Tradition’s three assumptions

Philip Bess offers his argument for a return to metaphysical realism in architecture and urbanism:

In general, traditional societies and their architecture are founded on several substantive metaphysical assumptions that Western culture has articulated explicitly. The first is that reality is real, is what it is, and is fundamentally sacred. The second is that human beings are able to know reality truly, even if all human knowledge is necessarily partial and mediated to us through narrative traditions. The third is that although human beings are constrained by reality, we are rational agents capable of ordering our lives materially as artisans and morally as members of communities; from this it follows that we can flourish only by using our freedom to better conform ourselves to reality truly understood. These three assumptions—that reality is real, we can know it, and we flourish when we accord with it—constitute the metaphysical realism foundational to traditional architecture and urbanism.

Three cities in the ancient world both contributed to this metaphysical realism and themselves came to symbolize legitimate authority: Athens, Jerusalem (old and New), and Rome. From Athens came two seminal ideas: that the best life is the life of moral and intellectual excellence, and that a good city makes the best life possible for its citizens. From Jerusalem came the idea that a city’s excellence is also measured by the care it exhibits for its weakest members, and for much of Western culture after the triumph of ­Christianity, the heavenly New Jerusalem represented the transcendent end toward which creation is oriented. Finally, from Rome came the full development of an idea originating in Athens: that a city’s beauty is warranted by and represents its greatness.

The West’s oldest extant architectural treatise, the De Architectura of Vitruvius, specifies the canons of this metaphysical realism as they pertain to architecture and cities. Vitruvius characterizes durability, comfort, beauty, and decorum as virtues necessary to the art of good building. These architectural virtues are so self-evident that even today most non-­architects are surprised to learn that for the most part they are neither taught nor prized in architectural schools nor rewarded by the architectural profession—and have not been for quite some time. But that does not prevent ordinary people from recognizing them as desirable…