Do people really feel beauty?

The Korenmarkt in Ghent, in the Flanders section of Belgium. (ttnotes.com)

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.

Note the lonely modernist hulks shunted by the Belgians to the outskirts. (continenthop.com)

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, dbrussat@gmail.com, 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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15 Responses to Do people really feel beauty?

  1. John the First says:

    On the subject of rebuilt cities in Europe. I have lived in and around Rotterdam for decades (being a Dutchman). A city which the tasteless post WWII establishments deliberately tried to turn into a ‘New York on the Maas’ (the Maas is a river flowing trough Rotterdam). Disastrous city, cold and alienating. It also contains buildings of starchitects, and the ridiculous cube houses. This reshaping went along with extreme immigration practices, the establishments made the city into a consumerist hell, unsafe public spaces, extreme social neglect, lots of low prospect immigrants, a disconnected centre, which chased out the original inhabitants to massive newly built mass man suburbs.
    The traditional architecture both in Amsterdam and Rotterdam is highly favoured by establishments tough, in the sense that due to sparsity only they have the money to live in these buildings, aside of big money corporations. So they wrecked the city, play the game of the glamour modernism, while privately keeping to themselves what is traditional. The rest of the people lives in uniform mass man workers suburbs (though later on some diversity was added to massive suburb projects).

    Complex? only if you do not see the wood trough the trees. Deliberate destruction of culture is the broad line.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You note below, John, that I am staking my claim based on the majority of people who prefer classical and traditional architecture to modernism. No. I merely state the fact, which is not the basis of my claim that classicism and tradition in architecture are superior. I would make that claim even if those two were the preference of a minority only, which may alas someday come to pass. Hopefully not.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. John the First says:

    “You are too hard on them, John”

    David,

    Polemics..
    The consumerist, narcissist screen addicted society is like a cancer. Cancers are aggressive… they eagerly eat lots of soft tissue.
    You are stating that in a lower desire driven society, a hasty one too, where the pursuit of sensual-desires dominates, nay, is rampant, people will still maintain the ability to appreciate form sufficiently?
    I think narcissism (some form of exaggerated focus on the self) and sensible appreciation of what is external are mutually exclusive, so I do have an idea about it, though the idea might be devoid of logic? Actually I have been trying to practice less focus on myself in order to appreciate what is candidate for appreciation outside of me more, especially in the area of aesthetics. And I have heard about some other people attempting to do the same thing in general, it is even often recommended by wise philosophers, and parents often teach it to their children. But you are suggesting that we might not have an idea how it works.

    It take it though that the environment still exercises some benevolent influence on the subconscious indeed. But that’s a soft card which spoils the polemic character. I don’t know about ‘unconscious’ experiences though, if possible, they seem useless to me.

    Drooling, haha, I am tempted to think that you are too soft on ‘the people’ as you need the majority to make the case for traditional architecture, so you might be cheating by giving them a break, but that’s good, cheating for the good cause.
    So alright, I am a drooler, and the selfie people, while eating ice-cream, fries, and photographing themselves with the buildings on the background, ‘they can be appreciative’, if even an optimistic one out of ten. Maybe I should take a camera with me too, to prevent myself from drooling.

    Next time when I am in the neighbourhood ‘drooling’ among the ghosts of the past, at the time of day when the sensual desire-driven are tired of their pursuits and about to go to sleep, I will send them your greetings. I suspect the buildings have their ears and eyes closed during the day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • John the First says:

      In addition to the above, on the interesting subject of drooling, and that we might have no idea.. how self and non-self directed ‘appreciation’ might go together, perhaps even perfectly?

      There have been some artists writing on the subject of the ability of appreciation, on sensibility, on increasing the ability of appreciation, on how to shut yourself up so to speak.

      Some quotes from Oscar Wilde:

      “But this restless modern intellectual spirit of ours is not receptive enough of the sensuous element of art; and so the real influence of the arts is hidden from many of us: only a few, escaping from the tyranny of the soul, have learned the secret of those high hours when thought is not.”

      “But some one should teach them that while, in the opinion of society, Contemplation is the gravest sin of which any citizen can be guilty, in the opinion of the highest culture it is the proper occupation of man.”

      So these artists give suggestions, to become professional droolers.. funny guys they are.

      Now of course not all people should aim at ‘artists sensibility’ or ‘the highest culture’, but I do recollect many ordinary people, those who do not entertain high flying sophisticated theories, expressing that when they have a camera with them, or in general a smart-phone, that when they ‘wake up’ from their screens and lenses they feel they have been missing out on something… That they have seen the world trough the eyes of an un-imaginative dictator (my words).

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for the Wilde quotes, John, but I think you have overreacted to my use of the word drooling. Just a manner of expression, not to be taken as a commentary on those contemplating beauty.

        Liked by 1 person

        • John the First says:

          You are not wholly wrong about the drooling. Some centuries ago there was a man called Franz Liszt, he stood inspired before a painting, he stood at the basis of the modern status of art. Since life imitates art, many imitators followed, hence, the birth of the modern drooler, obviously failed imitations.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. stanleyxweiss@gmail.com says:

    Hi David, hope you and the family are well. About living with beauty I think of you as the outside man, and I , the inside man. Look at my website video , the first thing I say …”I like to live with beautiful things” And the furniture we deal with is surely sculptural, often to complement a fine building … Best Stan Sent from my iPhone

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Do individuals actually really feel magnificence? - Zbout

  5. David,

    “Only architects have had their human sense of beauty “educated” out of them at architecture school.”

    Your polemic and outrageous statement is guaranteed to spark passionate responses! I would love to follow a debate on this issue. But who is ready to represent the majority (establishment) side? Do you know whether anyone who reads your provocative essays believes they received an excellent and unbiased education in architecture school?

    Best wishes,
    Nikos

    Liked by 1 person

    • Why would any modernist bother to participate, Nikos, especially in a debate on this blog? If any modernists read it they ain’t tellin’. It may be that someday they will feel compelled to reply, but in the meantime I feel that generating some degree of outrage among trads toward mods is all I can do.

      Liked by 1 person

      • John the First says:

        If I may participate, playing the advocate of the.. ehm.. modernists. On the allegedly worrying issue of the popularity of traditional architecture:

        “Popularity is the crown of laurel which the world puts on bad art. Whatever is popular is wrong.”

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Nir buras says:

    Send him to me

    Liked by 1 person

    • John the First? I should send your magnificent book to him!

      Liked by 1 person

      • John the First says:

        Nir Buras writes on his website that citizens in Athens were involved in the process of decision making. I am sure that he knows that to be a citizen in Athens was rather an exclusive status.
        Do people really feel beauty? The question is why and when is a man capable of appreciating beauty.
        If we take gardening as an example. Gardening historically has been the prerogative of elites, not just because they were in a position to entertain such passions, but because the desire for beauty is poorly developed among the masses of people, often totally absent, and often mistaken for what are purely sensual pursuits. Ortegian modern consumerist mass man has little desire to rise above himself, or to reach outside of himself. Contemporary popularity of gardening and interior design means that mass man has somewhat awakened from his slumber, from his little world. But to grant people the ability of appreciation of beauty just like that is a typical democratic phenomenon, which rests on no sophisticated theory, it rests on ideological beliefs.
        So what we are left with is that apparently in some vague way, traditional architecture has a benevolent effect on a majority of people. It’s a fuzzy theoretical fundament.

        Liked by 1 person

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