Is beauty conservative?

united-states-capital-building(1)No. Certainly not in the political sense. Beauty, by which I mean architectural beauty in traditional and classical design, is as alluring to liberals as it is to conservatives. Because political conservatives have been more skeptical of modern architecture and other modern isms, many liberals wrongly concede the field to conservatives, even to Republicans. This is a mistake that some modernists gin up to put traditional architecture in what they consider a bad light. “Let’s you and him fight!” might be the modernists’ motto.

The matter is well framed by two essays sent to me by Mark Anthony Signorelli, who contributed an excellent hortative, indeed radical essay with Nikos Salingaros last year entitled “The Tyranny of Artistic Modernism,” which artists were exhorted to rise up in revolt against. (It is here.) The one he sent, “Timeless Beauty: Conservatism’s Modernist Problem,” by Joel Pidel, a New York architect trained at Notre Dame, is in response to the one Pidel links to, “Nameless Beauty: Conservatism’s Architcture Problem,” by Matthew Milliner, an assistant professor at Wheaton College. Both were published by the Witherspoon Institute.

Both essays are worth reading and make many useful and pertinent points, but I prefer Pidel’s careful rejoinder to Milliner’s point that conservatives should appreciate the beauty that exists beyond the constraints generally observed in tradition’s concept of beauty. I would add that while Milliner correctly asserts that modern architecture can be beautiful (as I have occasionally admitted in my writing), it cannot be so in principle but must rely on a sort of accidental genius. That genius, so rare, is the exception to modernism’s rule, which not only leads mostly to ugliness, but to many other preening, destructive qualities that degrade what beauty remains in cities and other places, and is inherently disruptive to the very concept of civic beauty: Buildings that compete to upstage each other in the degree of their novelty are unlikely ever to create a setting whose built structures cooperate on behalf of a public sensibility congenial to all.

That last goal should be as alluring to liberals as to conservatives if not more so. My own dislike for modern architecture is based less on its “will to ugliness” as on its incivility to its fellow occupants of the street, be they pedestrians or other buildings.

But wait, there’s more! I dislike modernism because unlike the classical establishment that preceded it, the modernist establishment of architecture has taken active measures for more than half a century to suppress tradition and prevent it from regenerating itself, on behalf of an orthodoxy so vapid that a third grader can see through it. You’d think the moral bankruptcy of modern architecture would make it a prime target of liberal disdain.

I don’t like to bring politics into architecture, but I do believe that the first political party to put into its platform a plank that makes an issue out of why our cities and towns have become so ugly, and promises to help the public pressure politicians and their developer and corporate friends (and paymasters) to hire architects who prefer beauty to ugliness will steal a march on the opposition. For it is a fact that with so many difficult problems facing the nation (and the world), this problem is downright easy to solve.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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2 Responses to Is beauty conservative?

  1. Pingback: In lumina

  2. Gede Prama says:

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