Early in Girl With a Pearl Earring, Tracy Duvalier’s novel set in 17th century Holland, is a passage that launched several thoughts about architecture and design. The teenage girl has just become a maid in the household of the successful painter Johannes Vermeer. She is allowed on Sundays to visit the home of her mother and father – he was a maker of Delft tiles until a recent accident blinded him. She describes her first visit home:
When we ate dinner I tried not to compare it with that in the house at Papists’ Corner, but already I had become accustomed to meat and good rye bread. Although my mother was a better cook than [Vermeer’s cook] Tanneke, the brown bread was dry, the vegetable stew tasteless with no fat to flavor it. The room, too, was different no marble tiles, no thick silk curtains, no tooled leather chairs. Everything was simple and clean, without ornamentation. I loved it because I knew it, but I was aware now of its dullness.
The description suggests, with delicacy, how embellishment – of cuisine, of decor, of architecture – brings a more or less subtle richness to life. Maybe those without such embellishment get the greatest pleasure from it, if and when they can experience it. Maybe it is possible to love “dullness” only through deprivation of embellishment. If so, then maybe we need more traditional houses on public streets. serving (as I noted in “Beauty as a social good“) as free art museums for the general public, including those of low income, who need only stroll by to enjoy and who may appreciate it the most.
So cities with strong preservation societies preserve a social good. Right? Or maybe they preserve houses whose beauty makes it harder for the poor to bear the relative aesthetical poverty of their lives. Maybe modern architecture enriches the lives of the poor.
Hey! That’s going too far! Anyway, some food for thought about architecture.