I’m on Amtrak heading to Richmond this morning for the March for Life Virginia. It’s early (so still darkish) and it’s overcast and raining.
If your experience of the world is exclusively or primarily in our cities and along routes like the one I’m traveling this morning (whether by car or train), you’ll tend to think we’re destroying the world because of the way we’re developing it. The sights from my Amtrak window are not exactly ugly, but what’s built along railroad tracks doesn’t tend to be beautiful. The same goes for our highways.
But we’re not destroying the world because we’re developing it. If we are destroying the world, it’s because we’re developing it in an ugly way—that is, we’re building things that degrade rather than elevate the natural landscape. And in turn that degrades our own experience of it and eventually our lived experience generally.
This isn’t a new or controversial idea, but if you survey folks across the political spectrum I suspect you’d find we’ve forgotten the principle behind building beautiful things—that aesthetics aren’t just how something looks but speak to what something is. And if we’re committed to the idea that form and function don’t have a meaningful relationship, we’ll keep building things that act as a spiritual corrosive.
There was the news recently that the White House might be considering an executive order instructing that future federal architecture be classical rather than brutalist, for instance. Why classical architecture matters isn’t simply because it’s “old,” but because its form and its age means it has been tested and that its form carries within it knowledge about what serves all of our needs as human beings—our need for beauty and symmetry and thoughtfulness as much as function.
If you’re inclined to say that “it’s all relative,” or especially that “beauty is relative,” ask yourself why we seek and conserve those things produced by craftsman (art, homes, public buildings, statues, etc.) and treat the pre-fabricated as basically disposable. It’s because crafted and beautiful things are in harmony with the world as we feel it should be, and we recognize the value in living amidst beauty if we can afford to do so.