Resisting the Spread of Ugliness
This is an Altum essay.
“One of the very largest problems which is facing the earth just now is the spread of ugliness.” Christopher Alexander, the brilliant and eccentric theorist of architecture, utters these words at the beginning of a film about his life and work. Who can deny his claim? Ugliness surrounds us, depressing the spirit; and this is most evident in the built environment that we inhabit, in the buildings that surround us. Architecture is the most public of the arts; no one who walks through Rome’s historical center can avoid being confronted by the imposing grandeur of baroque palaces and churches, punctuated by their classical and Romanesque predecessors. A train ride outside the city center, however, creates the opposite impression: street after street of drab, blocky high-rise apartment buildings fly by, random antennae sticking out of their roofs like pins in a pincushion. Such ugliness implies with wordless speech that man’s only purpose is to be a cog in the urban, industrial machine of modern society.
Architecture effects us even when we are not aware of it. It is impossible not to feel awe as one walks the streets of central Rome, or deflation as one travels progressively further from the city center through the modern suburbs. As Patrick Tomassi writes in a recent essay, buildings preach a nonverbal message, all the more powerful because it hits us at a level deeper than conscious thought: some teach a Gospel, a “good news” of anthropology and cosmology ordered toward a spiritual telos; some teach the bad news that man is a random offshoot of a mechanistic universe in thrall to entropy, with no purpose beyond production and no connection to either the life-giving forces of nature or the spiritual destiny of creation.
All of us have likely experienced the bad gospel of ugly buildings: hours spent under florescent lights in drop-ceilinged schoolrooms, suburban office complexes, or dentist’s waiting rooms, gazing longingly through windows that can never be opened. While a rarer experience, most of us have probably also experienced the beauty of a building that awakens the soul to transcendence: a grand cathedral, a neo-gothic library, or a medieval castle. While more fleeting (because most of us do not have the privilege of spending most of our hours in such beautiful spaces), these experiences of beautiful, harmonious buildings stay with us. They point toward the possibility of a culture wholly oriented toward transcendence. They help us to remember a truth that was more commonly known in earlier ages, that man is a microcosm and that his buildings should reflect his task of offering creation back to God as a gift.
In what, then, does beautiful architecture consist? As Tomassi reminds us, this is more than a theoretical question for the burgeoning classical schools movement. With an influx of students and funding, we can expect to see a classical school building boom, he tells us. What are the principles that should guide such efforts? Tomassi rightly indicates what principles should not guide architects and building committees: high modernism and its anti-traditional stance, represented by Le Corbusier’s concrete monstrosities. But, eschewing international style and all its works, we are still left with a plenitude of possibilities.
Should the architecture of a classical school be ‘classical,’ as this is typically conceived? Such a word conjures up the elements of neo-classical buildings such as those that dominate the United States capital: columns, architraves, finials, freizes, aidicula, volutes, hypocausts, and so forth. We all know the grammar of this sort of architecture, and the authority of law and tradition it is meant to convey. But just as students in a classical school do not read only works from Greco-Roman antiquity, it seems meet that they should not sit in desks only under plaster moldings of acanthus leaves as though they were discipuli in a Roman ludus.
When I visited Europe for the first time as an impressionable twenty-year old, I was overwhelmed by the multifarious beauty of Rome, Florence, Prague, and Paris. I appreciated the classical grandeur of ancient buildings such as the Pantheon; the rational serenity of Renaissance churches such as San Lorenzo in Florence; and the florid exuberance of the baroque churches that fill the streets of Rome. But, I fell head over heals for the gothic: Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, the Milanese Duomo, the Sainte-Chappelle and Notre Dame in Paris, St Vitus’ cathedral in Prague. With their complex harmonies and plenitudinous, symphonic order, they thoroughly charmed me. For the first time I began to understand instinctively the power of symbolism as I walked these remnants of a culture which, though long gone, had bottled the living water of heaven in stone and stained glass.
My nascent love of the gothic was mixed with a bittersweet despair, however, as I pondered the unbridgeable chasm that separated my own time from its riches. Yes, there is neo-gothic, a style particularly popular in nineteenth century America, but this school was stymied by an obsession with repetition. Each age ought to call forth an artistic response somehow both in continuity with the past and sensitive to the yearnings and needs of its own time. Neo-gothic failed on the second count because it could not resist the lure of nostalgia for a faded past.
In the midst of my semester abroad, I made an impromptu visit to Barcelona on my way to the Basque country. When I walked up to the magnificent, almost overpoweringly complex and beautiful Basilica de la Sagrada Familia, my despair dissipated in a burst of hope. Here in this masterpiece of modern architecture was gothic in a new mode, the same spirit in a contemporary variation. How unlike modernism’s barren, sterile, dehumanizing style! Gaudi, the creator of Sagrada Familia, was a devout Catholic who filled every corner of his building with bright color, organic forms, and startling design that called forth a memory of gothic but that spoke to the soul of the modern age. I was particularly struck by the facades, filled to the brim with sculptures. The Christ child lay in the midst of all creation, it seemed, surrounded by the kingdoms of animal, plant, and mineral which he had created at the beginning of time.
The spirit of the gothic was there in Sagrada Familia, but without servile repetition of its forms. Its flowing shapes were less rigid and overtly geometrical than the gothic, its spirit less preoccupied with hierarchy. It seemed to offer an answer to the age of Darwin and science, by proposing that creation’s riot is not a mere conglomeration of atoms resulting from random chance, but a polyphonous hymn to the creator. Perhaps I will seem overly bold, but I think Gaudi points the way forward for a form of architecture that seeks to enclose learning communities dedicated to the transcendentals. He shows us that tradition is a living thing, and that tradition is most honoured when it is creatively appropriated. Creation’s plenitude, ever unfolding in time, is forever calling forth new responses — subcreation in response to the creator. How fitting for a movement that seeks a revival of ancient wisdom in response to contemporary needs!
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Author John Carr, after attending the Graduate Institute at St John’s College, taught humanities, Greek, and Latin for several years in classical schools. He recently left a homestead in the Green Mountains of Vermont to travel full-time with his family while homeschooling.