Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Beauty, Love, and Architecture

Beauty is a common topic on this blog. It is in fact the very purpose of this blog. It’s a word that should evoke only the most positive emotions, and yet this is rarely the case today. Just as often one feels sadness, because beauty is becoming increasingly rare in our society. It’s bittersweet. It should be one of the main aims of humanity to preserve and create beauty, but every year we create more and more ugliness. A beautiful new building is one in a million, and not a single beautiful new city has been built anywhere in the world since before World War II. For everyone, this should be a source of great sorrow, but also a call to arms.

At a time when many words don't mean what they used to mean, I think it's important to be precise about what "beauty" is and isn't. Beauty is never selfish or garish, and doesn't shout for attention. It is humble. Beauty, like love, can only ever be a force for good. Beauty is respect, peace, and harmony. It goes beyond mere worldly existence. It's a transcendent force which makes life worth living. Beauty transports us to a better place and helps us believe that we are part of a greater whole.

Beauty as a word has been hijacked, however, used to describe everything and anything. Beautiful this and beautiful that. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a piece of concrete described as “beautiful”. Therefore, perhaps it would be good to substitute a word popular in the 19th century when thinking of beauty: picturesque. It was often used to describe a beautiful streetscape, for example. It's not a popular word today, but it's more visually descriptive about what we are trying to get at. It evokes what beauty really is: ancient country lanes, flowers in an English garden, stunning natural landscapes, and the majesty of an unspoiled coastline. That is true beauty.

Turner's painting of Tours, c. 1796, a Romantic era painting from a time when even a city was expected to be picturesque. Source: Tate Britain

I believe that beauty is a physical manifestation of love, the most powerful and highest of all emotions, just as beauty is the highest form of creation. The two are as equals. Like love, beauty is selfless, and when one is selfless, driven by love, negative tendencies fall aside. An architect who feels love for a place, for example, will not be thinking how a project is viewed by critics and other architects, how boldly it calls attention to itself, or whether it follows the latest fads. When love of place is the overriding driving force, beauty is a natural result. Fear of stepping out of line would be replaced by courage to uphold an architect's duty to create beauty. When love of place is the foremost motive, the individual building takes a back row seat to the composition of the streetscape. An architect then asks themselves not "which design will most benefit my career?" but rather "what is the most beautiful building I can design to enhance this street and this city?" Gone would be purposefully ugly buildings designed with the express intent of shocking just for the sake of shocking.

Beautiful buildings represent the best of what we as humans can create, hence the paramount importance of beauty-minded architects to our society. We can be grateful for those outliers who have not abandoned beauty, even at the cost of ridicule from the architectural establishment and the "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" crowd. This tiny minority of architects and their supporters, people who still have the ability to recognize beauty when they see it (who possess a sense of beauty as I like to call it), can give one hope that eventually the tide will turn.

Architecture has never existed in a bubble. It's always been a reflection of society's values and aspirations, so the current state of architecture comes as little surprise. It's no mystery why architecture as a profession has lost its status in society, when the very architects tasked with designing our buildings and cities not only do not create beauty, but instead create ugliness. So much so that even the word "beauty" is all but taboo in the building industry.

Unfortunately, we live in an increasingly cynical world where a selfless pursuit of beauty is absent not only in architecture but in almost all areas of culture. Today it is more important to call attention to oneself by any means possible than to uphold any kind of standards. The individual is prioritized over the whole, a consequence of our hyper-individualistic "look at me!" culture. Also evident, for example, in the way people dress and behave. Modesty and humility are out, and what we get instead is attention seeking, everyone vying for personal gain and fame. Crassness has replaced elegance, collective beauty replaced by collective ugliness. Technologies such as television, the internet, and smartphones have only accelerated this trend.

It is also evident that atheism is failing us. The growth of a secular, materialist culture parallels the rise of ugliness. Where once humans built beautiful buildings because to do otherwise would be an affront to God and his creation, we now have nothing that obligates society to... anything, let alone beauty. Love for God has been replaced with love for money, resulting in a culture which adores the wealthy, regardless of their character or the means they used to obtain it. We need a cultural transformation, one obsessed not with wealth, but rather love and beauty.

It would be easy to trivialize the importance of beauty, or treat it as secondary to a host of other issues facing humanity, but that would be ignoring the very essence of what makes us human. We are intensely visual beings. Our vision is our strongest sense, and overall is among the best of any species. We are formed by what we see. Whether we spend time in a beautiful or ugly environment has a significant psychological influence on our wellbeing. To suggest that beauty is a luxury, far less important than the basic needs of food and shelter, is to suggest that the mental wellbeing of the poor is secondary to the rich, who can afford to live and vacation in beautiful environments, something further amplified by the economic segregation that is the hallmark of suburbia.

Speaking for myself, I see ugliness as an attack against all living beings. I cannot emphasize enough how pessimistic and depressed I become when I witness an ugly environment full of concrete, asphalt, and steel. It has a profound impact on my state of mind. I'm not the only one, as more and more studies are showing a link between modern built environments and increased levels of stress and depression. We are shaped by where we live.

We can control a lot of things about our lives, such as a healthy diet and exercise, but the external built environment is very difficult to control. Even if you can build a beautiful home for yourself, any kind of travel will very quickly cast you into a land of concrete and asphalt (yes, even in Switzerland, where I live). Ugliness is almost impossible to escape from. It has ensnared all of modern civilization, but why should we be forced to witness it?

Zurich. Even Switzerland is not safe from the scourge of ugliness.

At a time when accusations of rights infringements are the name of the day, maybe we should have a discussion about a right to beauty, about the freedom to live our day to day lives without the stress of an ugly built environment. With countries like India and China urbanizing at a very rapid pace, there's no time to lose. The lives of hundreds of millions of people could be forever altered for the better if beauty was a cornerstone of all new development.

Even if life is tough, living in a beautiful town or city, or even on a beautiful street, can make the difference between a bearable and unbearable day. Being surrounded by Georgian and Victorian architecture in London, and plentiful parks, had a substantial effect on my overall wellbeing during the years I lived there. Seeing the kind of beauty created by past generations also helped uphold my faith in humanity and prevented pessimism and cynicism about the future from creeping in.

Long after today's crop of developers and investors are cold in the ground, their legacy will live on. Their money will no longer be of any use to them, but what they can leave behind is a world more beautiful than the one they entered, somewhere their children and descendants can be proud of, where they and all humanity can fulfill the journey of life in paradise. They hold the key to make this dream a reality. All it takes is love for their fellow men and women.

We must do better. We must be better stewards of our cities and our planet. For Plato, beauty was a universal quality, objective, an idea above all other ideas. Beauty was a central tenet of Ancient Greek culture, and more recently it figured strongly during the 18th century Romantic era. It is time to elevate beauty once again to its rightful place, to enter a new age of beauty.

Modernist ideology is not an excuse to ignore beauty. Developer profits are not an excuse to sideline beauty. It is time to end the cycle of exploitation and destruction of our planet. We're already witnessing a societal implosion as a result of growing resentment and bitterness. The need to prioritize beauty has never been more pressing than today. For the love of all mankind, it is time to once again build beauty.