I recently received an interesting comment from a frequent visitor to my blog. John the First, as he styles himself, quoted from my January 31 post, “Learn more about classicism,” that “Europeans are surrounded by beauty.” He wrote:
I live in the centre of the city of Ghent, the famous “Korenmarkt” being around the corner, with an overwhelming amount of historical buildings, cathedrals, churches, castles, mini castles and a great deal of former aristocratic residential buildings. Actually in context of the crude aesthetics of modern commerce, the blind rush of mass man consumerist, and the narcissism of tourists, these buildings appear like ghosts from the past. It doesn’t even appear to me that the always in a hurry, eating or smartphoning fastfood crowds notice them and really enjoy them. The tourists are out to photograph themselves with the buildings on the background.
My reply went out almost immediately:
You are too hard on them, John. I had no idea you lived in Belgium. Congratulations. But does someone enjoying the scene need to stand there drooling in front of this or that building? Or may they consciously or unconsciously experience an elevated mood or sense of pleasure deriving from the beauty of where they are that is distinguishable from what they might feel in an ugly, sterile, modernist environment? Even if only one in ten feels the specific joy of a beautiful set of buildings such as you describe in Ghent for a moment or two, the value of the beauty is manifest. And you have no idea whether someone doing a selfie is also enjoying the beauty behind him or her, who chose to take the shot in a place of beauty rather than a place of ugliness, yes?
Yes! Admit it, John, you have not reckoned with the power of beauty.
I am reading the new, 60th-anniversary edition of Henry Hope Reed’s classic The Golden City, originally published in 1959. It is one of my bibles, and a full-throated defense of classical architecture at a time when it had almost died out in America. “The Modern,” as the style was called by Reed with a gentle twist of his lips, had replaced traditional design not just in America but in most of Europe. As I pointed out in my post, with so much of the old remaining in Europe as a model for its architects and city planners, it was baffling that the Europeans had been snookered as badly by the modernists as we Americans, and that their design elites were even more intent upon crushing traditional design practices than their confederates on this side of the pond.
In Europe and America, between World War I and World War II, the traditional design establishment surrendered without a fight. European modernists (those of Great Britain included) rebuilt bombed-out cities in styles that almost make one pine for the ruins. Prince Charles was right to say of London that “[y]ou have to give this much to the Luftwaffe: when it knocked down our buildings it did not replace them with anything more offensive than rubble.”
So how did the modernists manage such a thoroughgoing design revolution between the two wars? It’s too complicated a question to address here. Suffice it to say the revolt against beauty was as thorough as it was unnoticed – until Reed. His Golden City begins with a long set of photographs comparing what had been built before and what all too often replaced it in New York City. The photos need no exegesis. (Though of course he provides one, with his patented brio.) Anyone looking at the before and after would agree that a great wrong has been perpetrated not just on New York but on the world. Reed explains:
It is the absence of ornament in the Modern city that most betrays its unreality. The real world is not a desert, unpeopled and solitary; the real world is full of life and of the reminders of life. (“I plead for decoration,” Clifton Fadiman has written, “man is an ornamental animal.”) An essential part of it is reflected in the ornament about us, from the dolphin-headed coffee spout at the Automat to the Statue of Liberty in the harbor.
No doubt this is as obvious to the people at the Korenmarkt in Ghent as anywhere else. Every human being spends a lifetime experiencing architecture on a daily basis, and thus is capable of judging the art of architecture more naturally and more ably than, say the arts of painting or poetry. Only architects have had their human sense of beauty “educated” out of them at architecture school.
The historic preservation movement has saved many thousands of buildings in Europe and America (among all too many losses). But the ancient idea of using the inspiration of the past to build anew has been unaccountably slow to revive in an era where the ugly continues to maintain its stranglehold on the beautiful.
Beauty remains under assault in the world of architecture, but it reigns supreme in the eyes, hearts and souls of everyday people.