Wednesday, December 30, 2009

On Beauty

I have generally thought well of the work of Roger Scruton, though I have not followed him since the days when I subscribed to The New Criterion. His current association with the neocon American Enterprise Institute is troubling, and certainly raises my suspicions. I do recommend, however, his recent article, The High Cost of Ignoring Beauty, in which he writes of the importance of architecture to the well-being of any culture. A few excerpts:

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....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.

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, 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.

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.

How do we get out of the mess?...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.

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.

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 clich├ęs. 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.


Ranger said...

A building should never stand out from its surroundings. THat is also true of homes in the country. Living in a rural area, and a rural state, land ethic is so important. I wish that all the zoning laws would take that into consideration ( ie, no you may not build on top of a hill, perhaps you should plant a windbreak, then build a house, ever heard of native stone).
Thanks, I love your posts.

Milton T. Burton said...
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thehandmaid said...

I live in eastern Colorado and those who build on top of hills pay for it trying to heat their homes in winter! One look at the old homesteads and not a single one is on a hill and they all have trees - which are highly prized out here in the ranchland.
That said, I recently visited Las Vegas for Christmas with my mom. We went to a couple of shopping centers that are fairly new - one in particular The District in Henderson (or Greene Valley Ranch) has attempted (in that Las Vegas way) to build a community that resembles a small high-rise town. That actually makes no sense but what in Vegas does?
Built on a foundation of chain businesses (not family ones), there are apartments or condos above. It tries to be a community but the mall below it and the casino/resort next door belay the reality.
I will say that it is more pleasing than the strip and its now utilitarian hotels (think the Wynn).
I appreciate where I live much more after visiting Vegas, even though I grew up there, Colorado is our beautiful home.