Materialism Destroys Beauty
Materialism brought forth modernism, which glorified bland utility. Some want to bring back the Christian virtue of beauty.
Walk through housing tracts and commercial centers built in the first half of the 20th century, and you are likely to get depressed. Plain horizontal lines predominate. Cubical, unimaginative forms with flat roofs and and bare walls devoid of ornamentation draw the eye nowhere. Colorless steel and concrete, far removed from nature, give a feeling of walking in Soviet factory cities. The relationship is as plain as the architecture: materialism brought forth communism as well as modernism. Architects of the period, like German architect Bruno Taut, were on a campaign to destroy beauty:
“Oh, our concepts: space, home, style! Ugh, how these concepts stink! Destroy them, put an end to them! Let nothing remain!” (ref: John West, Darwin Day in America, p. 194)
What replaced the ornamental beauty of Victorian architecture was The New Architecture, Futurist Architecture, The International Style, or simply, Modern Architecture. The new emphasis was on function, not form; utilitarianism, not ornamentation. And it was ugly. In chapter 9 of Darwin Day in America, John West describes the movement, and quotes its leading lights. They looked on the ornateness of Gothic cathedrals and Baroque interiors as grotesque. From one extreme, they sprang to the other. Arches, columns and decorative facades were out. Banality was in. “In the Futurists’ view,” West says, “a building really was reducible to its construction materials, and therefore the most honest building was one where the materials rather than aesthetic considerations were allowed to determine everything about the building.”
West traces the spread of this mode of architecture from Germany after the first world war. The Bauhaus movement, emphasizing radically streamlined forms, spread from there throughout Europe. Despising “romantic gloss” and “wasteful frivolity,” these architects gave rise to cities of ugly monotony, with “cold, utilitarian, and numbingly standardized” building projects. In essence, it was a rejection of individuality. And what was their motivation? Materialism, West argues. Many of the leaders of futurist architecture were avowed materialists, who traced their materialism to Darwinism. Human beings were representatives of a species, with the same needs. They should be happy living in white cardboard boxes, all alike. In a world governed by impersonal natural laws, who should care about individual creativity?
The Return to Beauty
A backlash against cold utilitarianism began in the late 1950s. Post-modernism began to replace modernism. The inertia gained by the modernists would take a long time to stop, however. One can still see it in the bland furniture sold by Ikea, with its flat-painted tables and chairs with unimaginative square corners deprived of ornamentation, its plain metal picture frames, its monochromatic cushions emphasizing functionality over beauty. Government housing projects often resemble stacked concrete slabs with minimal openings, all the same, extending for many blocks. The banality of these buildings must take its toll on the attitude of their inhabitants. That’s why psychologists are coming to realize the value of parks, open spaces and trees on the well-being of people in cities and apartments (17 July 2018). The beauty of nature, by contrast, often inspires works of great art.
We humans seem to have a natural aversion to these fruits of modernism. A backlash is going on right now in the UK. Breitbart News reports that Sir Roger Scruton, a celebrated conservative philosopher who was partly responsible for helping open eastern Europe from communist domination, has been selected to lead a commission on new housing standards that is a “blow to modernism,” according to the article.
Communities Minister James Brokenshire announced the Building Better, Building Beautiful commission at the weekend, a body which will “promote better design and style of homes, villages, towns and high streets, to reflect what communities want, building on the knowledge and tradition of what they know works for their area.”
This article presents the contrast between traditional values and modernist values in bold colors. Who is opposing Scruton’s appointment?
The body, which will be chaired by Scruton — an expert on the philosophy of aesthetics and a rare self-professed conservative in UK academia — is expected to produce a report, which will “advocate for beauty in the built environment” by December 2019. Because Scruton is an unapologetic social conservative the announcement has been pounced upon by the left who have demanded his removal using — as James Delingpole reports — confected outrage and “offence archaeology”.
Scruton’s appointment was immediately attacked by the left, and The Guardian newspaper took the opportunity to republish their previous claim that he resembles a narrow-minded racist because of his views on architecture.
Charges of racism and Islamophobia, most people know now, are empty reflexes by those lacking facts with which to make a reasoned argument.
Where does Scruton’s motivation for beauty come from? He clearly has a disdain for the “cult of ugliness” produced by modernism. Another article cited by Breitbart says he is “instinctively hostile to Modernist… horizontal slabs.” Government housing projects, he argues, need not be eyesores of sameness extending from east to west. Scruton wrote in 2013,
“Conservative-minded architects like Leon Krier at Poundbury and John Simpson at Swindon have shown that this need not be so, that we can learn from our traditional architecture how to build in ways that enhance the neighbourhood, and in ways that produce affordable housing too.
“People protest at the faceless estates that destroy the view from their window. But no-one protests at Poundbury except the modernist architects who sense the threat that it poses to their monopoly game.”
The Source of Beauty
The Breitbart article does not mention Darwinism, but it does mention communism, which included Darwinist materialism as one of its core pillars. Marx’s “dialectical materialism” implies evolving materialism, without absolutes.
Scruton, who argues for a universal value of objective beauty, was awarded a special medal by the Polish government in honour of “intellectual courage and integrity” in 2016 for his work during the Cold War in building secret underground universities in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia in opposition to the Communist regimes.
Speaking at the time, he told Breitbart London of the award: “I helped to plant a few seeds of conservative thinking in those countries, and to emphasize that it is permissible to love your country more than the global forces that wish to suppress it… In 1989 the destructive materialism of the communists was replaced by the soft materialism of the new Europe.
A “universal value of objective beauty” is the opposite of evolution. Most ground objective value in religion. An earlier article at Breitbart showed instances of the beautiful houses of Parliament, with soaring architecture adorned with art pieces celebrating individuality and beauty. “Art of Britain’s Parliament Tell Story of Great Christian Nation That Revisionists Would Erase.”
Scruton’s campaign against ugly modern architecture, therefore, runs deeper than government planning for homes. “My small influence comes from expressing the belief that materialism, in whatever form, is the problem,” he said.
In Darwin Day in America. John West shows in detail how Darwinism corrupts whatever it touches – even architecture.
Darwin was like an anti-Midas; everything he touched turned to crud. The hand of God brings grace, mercy and peace. What newborn child of God would not respond with thanksgiving and develop a newfound appreciation of the good, the true, and the beautiful?