Given up to ugly, concrete as the inevitable future of modernity, suddenly beauty was reclaimed in 1984. There is a genuine concept of beauty, which Roger Scruton explained and which the King gave back to us when Prince of Wales.
Today, building is a mixed bag, but there is a real understanding of beauty, and new buildings often uplift the soul: that was impossible before 1984.
In judging people we are taught to look beyond the outward appearance: as Samuel was told ‘Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.‘, but that is of fellow men and women: architecture has only its appearance, which is the outpouring of human mind and skill.
The natural instinct is to see a connection between beauty and moral goodness, as Hobbes observed:
The Latine Tongue has two words, whose significations approach to those of Good and Evill; but are not precisely the same; And those are Pulchrum and Turpe. Whereof the former signifies that, which by some apparent signes promiseth Good; and the later, that, which promiseth evill. But in our Tongue we have not so generall names to expresse them by. But for Pulchrum, we say in some things, Fayre; in other Beautifull, or Handsome, or Gallant, or Honourable, or Comely, or Amiable; and for Turpe, Foule, Deformed, Ugly, Base, Nauseous, and the like, as the subject shall require; All which words, in their proper places signifie nothing els, but the Mine, or Countenance, that promiseth Good and evill. So that of Good there be three kinds; Good in the Promise, that is Pulchrum; Good in Effect, as the end desired, which is called Jucundum, Delightfull; and Good as the Means, which is called Utile, Profitable; and as many of evill: For evill, in Promise, is that they call Turpe; evill in Effect, and End, is Molestum, Unpleasant, Troublesome; and evill in the Means, Inutile, Unprofitable, Hurtfull.
That does not tell us how to define beauty. Others have examined that in detail: chiefest in our time being Roger Scruton. For all his vast width of scholarship, the problem of beauty was a particular fascination, all in a time when the fashion amongst those who though of themselves as thinking men dismissed it. Beauty though is real, and the idea that received opinion may deny it can only be understood in the context that today outspoken opinion denies other plain obvious and scientific facts.
Modernity had its preachers, or you might say its false prophets, whose disciples filled the dominant schools or architecture, excluding all heretics, with Mies van der Rohe almost deified. Concrete was their miracle: with concrete, shapes could be devised defying all that went before, which was fit only for demolition before the new revelation.
One man understood beauty, in nature and in building, and was in a position to do something about it, for he was a Prince of the Realm, and controlled vast estates that needed a form for their own development: he was Charles Prince of Wales. When he spoke in 1984, his words raised two storms: one from the architectural establishment, outraged that their religion had been challenged by a heretic, and against it a rebellion from architects who begged to break the modernism monopoly and to create beauty, stemming the tide of hideousness. The Prince was mocked as being old-fashioned and out of touch – in reality he was ahead of the game, and very much in touch with what the nation yearned for, which we thought was unachievable.
Had it been one speech, the debate would have rumbled and then stopped, because words are less solid than unyielding concrete.
However a prince can establish his own, rival foundations, and he did. As Luther was defended by a prince, so were the reformers of architecture, and the change soon became visible. Ultimately, an architect only works when he has a paying client, and developers knew that a beautiful building is worth more than a slum.
Form, proportion and symmetry in brick, arches, gables and decorative corbels all started appearing, and began to dominate the better parts of towns – not all of course – the backend, practical area just wanted cheap and functional buildings, but even they shed the bare concrete brutalism. We may take the new, post-modern and neo-Gothic styles for granted, that new buildings are meant to be pretty, but it is only since the late 1980s: before then, harsh, grey concrete was all that we could expect – the architecture of decline.
It is the King whom we have to thank for this revolution.
- By Sir Roger Scruton:
- On Human Nature
- The Ring of Truth
- Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left
- On Hunting
- Where We Are: The State of Britain
- How to Be a Conservative
- Conservatism: Ideas in Profile
- A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism
- Kant: a Very Short Introduction
- Spinosa: a Very Short Introduction
- Beauty: a Very Short Introduction
- Green Philosophy
- Philosophy: Principles and Problems
- The Soul of the World