“It is in dialogue with pain that many beautiful things acquire their value. Acquaintance with grief turns out to be one of the more unusual prerequisites of architectural appreciation. We might, quite aside from all other requirements, need to be a little sad before buildings can properly touch us.”
This photo was taken at Princeton Battlefield State Park which holds, a National Historic Landmark of the Battle of Princeton in 1777. “It was a battle in which General George Washington’s revolutionary forces defeated British forces near Princeton, New Jersey.” Read more on the Battle of Princeton.
“A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.”
The world is perfectly laced with both beauty and brokenness, though brokenness is often much easier to see. Brokenness demands our attention by inflicting pain, drama and devastation on our lives—making us victims of the world. Sometimes we can’t seem to escape it and other times we are just drawn to it.
Beauty, on the other hand, is silent, peaceful and slow to attract attention. Even the most magnificent sights can go unnoticed in the constant presence of pain. Beauty calls us to look outside ourselves and focus on something or someone else. It fosters compassion, love and unselfishness, while pain calls all attention back on ourselves and how unjust our lives are. Beauty must be sought after and protected, even found in the midst and presence of brokenness itself.
Beauty far exceeds the power and strength of brokenness, even in its quiet demeanor. The problem is not with the power of beauty, but with ourselves. It takes faith, courage and strength to put aside our pain and defense mechanisms and fully embrace the beauty woven all around us.
Coming from a devoted skeptic and conscious cynic—this applies to me most of all.
Hesitantly, I walk out my front door to my vehicle which allows me to access the roads. These roads allow me to go wherever I would like to, subjecting me to the forlorn decay of architecture that permeates the space humans have dominated. Architecture, in this essay, encompasses everything that establishes our inhabited places. Our inhabited places need to be looked at holistically, for buildings are constructed to fit our environment and way of living. Inhabited places includes roads, sidewalks, highways, parking lots, buildings, and homes. The harmful perspective we have exhibited toward the places we inhabit have perpetuated a sense of apathy toward our architecture, along with values that cause us to have a disposable view of our environment and ourselves.
Architecture was once commonly seen as a form of art and this idea began in ancient Greece and Rome. Before I go any further, I need to qualify the meaning of art itself. Being such a controversial idea, art tends toward a subjective nature and changes steadily in its meaning throughout history. For example, ancient Greece would define art as achieving some form of absolute beauty, which I can address more in-depth later on. On the contrary, a postmodern perspective on art would be that of relativism, meaning art is whatever you want it to be. This leads me to my own definition of art: the expression of thoughts, emotions, or ideas that cannot be expressed rationally, while always being an end to something, never a means. In other words, art is another medium of expression that is used mainly for that purpose, although can be enjoyed by others as well. Makoto Fujimura, an artist who has explored this idea in-depth says, “What makes us truly human may not be how fast we are able to accomplish a task but what we experience fully, carefully, and quietly in the process” (27). The process of creating art is just as important, if not more important than the product that is being created.
Some of the greatest pieces of ancient art exist as forms of architecture like the Parthenon in Greece. They were intentional about the buildings they constructed and had strong convictions about the importance of their creation. Their work was rooted in something of a higher essence. It was the attempt at pushing the boundaries of what is humanly possible for the sake of creating beauty. Rome held onto the same ideals and used them to glorify their Empire. Their goals in architecture were rooted in more worldly values, which were to glorify something on earth. Ancient Greece and Rome were able to create architecture that was pleasing to the public because of their primary intention and goal of creating. Whether they were reaching for something of a higher essence or glorifying something on earth, they had a reason for creating something worth appreciating. Architecture was far more than providing shelter and function—it is a medium for expressing thoughts, emotions/feelings and ideas.
Therefore, since art is a means of expression and architecture is a form of art, architecture is also a form of expression. A.J. Downing, one of the first great landscape designer in the U.S., explains the power of expression through any form of art, like architecture, says, “To be keenly sensible of the power of even the imperfect reproduction of such ideas in the various fine arts— poetry, music, painting, sculpture, architecture, etc.—is to acknowledge the power of beauty over our feelings in another and a more personal form” (9). Although Downing wrote this in 1850, the validity of these words has not changed. Art forms, like architecture are a reproduction of feelings in a more personal way. Art forms have power, power to convey emotion, power to make a statement, and power to make people feel a certain way. Downing goes on to explain the idea of expression through architecture. He describes how relative beauty in architecture is man’s expression of his ideas. The more powerful expression comes from his religious and intellectual nature which are exhibited in Civil Architecture, which are things like temples, churches, and libraries. Downing also says, the second most powerful expression comes from his social and moral feelings which are exhibited in Domestic Architecture. The connection between art and architecture is one that has since been lost over one hundred and fifty years later. We have since lost this idea of the importance of architecture and the effect it has on humans. We have also since lost architects who value architecture as a form of art or expression. Architecture is no longer a form of art in today’s society, it is simply an occupation, nothing more. Fujimura says, “Art is a building block of civilization. A civilization that does not value its artistic expression is a civilization that does not value itself” (111). Art is essential to a civilization; it is the very medium that humans use to express themselves, a medium that signifies our humanity. A world without this ability of expression is a dull and apathetic world, a world where people are so preoccupied with their routines, they end up ignoring their surroundings and are too busy to care or too apathetic to notice.
This change in architecture is more accurately attributed to the events going back to the American Revolution, according to James Howard Kunstler who is the author of The Geography of Nowhere. He describes the foundations of American space and the ideology that was rooted in it. Americans were rebelling against the English rule and adopted a fee simple land ownership, which he describes as “land held with the fewest strings attached—the fee being simple cash payment” (25). This simple fee land ownership is opposed to being accountable to someone for land and how to take care of it. This seemed like a fantastic idea—more freedom and more individuality. Kunstler goes on to say, “Tocqueville observed this when he toured America in 1831. ‘Individualism,’ he wrote, ‘at first, only saps the virtues of public life; but in the long run it attacks and destroys all others and is at length absorbed in selfishness’” (27). Selfishness, being the result of freedom and individualism, to which we took years to come. Prior to this, Americans took care of their land and architecture. They were responsible of their land in their celebration of their new-found freedom from England. They held on to the ideals that they had been rooted in from birth and used architecture as a form of art and a way of expressing their humanity. As it naturally would, the ideals of society began to change as the American Dream became more accessible. It was now possible for people to work their way up on the social ladder. Money and status were the ideal, not beauty or expression of humanity. Americans were doing everything they could to make a name for themselves so jobs were now centered on making the most money. Since there was no government or town regulation on land, people began to neglect their space and in place came function.
With any change, there are both positive and negative effects. We must look at the things being gained and the things that are also being lost to determine whether the change was either beneficial or detrimental. Neil Postman addresses the change that occurs with any new invention or idea that is introduced to our society in his book, Technopoly. Although his main focus is on technology, he provides valuable insight to the way we need to approach change. Postman says, “Nowhere does he see any limit placed by nature to human endeavor; in his eyes something that does not exist is just something that has not been tried” (53). This is the perspective that many architects may experience as well. They continue to discover a better way to build with cheaper or more useful materials and building bigger and more functional buildings. In Alain De Botton’s book, The Architecture of Happiness, he writes:
Mastering the technologies of iron and steel, of plate glass and concrete, they drew interest and inspired awe with their bridges, railway hangars, aqueducts and docks. More novel than their abilities, perhaps, was the fact that they seemed to complete these projects without ever directly asking themselves what style was best to adopt (46).
Architects and engineers were so enthusiastic about the new materials and the possibilities they offered that they no longer viewed their work as a form of art. This quick and cost-effective method may be beneficial for corporations and middle-class families looking for homes in suburbia, yet not worth the negative effects that will be an outflow of the shift in values. With every major cultural change there is something being gained, while at the same time, there is also something lost. The values that our country was rooted in, the goals that drove people to achieve the impossible are what we have sacrificed through this change.
Form follows function is a necessary principle that has been adapted in shaping our buildings and spaces in order to meet the demand of the function. Functionality cannot be seen as the only concern, especially not when it sacrifices the artistic expression of the architect or the creator themselves. I do not mean to say that architecture is purely a form of art, functionality is absolutely necessary in our everyday life. However, whether or not architecture is functional is not the question; man’s footprint in this world is enough evidence to prove that functionality is well understood. So somehow we are perfectly accepting of roads and buildings as long as they serve a purpose, even if they are painful to view. Peter Blake, a dean of the Boston Architectural Center, addresses the result of functionality being the ultimate goal in his book, God’s Own Junkyard. He explains how houses are being built on whatever piece of land man can find. Farms are being transformed into developments and apartments. More pavement needs to be laid for more roads and bigger parking lots to comfortably fit the amount of people who now own cars. This contamination does not end in the undeveloped use of the entirety of our ground, even the skyline is a space that has potential use as well. There are telephone poles and billboards clouding our view of natural landscapes and skylines. Man is not yet finished making his territory in this nation and this is sadly becoming a devastating reality.
Not only are we continuing to shape our buildings based on our values, but they are affecting us as well. This idea is very circular and will remain circular unless something drastic offsets this circular pattern. Winston Churchill gave a speech regarding the rebuilding of the House of Commons on October 28, 1944. He stated, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” As money and status become our main goal in our buildings, we begin to become apathetic to the architecture around us. Buildings tell stories and they portray emotions of the architect who designed them and the men who constructed them. Our buildings will continue to represent the values of our culture and will continue this cycle of shaping who we are in the process.
Our apathy toward the places we inhabit will perpetuate more apathy and hopelessness in our desire to do anything about it. Architecture should be seen as a form of art, like it once was. It should display humanity’s hope in something greater than itself. The value of art and beauty as it is seen in man’s inhabited space, has been lost; with that, an endless list of other values that are essential to a thriving community. This issue starts and ends with man. We are the builders of our environment and unless our values change, our architecture will remain hopeless. We are only as good as the limits we place on ourselves. This is certainly an issue if we believe that our end goal is function, comfort and status. We have nothing left to achieve. We have it all and nowhere else to go but down. Moreover, if our architecture remains hopeless, we will inevitably remain hopeless as well.
“But Wang Lung thought of his land and pondered this way and that, with the sickened heart of deferred hope, how he could get back to it. He belonged, not to this scum which clung to the walls of a rich man’s house; nor did he belong to the rich man’s house. He belonged to the land and he could not live with any fullness until he felt the land under his feet and followed a plow in the springtime and bore a scythe in his hand at harvest.
…so now again Wang Lung was healed of his sickness of love by the good dark earth of his fields. For he stood first behind the oxen and saw the earth turning as the plow went into the soil, and then himself took a hoe and broke up the soil into fine loamy stuff, soft as black sugar, and still dark with the wetness of the land upon it. This he did for the sheer joy he had in it, and when he was weary, he lay down on his land.”
“A house can have integrity, just like a person,’ said Roark, ‘and just as seldom.” –The Fountainhead
What does our architecture say about us? I know I have touched on this idea previously, but I think this question is incredibly pertinent, so pertinent that I will repeat it—what does our architecture say about us?
I think it says we don’t care. We are apathetic to our surroundings and the fact that we continue to build these cookie cutter communities, connected only by pavement and concrete seems to be proof. These communities are desirable, but not because they are created for low-income families–they are chosen by the middle-class and wealthy. Specific developments are even built for wealthier people who pay extra for fancy features to which they have in common with the rest of their street. They are not formed due to a last resort–these developments are actually wanted and desired. Many who live there may be seeking community for their family and children, but I would be willing to bet that the majority of people do not even know their neighbors, especially if they are not planning to stay there for long. All of which can occur due to this unspoken communal acceptance of aesthetically uncomfortable spaces.
I think we may be too afraid to admit that our surroundings affect us, possibly because it would require too much responsibility. It would require work, money, time and consideration. Most people see that as a major drawback and resort to function, low-cost, quick and ugly. Since when did this list universally outweigh the previous? Believe it or not, there have been cultures that would have never chosen money over beauty because what they were building was worth it and it meant something. Our architecture reflects our values and we clearly don’t value beauty, hard work, consideration and individuality.
“Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better or for worse, different people in different places – and on the conviction that it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.”–Alain de Botton
Our apathy toward the places we inhabit will perpetuate more apathy and hopelessness in our desire to do anything about it. Architecture should be seen as a form of art, like it once was. It should display humanity’s hope for something greater than itself. The value of art and beauty as it is seen in man’s inhabited space, has been lost; with that, an endless list of other values that are essential to a thriving community. This issue starts and ends with man. We are the builders of our environment and unless our values change, our architecture will remain hopeless. If our architecture remains hopeless, we will inevitably remain hopeless as well.
This is what I woke up to this morning on my way to work—a celebration on my car.
“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”
The poem below is inspired by the song “Perth” by Bon Iver.
Ceremonious tones unfolding as they grow—
Cold voices muffled by a thick blanket of snow.
Rhythm of drums beating steady upon their stride—
Trumpets sound the vibrant expression of hope alive.
The marching band has arrived, resonating our ears—
Rich vibrations echo through the crisp air we hear.
A melodic celebration of colorfully radiant hues—
Brilliant sounds, crescendos, perfectly cued.
It is difficult to ignore the potential power that music has over the human emotions. Plato says that,
“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.”
It also effaces worries, stimulates hope, and extends a connection to a nonpareil reality that we could only experience through music. Each style certainly has its place, yet the most beautiful complies with that which Plato defined—that which seems to have some ceaseless value.
“Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant !
Let the dead Past bury its dead !
Act,— act in the living Present !
Heart within, and God o’erhead !”
Life is meant to be spent presently, yet we seem to be incapable of doing so. Thoughts and worries exhaust our mind and leave us too tired and preoccupied to care about the now. If the present was so easily attainable, we would just as easily take it for granted. The present will always be a short-lived breath of fresh air that consumes our moments until the next worry diverts our attention. So, as life is meant to be lived in the present, at least one, all-consuming present moment each day will suffice. Until death, this battle with time will continue, but until then—the present awaits our arrival.