Why beauty matters

An invitation to care-minded architecture and shared spaces in Ghana. A provocation for better places.

Map of the Gold Coast from 1927
Map of the Gold Coast, Accra (1927) - Bassel Mission Archives

The other day, while searching online for a new apartment in Accra, I received a WhatsApp message from a friend.

It was a link to an apartment listing, and they explained that this looked promising…but there was one small issue. I clicked the link and soon burst out laughing.

One suspects there had been some grave miscommunication between architect and builder, because how else to explain the toilet, wedged at a 45 degree angle in the corner of the bathroom, and perched millimeters from a ledge?

Please forgive me for not sharing the photo - I don’t want to upset the developer or eventual tenant - but using the toilet successfully would either require you to splay your legs wide, or resign yourself to having your feet dangle uncomfortably while you took care of business. It was the mental image of doing these gymnastics in the bathroom that had me in hysterics.

If you’ve tried house-hunting in Ghana, you’ve likely encountered similarly curious situations. The walls that don’t meet at 90 degrees. The light fixtures crusty with paint. The odd smell wafting from the shower drain.

You very likely willed yourself to ignore these seemingly minor issues, because shouldn’t we be thankful to have found a half-decent place to live at all, close to our ideal location, and not too obscenely over budget?

Against the backdrop of a warming planet, family quarrels, food inflation, state-sanctioned violence, critical levels of underemployment, and a quite literal once-in-a-generation global pandemic, it feels privileged - maybe even immoral? - to raise a fuss over seemingly “small things” in our built environment.

Maybe it’s not worth overthinking the crack that suddenly appeared down the middle of the bedroom wall. Better to focus on more important things, maybe.

Why we look away

Rarely, you will encounter a work that you immediately know will have a profound shaping influence on your life. That work for me was The Architecture of Happiness, by Alain de Botton.

One of the greatest kindnesses that this book performs is in how it begins with a gentle defence of the natural instinct to care about the quality of the spaces created by architecture, even when the world snickers at us for caring deeply.

On some level, we understand intuitively that the state of the world around us influences something within us. Why then, when we’re out in the world, do we make ourselves selectively blind?

En route to dinner, we will delicately sidestep crumbling pavements, politely look away from the man urinating thunderously against a peeling wall, and smile our thanks to the waiter as they seat us not far from the gurgling throat of a fragrant open sewer.

We look away, de Botton says, because to Notice will be to open ourselves to a profound sadness.

It is to prevent the possibility of permanent anguish that we can be led to shut our eyes to most of what is around us, for we are never far from damp stains and cracked ceilings, shattered cities and rusting dockyards.

We can’t remain sensitive indefinitely to environments which we don’t have the means to alter for the good – and end up as conscious as we can afford to be.

We look away as an act of self-preservation. We try to not dwell on the harsh shadows cast by the heavy burglar-proofing rods over our windows because to do so will be confront how they give our rooms the flavour of jail cells.

…we may find ourselves arguing that, ultimately, it doesn’t much matter what buildings look like, what is on the ceiling or how the wall is treated – professions of detachment that stem not so much from an insensitivity to beauty as from a desire to deflect the sadness we would face if we left ourselves open to all of beauty’s many absences.

We mutilate our senses so that, as we go about our day in Ghana and engage with the physical environment, we can withstand the onslaught of evidence that something has gone very wrong.

We make our spaces, and then our spaces make us

Photo of an alleyway with high stone walls topped with lush green shrubs. There is golden evening light over the scene.
Kagurazaka district in Tokyo (source)

Architecture defines the kinds of people we can be.

This idea sounds odd, even absurd.

How can bits of wood, concrete, and metal reach inside and change something within us? Yes, it might impress and even dazzle us, but isn’t it too much to say that a building’s design can change who we are?

But when one considers it for a moment, one remembers that we are, indeed, different people in different physical contexts. In meaningful ways, you are a different person at a streetside bar, within a place of worship, or while in queue for the visa interview at the American Embassy.

One could quibble that this is majorly because there are different social expectations in each of these places, but the physical environment helps shape what those expectations are in the first place. An embassy building that had the same physical characteristics as the aforementioned bar (however hard it is to imagine) would result in different behaviour. Architecture, for better and for worse, signals to us - and shapes - the kinds of people we’re invited to be.

De Botton articulates it well:

…the self we miss…the elusively authentic, creative and spontaneous side of our character, is not ours to summon at will. Our access to it is, to a humbling extent, determined by the places we happen to be in…

In a hotel room strangled by three motorways, or in a waste land of run-down tower blocks, our optimism and sense of purpose are liable to drain away, like water from a punctured container. We may start to forget that we ever had ambitions or reasons to feel spirited and hopeful.

We depend on our surroundings obliquely to embody the moods and ideas we respect and then to remind us of them. We look to our buildings to hold us, like a kind of psychological mould, to a helpful vision of ourselves. We arrange around us material forms which communicate to us what we need – but are at constant risk of forgetting we need – within. We turn to wallpaper, benches, paintings and streets to staunch the disappearance of our true selves.

I would extend this to say that the work that architecture does to remind us of our best and true selves happens not only on a personal, individual level, but also on a collective, public level. Architecture speaks to something in our nature, and can have an amplified effect on a public, both feeding or smothering certain qualities within us.

I use the word architecture here to refer not only to buildings, but the sum total of all the elements that make up the built environment of our cities, including bus stops, public bathrooms, parks, street signage, and more.

A bus shelter with generous seating, impeccably clean public bathrooms, and a well-maintained park speak to us as loudly as an assembly of attractive townhomes.

They speak of care.

They tell us that it is not absurd to believe:

…that human beings might sometimes be generous to one another without hope of reward; that relationships can on occasion be sincere; that life may be worth enduring…

Bolstered by such acts of care, it is not unreasonable to believe that someone heartened in this way will find it easier to extend a bit more grace to the next person that they meet.

Spaces shape the kinds of thoughts we can think within them. We are, quite literally, different people in different places, and it matters that we pay more attention to the places we’re shaping for each other.

Beauty matters because the systems that make better places possible also nourish other virtues

What makes beautiful places possible? Money helps, but it is by no means the primary ingredient. We only need to look at innumerable examples of places that are both loudly expensive and lacking a certain grace.

Care, craft, empathy, generosity - these virtues and several others are what conspire together to make beautiful places possible. This means that when we set ourselves the challenge of making beautiful places, we rehearse the exact same qualities that are essential for solving other challenges in our personal and collective lives.

Buildings aren’t inert objects. The decision to make a place kicks up a storm of activities in the material world, and even after the dust has settled (literally and metaphorically), a place continues to exert an active influence over its immediate and distant surroundings. Adding an extra floor level to a home might change the quality of light enjoyed by a neighbour. Introducing a popular children’s park within a dense urban fabric can dramatically increase surrounding property values. The decision to plant a bed of flowers might attract certain pollinators, which might attract certain birds, which can completely change the biome of a backyard.

All of which is to say: physical elements in a place define and shape relationships between themselves and the material environment, as well as relationships between people.

A home that lines its frontage with a vibrant flowerbed says something about the relationship it wants to have with the street, and the mind that makes the effort to give this gift to the street is a mind that will find similar acts of selfless giving easier in other aspects of their lives.

When beautiful places exist, you will also find that there is a collective pride in maintaining them, which helps communities rehearse virtues of coordination and a shared responsibility to each other. In contrast, when places are unlovely, it is easier to be abusive towards them. This, too, is rehearsal for our darker natures.

The behaviours we repeat on one scale are rehearsals for another. When we’re cruel to our spaces, it is easier to be cruel to each other. But when we set ourselves the task of taking just a little more care to create, and maintain beautiful places, it sets us on a path towards our best selves.

What is beautiful architecture?

Photo of a brown dog sleeping at the top of the landing of concrete stairs leading to a small backyard
A vision of happiness. House 3 x 33 designed by 23 Sul

Speak enough about beautiful places, and the question inevitably emerges, “What is beautiful architecture?” Unsurprisingly, The Architecture of Happiness contains one of the best answers to this vexed question, so kindly allow me to quote several passages at length.

For de Botton, beauty in architecture lies not in a particularly architectural style, or a specific material, but in the values that a person reads into various shapes.

As thinking beings, we constantly project meaning and personalities into the shapes and objects around us. We might speak of a teacup as being “friendly” or a car as being “sexy,” but if quizzed on what we mean, we might become embarrassed by our inability to articulate it.

De Botton proposes that the reason we do this is because we carry this behaviour over from reading meaning into the physical shapes of other humans.

If we can judge the personality of objects from apparently minuscule features (a change of a few degrees in the angle of the rim can shift a wine glass from modesty to arrogance), it is because we first acquire this skill in relation to humans, whose characters we can impute from microscopic aspects of their skin tissue and muscle.

An eye will move from implying apology to suggesting self-righteousness by way of a movement that is in a mechanical sense implausibly small. The width of a coin separates a brow that we take to be concerned from one that appears concentrated, or a mouth that implies sulkiness from one that suggests grief.

…When only a millimetre separates a lethargic set of the mouth from a benevolent one, it is understandable that a great deal should seem to hang on the differing shapes of two windows or roof lines. It is natural for us to be as discriminating about the meanings of the objects we live among as we are about the faces of the people we spend time with.

Through this lens, when we argue over what is beautiful, we’re very often not quibbling over visual style, but arguing over the meaning we read into the shapes that make up the building, and whether that quality is what should be valued at a certain point in time.

To feel that a building is unappealing may simply be to dislike the temperament of the creature or human we dimly recognise in its elevation – just as to call another edifice beautiful is to sense the presence of a character we would like if it took on a living form. What we search for in a work of architecture is not in the end so far from what we search for in a friend. The objects we describe as beautiful are versions of the people we love.

We are also very drawn to those virtues that we find most relatively scarce in our lives.

We value certain buildings for their ability to rebalance our misshapen natures and encourage emotions which our predominant commitments force us to sacrifice.

Feelings of competitiveness, envy and aggression hardly need elaboration, but feelings of humility amid an immense and sublime universe, of a desire for calm at the onset of evening or of an aspiration for gravity and kindness – these form no correspondingly reliable part of our inner landscape, a rueful absence which may explain our wish to bind such emotions to the fabric of our homes.

So back to the question: what is beautiful architecture?

It is whatever form delivers to the viewer a concentrated dose of the virtues they seek.

A grasp of the psychological mechanism behind taste may not change our sense of what we find beautiful, but it can prevent us from reacting to what we don’t like with simple disbelief. We should know to ask at once what people would have to lack in order to see an object as beautiful and can come to understand the tenor of their deprivation even if we cannot muster enthusiasm for their choice. We can imagine [for example] that a whitewashed rational loft, which seems to us punishingly ordered, might be home to someone unusually oppressed by intimations of anarchy.

De Botton is quoting French writer Stendhal when he says “There are as many styles of beauty as there are visions of happiness.”

In essence, what works of design and architecture talk to us about is the kind of life that would most appropriately unfold within and around them. They tell us of certain moods that they seek to encourage and sustain in their inhabitants.

While keeping us warm and helping us in mechanical ways, they simultaneously hold out an invitation for us to be specific sorts of people. They speak of visions of happiness.

So when I advocate for you to care more about beautiful architecture in Ghana, what specific virtues do I wish our built environment would better embody?

I suspect that the main virtues I am attempting to promote are care and generosity.

This can manifest in various ways. There is care and generosity in creating true public places - comfortable areas that don’t require money to access. There is care and generosity in creating walkable communities that can be navigated by the differently-abled. There is care and generosity in giving a damn about the spaces we create for each other, and believing that we have a responsibility to each other.

To describe a building as beautiful therefore suggests more than a mere aesthetic fondness; it implies an attraction to the particular way of life this structure is promoting through its roof, door handles, window frames, staircase and furnishings.

A feeling of beauty is a sign that we have come upon a material articulation of certain of our ideas of a good life.

While beauty will always be personal, de Botton shares a handful of simple principles that reliably appear to create that quality.

  1. Order: Architecture appears beautiful when one can sense the regular rhythm of a human intent, intertwined with subtle complexity.
  2. Balance: Architecture appears beautiful when it mediates a number of oppositions, bringing them into delicious tension and conversation with each other.
  3. Elegance: Architecture appears beautiful when it achieves a great feat without drawing great attention to how it has done so.
  4. Coherence: Architecture appears beautiful when it harmonises with its context of place and time.
  5. Self-knowledge: Architecture appears beautiful when it takes seriously those hard-to-articulate feelings about what creates comfort, and designs for them.

The chapter that discusses these principles at length (chapter five) is one the great triumphs of The Architecture of Happiness.

Without exaggeration, if you do nothing at all but read chapter five, you will gain powerful mental models that will give you the ability to quickly assess the ways in which a work of architecture is and is not working, and the ability to quickly think of various interventions to make it more beautiful.

If you’re someone who wrestles with the frustrating feeling that something is off about a place, without being able to put your finger on what it is, this chapter will unlock the vocabulary you’ve been missing.

I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Beauty as a felt thing, experienced as care

Beauty goes beyond the eye.

In the world today, vision is the dominant sense, and a strong ocular bias pervades everything, This is to our detriment, because in reality, we experience space with our entire bodies and not just visually.

In The Eyes of the Skin, architect and architecture theorist Juhani Pallasmaa quotes philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty to underscore how perception is more than a sum of the parts of our individual senses.

“My perception is [therefore] not a sum of visual, tactile and audible givens: I perceive in a total way with my whole being: I grasp a unique structure of the thing, a unique way of being, which speaks to all my senses at once”

Attempting to solve only for how a thing looks results in the chaotic facades, glued-on panels, flashing LED lights, faux gold-plated armchairs, and other such eye-level gymnastics that we’re familiar with.

That oracular bias is also part of the reason why “beautification efforts” in African cities too often consist of little more than applying state violence against street hawkers and “clearing slums.”

Beauty is not synonymous with expensive, and a home made of plywood walls and metal roofing sheets is not an invitation for harassment. To say that beauty matters is not a call to demolish the settlements of people who are barely making ends meet. Criminalising poverty and removing people from view does nothing to solve root issues.

Better places, paradoxically, don’t require heroic architecture to make them so. In his essay Boring Buildings, Great Places, Daniel Herriges points out that foot traffic and human scale are often far greater prerequisites of places that feel great than “A+ architecture.”

That felt thing we call beauty can exist in even the most modest places, and older parts of Tokyo are great examples of this. Walk about the Yanaka Ginza area like Daniel recommends, either using Google Maps or YouTube walk-throughs, and you’ll perceive a certain coziness and charm, despite the fact that the buildings themselves are actually not at all remarkable.

So beauty is not marble, or brick, or expensive tile. It’s not smart automation or size. It’s not a surface-level gloss visible only to the eye. It can include all those things, but they’re not a requirement.

It’s a felt thing, embodied within our built environment, that’s a function of a density of intention, generosity, and care.

We can heal unlovely places

In a book brimming with several revelations, the concluding chapter delivers a parting message that I hold on to tightly: unlovely places are not inevitable. They are not immovable acts of God. We can change them.

A development which spoils ten square miles of countryside will be the work of a few people neither particularly sinful nor malevolent. They may be called Derek or Malcolm, Hubert or Shigeru, they may love golf and animals, and yet, in a few weeks, they can put in motion plans which will substantially ruin a landscape for 300 years or more.

The same kind of banal thinking which in literature produces nothing worse than incoherent books and tedious plays can, when applied to architecture, leave wounds which will be visible from outer space. Bad architecture is a frozen mistake writ large. But it is only a mistake, and, despite the impressive amounts of scaffolding, concrete, noise, money and bluster which tend to accompany its appearance, it is no more deserving of our deference than a blunder in any other area of life. We should be as unintimidated by architectural mediocrity as we are by unjust laws or nonsensical arguments.

We should recover a sense of the malleability behind what is built. There is no predetermined script guiding the direction of bulldozers or cranes. While mourning the number of missed opportunities, we have no reason to abandon a belief in the ever-present possibility of moulding circumstances for the better.

Everywhere around the world we see more examples where people reversed bad decisions, or helped nudge an existing building from unlovely to decent, or from decent to inspired.

My favourite genre of this is when we see beautiful buildings or architectural elements “time travel.” Their current owners remove unlovely cladding to discover the original detailing beneath.

No matter how brutalised our built environments appear, it is never too late to heal them.

De Botton reminds us that some of the most beautiful places in the world did not start out that way - there is no special law of the universe that says that only some places in the world can be beautiful.

The idea sounds pretentious only because we are reluctant to imagine that on a patch of ordinary ground where nothing significant ever occurred (aside from the slow gestation of generations of crab-apples), one of the great urban rooms of the world – another Royal Crescent or Charlotte Square – could be summoned to rise. We are prone to falling into a series of illogical assumptions which hold us back from being more demanding of architects: we presume that man-made beauty has been preordained to exist in certain parts of the world but not in others; that urban masterpieces are the work of people fundamentally different from, and greater than, ourselves; and that superior buildings must cost inordinately more than the uglier architecture which typically takes their place.

He also reminds us that the authors of these places were as human as you and I. They did not possess any alien genius that eludes us. The land they met was not more divinely prepared for beauty than ours.

But, in truth, there was nothing especially promising about the hills of Bath before John Wood the Elder got to them, or about the fields near the swampy North Loch above the medieval core of Edinburgh before James Craig drew up his scheme for the New Town. Both were generic swaths of earth, furnished with grass, sheep, daisies, trees and, in Edinburgh’s case, swarms of virulent mosquitoes.

They were normal people, like us, who dared to care more.

And, lest we feel tempted to shift our supposed locus of predetermined greatness from places to people, we should note that Wood and Craig, imaginative and highly persevering though they both were, did not possess a unique genius. The residential squares, gardens and avenues they built followed from principles which had been well known for generations. But each of these men was fired by the prospect of bringing a legendary city into being, a new Athens or Jerusalem, and in this ambition found the confidence to overcome the innumerable practical challenges involved in turning green fields into attractive streets. Having a belief in a special destiny, a sense of standing at a privileged moment in history, may well be grandiose and misguided, but it also provides an indispensable and therefore not unprofitable means of ensuring that beauty will have an opportunity to prevail.

This message was a relief to hear, especially in the context of Ghana, where so much can feel impossible. Several things conspire to reinforce the lie that striving to improve anything is a waste of time, and that nothing can get better, so why bother.

During those moments, I am thankful for the solace of Clarissa Pinkola Estes who reminds us “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.”

What you can do

What can you do, as someone who would like to help make better places in Ghana, and help mend the part of the world that is within your reach?

You should open yourself to learning more about what makes better places, and then sharing what you’ve learned with others around you.

This sounds too simple - even trivial - but this rhythm of learning and sharing is one of the single most important things you can do to help drive change.

De Botton reminds us that the achievement known as the Italian Renaissance turns out to have been the work of only about a hundred people, and that massive changes in architectural style were often driven by a single book or a single building.

By learning, you improve your ability to identify and create beauty in your own environment, and by sharing, you help create a shared awareness and vocabulary of what Better looks like.

Here are more tactical recommendations:

Notice what you find beautiful in the built environment

One thing you can do is to notice more what you find beautiful, and then deeply think on it. Actively spend time thinking and articulating to yourself what you find beautiful, and why you find it beautiful.

In a world that moves so quickly, it can feel very uncomfortable to spend an extended amount of time contemplating one thing. But with time, you will discover within yourself an entire personal vocabulary for beauty that will turn the slant of sunlight against a wall into a thing of wonder.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t yet have the words for this. Start by simply pointing to something you find beautiful.

Later, you can take the first halting steps towards articulating the why of the feeling inside you.

All that matters is that you practice Noticing more.

Create a Pinterest board and capture examples of what you find beautiful

Consider creating a Pinterest board to document architecture you consider beautiful.

This too is a rehearsal. It won’t feel like work, but it is practice that will quietly train your eye.

When you see a beautiful example of the built environment, simply add it to this scrapbook. Later, when you go back to look at the images, you will surprise yourself by how much your aesthetic changed over time.

Here is my Building Beautiful board on Pinterest.

Seek out knowledgeable people who share what they know about how to build better places

I am very much still a student when it comes to understanding the alchemy that makes better places, and I owe a great debt of gratitude to the many people who share what they know on this topic. Here are a few resources that I have found especially illuminating.

Books: These are the books that have taught me the most about how better places happen. Listed in recommended reading order.

  • The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton - This will introduce you to several core concepts that will make it easier to understand other things you will encounter in your journey. You will gain powerful mental models that will give you the ability to quickly evaluate architecture, and the ability to quickly come up with ideas to make architecture more beautiful.
  • How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand - This books asks “What makes some buildings come to be loved?” and goes on to answer the question. After reading it, you will understand the structural and design decisions which result in buildings that come to be loved for a very long time. You will also learn how to avoid the most common building mistakes.
  • A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein (with Max Jacobsonn, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King, Shlomo Angel) - Contains 253 recommendations for building well-loved places. It will give you a clear way to think about how to design your home, and give you the vocabulary you need to have constructive conversations with architects.
  • Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane - This one doesn’t contain a laundry list of recommendations for how to design and build better architecture. Instead, it is a book about the surprising ways in which words and language shape landscape, and vice versa. Reading this will sharpen your ability to Notice, which is the skill that all the others build off of.
  • The Beautiful Edible Garden by Leslie Bennett and Stefani Bittner - The best book I’ve read so far on how to approach the often overlooked subject of landscape design. As someone who used to assume that landscape was merely the stuff that was left over after the “real work” of erecting the building, every paragraph of this book was a revelation.
  • Creating Sensory Spaces by Barbara Erwine - Too often, we design spaces for only the eye. This book will introduce you to a vastly expanded palette - sound, temperature, luminosity, texture, smell, and more - with which you can design incredible places.

Twitter: Twitter has been an incredible resource in learning directly from researchers and practitioners.

  • Create Streets (@createstreets) - shares several resources regarding the latest learnings on how to build better places. These simple diagrams are a distilled summary of some of the most important principles they’ve learned about what makes for public places that people love.
  • Samuel Hughes (@SCP_Hughes) - eavesdropping on this researcher’s conversations on Twitter is a goldmine of insight
  • A Pattern Language (@apatterntolearn) - tweet-length summaries of each of the major pattern languages from this seminal work
  • Niall Murphy (@MurphyNiallGLA) - Niall’s #MomentsofBeauty photos from around his home in Glasglow are a beautiful example of Noticing deeply
  • Léon Krier (@LeonKrier) - Léon Krier has a gift for distilling urbanist principles into simple line drawings. This account, which is run on his behalf, shares many of those ill.

A small note of caution here: there is an odd quirk of Twitter where some very popular pro-traditional architecture accounts appear, distressingly, to be thinly-veiled fronts for white-nationalists and/or far-right causes.

It sounds bizarre, but you’ll sometimes find that an account that usually posts little more than pretty photos of traditional architecture will occassionally slip in carefully-worded complaints longing for the days when “men were men, women were women, and people knew their place.” You’ll find an odd focus on how walls are good for keeping the wrong sort of people out. You’ll also find that they might conflate valid issues with the contemporary built environment with grievances against progressive causes.

To be clear, there are many several pro-traditional architecture accounts that are not like this. One of the greatest tricks the far-right is playing right now is to lay total and unquestioned claim to certain architectural styles - we shouldn’t fall into the trap of believing that all classical architecture belongs to authoritarians. Just…have your wits about you when you follow the “trad architecture” photo accounts.

Long-form articles: These are my go-to resources for great longform writing about the built environment.

  • Common Edge: This website has some of the most refreshing writing I’ve encountered on modern architecture criticism. The essays tackle big ideas, but they’re written in a very accessible way that allows anyone to engage. I especially enjoyed this essay that comments on how contemporary architecture has become so often so intellectualized that it forgets the ability of architecture to evoke emotion, and engage the heart as much as it does the mind.
  • Strong Towns Journal: Lots of great essays on urbanism. Some good places to start include this article on the value of allowing small-scale commercial uses in residential areas, this article on how great places don’t necessarily require grand buildings, and how anywhere can be somewhere special, if you’re willing to look more deeply.
  • Andrew Price Blog: This is the personal website of Andrew Price, who is a software developer by day and urbanist by night. Andrew has a gift for putting names to slippery concepts in urbanism, and explaining them in a simple, accessible way. I really enjoyed this post which explains the several important benefits of fine-grained urbanism - a city built and owned by many owners. The post of characteristic of his writing, in that it introduced me to several ideas for which I previously had no name.

YouTube: YouTube has become an indispensable resource for me as I attempt to better educate myself.

  • 30X40 Design Workshop - This channel is run by architect Eric Reinholdt and features several types of videos on a broad range of topics. For example, he might do a workshop on how he draws lighting plans, or another video might be a deep-dive on a specific architectural element, in this case, modern approaches to wall baseboard.
  • Plan Attack - In short videos, Mattew North lays out poor floor plans, and then patiently explains what’s wrong with them, and how they could be improved. After watching a few videos, you’ll pick up how to quickly tell when a floor plan is non-optimal and what to do about it. This is one my favourite episodes. You should also check out the Instagram page.
  • The Local Project - This channel features architect-designed buildings in Australia and New Zealand. The videos are always beautifully shot, but the greater value is in hearing how architects articulate their design intent. This home is a personal favourite.
  • Never Too Small - Like the name implies, this channel features architecture with very modest floor areas. It’s always an education to see how architects fold a ton of functionality into space without making the spaces feel claustrophobic. This apartment made my jaw drop.
  • The Design Emotive - Another channel full of beautifully shot architect-designed homes in Australia. It’s always useful to see how other people approach the fine details like finishings.
  • City Beautiful - Super informative video essays on urban planning.
  • Town Tours - I have a minor fascination with New York brownstones and townhouses. I always assumed they would be cramped inside, but these tours of various townhomes shares how much can be packed into these super efficient spaces. Don’t be put off by the loud price tags on the video thumbnails! The videos are actually very well done.
  • House & Home - In these short videos, interior designs walk through various room makeovers. While the designs can sometimes be a tad repetitive, there are some real gems, and it’s always instructive to hear the designer talk through their design decisions. This renovation (family home) and this one (bachelor pad) are personal favourites.
  • Birdhouse Media - Canadian multimedia studio that does full video tours of homes. Watching their videos has been very helpful in getting a real life sense of different kinds of floor plans.
  • Design Seed - Video walkthroughs of high quality architect-designed homes in Malaysia. These are especially interesting because the climate is tropical like in Ghana, so its very interesting to hear the various ways that the designers account for the heat and humidity.
  • Planetizen Courses - Planetizen offers paid courses in urban design, and they upload short snippets of some of the material on YouTube. I found their videos on Form-Based Codes very illuminating.
  • Institute of Classical Architecture and Art - This channel has very good lectures on various topics in architecture. I strongly recommend this video that serves as both an introduction to classical architecture, as well as an explanation for how the principles of classical architecture, far from being the sole birthright of Europe, finds expression in the architecture from many cultures around the world.

It does not escape me that several of the resources here are authored by (or disproportionately feature) white men. I am very eager for recommendations of urbanists from a very diverse range of backgrounds. I’m especially curious about urbanism in the context of Africa and the tropics.

And what about if you are in a position to directly influence the built environment in Ghana?

What if you’re an architect, a lawmaker, a city planner? What if you’re making decisions for a development company, or funding the design and construction of a building?

Firstly, many genuine, sincere congratulations to you. While all of us can influence built form, you control the means to make immediate changes to our built environment. The decisions you make will endure for a very long time, and will shape so much, for many people, for a long time after you’re gone.

This is a great responsibility.

As you make these decisions, I invite you to consider these words by Toni Morrison: “As you enter into positions of trust and power, dream a little before you think.”

In a later thread, Wale shared the full quote:

You will be in positions that matter. Positions in which you can decide the nature and quality of other people’s lives. Your errors may be irrevocable.

So when you enter those places of trust, or power, dream a little before you think, so your thoughts, your solutions, your directions, your choices about who lives and who doesn’t, about who flourishes and who doesn’t will be worth the very sacred life you have chosen to live.

You are not helpless. You are not heartless. And you have time.

All around us, we live within the decisions made by people who failed to imagine better. Regrettably, if you do exactly like those who have come before you, you might succeed only in repeating their mistakes, despite your best intentions.

As you inhabit positions of trust, please take a moment to re-consider existing patterns. What is the ideal ratio of building height to street width that reliably creates beautiful places elsewhere? Are we being served by minimum parking requirements? What do we do with the mounting evidence that reinforced concrete appears to reliably deteriorate very quickly?

It’s uncomfortable to consider some of these questions when there are established ways of doing things. But the established ways of doing things have produced the built environment we see around us. Maybe it will take someone like you to consider alternatives.

For better places

Dark polished concrete floor with gold filled inside the cracks
Kintsugi is the Japanese art of mending broken pottery with lacquer mixed with gold. I believe this floor is from the Xchange Apartment project by TANK

One of my favourite patterns from A Pattern Language is 104 SITE REPAIR**.

We must treat every new act of building as an opportunity to mend some rent in the existing cloth; each act of building gives us the chance to make one of the ugliest and least healthy parts of the environment more healthy…

This is the principle of site repair. That we delight in the act of building - or in making a physical intervention - as an opportunity to heal some small part of the world.

Everywhere around us we see examples of shattered places. Happily, these are mistakes that can be fixed. We can fix them. We can make better places.

As you shape your environment, I entreat you to shape it in a way that embodies virtues that are meaningful to you. Let us be menders, nurturers.

Our shared spaces are the gifts we give each other. Let that gift speak eloquently of grace, generosity, empathy, intention, and care.

(If you enjoy my writing and want to support my personal research projects, the best way is to buy me a book!)