The Authority of Beauty
Sze Tsung Leong

In About Beauty, edited by Akbar Abbas and Wu Hung (Berlin: Haus der Kulturen der Welt, 2005).

Cities attain a state of beauty—however subjective, contested, or difficult to define—either as a result of a long, unplanned process of evolution, or by being constructed according to particular definitions of beauty. Unplanned beauty emerges out of an organic process of growth where a city or town reaches a state of aesthetic and structural harmony, not though any willful design, but through the slow accretions of time. The general agreement that medieval street patterns or traditional hillside towns are beautiful relates to the aesthetics of the natural order, which is one of the most accepted forms of beauty. In other words, these streets and towns are regarded as beautiful because they have reached a perceived harmony with the natural. Beauty, in these situations, is not so much intended as evolved over time.

There is another expression of beauty on an urban scale that has achieved particular dominance, because of the forcefulness necessary for its execution. Planned beauty, like its unplanned counterpart, conveys the idea of harmony. But, unlike its counterpart, it does not necessarily align with the natural. Instead, the aim is to reach an ordered harmony with ideologies, forms of power, or social structures. Beauty in this case is a tool defined and enlisted to convey beliefs, orders, and hierarchies. The scale of forces needed for this type of urban planning and design means, more often than not, that the definition of beauty rests with those with the power to construct it. Planned beauty, manifested at the size of the city, is imposed.

The belief that beauty can be conflated with social ordering in the urban scheme has historically formed one of the main goals of the discipline of city planning. In China, the tradition of Imperial city planning was seen as a form within which society could be organized. The urban plan was considered beautiful primarily because it reflected the structuring of society within a divine order: the plan was centered on the palace, the symbolic form of the emperor as the personification of heaven, around which tiers of society were arranged in hierarchical order within a planned grid. In Europe, the concentration of monarchial and military power, which developed prominently during the seventeenth century, enabled the planning of cities not only as symbolic forms for authority, such as Versailles, but as tools to facilitate control over society.

This lineage of beauty as a way to represent and foster social harmony and control forms the basis of “urban beautification,” a term now widely in use and synonymous with urban regeneration and redevelopment. Planned beautification, which began in the domain of the imperial and monarchial, continued and expanded its development through the social changes of the mid-nineteenth century that underly modern society. During this time, Europe and the United States were rapidly transforming into societies driven by the market economy, and urban environments had to be adjusted to accommodate the new life.

Beautification was seen as a method to package and deploy the significant urban changes required by the new society. One of the clearest expressions of beauty imposed on an urban scheme was Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s “strategic beautification” of Paris in the mid-nineteenth century, under Napoleon III. As opposed to the Imperial urban plans of China or Versailles, which were built from blank slates, Haussmann’s beautification was a strategy to transform the existing. This strategy incorporated two of the most influential tools of urban beautification, slum clearance and the widening of streets. What constituted a slum was defined by those with the power to transform urban areas, and the arguments for slum clearance were linked with the perception that urban configurations characterized by tight, medieval patterns of streets promoted disease, social degeneracy, poverty, and crime. Demolishing these areas, perceived as difficult to police and control, was seen as a way to promote sanitation and social health.

The visible manifestation of urban beautification was achieved by the boulevard, which provided the city with visual and formal consistency. In Paris, boulevards were faced with uniform facades and defined by vistas of monuments such as the Opéra, Arc de Triomphe, and the Louvre. Yet the purpose was not merely aesthetic, for the functions of beautification transcended the visible. The boulevards were intended to give the city a symbolic structure by connecting and clarifying the hierarchies of urban institutions, to allow rapid movement throughout the city for the many forms of traffic (official, military, commercial, and public), and to aid in the policing of the city by the elimination or containment of labyrinthine urban districts.

The elements that came to be accepted as requirements for urban development—slum clearance, wide avenues, and uniform facades—were the basis of one of the most explicit movements to impose particular ideas of beauty on the city, the City Beautiful Movement. This movement was manifested most clearly in built form at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, also called the “White City.” Its main proponent, the architect and city planner Daniel Burnham, believed that the unsightly aspects of city life embodied by crowded tenements and narrow streets should be cleared away and replaced with airy, ordered avenues and uniform facades in the Beaux-Arts style. In turn it was hoped that social ills of poverty, disease, and crime would be eliminated through the elimination of their environments.

Beauty, like many social constructions, is a product of specific periods of history. In the urban context, one period of history’s idea of beauty is often imposed on past notions—and the form that this takes, as in Haussmann’s Paris and the City Beautiful Movement, is through the demolition of the past. Presently, there is perhaps no clearer manifestation of these tendencies than in contemporary China, where the combination of unchallenged, centralized power and extreme economic development have enabled one of China’s most significant and extensive urban transformations.

The tradition of authoritarian power that enabled the uniform construction and ordered layouts that once defined Chinese cities is also the tradition enabling their destruction. The rationale for the large-scale demolition of traditional urban fabrics is not so different from the goals expounded by the urban beautification movements in Europe and the United States. In Beijing, many traditional neighborhoods have been officially labeled as “dangerous” and “dilapidated”. The decay of traditional neighborhoods is the result of an ideologically driven reconfiguration of the original fabric, as the Communist Party, in the early years of its new state, ordered traditional homes to be transformed from private family households to multifamily compounds. As a result, unregulated constructions and additions dismantled the architectural integrity of the homes, and filled the courtyards with haphazard shanties. The decades of state-sponsored disdain of history during the Mao era effectively turned urban fabrics once symbolic of Chinese culture and society into slums.

The demolition of traditional urban fabrics is, in most cases, total. With little or no historical encumbrances, new street patterns, wider streets, and buildings of uniform facades can be imposed on a blank slate. The rationale for this process is primarily economic. As in Haussmann’s Paris, the new city gives an urban face to the new society, while driving out the poor from the city centers. The social order, and its corresponding aesthetics, is one based on giving an urban face to the new wealth, the departure from an uncomfortable past, and the pursuit of the new goals and requirements introduced by the market economy. The form that urban beautification takes in China is not the adjustment and modification of existing fabrics, but is, most often, the complete erasure of the past and its replacement with the new. The urban beauty of the socially ordered, imperial past, decayed through ideological neglect, has become a casualty of a new form of beauty. To ask whether this new reality is beautiful or not is irrelevant. The more significant question is, who does this beauty belong to?

Text © Sze Tsung Leong