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The High Cost of Ignoring Beauty

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Architecture clearly illustrates the social, environmental, economic, and aesthetic costs of ignoring beauty. We are being torn out of ourselves by the loud gestures of people who want to seize our attention but give nothing in return.

In Britain, the state, in the form either of local or central government, will tell you whether you can or cannot build on land that you own. And if it permits you to build, it will stipulate not only the purposes for which you may use the building, but also how it should look, and what materials should be used to construct it. Americans are used to building regulations that enforce utilitarian standards: insulation, smoke alarms, electrical safety, the size and situation of bathrooms, and so on. But they are not used to being told what aesthetic principles to follow, or what the neighborhood requires of materials and architectural details. I suspect that many Americans would regard such stipulations as a radical violation of property rights, and further evidence of the state’s illegitimate expansion.

This American attitude has something healthy about it, but it tends to go with two quite erroneous assumptions about beauty and the aesthetic. The first assumption is that beauty is an entirely subjective matter, about which there can be no reasoned argument and concerning which it is futile to search for a consensus. The second assumption, congenial to those who adopt the first, is that beauty doesn’t matter, that it is a value without economic reality, which cannot be allowed to place any independent constraint on the workings of the market.

Here is the democratic culture at work—on its way to mutual destruction.

The first assumption, that beauty is subjective, owes much of its appeal to the fact that it is functional in a democratic culture. By making this assumption you avoid giving offense to the one whose taste differs from yours. He likes garden gnomes, illuminated Christmas displays, Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas,” and a thousand other things that send shudders down the educated spine. But that’s his taste, and he is entitled to it. Leave him to enjoy it and he will leave you to get on with listening to Beethoven quartets, collecting antiques, and designing your house in the style of Palladio. But sometimes the assumption becomes dysfunctional. Each year his illuminated Christmas display increases in size, gets more bright and obtrusive, and lasts longer. Eventually his house has an all-year round Christmas tree, with Santa protruding from the chimney and brightly shining reindeer on the lawn. To be honest, the sight is insufferable, and entirely spoils the view from your window. You retaliate by playing Wagner late at night, only to receive blasts of Bing Crosby in the early hours. Here is the democratic culture at work—on its way to mutual destruction.

This kind of thing has been felt strongly in Europe, and it is one of the reasons for the reaction against McDonalds. While everyone has a right to advertise his wares, the advertisement must not spoil the place on which it shines. And American advertisements seem invariably designed to do just that. Maybe they don’t have that effect in America: after all, it is hard to see how the average American main street can be spoiled by an illuminated sign or by anything else. But the main streets of European cities are the result of meticulous aesthetic decisions over centuries. Do we really want the double yellow arches competing with the arches of St. Mark’s?

Even if Americans feel entitled to build as they wish, they don’t feel entitled to behave as they wish towards their neighbors. In America’s culture, manners are of supreme importance.

That question might prompt us to revise the assumption that beauty is subjective. Aesthetic judgements may look subjective when you are wandering in the aesthetic desert of Waco or Las Vegas. In the old cities of Europe, however, you discover what happens when people are guided by a shared tradition which not only makes aesthetic judgement central, but also lays down standards that govern what everybody does. And in Venice or Prague, in Bath, Oxford, or Lisbon, you come to see that there is all the difference in the world between aesthetic judgement treated as an expression of individual taste, and aesthetic judgement treated in the opposite way, as the expression of a community. Maybe we see beauty as subjective only because we have given the wrong place to aesthetic judgement in our lives—seeing it as a way of affirming ourselves, instead of a way of denying ourselves.

There is a parallel here with manners. Even if Americans feel entitled to build as they wish, they don’t feel entitled to behave as they wish towards their neighbors. On the contrary, in America’s culture manners are of supreme importance, and recognized as the ultimate guarantee of peaceful coexistence. Americans greet their neighbors, speak politely, are always smiling. If someone bumps into them in the street they apologize; they cannot take leave of anyone, not even a stranger, without wishing him a wonderful day. And courtesy is the ruling principle of all business dealings. In short, American manners exist so that people will fit in, not stand out. They are ways in which individuality is suppressed, and a lingua franca of conformist gestures adopted in its stead. And this has a function, namely to protect the private from the public, to ensure that each person is secure within his space, and that the public realm is minimally threatening.

When it comes to beauty, our view of its status is radically affected by whether we see it as a form of self-expression, or as a form of self-denial. If we see it in this second way, then the assumption that it is merely subjective begins to fall away. Instead beauty begins to take on another character, as one of the instruments in our consensus-building strategies, one of the values through which we construct and belong to a shared and mutually consoling world. In short, it is part of building a home.

No greater aesthetic catastrophe has struck our cities—European just as much as American—than the modernist idea that a building should stand out from its surroundings.

We can see this clearly if we look at the rituals and customs of family life. Consider what happens when you lay the table for a meal. This is not just a utilitarian event. If you treat it as such, the ritual will disintegrate, and the family members will end up grabbing individual portions to eat on their own. The table is laid according to precise rules of symmetry, choosing the right cutlery, the right plates, the right jugs and glasses. Everything is meticulously controlled by aesthetic norms, and those norms convey some of the meaning of family life. The pattern on a willow-pattern plate, for example, has been fixed over centuries, and speaks of tranquillity, of gentleness and of things that remain forever the same. Very many ordinary objects on the table have been, as it were, polished by domestic affection. Their edges have been rubbed off, and they speak in subdued, unpretentious tones of belonging. Serving the food is ritualized too, and you witness in the family meal the continuity of manners and aesthetic values. You witness another continuity too, between aesthetic values and the emotion that the Romans knew as piety—the recognition that the world is in other than human hands. Hence the gods are present at mealtimes, and Christians precede their eating with a grace, inviting God to sit down among them before they sit down themselves.

That example tells us a lot about aesthetic judgement and the pursuit of beauty. In particular, it shows the centrality of beauty to home-building, and therefore to establishing a shared environment. When the motive of sharing arises, we look for norms and conventions that we can all accept. We leave behind our private appetites and subjective preferences, in order to achieve a consensus that will provide a public background to what we are and what we do. In such circumstances aesthetic disagreements are not comfortable disagreements like disagreements over taste in food (which are not so much disagreements as differences). When it comes to the built environment we should not be surprised that aesthetic disagreements are the subjects of fierce litigation and legislative enforcement—even here in America, where each person is sovereign in his land.

Jacobs’s ideas have shared the fate of every prophecy in recorded history, which is to be ignored until it is too late to act on them.

We can reject the assumption that beauty is merely subjective without embracing the view that it is objective. The distinction between subjective and objective is neither clear nor exhaustive. I prefer to say that judgements of beauty express rational preferences, about matters in which the agreement of others is both sought and valued. They are not so very different, in those respects, from moral judgements, and often concern similar themes—as when we criticize works of art for their obscenity, cruelty, or sentimentality. Just how far we can go down the path of rational discussion depends upon what we think of the second assumption, namely, that beauty doesn’t matter.

This returns me to the case of my neighbor’s house, with its kitsch decorations and ghastly illuminated tableaus. These things matter to him; and they matter to me. My desire to get rid of them is as great as his desire to retain them—maybe even greater, given that my taste, unlike his, is deeply rooted in a desire to fit in with my surroundings. So here is one proof that beauty matters—and also that the attempt to coordinate our tastes is vital to sharing our home, our town, and our community.

In that case, however, there has to be a place for aesthetic judgement in the planning and building of cities. In a celebrated work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, Jane Jacobs argued that cities should develop spontaneously and organically, so as to enshrine in their contours the unintended results of the consensual transactions between their residents. Only then will they facilitate the peaceful evolution of urban life. A true city is built by its residents, in that every aspect of it reflects something that results from what uncountably many residents have wanted, rather than something that a few self-appointed experts have planned. And that is the aspect of old Rome, Siena, or Istanbul that most appeals to the modern traveller. Some urbanists interpret Jacobs’s argument as showing that aesthetic values can be left to look after themselves; others, on the contrary, have insisted that her examples really derive their force from the aesthetic values that she smuggles in as side-constraints.

Tradition in architecture conveys the kind of practical knowledge that is required by neighborliness.

We should certainly recognize that the old cities whose organic complexity Jacobs admired show the mark of planning: not comprehensive planning, certainly, but the insertion, into the fabric of the city, of localized forms of symmetry and order, like the Piazza Navona in Rome, or the Suleimaniye mosque and its precincts in Istanbul. And those are projects entirely motivated and controlled by aesthetic values. The principal concern of the architects was to fit in to an existing urban fabric, to achieve local symmetry within the context of a historically given settlement. No greater aesthetic catastrophe has struck our cities—European just as much as American—than the modernist idea that a building should stand out from its surroundings, to become a declaration of its own originality. As much as the home, cities depend upon good manners; and good manners require the modest accommodation to neighbors rather than the arrogant assertion of apartness. The architects who win the big commissions today—Frank Gehry, Richard Rogers, Daniel Libeskind, Norman Foster—are people who design buildings like the Centre Beaubourg in Paris or the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which stand apart from their surroundings, islands of Ego in a sea of Us. Foster has lighted in his travels upon the lovely 18th-century city of Lisbon and taken offence at its level architecture, which never rises above the height of an aristocratic palace, and concentrates all attention on the place where human life occurs, which is the street. He is therefore campaigning to build a large glass tower above the city, so as to provide a centre of attention in a place whose beauty arises precisely from the fact that attention is not centred but dispersed.

Jane Jacobs’s target was not stylistic rudeness, however, but functionalism, according to which buildings are dictated by their purposes, so as to remain wedded to those purposes forever. Since there is, in human life, no such thing as “forever,” the result is buildings that stand derelict after 20 years, and indeed whole cities that are abandoned as wasteland when the local industry dies. This effect is exacerbated in America by absurd zoning laws that banish industry to one part of town, offices to another part, and shopping to another, leaving the residential areas deserted in the daytime, and without the principal hubs of social communication. A city governed by zoning laws dies at the first economic shock—and we have seen this effect from Buffalo to Tampa, as areas of the city first lose their function, then become vandalized, and finally provide the sordid background to scenes of violence and decay. By clearing the city center of residents, American zoning laws leave it unguarded, prey to every kind of nomadism, and occupied by buildings that can never adapt to social and economic change. The law of ethology, which tells us that maladaptation is the prelude to extinction, applies also to the American city.

Architecture is not like poetry, music, or painting—an art that belongs in the world of leisure and luxury. It survives regardless of its aesthetic merit, and is only rarely the expression of creative genius.

Furthermore, functionalist building styles, which appropriate whole blocks, or thrust jagged corners in the way of pedestrians, prevent the emergence of the principal public space, which is the street. Streets, with doors that open onto them from houses that smile at them, are the arteries and veins, the lungs and digestive tracts of the city—the channels through which all communication flows. A street in which people live, work, and worship renews itself as life renews itself; it has eyes to watch over it, and shared forms of life to fill it. Nothing is more important than defending the street against expressways and throughways, against block development, and against zoning provisions that forbid genuine settlement.

Jacobs’s ideas have shared the fate of every prophecy in recorded history, which is to be ignored until it is too late to act on them. Her message has been taken up and refined in recent years by James Howard Kunstler who, in The Geography of Nowhere, describes the aesthetic and moral disaster of American urbanization, as the zoning laws drive people constantly further from their places of work and recreation, leaving the abandoned wreckage of fleeting businesses in their wake. Kunstler has gone on to argue (in The Long Emergency) that suburbanization, which is the only consensual solution to the disaster, is unsustainable, and that America is preparing an extended emergency for itself when the oil runs out.

The failure of modernism, in my view, lies not in the fact that it has produced no great or beautiful buildings—the Chapel at Ronchamp, and the houses of Frank Lloyd Wright abundantly prove the opposite.

Whether or not you go along with Kunstler’s doom scenario, the question that Jacobs has bequeathed to us remains. How do we get out of the mess? If the problem is planning, how can we plan to avoid it? And is there no distinction between a good plan and a bad plan? Wasn’t Venice planned, after all, and Ephesus, and Bath, and a thousand other triumphs of urbanization? Perhaps the wisest response to Jacobs’s argument therefore is to point to the distinction between plans and side-constraints. Although a free economy is needed if we are to solve the problem of economic coordination, freedom must be contained, and it is contained by law. Legal side-constraints ensure that cheats will not prosper. Likewise with the city: there must be planning, but it should be envisaged negatively, as a system of side-constraints, rather than positively, as a way of “taking charge” of what happens and where.

And here, it seems to me, is where beauty matters and how. Over time, people establish styles, patterns, and vocabularies which perform, in the building of cities, the same function as good manners between neighbors. A “neighbor,” according to the Anglo-Saxon etymology, is one who “builds nearby.” The buildings that go up in our neighborhood matter to us in just the way that our neighbors matter. They demand our attention, and shape our lives. They can overwhelm us or soothe us; they can be an alien presence or a home. And the function of aesthetic values in the practice of architecture is to ensure that the primary requirement of every building is served—namely, that it should be a fitting member of a community of neighbors. Buildings need to fit in, to stand appropriately side by side; they are subject to the rule of good manners just as much as people are. This is the real reason for the importance of tradition in architecture—that it conveys the kind of practical knowledge that is required by neighborliness.

Architecture is not like poetry, music, or painting—an art that belongs in the world of leisure and luxury. It survives regardless of its aesthetic merit, and is only rarely the expression of creative genius. There are great works of architecture and often, like the churches of Mansart or Borromini, they are the work of a single person. But most works of architecture are not great and should not aspire to be so, any more than ordinary people should lay claim to the privileges of genius when conversing with their neighbors. What matters in architecture is the emergence of a learnable vernacular style—a common language that enables buildings to stand side by side without offending each other.

The glass and steel-frame blocks, built without facades and indifferent to alignment with their neighbors are an ecological disaster.

The American towns were built using standard parts derived from the 3,000-year-old tradition which we know as classicism. The old pattern books (such as those published by Asher Benjamin in Boston in 1797 and 1806, and which are responsible for the once agreeable nature of the New England towns, Boston included) offered precedents to builders, forms which had pleased and harmonized, and which could be relied upon not to spoil or degrade the streets in which they were placed. That is what we see in the streets of European towns: not the imposition of some overall proportion or outline, but the organic growth of a street from the repetition of matching details. The failure of modernism, in my view, lies not in the fact that it has produced no great or beautiful buildings—the Chapel at Ronchamp, and the houses of Frank Lloyd Wright abundantly prove the opposite. It lies in the absence of any reliable patterns or types, which can be used in awkward or novel situations so as to spontaneously harmonize with the existing urban decor, and so as to retain the essence of the street as a common home. The degradation of our cities is the result of a “modernist vernacular,” whose principal device is the stack of horizontal layers, with jutting and obtrusive corners, built without consideration for the street, without a coherent facade, and without intelligible relation to its neighbors. In other words, the degradation that we witness, and which is the real cause of the flight to the suburbs, results from the absence of aesthetic side-constraints.

When there are no such side-constraints, the costs should not be reckoned merely in terms of the uncomfortable and homeless feelings of the people who must work in the resulting wasteland. The costs are both environmental and economic. The glass and steel-frame blocks, built without facades and indifferent to alignment with their neighbours, are an ecological disaster. Traditional architecture concentrates on the generality of form, on details that embody the tacit knowledge of how to live with a building and adapt to it. Hence traditional architecture in turn adapts to us. It fits to our uses, and shelters whatever we do. Hence it survives—in the way that Georgetown and Old Town Alexandria have survived, though hampered, alas, by zoning laws. Modernist architecture cannot change its use, and architects assume that their buildings will have a life span of 20 years. Building with that thought in mind you are not building a settlement, still less a neighborhood. You are constructing an extremely expensive and ecologically destructive tent. The environmental impact of its demolition is enormous, and the energy that goes into building it must be spent again on demolishing it and yet again on replacing it.

In this respect it is worth also recalling that great human discovery, the window. The windows of traditional pattern-book houses form agreeable, humanizing details; they are the eyes of the house. In hot weather they can be opened to let in the breezes, and ensure a circulation of air. In cold weather they can be closed. They are adorned with simple mouldings and crowned with architrave and keystone that emphasize their proportions. They are integrated into the implicit order of the façade, so that it is easy to find the matching door or attic window which will look right beside them. In all this we see an accumulation of practical knowledge which issues from the aesthetic side-constraints in something like the way that deals and market transactions issue from good manners.

The windows of modern downtown buildings are not eyes; they do not humanize the façade; they suggest no form or pattern that could be repeated, and lay no constraints on what can and cannot be placed beside, above, and beneath them. They cannot be opened in hot weather, and they forbid the circulation of air from outside the building. The building therefore depends on a year-round consumption of energy, in the winter to heat it, in the summer to cool it, and the stale air that circulates inside captures and perpetuates the diseases of the inmates—producing that well-known “sick building syndrome,” which is responsible for many lost days of work in modern cities. The result is not just an aesthetic disaster, it is an ecological disaster too. And it exemplifies an important feature of the modern world, which is the hard work that is being constantly expended on losing knowledge. The modernist vernacular, which conceives buildings as curtains of tinted glass raised on invisible scaffolds of concrete and steel, represents both an unusual advance for ignorance and a giant ecological threat. And architects and their theorists devoted an immense amount of intellectual labor to achieving this result.

I have concentrated on architecture since it provides such a clear illustration of the social, environmental, and economic costs of ignoring beauty. But there is another cost, too, and it is one that we witness in individual lives as well as in the community. This is the aesthetic cost. People need beauty. They need the sense of being at home in their world, and being in communication with other souls. In so many areas of modern life—in pop music, in television and cinema, in language and literature—beauty is being displaced by raucous and attention-grabbing clichés. We are being torn out of ourselves by the loud and insolent gestures of people who want to seize our attention but to give nothing in return for it. Although this is not the place to argue the point it should perhaps be said that this loss of beauty, and contempt for the pursuit of it, is one step on the way to a new form of human life, in which taking replaces giving, and vague lusts replace real loves.

Roger Scruton is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is a writer, philosopher, and public commentator, and has written widely on aesthetics, as well as political and cultural issues.

FURTHER READING: Scruton also wrote "Beauty and Desecration” and “TV Will Never Poison My Children's Minds.” In “Beauty, Art, and Darwin,” Roger Sandall reviewed Scruton's recent book, Beauty.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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