Without defending the citadel of the mind, how can we build a beautiful city? Without the conviction of true propositions, whence do we think beauty will come?…
In Conversations with Roger Scruton (2016), Mark Dooley engages in a fascinating book-length interview with the famous English philosopher. While best known academically for unfashionable arguments on behalf of a Burkean conservative political philosophy, Sir Roger Scruton is much more important as a sensitive literary voice.
Although Sir Roger has excelled in investigating philosophical questions about aesthetics, he has also made serious accomplishments of his own in the realm of art, including musical compositions. His prose writings typically exhibit unusual care and uncommon devotion to the task of writing well. Even more impressively, he has recently added two superb novels to his prodigious output, Notes from Underground (2014) and The Disappeared (2015). They rank right up there with his very best works, including the Xanthippic Dialogues (1993), his parody of Platonic dialogues and Greek philosophy, and his autobiographical philosophical meditation, On Hunting (1998).
In the realm of aesthetic experience, Dr. Scruton has notably asked his contemporaries to abandon the fashion for desecration and to make the pursuit of beauty a priority again. This contrarian stance has not fallen entirely on deaf ears. People who have never read a book by Dr. Scruton have still been moved by his influential BBC documentary, “Why Beauty Matters” (Nov 28, 2009), which has been watched online by many, and which eloquently makes a plea for art to abandon modern agendas and to cultivate instead the sort of useless beauty that makes life most worthwhile.
In his interview with Dr. Scruton, Dr. Dooley encourages Sir Roger to once again make his case for the importance of beautiful architecture. Perhaps more so than any other aesthetic controversy, the question concerning architecture is most urgent, in the sense that even small improvements in this realm could foster a ripple effect that would soon improve our lives greatly in other ways.
As his pronouncements in “Why Beauty Matters” prove, it is Dr. Scruton’s challenge to modern architecture not only to provoke, but also to persuade. After all, people instinctively recoil from living in a pile of junk. One considerable merit of Sir Roger’s devotion to beauty lies in his ability to get people to actually perceive their environment, as if for the first time. They have been living among ruins, and yet, for the most part, have been blind to its entirely unnecessary ugliness.
Those sympathetic to Sir Roger’s venerable cause will certainly enjoy his BBC documentary, and the Dr. Dooley interview, for his eminently sane pronouncements on modern architecture. Yet those wishing to dig deeper into Dr. Scruton’s philosophical reflections on this crucial subject will need to look to the two books where he treats the matter at greater length: The Aesthetics of Architecture (1979) and The Classical Vernacular (1994).
In Chapter Seven of The Classical Vernacular, Dr. Scruton dares to enumerate a number of propositions, which lovers of beauty may adopt, as “Architectural Principles in an Age of Nihilism.” For example, there is the fifth proposition: “Architecture must respect the constraints imposed on it by human nature.”
This means that vertical windows and doors, mirroring the human form, are more appropriate than horizontal shapes that run in the opposite orientation for no other reason than a desire to deliberately transgress the quaint notion of mirroring nature. Dr. Scruton observes, “As animals, we orient ourselves visually, move and live in an upright position, and are vulnerable to injury.”
The importance of the visual analogy cannot be underestimated. If we do not take our bearings by anatomical nature in architectural design, our constructed habitat will hardly condition us to seek harmony with nature in other spheres. “As persons we live and fulfil ourselves through morality, law, religion, learning, commerce and politics,” writes Dr. Scruton. And yet how can we build a world worth inhabiting in those larger domains, if we cannot build homes for our bodies that are no more beautiful than sheds?
Consider his twentieth proposition, which attends to an apparently small point: “it is necessary to use mouldings.” And yet do not great errors result from a careless attention to something that seemed negligible in the beginning? Sir Roger argues, “Without mouldings, no space is articulate. Edges become blades; buildings lose their crowns; and walls their direction”.
The example illustrates a more general principle, which Dr. Scruton usually expresses as an aesthetic paradox: It is the useless that makes something truly useful. Mouldings may be considered “useless” from a utilitarian design point of view, and yet, as Dr. Scruton observes, without mouldings, “Windows and doors cease to be aedicules and become mere holes in the wall.”
In general, the aesthetic paradox is founded on the truth that our natures are better suited to a warmth and complexity that harmonizes with the richness and diversity visible in the natural world. Mouldings mediate this sort of warm and welcoming experience within an architectural space because, without them, “Nothing ‘fits’, no part is framed, marked off, emphasised or softened. Everything is sheer, stark, uncompromising, cold. In a nutshell, mouldings are the sine qua non of decency, and the source of our mastery over light and shade.”
The argument of Chapter Ten of The Classical Vernacular, “Architecture and the Polis,” is significant for the way it connects architectural principles with political philosophy. Again, we find a series of propositions enumerated for our consideration.
Consider the second proposition: “Settlement is a communal act.” In other words, we cannot build for idiosyncratic reasons. Architecture, by its nature, has to serve the common good.
Then there is the eighth proposition: “The column stands before me as does a human being.” Namely, it has posture and proportion. In other words, we see again how architecture mirrors nature, because “like a man, [a column] can appear too fat or too thin, too tall or too short, too delicate or too firm.”
The observation is not an idle one because the column is not simply an iconic simulation of the upright human bodily form that it stands next to. The column also stands as a symbol: We see its form also as the corporeal basis for suggestive abstract metaphors, since its iconic form enables that symbolic dimension in which the column also “conveys an idea of permanence, of life removed from the world of decay and transformation—in short, of life become divine.”
It is no accident, therefore, why Greek and Roman temples cultivate such columns as symbols of divine life. Dr. Scruton accordingly draws upon them as exemplars of the classical vernacular. Hence his tenth proposition: “The temple, then, is the perfect expression of the ‘settlement’: of the collective decision to dwell.”
But the sacred symbols radiate outward from the temple to all of city life. Thus, Dr. Scruton observes in his twelfth proposition: “The Roman building types—arch, aedicule, engaged column, pilaster, vault and dome—can all be seen as attempts to retain the sacred presence of the column, in the full context of civic life.”
Again, there is a variation on a simple principle, but from a principled beginning, a rich and diverse environment may be generated in a harmonious way, because attention was paid at the outset to symbols of the sacred.
For this reason, Dr. Scruton rightly formulates his fifteenth proposition: Modernism’s buildings “recreate the town as a frozen junkyard” because “the building types of modernism are invariably perceived as a desecration: nothing of the sacred remains in them.”
The aesthetic vocabulary that would preserve a connection with the nature of things is abandoned in modern architecture. No secure basis for a symbolic meditation on nature remains. Thoughts about higher things are not easily enabled by an environment crassly utilitarian or transgressive. No such thoughts can take wing when the forms in which we dwell embody far more of the temporary than of the permanent. The human spirit is too unsettled.
Thus, Dr. Scruton observes in the seventeenth proposition: “There are people who never settle, and who therefore do not embody their ideas of sanctity in architectural forms.” Others may have made such terrible decisions for us, but we are complicit in the vandalism, if in any way we are guilty of handing them on to the future.
Dr. Scruton returns to these important principles from The Classical Vernacular in the new introduction that he wrote for the new edition of The Aesthetics of Architecture published in 2013. Since the former book is out of print, the recapitulation of its key arguments in the new introduction to the latter book is an invaluable resource for students of beauty. The new introduction is a veritable primer for anyone who wants to build a more beautiful future.
After all, without defending the citadel of the mind, how can we build a beautiful city? Without the conviction of true propositions, whence do we think beauty will come? Beauty begins with a beautiful idea.
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