Tuesday, September 20, 2022

The Good, and the Bad and Ugly: Harmony and Cacophony in North Wales and Princeton

Here’s another in an occasional series in which I feature buildings I see on my travels. The hope is that it will inspire architects, or those who commission their work, to build more beautiful buildings, and actually make the effort to learn the mathematics behind traditional harmony and proportion (as described in Section II of my book The Way of Beauty). My assertion is that, to draw a musical analogy, harmony is the principle of traditional architectural design, while monotony and cacophony are the principles of contemporary architectural design. I give a deeper explanation in a past article, here.

First, the Good - harmony: here are some examples in North Wales, and one from the campus of Princeton University. Then the Bad and Ugly - cacophony - as exemplified by the newly opened New College West in Princeton NJ, which deliberately seeks to depart from the harmonious proportions of the otherwise beautiful neo gothic campus.

Here are the restored gothic buildings at St Winifride’s Well in North Wales. This is a pilgrimage site in which, as at Lourdes, people dip into the well water and are cured. It has been a pilgrimage site since the 7th century, when St Winifride was cured miraculously after being decapitated.

Next we see the 18th century Georgian houses on the seafront of an old resort, Beaumaris, in Anglesey. I tried unsuccessfully to find out why a Welsh town has a name derived from a French phrase, beau marais meaning beautiful marsh.

These traditional buildings incorporate proportions that are based on musical theory. An indication of this is the design in groups of three, with differing sized windows that relate to each other in visual harmony, just like three notes in a chord. The mathematics that governs the design is comparable to that which governs the frequencies of the notes in a chord.

Now look at a building on the old campus at Princeton.
The neo-Gothic campus of Princeton was built in imitation of the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, mostly in the early part of the last century. However, as recently as 2007, Whitman College was completed, also in a neo-Gothic style. (The name comes from the main donor, a past CEO of eBay.) It blends into the rest of the campus perfectly and the architects are to be congratulated for resisting the temptation to be nonconformist!
However, when the university recently decided they needed a new hall, they felt (as the story was told to me) that the Gothic style spoke too much of white European men, and that they wanted something that was more welcoming and representative of diversity. So they looked for a new style that spoke of no particular culture or race. I will leave it to you to decide, but for me, they succeeded. This truly speaks of nothing, or nothing good at least, and to no one in particular.

The result is, in musical terms, deliberately cacophonous - there is no discernable symmetry or pattern of correspondence in the design, and it avoids traditional harmonious proportions. They even go so far, as the site plan demonstrates clearly, as to avoid right angles in many places where one would normally expect them.

The university website proudly lists all the features, but it seems there is no place of prayer listed in the amenities. This should be no surprise. At the welcoming ceremony for all the freshmen recently, all students were instructed to join in a mindfulness meditation session. This is, it seems to me, architecture carefully and skillfully engineered to manifest a secular, non-Christian worldview. Having said that, I have heard that the students who live there like it because the rooms have both bathrooms and air conditioning, which is not standard elsewhere. One might argue that it has been designed well for its function, therefore, if one has a diminished sense of what a university is for. This is not a place that speaks of the supernatural or of the contemplation of God. For a Catholic, no real education that can be separated from the need for God and the search for divine wisdom, hagia sophia

They did commission some artists to create these pink installations:
All together this does seem to illustrate well the point that John Paul II made in Centesimus annus, 21:
It is not possible to understand man on the basis of economics alone, nor to define him simply on the basis of class membership. Man is understood in a more complete way when he is situated within the sphere of culture through his language, history, and the position he takes towards the fundamental events of life, such as birth, love, work and death. At the heart of every culture lies the attitude man takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God. Different cultures are basically different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence. When this question is eliminated, the culture and moral life of nations are corrupted.
The argument as to the whether or not the Gothic style is appropriate or not rests on whether or not one believes that beauty is universal. If it is, and if we accept that the Gothic style is beautiful, then regardless of where or when it originated, it speaks to all people, because it speaks of the source of its inspiration, which is Christ and the Church. This is really what those who commissioned the new building really wanted to avoid - a form that originates in the beauty of God.

The new building illustrates well the maxim that there is no order that is not God’s order, only disorder. Disorder alienates all and connects with no one, and even if functionally sound, in some respects, will disorient people spiritually, and therefore is not fully functional. This is the art and architecture of desolation and a world without God.

While we are on the subject of harmony, here is the Princeton University music department. 

Perfect, one imagines, for forming people to compose dissonant symphonies that nobody can bear to listen to until they have had common sense and good taste educated out of them at university.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: