Bicycling along the Dordogne and Lot rivers in the south of France in 2015, Amy and I were enchanted by town after town…
We could scarcely believe our eyes. Every element of beauty was represented in these villages: Modest, richly detailed buildings; harmony with the landscape; intimate and human-scaled streets. Walking around is an immeasurably peaceful and pleasant experience. We couldn’t imagine places more charming.
Were these the most beautiful villages in France? Perhaps, but we’d never thought anyone would actually certify places as “most beautiful”. That is until we started seeing these signs on the outskirts of many towns in the south of France:
Le Plus Beaux Villages De France (“the most beautiful villages in France”) is an organization, formed in 1982, dedicated to promoting small, rural, and very pretty French villages, many of which are struggling economically in the tide of ongoing rural flight. Villages that apply for the award and meet certain criteria can be certified as L’Un Des Plus Beaux Villages De France and can proudly post the above sign beside the road into town. 153 villages are currently certified.
Given their abundance of idyllic villages the French can rightly be considered authorities on what constitute beauty. Here in the US, given our society’s current disregard for beautiful places (a disregard largely shared by the French themselves today in their cities’ new developments) we’d do well to explore the criteria for becoming an official Most Beautiful Village in France.
So let’s look at the criteria for a Most Beautiful French village and consider what ideas we might want to export back here to the US to help us on our own pursuit of beauty.
i. Initial criteria
For their application to be considered French villages must:
- Be of a rural character and have a population of less than 2,000
- Feature at least 2 national heritage sites (which can be a building, part of a building, a bridge, garden, etc. of architectural and historical importance)
- Show real interest in becoming L’Un Des Plus Beaux Villages De France
As previously mentioned, Le Plus Beaux Villages De France was created to address a particular issue in France: The emptying of towns as people flocked to the cities. The criteria of rural character reflects this situation.
In the US, we might want to consider a different problem: The prevalent ugliness and auto-oriented inhumanity inherent in almost all urban design codes and new buildings in American towns and cities. So it might be better for an award system to encourage picturesque development wherever it occurs, not just in small towns. Given how difficult it might be to certify many areas in the US, such as towns, as beautiful, we might want to instead focus on smaller areas: The Most Beautiful Streets in America or The Most Beautiful Neighborhoods in America or even The Most Beautiful Pedestrian Streets in America. This would allow a certification system to apply to parts of cities as well as smaller settlements and would encourage a larger number of applications and certifications.
ii. On-site criteria
Once a French village passes the initial criteria, inspectors are dispatched to evaluate the village on the basis of 27 criteria (original French version | translated English version) related to heritage; architectural, urban, and environmental quality; and local initiatives related to showing off the town. Discussing all 27 criteria might be overload for our current discussion so I’ll just pick out some.
A. Urban quality
The photo on the right of Saint-Come-d’Olt demonstrates the urban qualities above. The outskirts are tight and contained, they don’t degrade into strip malls and sprawl. The architecture is harmonious and reflects a human scale with larger buildings’ dimensions reflecting those buildings’ elevated social status. And (not visible in this photo) the streets feature a mixture of widths and curves, giving them character and interest.
B. Architectural quality
- Built volume, facade, roofing materials, and doorway harmony and homogeneity
- Facades and roofs’ color consistency
- Presence of symbolic decorative elements
“Harmony and homogeneity” allows for buildings to feature both resemblances and diversity in architectural features while featuring diversity. In Saint-Come-d’Olt, the buildings along the waterfront feature similar heights, roof coloring and style, and window shapes but there are restrained differences in window sizes and spaces and building heights and colors.
C. Heritage enhancement
- Existence of a planning document
- Traffic control
- Aesthetic treatment of electric and telephone lines, public lighting
- Greening and flowering
- Advertising and sign treatment
- Public spaces treatment
Limiting automobiles, creating restrained advertising and signs, well-maintained public spaces, and so on, all united in a good planning document are measures to help villages control tourism’s impact and the common tendency for standards to drop into garishness in places with high visitor numbers, such as San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. Even though it might seem that many American towns, neighborhoods, and streets are not likely to become tourist attractions any time soon, an area receiving the right improvements can quickly become one. Caution is advised.
The criteria above strike a fine balance between urban design quality, catering for visitors, and maintaining what’s special about a place without letting it become a victim of its own touristic successes. So these criteria would be helpful to consider when creating a Most Beautiful award for the US.
What would be the point of a Most Beautiful-style scheme when the US already has the historic district designation where a group of buildings, properties, or sites can be deemed historically or architecturally significant? The difference would largely revolve around emphasis: Historic districts focus on past events or on architecture that could be significant for many other reasons apart from beauty.
A Most Beautiful award would focus specifically on beauty, forcing a conversation that has degraded in the past 80 years around a specific question: What constitutes beauty? Today the answer is: Anything goes, it’s my opinion and yours. We’ve seen the results of this kind of relativism and generally members of the architecture profession are the only happy people.
This brings us to two pivotal questions: Can we agree on what constitutes beauty? And why is beauty important, is it more than a skin-deep concern? We’ll explore these questions in future articles where I will argue that there are answers, answers that could help bring a reversal to how we’ve been creating places since the 1930s.
As we’ve seen in recent years, awards and rankings such as most livable city lists, bicycling rankings, and Walk Score have enormous power to highlight important ways of improving where we live and to inspire friendly competition between towns, cities, and even US states to do better. A beauty award could do the same thing. Many towns are likely to realize they have few, or perhaps no, beautiful spots. A Most Beautiful scheme would incentivize them to start creating such places.
Just one success is all it takes…