In his 2008 book, The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton argues that architecture has an extraordinary power when it comes to influencing who we are. In giving shape to our living environments, it plugs into our emotional existence. I would take it a step further and say that as we reside in architecture we so reside within ourselves, emplacing ourselves in both physical and psychological worlds.
But this is by no means a new argument. As de Botton explains in his most recent collection of essays, Religion for Atheists, the Catholics and Protestants have been elaborating on this theme for centuries. The world around us has a profound impact on how we think, feel, and perceive. Without this underlying logic there could be no architecture.
“In arguing for the importance of architecture, Catholicism was making a point, half touching, half alarming, about the way we function,” argues de Botton. “It was suggesting that we suffer from a heightened sensitivity to what is around us, that we will notice and be affected by everything our eyes light upon, a vulnerability to which Protestantism has frequently preferred to remain blind or indifferent.”
British Architect Augustus Pugin (1812-1852) in his 1836 work, Contrasts, demonstrated through illustration how the Protestant city, recklessly built upon an older, more reverential Catholic city, signaled the moral degradation of society.
And so what if we do suffer from this sensitivity? Are we better off deadening our senses? Is this why some of us become architects in the first place? Are we members of the super-sensitive cohort? Maybe we all need therapy and medication so we aren’t quite so sensitive? To this we can also plug in the cognitive theory of field-dependence. People who are field-dependent rely more on the external world toward developing a sense of reality or self. Is the built environment then a contest between those who are more field-dependent versus those who are field-independent? Perhaps these are the extensions of the Medieval Catholic and Protestant spiritual-spatial concepts that run through western culture.
On the face of things, the Protestant vision seems to have won the day. But let’s not simply blame the poor Protestants. They have enough to be depressed about as it is. Let us merely use the distinction Mr. de Botton sets up between Catholic and Protestant aesthetics as a clever way to address the status of beauty in the contemporary built environment. The Protestant aesthetic neatly and functionally dovetailed into industrial functionalism. In his essay “Functionalism Today” (1965), Adorno claimed architecture was incapable of producing works of beauty because it can no longer wrap itself in classical ornamentation and style—here citing Loos. If Yael Reisner and the architects she features in her book, Architecture and Beauty, are anything to go by, then what we are confronting is a “troubled relationship.”
Kant was never nihilistic about the possibility of beauty. In 1764, he published his Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime. In it he lays out a case for, among other things, aesthetic relativism. He writes, “The various feelings of enjoyment or of displeasure rest not so much upon the nature of the external things that arouse them as upon each person’s own disposition to be moved by these to pleasure or pain.” That people are moved by material or spatial presence assumed to be universal while the nuances of such feelings are informed by differences in culture.
What we need, I think de Botton is arguing, is more capital “A” architecture—specifically that which might be classified as beautiful—let’s just go with Kant for whatever that might entail. While what defines beauty is subjective, we could certainly have more of it in all possible forms rather than opting for less, or surrendering to deadening developments founded on ugliness. The on-going obsession with architecture (especially among those of us engaged in making it), whenever and wherever it appears, is the manifestation of a broader cultural worrying over the status of our environments. Underlying the excitement of each singular work of architecture is the quiet lament that we don’t have more of it.
True “A” architecture is relatively scarce in the midst of our commercial miasma of advertising, gas stations, motels, car washes, fortified office campuses, and other missed opportunities. If we want more beauty then we need more thoughtful architecture. But first and foremost, we need more thoughtful laws about the environment as a whole. As they might say in China, “Let one hundred forms of beauty coexist and smash all that is ugly.” Or, perhaps a more sanitized version might be, “Prevent ugliness at every opportunity and let one hundred forms of beauty flourish.” Clearly, society has not decided that environmental beauty is a priority, let alone an issue of public health and well-being.
There are only so many Frederic Law Olmsted’s conceiving of Emerald Necklaces, for example, to disrupt the urban grid. This is the sort of urban design that sets a precedent for the insertion of beauty. Drive down any boulevard in Los Angeles, say, and there are huge swaths of detritus between what might be considered beautiful, provocative, or moving architecture. Architecture is more akin to punctuation marks than the sentences that comprise our urban narratives. Architecture is a rare occurrence. Mostly we see chains of uninspiring and soul-deadening buildings. Does this make us less than good people? It certainly doesn’t contribute to our happiness or sense of well-being. If it weren’t so rare we wouldn’t obsess about it so much. There would be no need. It would be like worrying over trees in the middle of a dense forest.
Can anyone say Lincoln Boulevard, to make a point, is more beautiful than ugly? For much of its length, despite the vibrancy of its commercial culture, architecturally it is a deoxygenated vein of uninspired waste and decay. It might as well have open sewers running along either side. It is jammed with buildings but hardly any architecture. It is Protestant, vacuous strip conceived by field-independent opportunists looking for space for signage and junk. It is famous, actually, for being one of the ugliest boulevards in the city.
Such spatial evidence bears witness to architecture’s loss and by extension a loss for every citizen. As de Botton states, “What counts is who owns a piece of land, not who is forced to stare at it, and then suffer from, what has been built on it.”
What we need, to carry his argument further, is a renewed “Catholicization” of space in which the eyes of beholders are granted the rights to beauty. Let’s begin this crusade with an adjustment to the legal framework, shall we? Citizens have the right to beauty before their eyes at all times so that they might thus be positively influenced to be good citizens. Would we see less crime? Would we have fewer lawyers and more artists and poets? There would be more architects and they would be busy all of the time because there is a lot of ugliness to eradicate. We would have to tear nearly everything down and start over. What better way to get the economy going again. Or we could just say fuck it and move to the country to live amongst the trees.