Impractical Ugliness

There was a building I worked in for about five years that had a flat roof, a plain and industrial exterior, and buckets scattered about the halls and rooms. These buckets collected the rainwater that would seep through the roof of the building, which seemed to be a problem even with repairs and replacements happening almost yearly.

As I’ve written about previously, beauty is not merely subjective, and architecture provides a great demonstration of that fact. Modern buildings are often ugly, industrial, inhuman, and – as a side-effect of being ugly – impractical. A library at a nearby university has metal growths protruding from around the only windows, blocking most of the light from getting in. This was done intentionally for “stylistic” reasons. To paraphrase a quote I can’t quite remember: “The only societies which claim that beauty is subjective are those which aren’t talented enough to create beauty”.

Talent is part of it, and so is patience, and so is philosophy. If you are taught in art or architecture school that beauty is subjective, you’ll start acting like it. Things need not be true in order for students to be indoctrinated to believe them.

When you compare the typical modern industrial building with even a 19th century factory, you find that the modern buildings tend to be less sophisticated in design. Just as with much of modern art, sophisticated modern architecture looks like it required less labor, less design, less imagination, and less wisdom. This seems to be the intent, though. As ugly as modern structures usually are, architects still design them that way.

The cathedrals of the late medieval period are my favorite contradiction to modern ugliness. Every detail – large and small – has a purpose. The height, the width, the flying buttresses, the towers, the great rooms; these inspire awe and a sense of humility. The stained glass reminds us of great truths and that the truth is beautiful. The crenelations and detailed stonework show us that skilled artisans and craftsmen were at work; not mere laborers. These were men – often multiple generations of men – whose skill is on display for centuries. These cathedrals do not leak. They let enough light in during the day. They do not collapse.

Compare this to our modern industrial buildings which disappear after a few decades without anyone remembering them. Most of all, compare the fact that our cultural desire for ugliness is so strong that we want flat roofs on our buildings despite universal knowledge that it rains.