Architecture as a Whole

I don’t know much of anything about architecture except what seems beautiful to me and what doesn’t. Until a few years ago I wouldn’t have known how to express the nature of these preferences, and indeed whether they were rightly to be thought of as preferences or as something else.

Is beauty really in the eye of the beholder?

After all, people buy all kinds of houses, even the ones that seem ugly to me.

Uhh, no thanks.

So who am I to say what they should like?

I’ve always liked the Canadiana style with fieldstones and dormer windows.

But maybe that’s not quite the right way to go about trying to think this through.

In recent months I’ve had some help with this, and I thought I’d try to put my thoughts down on paper as a layman for other people who are unversed in architectural history and theory. The first piece of help I received was from the late Sir Roger Scruton in his little book Beauty. Scruton helped me start to make the link between beauty in general and the kind of beauty we are drawn to in art, and in architecture specifically.

One gets a sense of his view from this quote:

Ordinary architecture, however adventurous in its use of materials, forms and details, cannot rely on the excuse of artistic licence in order to creep through the planning process. In art we attempt to give the most exalted expression to life and its meaning. In everyday arrangements we simply try to do what looks right. Both cases involve the pursuit of beauty.

Roger Scruton

But then there is a whole different approach to architecture that sees it as a platform for philosophical arguments. Thus the postmodernists make buildings that reject symmetry and harmony because they have moved on from a view of the world that sees any cohesive centre and order. That is why some buildings feel out of proportion and shocking to one’s sense of balance; that is precisely their intended effect. 

This one, I’ll admit, gets to me.

There is an intentional attempt to create a sense of fragmentation that reflects postmodern deconstructivist philosophies and the modern sense that enlightened people can no longer believe in ‘grand narratives’ that can make sense of the world.

What helped to crystallize the contrast between these different approaches to architecture was an excellent essay in first things by Michael Lewis on the late architect Christopher Alexander, and especially his debate with postmodern architect Peter Eisenman. I recommend the piece to you, even if you have no real interest in architecture. That’s the point: architecture points beyond itself to a certain vision of the world.

What became so clear was how metaphysically rooted the different approaches are. That is to say, they develop organically from the most fundamentally views on reality, views which are philosophical and even religious. In other words, it’s all connected. The shape of our buildings will flow out of the answers we give to questions such as: What is the nature of the universe? Does it have order? Does it have a purpose? Is there some meaning which unites our existence with everything else? Is there some unifying point, a Source? 

Answer that question one way, and your buildings look like this.

Answer those questions another way, and your buildings look like this.

Or this.

If anything is becoming increasingly clear, it is the growing distance between those who understand the world to have a given shape, and those who do not. And while leaving room for the inconsistencies that we all have, which is to say that you shouldn’t assume you can know about someone’s worldview or metaphysical beliefs based on what kind of architecture they enjoy, still there is a vital connection here between those beliefs and the buildings a society celebrates.

Deep down, it really is all connected. The last word goes to the late Christopher Alexander:

When you build a thing you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must repair the world around it, and within it, so that the larger world at that one place becomes more coherent, and more whole.

3 thoughts on “Architecture as a Whole

  1. Thanks again, Phil for your provocative writing – always a pleasure to read and contemplate! On the issue of architecture which is your topic today, I am wondering, if in addition to speaking of the metaphysical perspective behind all architecture, are we not also getting a glimpse into the perceptions of the architect/designer/client who all have accepted the end result we see as “to their liking”. A commentary on their understanding of a range of topics such as what constitutes beauty, orderliness, fragmentation or cohesion, contribution to the betterment of society or destruction of the same? Your third picture is reminiscent of a war zone, raising the question who would want to glorify such barbarity? In contrast, Mount St. Michel, which I have personally visited, stands as not only beauty, but more importantly, a haven against the ravages of the sea at its feet, a place which reverberates with the invitation to come and be sheltered and listen, see, and be absorbed by the glory of that which leads beyond the visible, to enter the timelessness and history of lives which have shared this space and found there, a tranquility, joy and settledness be accepting the cares which we leave behind as we return to the shore.

    1. Hi David, thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comment.

      I think you are correct in highlighting the communal aspect of what passes for good architecture – but here I think we see the distinction between more public buildings and private dwellings. In public buildings, which are more prestigious and publicly funded, we see far more often the bold statement is, if anything, more a matter of impressing other architects than serving the public good and building something that normal people will enjoy. As for houses, I think there is a limit to the degree to which regular people want their houses built with very modern styles. Around where I live, there is a bit of a fusion between modern elements and more classic designs. Very few people want to buy the weird futuristic house – and that is a testament to the common sense still very much alive in the general public, as Chesterton never tired of pointing out! =

      I’ll just say I’m quite envious of your visit to Mont St-Michel. I hope to be able to visit it someday! I love your description of what it symbolizes.

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