Sunday, February 20, 2011

Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in Architecture

Aedes Christi

I recently came across an article by the art critic and philosopher Graham Carey in the Michaelmas 1949 issue of The Catholic Art Quarterly. At the time he was Chairman of the Catholic Art Association, and was on the Advisory Board of this journal. In the article Carey presents detailed plans for what appears to be an ideal "small country church which would be at once traditional and contemporary", and he draws on a rich tradition of symbolic geometry and Christian iconography and Scriptural references. The result is fascinating, and I confess it drew me because he had, to my surprise, described the plan of an ideal church which I myself had envisaged over a decade ago, while doodling during a lecture!

However, it was Carey's theological conclusion drawing on the transcendentals of truth, goodness and beauty, rather than his architectural plans, which I wish to share with our readership today. Carey said:

What is truth in architecture? Truth is a relationship of congruence between a thought and a thing. Absolute or ontological truth is the likeness between what things are and God's idea of them, and ordinary relative truth is the likeness between what things are and what we think them to be. Architectural truth has two similar divisions. The principles of architecture ought to be closely related to God's universal principles. In other words, the architectural theology should be sound. And secondly, the material expression of the principles should be adequate. The building should be what it seems to be. Such is truth in architecture; its spirit the true theology, and its body expressing that theology truly...

What is goodness in architecture? Goodness is the relation of things to their final causes. Here again we get two meanings to one word. Goodness means that the final cause of a thing is what God wants it to be. A good man's purpose is the same as God's purpose for him. But goodness also means a congruence between what he himself wants and what he succeeds in achieving. A good building is one which has a good purpose, one congruent with the needs of man as God created him, and it is also one that fulfills its purpose whatever that purpose may be. A church may be good in the former sense, and an atomic bomb in its latter. A really good building is good in both senses; it has a noble use, and its structure serves that noble use nobly.

And what of beauty? Beauty is the radiance of perfection in a thing, a perfection which the mind may understand directly through the service of the senses. If a thing is what it should be, true and good, it will appear as it should, beautiful, to anyone who has a mind capable of receiving beauty... The beauty of architecture is a direct result of the truth and goodness of architecture. This is the meaning of Lethaby's often misunderstood dictum that, given truth and goodness, beauty will look after herself.

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