What Makes Beautiful Buildings

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The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City could be viewed as one of the most beautiful buildings on Earth — or not.
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In “The Language of Houses,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alison Lurie provides a provocative look at how architecture affects people inside and outside of buildings.

Do you ever find yourself wondering why some buildings and houses seem so welcoming while others don’t? InThe Language of Houses: How Buildings Speak to Us (Delphinium Books, 2014), author Alison Lurie explains what it is about great, beautiful buildings that bring about happiness and why ugly buildings don’t. This excerpt, which explains the effects buildings can have on people, is from Chapter 2, “Architectural Languages.”

Beautiful and Ugly Buildings

Like language, architecture can be beautiful or ugly. There are buildings that are the equivalent of a great poem or speech: we are moved and even transported when we look at them. But just as we may like one famous writer more than another, many great buildings do not appeal to everyone. Some may admire the Parthenon or Jefferson’s Monticello; others will prefer the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York or Gaudí’s Sagrada Família in Barcelona. Most of us also have favorite historical periods. We may like to imagine ourselves as inhabitants of a French eighteenth-century villa or an English country village. There are also those who praise currently despised styles, sometimes so eloquently that others are convinced, as when John Betjeman commended the imitation-Gothic buildings of late Victorian England, or when Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown extolled the extravagant architecture of Las Vegas.

Our taste in private homes also varies widely. We may value Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater or Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye as aesthetic objects, but not want to live in them. Instead, we apparently prefer more modest and conventional structures that seem to us the best of their kind: the perfect Victorian Italianate house, Arts & Crafts cottage, or contemporary split level. Such modest but attractive vernacular architecture may be compared to light verse or popular song, especially when the building has strong personal associations—if we have grown up or been happy there. As a result, a run-down old farmhouse may seem more beautiful to us than a great mansion.

According to Alain de Botton, we call a building beautiful if it reflects our values. “The buildings we admire are ultimately those which . . . refer, whether through their materials, shapes or colors, to such legendarily positive qualities as friendliness, kindness, subtlety, strength and intelligence.” But ideas about what buildings have these qualities change over time. In Europe, from the Renaissance on, an ideal structure was often classical Greek or Roman in inspiration: usually adapted to the local landscape and climate, but featuring classical columns, pediments, arches, and statuary. In the late eighteenth century, Gothic revival architecture gradually became a fashionable alternative, and by the mid-1800s you could order up a house in many exotic international and historical styles: Swiss, Indian, Chinese, Egyptian, Jacobean, etc.

For several hundred years, elaboration, variety, and decoration in architecture were almost universally admired. Eventually, however, there was a reaction, led at first by scientists and engineers. Iron framing and poured concrete gradually revolutionized construction and design. Architects abandoned older forms in favor of newer and less complex ones that also reduced construction costs. Eventually, for committed early-twentieth-century modernists, only unadorned simplicity was beautiful; all decoration was ugly and superfluous.

One of de Botton’s most interesting assertions is that people have always found buildings beautiful not so much when they embody current values, as when they embody values that society lacks. Today, in a world of material abundance and elaborate rules, we may long for a more simple, natural, and casual life. This might account for the popularity, in cities like New York and London, of apartments with minimal (but obviously expensive) furniture, and walls stripped down to raw brick or rough weathered planking.

Architecture can make us happy, but like a vulgar, dishonest speech, it can also make us miserable. Ugly, badly constructed buildings are unpleasant to live or work in, and dirt, disorder, and failures of décor can also be deeply depressing. As de Botton puts it, “What will we experience in a house with prison-like windows, stained carpet tiles and plastic curtains?” Clearly, we (or at least anyone as sensitive and perceptive as de Botton) will experience horror and dismay.

Perfection in architecture is rare; most people cannot afford to live in really beautiful buildings, and the average house usually has something wrong with it: the stairs creak, the closets are too small, the cellar is damp when it rains, and there is a crack in the bathroom ceiling. For most of us, a certain amount of self-protective blindness to our aesthetic environment is necessary, especially if we have small children or a spouse who is relatively indifferent to décor. Indeed, anyone who reads architectural magazines or the House and Garden section of a major newspaper will have seen many photos of interiors that strongly suggest their owners prefer kidskin sofas to kids.

Haunted Buildings

Just as a remark, an article, or an entire book can strike us as generous and encouraging, or mean and destructive, so architecture can appear to send out positive or negative vibrations, and even to be conscious of doing so. For young children, of course, everything may seem alive—not only their own toys, but also trucks, tables, and TVs. The half-conscious belief that objects have intention and agency often persists into adulthood; even today you will often hear someone say that his new Honda is a real sweetie and never lets him down, or that her mean old computer is acting up again.

To a child, buildings may seem to have faces, with the windows as eyes and the door as a mouth, and even today a house with symmetrical windows on either side of the front door sometimes looks to me—and, I have discovered, to others—like a mask, if not a face. As kids, my friends and I also often saw buildings as friendly or unfriendly, comforting or threatening. Almost every suburban neighborhood had a “haunted house” that we dared each other to approach on Halloween. Usually it was badly maintained, set far back from the street, and surrounded by overgrown bushes; no children lived there and the curtains or blinds were often drawn.

Many different types of buildings may have the reputation of being haunted. According to Wikipedia, in the United States alone there are at least six haunted hospitals and insane asylums, and five haunted hotels, including, notoriously, the Chelsea in Manhattan, where Dylan Thomas, Eugene O’Neill, and Thomas Wolfe have been seen after their deaths. There are also ghostly theatres, cinemas, schools, colleges, and prisons. Mental hospitals are notoriously haunted by former patients and attendants; factories are haunted by the spirits of workers who died there, lighthouses by their keepers, and in Sunnyvale, California, there is a haunted Toys ‘R’ Us. Occasionally, rather than housing the spirits of former occupants, such structures have a malevolent (or rarely, benevolent) spirit of their own. For me and my childhood friends, it was sometimes not only the witch but also the house itself that was out to get us.

Another version of belief in the positive or negative effects of buildings is the Oriental science of architectural design, feng shui. According to some feng shui experts, a wrongly placed door or window can make you poor, miserable, or neurotic, while a well-situated mirror or screen can at least partly correct the problem. Today many people of non-Asian origin will not move into a house or an office until it has been inspected and rearranged by experts in this system.

Beautiful Buildings: A Moral Force

For centuries both architects and philosophers have claimed that beautiful buildings could make people virtuous as well as happy. In early Christian and Islamic theology, Alain de Botton writes, “Attractive architecture was held to be a version of goodness . . . and its ugly counterpart, a material version of evil. . . . The moral equation between beauty and goodness lent to all architecture a new seriousness and importance.” Many writers have reported feeling calmed and uplifted in churches and temples, or even the remains of one, as Robert Browning was by an ancient vine-covered tower in his “Love Among the Ruins.”

For early International Style architects, as Alain De Botton remarks, “a structure was correct and honest in so far as it performed its mechanical functions efficiently, and false and immoral in so far as it was burdened with non-supporting pillars, decorative statues, frescos or carvings.” They wanted houses to look toward a better future and the triumph of simplicity and truth; many of them believed that they could design buildings—and sometimes whole cities—to make their inhabitants morally healthier. High-rise public housing projects would not only bring light and air into dark, crowded slum neighborhoods; they would reduce crime and promote community. This turned out not to be the case; instead, most such projects became crumbling centers of violence and fear and despair. They were often situated in undesirable areas far from shops, schools, and churches, and made no provision for neighborly contact. In many cases not only were they designed to be as cheap as possible, but political corruption made them even cheaper. Both materials and construction were third-rate, and it was not long before elevators broke down, paint peeled, and roofs and windows leaked. Their inhabitants became anxious and depressed and apt to become involved in drugs and crime. Within the next few decades many of these projects were deliberately demolished, both in America and in Europe.

Good and Bad Designs in Beautiful Buildings

The architects of the early and mid-twentieth century wanted to solve social problems and change the world. Many of their successors, however, had less interest in these goals. Instead, they wanted to surprise and show off, and their employers were not local governments but the rich and their favorite institutions. As a result, Nathan Glazer claims, “Present-day modernism expresses itself in advanced and experimental architecture that has become reserved most typically for museums or cultural centers or concert halls where the architect can count on a sophisticated, elite client.” Such architects “design walls that cant and lean, roofs that bubble and heave, buildings that look as if they are instantly ready to take off into space or collapse in a heap of tin. They are not models for a city, only models for what the architect hopes will be truly astonishing, something to hit a nerve of contemporary excitement that he can exploit.” Glazer does not hesitate to name names, among them Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind, Zaha Hadid, and Peter Eisenman.

We may admire these structures as art, but it can be hard to live or work in them. The swooping free-form counters and islands and ramps once fashionable in expensive department stores were confusing and annoying to customers, who often could not find what they were looking for, and often left without buying anything as soon as they located an exit. As Stewart Brand points out, triangular buildings like the East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington (by I. M. Pei) also cause problems. “Every space in the building is a pain to work with . . . the shelves in the library end in acute or obtuse angles that won’t hold books.”

The same thing is true of domestic architecture. The famous octagon houses of mid-nineteenth-century America, popularized by the phrenologist Orson Squire Fowler, saved on heating and looked charming from the outside, but they created problems within. Rooms were oddly shaped, and the central circular staircase of the original plan made it impossible to reach some bedrooms without going through others. Today, though a few families (often those of architects) seem to do well in oddly shaped modernist dwellings, most people do not want to live in a house in which the floors and walls slope, or the rooms are triangular, trapezoidal, or oval. The necessity of making a floor plan intelligible is generally recognized, so that within even such an extremely innovative building as Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao there are level floors, vertical walls, and even some rectangular rooms.

The flip side of the good effect of good design, of course, is the pernicious effect of bad design. But though unattractive, cheap, badly designed buildings appear to have a negative effect on both mood and morals, beautiful buildings do not always make people happy or good. John Ruskin admitted that in fact few Venetians seemed morally elevated by their city, and some of the most disagreeable tyrants of all times have dwelt in handsome palaces. For the average man or woman, however, the psychological influence of architecture appears to be significant.

If we have the money and good luck to live in a beautiful building, we may become happier and perhaps even nicer. But the attachment to our home that we then develop, like all human attachments, is threatened by change and loss. In E. M. Forster’s Howards End, Mrs. Wilcox cares more deeply for her family house than for her family, who do not value or deserve it. On her deathbed she tries to leave Howards End to her friend Margaret; and though at first she seems to have failed, she is eventually, almost supernaturally, triumphant. Love of a domestic dwelling can also involve constant grief at its need for upkeep and repair—a grief familiar to anyone who has returned to a beloved house after even a few months away. We may also fear to commit our affections to a beautiful church or school or office, just as we may fear to commit to a human being, knowing that buildings, like people, may be destroyed by acts of God or man, and that they eventually fall apart.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Language of Houses: How Buildings Speak to Us, by Alison Lurie, published by Delphinium Books, 2014.

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