Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Comments on new trends in architecture

See this post on Mansions on a hill? ( on the huge new homes being built in older neighborhoods. I've seen the same phenomena in Saint Louis.

Partly this is due to fashion, and due to rising real estate prices that lead people to believe that they can make more profit on larger homes. Until of course the real estate bubble pops.

A core problem is that people, largely lacking faith, or even a solid philosophy, may be using large homes as an idol of their financial success. And too many can't really afford it, so they are idols of other people's perception of their success. The main opposition to this trend comes from left-leaning folks who prefer to live in older historic homes; but they do so based on a sense of Existentialist "authenticity", so it ends up being the same type of idolatry, just expressed in a slightly different manner. It's been said that every person, without regard to their political leanings, lives in the most expensive home that they can afford.

The New Traditionalism movement may end up being a fusion of these two ideas: a large, expensive, showy home set up as an idol to both Success and Authenticity. This movement isn't making big expensive tacky houses, but big expensive tasteful houses.

A.J. Downing, the man perhaps most responsible for creating the Victorian style of architecture in the United States in the mid-19th century, said that a home must reflect or image truth about its inhabitants, which is quite different from authenticity, which is merely conformity to a style. A man may live in a castle, but "unless there is something of the castle in the man", it will dwarf him and reduce his stature. Perhaps the only true thing that we can infer about these large new homes is the existence of a large amount of debt. Similarly, I am reminded of the large historic Saint Louis mansions, designed for hosting great costume balls with a hundred guests, that now only house childless couples who only entertain small groups of intimate friends.

Downing's book The Architecture of Country Houses,is poetic, beautiful, yet very practical, in a way that was common in centuries past yet is missing today. He was a democrat to the core, but still knew that society was hierarchical and that our homes need to reflect that. He thought that a wealthy man should have a grand villa, while a working man should have a modest cottage, but that neither should be relatively expensive, and that both should be objectively beautiful.

Dowling accepted that there was a relativity of taste, and he used the term 'picturesque' to describe quirky taste. However, he believed in aesthetic rationalism, as did the ancient philosophers, the Church (until recent decades) and like the great world civilizations of ages past. He, like Aristotle and Aquinas, believes that beauty is objective, and is based on proportion, symmetry, variety, harmony, and unity. And all of these elements must take into account scale; his philosophy of architecture is based on anthropology, so the human scale is critical for deciding what a building should look like. Besides these rational means of making beauty, he also recognized the need for refinement, which is the slight alteration of these rational forms based on experience. Modern architecture tends to strongly deemphasize these elements, since it considers beauty to be absolutely relative; experience is rejected, and human scale almost ignored.

Beauty in the classical sense is influenced by these objective criteria and by its context and subjective state of mind, so it is objective, but not absolutist.

The new architecture has two schools of thought, although they aren't completely distinct, but are indeed complementary. The New Traditionalist movement strives to greater authenticity by using traditional local styles in new construction, while the New Classicist movement believes in rational beauty as found in Western classical architecture of the Greek and Roman tradition. Both schools reject Modernism, with its ugly arbitrary taste, love of novelty, and lack of human scale; and I find these new works far more satisfying. But atheistic Existentialism and the raw power of Empire are perhaps two troubling strains of thought in these new schools of architecture.

Traditionalism, the philosophy that truth can only be found in the ways of the past, is of course a heresy, since it denies the virtue of Science. Scientism, the philosophy that only science can discover truth, is also a heresy, since we believe that truth has been handed down over the centuries, which Science could never hope to discover on its own. We can only have right reasoning, or orthodoxy, in architecture if we take both tradition and science into consideration.

Besides a new home or other building being true and beautiful, it must also be good. These new architectural trends are going a long way towards truth and beauty, but they ignore the Good, which is a moral attribute, perhaps inseparable from the other two. Renaissance art is known for being true to form and having great beauty, but it often lacks goodness due to pagan or profane themes. It is for this reason that I think that an architect of a Catholic Church needs to be a practicing Catholic and needs to live a moral life. We can perhaps learn a bit from Eastern Christianity, where holy monks make the artwork for churches.

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