A thing of beauty is a joy forever

Is beauty really in the eye of the beholder? According to philosopher Alain de Botton, an ‘intellectual confusion around beauty’ for the last century has delivered building after building, street after street and city after city of ugliness. 

Why? Because we’ve been led to believe that beauty is a subjective experience. A beautiful building in my eyes may be an awful eyesore in yours.  In that case, anything goes. Or stays, as the case of the ACT Heritage Council’s decision to register the 1950s and 60s public housing along Northbourne Avenue demonstrates.

But protecting one of the Dickson Towers, alongside one pair of the houses, three storey flats, maisonettes and garden flats, sets a dangerous precedent.

These buildings, erected quickly and from cheap materials, were poor quality when they were first constructed. They are riddled with asbestos, have rising damp and are unliveable. Do we really want to preserve this type of building for future generations, given they didn’t adequately meet the needs of former generations?

Heritage listing these buildings may slow or even stop the ACT Government’s plans to revitalise the area – and to build a precinct that serves us better.

If beauty is subjective, then certainly the remediation work needed to bring these buildings up to contemporary standards – and the cost of incorporating them into a new development – may be justified.  But beauty is not subjective. “Everyone agrees that Venice is attractive, no one thinks that Frankfurt is,” de Botton states. 

In Canberra, it seems we are determined to hold onto the ‘Frankfurts’, when many sparkling examples of ‘Venice’ – such as the Sydney and Melbourne buildings in Civic – need more attention and investment. The property industry is committed to preserving our prized heritage buildings – the Canberra Glassworks, the Hotel Acton and the R M Hope building in Barton are just three examples. 

However, most Canberrans agree that these public housing flats along Northbourne Avenue are an unsightly and unwelcome entry to Canberra.  In a word: ugly. As John Keats famously said, “a thing of beauty is a joy forever”. These buildings offer no joy, and must go.

Catherine Carter is ACT Executive Director of the Property Council of Australia