Jul 2, 2012

Posted by in Culture | 23 Comments

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.

The Whitmore Administration Building:

… 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.

The Hinton Center at Houston Baptist University. Photo by Roger Sharp.

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.


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  1. Many thanks for this, Holly! I’m reminded of the old, but very telling phrase that ancient cathedrals are so many “sermons in stone.” That sets me to thinking: what stories do we tell with the buildings we construct? Many and many a time, I’ve thought that buildings built in the 60s are an affront to the landscape and grounds of schools and colleges I’ve visited, or cities and towns I’ve driven through. I’ve always heartily detested the Boston City Hall building. Contrast that with Faneuil Hall, and one can readily see how the latter is a civic meeting place that has a soul and wonderful, timeless character–a place pleasing to revisit time and again. Then, there are three buildings that I love in hallowed Northfield: Sage Chapel, Stone Hall and The Auditorium. East Hall and Marquand Hall are also purposed living spaces that have charms within and without (especially in the interior images I’ve seen from years gone by). Often when I’ve been in, or around them, I seem to hear: “if these walls could speak.” I think the walls of the most beautiful buildings do…

    • Holly Ordway says:

      Absolutely! Faneuil Hall / City Hall is a great example.

      The buildings do tell stories, and I think those stories can shape us at a really deep level. Today I was reading in the upper reading room of the Bodleian Library, and every few pages I’d look up and take in what was around me: frescoes of great philosophers along the tops of the walls… beautiful arched windows with stained-glass insets (depicting scenes from Scripture and the lives of saints), and of course views out the window to elegant stone buildings. The whole atmosphere said: “You are part of a grand tradition of learning and scholarship. Breathe deeply, drink deeply of the riches of learning here; this is worth doing and worth doing well.”

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