No more concrete. No more utilitarian, ugly spaces. The need to build back better, to bring nature to people, to revolutionise our relationship with nature, has been made crystal clear by the pandemic.

So urban design needs to change. Architecture needs to change. Planning needs to change. But to what?

Beauty is nature-based

“I see cities of the future as urban forests,” said no less than the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen last week at a conference for the New European Bauhaus.

Urban forest in China

Urban forests mean high rise buildings swathed in green, in this new city being built in southern China’s mountainous Guangxi area.
Image: Stefano Boeri Architetti

Any new definition of beauty in design must meet the requirements of the climate and environmental emergencies. And it will take inspiration from nature.

The New European Bauhaus is about sustainable design, planning and architecture and intrinsic to the European Green New Deal that is Europe’s post-pandemic economic recovery package. It has the enthusiastic backing of the European Parliament.

At a two-day conference, speaker after speaker underlined the belief that the eco-renovation challenge should eventually bring greater sustainability, more inclusion, and more beauty for people, not just in Europe but all over the world.

Bosco Verticale - Milan, Italy

Bosco Verticale – High rise accommodation in Milan, Italy, built in 2014. The most shared building on Instagram, apparently. By the same architect as the one above.

Beauty is local too

But speaking from India, Sheela Patel, founder of the Society for Promotion of Area Resource Centres issued a warning.

She spoke of the exclusive inheritance of colonial architecture and slums and temporary homes. “The design of our cities are over influenced by European design and planning standards.

“We must look to other kinds of architecture and concepts of beauty and sustainability. Architects and designers need to see how their designs work when they travel to other places particularly in the global South. It doesn’t. It produces intergenerational impoverishment. They are unsustainable in other places.”

Climate activist Gina Gylver agreed. She spoke of her existing work with urban redevelopments to become “area neutral”, a parallel concept to carbon neutral.

Area neutrality – to stop concreting the soil

A place that is area neutral “does not take up more land than needed – because of the importance of wild land,” she said.

“This involves reusing already built-up land for new purposes. Building denser is more sustainable and can be more inclusive as we are forced to get to know each other. Denser cities can be beautiful.”

Urban sprawl is destroying nature. Around the world, an area the size of Paris is being covered with development every week. Humanity’s ecological footprint needs to shrink, not grow.

Beauty is class-dependent

And in addition, “Beauty is class-dependent,” she said. This is why people who have to live with a development need to be asked what kind of development they want.

And of course, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” said Sheela Patel. “So informal settlements and street markets might look shabby and dirty to some, but if you look through the eyes of the people who live there you have colour. We live in a colourful world.”


The New European Bauhaus conference

Speakers at the New European Bauhaus conference

“Globalisation has not homogenised beauty,” she continued. “You have dance, music and celebration, this is beauty. Our cities in the global South, in emulating alien northern culture, bring in ugliness in the disguise of modernity. Our cultural spaces are shrinking as a result. Our street culture is imitated or appropriated in the global North, such as rickshaws.

“The important thing is that beauty must be localised. Local materials should also be used, local vernaculars.”

What is The New European Bauhaus?

The New European Bauhaus was launched last September with a call to artists, designers, architects, planners, scientists, technicians, in effect anybody, who can come up with workable new solutions to the current crises.

Over 450 solutions have already been submitted, said conference moderator Francesca Bria, President of the Italian National Innovation Fund.

She called for more art, culture and design that is “good for systemic transformation. They must support culturally diverse initiatives to empower people to take action at all levels.”

The original and the new Bauhaus

One hundred years ago the original Bauhaus became a worldwide success due to three factors.

It was created in a time of profound transformation, following a global crisis, the First World War. As part of a new industrial era it would create functional, affordable and beautiful design. Beyond innovation, it strove for a mix of aesthetics and affordability. To this, said von der Leyen, “we want to add sustainability. Sustainability plus style.”

One hundred years ago steel and cement were promoted. Today’s Bauhaus will favour materials that are responsible for fewer carbon emissions to accelerate the transition of the built environment, scaling up nature-based materials and solutions in the circular economy.

Social housing now wins prizes

Von der Leyen said she was encouraged and that for the first time this year the Pritzker architecture prize went to a refurbishment for affordable social housing, not glamorous new buildings. Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, the architects, upgraded social housing dwellings to make them more beautiful and energy efficient.

Throughout their careers, these architects have rejected city plans calling for the demolition of social housing, focusing instead on designing from the inside out to prioritise the welfare of a building’s inhabitants and their unanimous desires for larger spaces.

Last year’s RIBA award also went to a sustainable social housing project, in Norwich.

Von der Leyen also called for European cities to capture carbon dioxide instead of producing it.


The conference launched a competition for €25 million worth of prizes.

Mind map from the conference calling for sustainability and beauty to harmonise

Mind map from the conference calling for sustainability and beauty to harmonise

This first competition is for existing projects in the categories of techniques of building, circular building practices, the co-evolution of buildings and nature, regenerated urban and rural spaces, cultural heritage, products and processes, reinventing places to meet and share, sustainable community building for the arts, modern learning solutions with a light eco-footprint, and educational models.

Fixing social inequality is part of solving climate change

“Fixing social inequality is inseparable from tackling climate change,” said the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli.

To fix social inequality, Sheela Patel advised that “Empowerment, the right to speak, is something we have to seize and pull down to ourselves. No one gives it to you. We get women of all ages saying they want to stop being victims of other people’s ideas for development. Much development investment doesn’t help poor people. So this dialogue and partnership is critical.”

“We must ask who in any context are most in danger of not being included?” said Gylver. “They must be brought into the conversation. The pandemic has brought millions into extreme poverty. Climate change will bring even more. This makes affordability important.”

The new aesthetic

It will be nature based, agreed speaker after speaker.

“We must reinvent beauty,” Gylver said. “We don’t want a grey asphalt city. If we focus on physical and mental health, we will use natural materials and incorporate nature. A nature- and people-centred approach will have its own beauty.

“But combining beauty with affordability is hard, and we need to focus on it so we don’t get cheap and ugly. We find hope in what we have learnt from the pandemic about the need for nature and we can apply it to climate change.”

Sassoli, reaffirmed this. “We need to reinvent ourselves. To mark history. To leave something for young people tomorrow. The way we occupy space must be revisited.”