Miscellany 36: Why We Need Beautiful Buildings
In the last Miscellany, I wrote about church architecture… continuing the theme, I’m going to muse on architecture more broadly.
I was pleased to come across a thought-provoking piece from Think Christian a few days after I wrote Miscellany 35, called “Is Some Architecture Irredeemable?” The author asks:
…is every building worth saving? Buildings not saved are destroyed and, except in rare cases, forgotten. Is Rudolph’s Government Center worth preserving? At what cost? It’s an important question for Christians. As creative cultivators, we should always be looking for ways to support and encourage excellent work, whether a symphony, a spreadsheet or a slipcover. Buildings that represent our best efforts of design or craftsmanship deserve our enthusiastic support. Which brings us back to the question: is Paul Rudolph’s work [such as Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center in New York] worth saving?
It’s easy to fall into either a form of relativism (architecture is neither good nor bad; it just depends on one’s taste) or extreme preservationalism (we should preserve all significant buildings, no matter whether they are aesthetically appealing or not). On the side of relativism, it’s true that buildings in any style can be badly designed and unpleasant to live in, and that even a concrete monstrosity can to a certain extent be redeemed by the good ways in which it is used. And on the side of preservationalism, I cringe at the way previous generations blithely tore down, for instance, medieval buildings or Victorian or Edwardian houses; I think it’s a very good thing that we pause and reflect seriously on the merits of preserving any building.
That said, I think that in the end, we need to recognize (and reclaim) objective beauty and proportion. Some buildings are soul-crushingly ugly….some buildings are wonderfully beautiful. Part of the problem is that too often, decisions about what gets built, what gets torn down, and what remains are made by people who don’t actually live and work in the buildings they’re making decisions about.
When you’re on the spot, day in and day out, the effects become much clearer. Last time I talked about the beauty of old buildings in Oxford, so this time let me give some examples (bad and good) from closer to home: my alma mater, the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
I loved my time at UMass and so when I say that there are some buildings on the campus that are hideous afflictions upon an unsuspecting landscape, I say it from the perspective of having lived and studied there (I did both my BA and my PhD there), and with great affection for the overall architectural landscape upon which these buildings sit.
First, note that UMass has many lovely older buildings: Goodell, Stockbridge, the Old Chapel; the Wikipedia page for UMass shows several of them.
Then there are the concrete behemoths from the 1960s.
… this hunkered-down concrete building is a monument to Hideo Sasaki, the landscape designer who profoundly restructured the UMass Amherst campus during the 1960s.
…and the Fine Arts Center:
This uncompromisingly modernist, poured concrete building consists of several distinctly different units that were intended to combine to form a powerful architectural sculpture.
Note the ‘intended’.
…and UMass’s own Brutalist piece, Herter Hall: a miserable, characterless, depressing building with windows that don’t open.
The buildings did not become more beloved by association with the school; they’re just awful.
Walking through the FAC area was like cutting through a freeway underpass, and about as inspiring; going to Whitmore to get a transcript or pay a bill, one felt like an intruder into Administrationistan, not a welcomed part of the campus community.
Fortunately, it seems that there are some signs of change – for which I am very glad. Not only can old, beautiful buildings be preserved, but new ones can be made that keep in mind the fundamental fact that human beings use them — that beauty matters.
For instance, the 1991 Knowles Engineering Building at UMass is well done: red brick (characteristic of the New England region) that has patterns in it, and with delightful quirky turquoise accents. It is a visually pleasing element of the campus.
And, considering the architecture of my new university, Houston Baptist, the Hinton Center (dating from 1995, if I recall the plaque correctly): it has a Southern elegance to it with the dome and wide steps, it beautifully frames the Ten Pillars and pleasantly draws the eye as one walks across the greenspace, and is bright and cheerful inside.
In an era in which ‘cyberspace’ is increasingly becoming a ‘location’ in which we gather and interact, I would suggest that physical buildings are more, not less important. Online interactions are important and valuable, and I would argue that they provide a very important element of friendship and connection in today’s world – but the online world can never be enough; it lacks the incarnational element that is necessary for fully realized, rich, truly human relationships.
We need beauty around us, and spaces that are built to help us to live more fully as human beings (not just as cubicle-dwellers or cogs in a machine), to draw us out of the inner-space of online life into the space in which we physically live and interact with other people.
Architecture matters because it is incarnational.