Beauty matters, because people do, by Ben Gummer

More than twenty years ago, I was lucky enough to go, with my family, on a long drive through eastern Europe, to places that then felt very closed but have since opened up as the east has integrated with the west.

The journey has left me with abiding and – in some instances – searing memories.  The socialist tyrannies that ran East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria – which we drove through one by one – had left these countries impoverished and the people oppressed.

As any parent will know, young people notice odd things, and those moments stick with you.  For me it was the red and white painted smoke stacks that rose above every major town, and the pipework that wound its way round the cities, like giant worms running alongside buildings and then slither from side to side, creating grim industrial triumphal arches over the roads.

Most of these were district heating schemes that ran from the vast factories to the housing blocks that stood alongside.  It was a Marxist hell, where people were reduced to economic units – mechanical actors forced to live amongst the noise, smog and visual pollution of the industrial-urban complexes that were passed off as towns.  I can remember Chemnitz being pretty bad but what Ceausescu had done to town after town in Romania was beyond comprehension.  Everywhere the shameful degradation of the individual and the family was symbolised by the brute ugliness of the cities that the socialist ‘democracies’ grew.  These were Potemkin conurbations, based around industries making things that in the real world no one wanted; and when reality was restored, the fake factories soon fell silent, leaving these hideous cities now destitute too.

It has taken nearly thirty years and trillions of euros to restore these once-proud towns and cities to the places their brave people deserve them to be.  And why should I be bringing this up now?  For two reasons.  The first is rather random.  I was struck recently by one of John Norman’s many excellent pieces for the Ipswich Star, in which he described the creation of Alton Water and the complicated way in which water is moved about Ipswich to ensure that when we turn a tap, something fresh and potable comes out.  One detail I did not know: that through the middle of the Orwell Bridge is a large pipe, that carries water from Alton to the Felixstowe peninsula.  It was a good reminder of the hidden services that are all over the place, without which modernity would be finished.

What is striking here, though, is the way that modernity has been expressed.  Most of us admire the Orwell Bridge: for a road bridge it is simple and beautiful, which is why we are happy for it to represent our part of Suffolk.  Here we have created something that not only carries cars but piped water also – a stunning thing that enhances our landscape, for all the concrete by which it is composed.

The comparison with old eastern Europe is important: in a country, and a society, that values people and the experience they have of life, the necessary interventions of modern infrastructure should – and often do – reflect that basic fact; where people and their views are not valued, they do not.

Secondly, the reverse is also true.  If you value beauty in our built environment, you value people too.  If you accept poor design and an ugly environment, you also implicitly condemn the people who must live and work in those places to a life less happy and contented than they would otherwise enjoy.

It is the simple reason why I am so passionate about good design in our town – making sure that whatever is built, however small, should be as good as possible.  And as our town rises from its own long period of neglect, it will show its resurgence by its recovery of beauty and charm.