March 23, 2019

The Uglification of Modern Architecture

“Britain’s creation of a commission to examine beauty in new building created a stir in the media, with the chairman subjected to a hate storm of unusual turbulence even by the standards that he regularly has to endure. Hate storms arise when powerful interests are threatened, and this was no exception. There is hardly a person in the UK who is not aware of what Milan Kundera has called the ongoing ‘uglification of our world’ and who does not hope that something might be done about it. No one I talk to denies the need for a large number of new houses. But they all hope that this need can be reconciled with our deep-seated desire for beauty.

Kant wrote that in judgments of beauty we are ‘suitors for agreement’. Through aesthetic judgment we strive for a world that signifies and amplifies our humanity, and even if we are attracted to eccentricities and original gestures, we want them to fit in to the community, just as we fit in ourselves. I would go further, and argue that aesthetic judgment is rooted in the sense of neighborhood. It is, in my view, the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself that is most evidently violated by the uglifying blocks that are being dumped on British cities. It is evident that the planning system must deliver the houses and infrastructure that we need; but it must also deliver what people want to see, namely something that they can take pleasure in, as we take pleasure in our home.

It has been repeatedly written in the architectural press that the establishment of a commission on beauty in building is merely a reversion to the ‘style wars’ of the last decades of the 20th century. Rehearsing all the snobbish contempt for the ‘Nimbys’, with their ‘historicist’ fantasies and Christmas-card pastiches, the articles showed no awareness that the debate has moved on since David Watkin’s devastating critique of Pevsner, and above all no awareness that there are philosophical arguments as well as visceral sentiments that might be offered in support of Kundera’s critique.”

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