Insisting On Beauty

One of our favorite famille du Toit sayings is: “Architecture doesn’t have to suck.” And that’s because most often, it costs pretty much the same to build a beautiful building as it does an ugly one. (Yeah, sometimes the flourishes and carvings might make it a tad more expensive, but — to use another favorite family saying — “Long after you’ve forgotten how much it originally cost, you’ll still be appreciating its beauty.”) This article, I think, makes a good case for why beauty should be maintained, nay even required, in its examination of why beautiful architecture is so necessary.

My favorite distinction is between the Art Nouveau and the Le Corbusier (a.k.a. Modernist) styles:


Myself, I prefer the graceful, almost decadent style of Art Nouveau, and find the sterile straight lines and sharp corners of Modernism (or what I call the “East German”) style repulsive and soul-destroying. It should come as no surprise that the first style came about before the First World War, and the second style immediately thereafter — just like the exquisite art of Impressionism was followed by Cubism [50,000-word anti-Cubism rant deleted].

Yes, I know that Modernist buildings are more “efficient” (like that’s important) in their ease of construction and utilization of space. All I know is that I’d rather look down any classical Parisian street than any modern German one. (Or, for that matter, a street in an American city like Dallas, which is so ugly it’s small wonder that most North Texans prefer to live in the suburbs, which are themselves hardly a source of exemplary architecture.) And I can say with absolute certainty that I’d rather live on a beautiful Art Nouveau street than on one lined with buildings designed by Walter Gropius (another architect who — like Le Corbusier — should be in a space where the temperature is set to “Broil”).

I know, I know: beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But as Joseph Campbell is quoted in the linked article above: “If you want to see what a society really believes in, look at what the biggest buildings on the horizon are dedicated to.”

We should live amidst beautiful things, we should strive for beauty even though some evil bastards may call it “decadent”.

A rose is beautiful, and it decays and dies. A concrete block is useful, and survives for centuries, its ugliness almost timeless. No two roses are alike; all concrete blocks are identical. We can always grow another rose to replace a dead one — but to get rid of a concrete block, we need jackhammers and high explosives.

I know that some people may find beauty in straight lines, and sharp corners, and orderliness. I’m just not one of them.


  1. I to prefer buildings with some character. The craftsman style of Tudor mansions is a style I like as well as the Bavarian in motif.

    Where I live they are trying to bring some character back to the down town area. To mixed results at best. I work in a modern facility that is somewhat modular in nature. Not a place I gladly journey to.

    Course that could be due to the thousands of maniacs I have to share the road with.

  2. Every weekday my commute takes me thru the World Trade Center Oculus transportation hub in downtown New York City. Twice a day no less.

    Here’s a link:

    It’s pretty, not really my taste but the architect certainly tried to make it beautiful. As a transportation hub is sucks so hard it keeps California from falling into the ocean. There’s no reason a train station can’t be pretty, but it needs to actually function as a train station, meaning it has to move large numbers of people safely and efficiently. You don’t do that with wide curved stairways with no banisters. You don’t do that with angled staircases. You don’t do that with staircases that are two narrow for two people (one in each direction) to pass without hitting each other. All that without throwing in tourists taking pictures of the station during rush hour.

    Not to mention the fact that the site of the worst terrorist attack on American soil is so poorly designed that if a couple trainloads of people need to get out post haste they’re going to die because the exits are so badly designed it takes forever to get off the platform.

    I’d offer that there are two extremes, one where utility wins over beauty and you get buildings with all the charm of a shoe box. The other where beauty wins over utility and you get the Oculus. I’d submit that the middle way is better, while designing a beautiful building the architect MUST keep in mind what the structure will be used for, and make sure it fulfills its purpose as well as possible.

    1. Mark, I agree wholeheartedly. But I suggest that one can still make a wide staircase look beautiful, with graceful lines and elegant railings, that can accommodate throngs of people, for only marginally-greater cost than a stepped box with all the charm of a gallows.

  3. There is a nearly brand new high school here that I swear looks straight out of the communist bloc. Replace the sign out front with “Your Friendly Neighborhood Correctional Facility” and it would look entirely appropriate.

    1. Designers of modern American public schools will unquestionably join Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier in that special Circle of Hell.

    2. High school is supposed to be preparing kids for their future, so maybe it’s appropriate that schools look like medium security prisons.

      “Four generations of the [De Vincenzi] family had worked in the factory and in the deli since the businesses opened on Telegraph Avenue in 1926, when Temescal was an Italian enclave. But after vandalism during protests and rising rents, the family decided to close the deli in April 2016.

      It appears vandalism also played a role in closing the factory, which was relocated to Broadway across the street from Oakland Technical High School after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.

      Patti DeVincenzi said one bill to fix the factory’s windows cost $15,000.

      ‘We had planned to open a ravioli direct to customer operation from our factory on 4300 Broadway but with so much vandalism and graffiti we just couldn’t take it anymore,’ she said in an email. ‘Recently, I was out scraping graffiti from the windows and was threatened from a group of youths from across the street that ‘tomorrow there will be more.’ And worse. And to be sure it was done, (they) actually etched into the windows.'”

  4. Nothing wrong with straight lines– they just need to be designed to be interesting rather than clinical. Modernism has its hits– say the Sydney Opera House for example. Unfortunately it tends to have many more misses, even by people who should know better. Case in point, Wright’s Pfeiffer Chapel vs. Fallingwater.

    1. Wright’s work looks pretty…from distance. I’ve never been in Falling Water, but I’m told that it is (quell surprise!) damp and noisy. The Wrights I HAVE been in struck me as cramped, as if he may have been a touch agoraphobic.

    2. Funny story regarding one of Wrights’ usonion designs for an in-law – A crew on site for an interview asked the owner about all the buckets and pans throughout the house. She replied “This is what happens when you leave a piece of art out in the rain.”

    3. Apparently Wright, who was only 5’8″ tall, designed all of his building to suit men of his own stature, as is described in this reply on The Straight Dope advice column:

      “My acquaintance with Frank Wright — a charming fellow in many respects, but a tad pushy — was regrettably brief. Still, I seem to recall him as being of middling stature — certainly no dwarf. Photos taken of him in company with others, as well as the memoirs of his associates, confirm this. You’re quite right, though, in suspecting that the cramped dimensions of many of his buildings have a lot to do with his none-too-lordly stature. Wright’s architectural modus operandi was to build things to suit himself, and to hell with the rest of mankind. He told his students, “I took the human being, at five feet eight and one-half inches tall, like myself, as the human scale. If I had been taller, the scale might have been different.” This attitude did not sit well with many of Wright’s contemporaries. Someone once said to him, “Whenever I walk into one of your buildings, the doorways are so low my hat gets knocked off.” Wright calmly replied, “Take off your hat when you come into a house.” Edgar Tafel, a longtime student of Wright’s, tells a story about a fellow student named Wes Peters, who happened to be 6 feet 4, the same height as the ceilings at Taliesin, Wright’s combination home/studio/school. Watching the Peters’s noggin brush up against the rafters more than once moved Wright to holler out, “Sit down, Wes, you’re destroying the scale!” Pretty funny, and an indication how far being a wise guy can take you in this world.”

  5. I’m a big fan of both Art Nouveau and Craftsman style when it comes to architecture. Some of the modernist stuff is OK, most is blah. But for real ugliness, you have to go to Brutalism. Why people thought that buildings intentionally designed to look like Soviet prole-prisons would be a good idea I’ll never understand.

  6. Then there is the Dallas City Hall, best described as Hitler’s Bunker built to withstand and atomic blast. Dallas City Hall is incredibly ugly, inside and out one of the I.M. Pei messes. At the same time the Meyerson Symphony center in the Dallas Arts District designed by Pei is not so bad. Dallas has an incredible mix of interesting buildings and ‘what were they thinking’ buildings like the wedding cake information center by the old Market Hall.

    Pei pretty much destroyed downtown Oklahoma City with his urban renewal over 45 years ago and they are just now rebuilding in the spaces where his master plan leveled blocks and blocks of historic buildings. And in my opinion he messed up the Louvre in Paris when he stuck a glass pyramid in the middle of everything.

    1. Forth Worth has a wonderful, world class arts & museum district next to the Will Rogers center and fairgrounds and the downtown and stock yards are fun too.

  7. I’m not a fan of Art Nouveau. If that is the direction I’m going, I would rather just go full baroque and get some real craftsmanship in.

    My own tastes do run to Modern, but NOT communist bloc. I’m full on googie. Come on, how can you not love something like this?

    Hell, googie is about the only redeeming quality of California, but they are tearing it down as fast as they can.

  8. IF you have not encountered it yet, may I encourage you to read FROM BAUHAUS TO OUR HOUSE by Tom Wolfe? It is a devastating criticism of the whole Modern Movement in architecture, and also seriously funny. Wolfe is no fan of modernism in Art in general, and his thought on same are always worthwhile.

    1. Wolfe is an essential when it comes to explaining the roots of the Left.
      “The Painted Word” and “Radical Chic” also come to mind.

  9. I still work for a architectural firm (I’m the IT department) but I retired my architectural license seventeen years ago. I can’t remember the last time I looked at one of the profession’s publications. I’ve always thought that a building is a success if its users like to be there. They may not know why they like it. They just like it. Most modern architecture completely fails at this.

    The one good attribute of the deconstructionist fad is that the structures are nightmares from a maintenance standpoint and they will probably bio-degrade at an advanced rate.

    The medical profession buries its mistakes. Architects plant trees in front of theirs.

  10. Dallas, the town, is not remembered for its “efficient” commercial buildings, but for Southfork.

  11. I’ve lived near Chicago all of my life. Visiting the city gives you a pretty good exposure to architecture from the late 1800’s on. Great buildings by Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, Frank Lloyd Wright, and onto awful Ludwig Mies van der Rohe glass boxes, Helmut Jahn & Frank Gehry monstrosities.

    Gehry must drive structural engineers nuts. He must throw garbage into a pile, 3-D scan it, then tell his “associates” how many floors it should have, and the structural engineers have to figure out how to hold it all up. Modern art might be fun to look at for some, but I on’t want to walk through it or work in it. No thanks. If I ever got to a concert at the Pritzker bandshell in Millennium Park, I’ll have to keep my eyes closed.

  12. Apologies in advance for the rambling thoughts which follow; my ADHD is acting up. Anyway, as far as modernism goes, it has to be done right. James Lileks pointed out that what made the WTC work from an aesthetic standpoint was that there were two towers. One would have been hideous, two gave it symmetry and they became minimalist sculpture on a titanic scale. The Standard Oil Building (AKA Aon Center) in Chicago proves him right, IMHO. Lileks and I happen to live in Minneapolis, which is home to the magnificent IDS Tower. While I can’t claim to have seen every skyscraper in the “modern” style, it would be hard to imagine there are too many that are better. (The pics of it on Wikipedia are crap, Google and Bing are your best bets.) (And some would say that if you HAVE seen one modernist tower, you HAVE seen them all.) The architect’s model of the IDS is in the elevator lobby, and it’s hideous. The windows were silver/metallic tinted, and it would have been a great big grey middle finger shooting up from the prairie. Somewhere along the way, someone said “Say, can we tint the windows blue instead?”, and a masterpiece was born in the Land of Sky Blue Waters. As a bit of trivia, the IDS is attached to the Crystal Court, which was where Mary Tyler Moore was shown in the opening titles of her TV show.

    Anyway, I like most of the architecture from the Gothic Revival (think Smithsonian Castle) through Streamline Moderne (think Emerald City). For the most part, the architects who worked in those styles wouldn’t dream of putting sneer quotes around the word “beauty” and they weren’t besotted by the idea that form followed function. If there’s one good thing that can be said about the New Deal, it’s that it came along during the time when American Architecture was at its apex, in all its Art Deco glory. Everything the Gooberment has built in the last seventy odd years has been a utilitarian concrete box, and utterly forgettable.

    Sorry. Told you my ADHD was flaring up.

  13. I just got back from D.C.
    They tell me that the Capital has an Architect. After visiting some of the Stalinist/Nazi inspired structures, I think most of the Government Architects should be hung, and if already dead, they should all be dug up and killed again.

    There were, some delightful buildings in the city, and some interesting use of narrow former alleys to build stores and restaurants, etc. But I wouldn’t want to spend anymore time in Washington than I already have.

  14. Interesting. I’ve recently been reading quite a bit about the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and the sin that is Bauhaus, etc. I was exposed to these concepts as a child, and recall one visit to the Bauhaus structures in Roosevelt, NJ, in Monmouth County, as an enclave for unemployed Jews in the New Deal era of America. They were so depressing to see, and I did not appreciate them at the time. Of course, “depression” is perhaps what we are supposed to feel. And repression, as well.

    Repression of beauty. Of seeing God in the limned outlines of clouds. Of expressing human achievement in our structures, and reflecting heaven in our higher art.

    I do detest how so much that is supposed to lift us is twisted into parody by those who think they know all and sundry. I look at Mucha, and I see love of nature and the human (female, certainly) form. A certain striving for beauty is its own goal, just as procreation.

    Le Corbusier…le mot en Francais conjures up the English word “corrupt” to my tiny mind and deaf ears. I’m not smart enough to dissect a greater meaning from it. But I know that he was a small man, nearsighted in reality and in vision of the future (oxymoron of our age, perhaps), who nevertheless held in thrall some segment of the influential set. Echoes are yours to infer.

    I live in a small town. It is not wealthy, so we have no Greek revival style homes and public buildings in our compass. Our few historical buildings are up for sale to the highest bidder because the New Residents from the ghetto, Ecuador, Columbia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and its outposts, Syria, Brazil, and China…just don’t care.

    Yes, we’re a sanctuary area in East Coast America. And everything we used to hold dear will be gone soon because “we” are no longer welcome here.

    I hate this. Which is why I love this blog. Thank you.

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