Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Don’t Concede Ground to Cultural Marxists - Beauty Does Have Utility!

Form should follow function! This is the mantra of the modern architect that is responsible at least in part, many would say, for the ugliness of our postwar inner cities.

Some critics who have a more traditional view of things would argue that this cry reflects a philosophical error - utilitarianism. This is problematic because if we only consider the utility of a building, that is, what it will be used for, it doesn’t allow for the creation of beauty. We should add more to the building than simply those things that allow it fulfill its function, they say; otherwise, we end up with cold sterility.

I think I would say something different: form should follow function, but the function of anything we make must take the whole person into account, if it is to serve man fully. Man is body and soul, and unless his spiritual dimension is acknowledged, we have a diminished sense of the utility of the building.

No matter how mundane or apparently unspiritual in its character, there is no human activity worth doing, and no human artifact worth making, that cannot be considered in the light of our ultimate end. The appearance of a building will have an impact on us spiritually. Either it is taking us to God or away from Him. I would say furthermore that the material and the spiritual are not in opposition. When we see a building that is truly beautiful, or an action that is graceful, we are picking up on signs of optimal design and efficient action by any measure. This being the case, even the materialists should be interested in traditional beauty, for it is a signpost that their material goals are also being served optimally.

But beauty is more than simply an indication of utility, it also plays an integral part in utility; for when we see beauty, we delight in it and desire all the more what it points to, the source of all beauty, God.

The problem with the modernists is not their emphasis on utility, but rather that they have a diminished sense of what utility is, because of their flawed anthropology. This results in a reduced utility of a building, even by their limited measure... and ugliness. Their motto should not be “form follows function”, but rather “form follows dysfunction”! And the ugliness of their buildings is all the evidence we need, incidentally, that there is no order outside God’s order, only disorder.

The problem with their more traditionally-minded critics is that they have conceded the ground to the cultural Marxists by allowing them to define what utility is. The modernists see beauty as an unnecessary add-on; their critics as a luxurious add-on. I say neither is right. Beauty is both necessary to and integrated with purpose. But it is not a distinct ingredient that can be added like an egg to a cake. When everything is in place, it is an emergent property that is made present by virtue of the relationships of the whole to that purpose, and of the parts to each other.

The perfect design for any particular building is an ideal, unlikely ever to be seen before the day we behold the buildings of downtown New Jerusalem! However, if we at least try to look to heaven for inspiration, we are more likely to create something beautiful than we are by contemplating nothing higher than our own navels.

Architects of the past knew this. This is why even a Victorian workhouse, could be created with enough care for it to be preserved as a listed building nearly 200 years later. This is in Southwell,  Nottinghamshire in England, and was built in 1829.

Or almshouses built in 1850 in Woburn, Bedfordshire, England, can now be sought-after residences of professionals (photo: Viki Male).

Contrast these with the modern, form-follows-dysfunction version of affordable housing. The focus on material requirements and neglect of the spiritual needs of the person unsettles the spirit, and consequently sets man against man, undermining community. As a result, people don’t want to live there and within a few years of being built many are being torn down.

I’m not going to say that architectural design is the only cause of the problems of our inner cities, but I would say it contributes to them significantly. For those who want to know more about what specifically an architect can do to design buildings with proportions that acknowledge the spiritual dimension of man, there is an introduction to the principles in this article, here. Also, my book The Way of Beauty goes into the subject in a lot more detail.

So dominant is this modernist outlook (and all other forms of ugliness that arise from it) that we have the absurd situation that even churches are designed in such a way that their stylistic features don’t take into account fully the fact that man is spiritual as well as material. If ever there was a building that should be designed with elevating beauty in mind it is a church...surely! The saddest aspect of the last hundred years of architectural history is that so many believers, to judge from the ugly designs of churches we see in recent times, allowed cultural Marxism, rooted in its narrow-minded materialism, to set the style for our places of worship along with other kinds of buildings. It wasn’t that they lost the battle; they were so woefully misguided that they enthusiastically encouraged this. There was no battle. All involved might pay lip service to spiritual needs, but the designs they commission say the opposite, undermining the very purpose of a church - to house the worship of God.
Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain
The Gothic mason understood perfectly that beauty is the visible sign of a building that is fulfilling the maxim that form follows function. That is why even structural elements such as the flying buttresses were built with harmonious proportion; there is no such thing as superfluous ornamentation in their buildings. There is ornamentation, of course, but it is there to help it fulfill its function and is, therefore, both necessary to its utility.

Here is a Gothic drawing by Villard de Honnecourt, a mason from 13th century France.

And here are the flying buttresses of the Chapter House of Lincoln Cathedral, in England, built in the 13th century.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: