede dei Tolentini of the IUAV university of architecture in Venice (Italy), Carlo Scarpa, architect, constructed after his death by Sergio Los, architect, 1985. © Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, 2016
Entrance to the sede dei Tolentini. Architectural detail. © Richard Bryant/Arcaid Images / Alamy Stock Photo Entrance to the sede dei Tolentini. Architectural detail. © Richard Bryant/Arcaid Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Finally, ornament is the art par excellence of processes and patterns based on which beauty is generated. Any making of beauty, any beauty as making (and not as creation and emergence) necessarily involves ornament. There is talk of a return of ornament which, over the last generation or two, is asserting itself through the most diverse forms—but has it ever left us? Its universality would have prevented it from doing so. The modern movement has made use of ornaments just as the other moments in the history of art. Who could deny the presence of ornament in Ronchamp, La Tourette, and Chandigarh, and in many other of Le Corbusier’s works of architecture? How could its presence in the Bauhaus school possibly be minimized when that style influenced the decorative arts as much as it did architecture? The modern movement was content to recall, with an admittedly unmatched rigor, the old quarrel, already present in Alberti’s On the Art of Building, that has spanned the whole history of classical architecture and its doctrine. On one side is ornament as carefully integrated within the structure (and, better still, the project) at the service of the linear harmony of the building. On the other is ornament as clad and applied like mere make-up, without any rule aiming to restrain its proliferating economy.[11] Though contemporary architectural ornament has lost its institutional and political dimension, as Antoine Picon rightly points out, this is the case, in my opinion, because the bond between ornament as the art of detail and beautification as the art of the whole has become stretched. The reason why is that the connecting function of ornament has become undone, and that ornament now most often aims to capture the subject and blend them into the building, rather than allowing them to better inhabit the city and the world.

Beautification and Sustainability

There is, in the Vitruvian triad, a third term that it is important to keep in mind. I have mentioned the dialectical relationships that beautification establishes between beauty and function. Therefore, Firmitas—the structural soundness that ensures durability—must also be included. Beautification has not only contributed to space and its dilatation, but also to time and its construction. In his Art of Building, Alberti differentiates two kinds of beauty—one is based on the use of valuable materials, while the other stems from the elegance and refinement of forms.[12] This is a trivial distinction, but the consequence that Alberti draws from it is far less so. The first kind of beauty generates envy and therefore the unavoidable looting and destruction of the building it adorns; the second form elicits, on the contrary, admiration, and inspires looters to respect, thereby ensuring a long life to the artwork. Similarly, there are probably two types of urban art at present. One type aims to bolster the machine dimension of the city, by participating in the market economy and its consorts, marketing, spending, and consumption, and engages in creative destruction; but there is also an art of beautification that attempts instead to disengage from the machine by creating difference and spacing in the undifferentiated build-up of flows, networks, and fields of immanence in our productive system. Beautifying thus consists in introducing otherness in the great processes of uniformization of contemporary technique, or in enriching our sense of space and time in order to better protect us from total mobilization. It is on this basis that beautification has become a crucial instrument of sustainability.

Beautification isn’t an urban privilege. Reserving it only to the city would only bring about a greater territorial divide. It is a universal entitlement and concerns, for this reason, all of our habitats and our living spaces, not only the city, but also the countryside, which is called to form, following the old Tuscan expression, a bel paese. Just as the restoration of landscapes is an indispensable prerequisite of the conversion to a healthier and more sustainable agriculture, likewise, urban beautification must contribute to the transformation of the productive system.

Pierre Caye
Pierre Caye, a former student at the Ecole Normale Supérieure,  Research Director at CNRS, and honorary member of the French Society of Architects, has devoted a large part of his research to architectural treatises from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. He has, among other things, translated Leon Battista Alberti's L'art d'édifier with Françoise Choay (Le Seuil, 2004). He has just published Durer. Eléments pour la transformation du système productif (Les Belles Lettres, 2020), which gives an important place to architecture and urban planning in the service of sustainable development.

1 Antoine Picon, L’Ornement architectural : entre subjectivité et politique [The Architectural Ornament: Between Subjectivity and Politics] (Lausanne: Presses polytechniques et universitaires romandes, 2017).
2 Gabriel Martinez-Gros, Brève histoire des Empires : comment ils surgissent, comment ils s’effondrent [A Brief History of Empires: How They Arise, How They Collapse (Paris: Seuil, 2014).
3 Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, ed., Histoire de la France urbaine. La ville classique : de la Renaissance aux Révolutions [A History of Urban France. The Classical City—From the Renaissance to the Revolutions] (Paris: Seuil, 1981), t. III, 439.
4 Pétrus Borel, L’Obélisque de Louqsor [The Luxor Obelisk], (Paris: Les Marchands de nouveautés, 1836), 5.
5 William J. Hopkins, Telephone Lines and Their Properties (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1893).
6 See on this point Carlotta Daro, “Paysages de lignes. Les infrastructures de la télécommunication, architecture, territoire” [Landscape of Lines. The Infrastructures of Telecommunication, Architecture, Territory] (HDR diss., Université Paris-Est, 2020), 71.
7 Best translated as On Duties, better still than On Obligations, as it is often translated. In his famous treatise on agronomy, Cato the Elder (234 BCE–148 BCE), De agri cultura, which dates from well before Cicero’s De officiis, the officia correspond to concrete tasks.
8 Leon Battista Alberti, On the Art of Building in Ten Books [L’architettura—De re aedificatoria], trans. Joseph Rykwert, Neil Leach, and Robert Tavernor (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1485/1988), VII-1 & VII-13.
9 Sylvain Menant, “L’embellissement des villes selon Voltaire” [The Beautification of Cities According to Voltaire], Revue Voltaire, no. 12 (2012): 215.
10 Pierre Patte, Monumens érigés en France à la gloire de Louis XV [Monuments to the Glory of Louis XV in France], (Paris: Desaint & Saillant, 1765), 221. On this point, see also Alberti’s following statement: “What remarkable importance our ancestors, men of great prudence, attached to it is shown by the care they took that their legal, military, and religious institutions—indeed, the whole commonwealth—should be much embellished; and by their letting it be known that if all these institutions, without which man could scarce exist, were to be stripped of their pomp and finery, their business would appear insipid and shabby.” (Alberti, VI2, 155).
11 Alberti, VI-2, 156.
12 Alberti, VII-17, 242.