Friday, September 24, 2010

`Things That Lack Something Are Thereby Ugly'

When it comes to architecture I’m with the third of the Three Little Pigs: brick is best. A brick building feels substantial, less tentative than a wood-frame house or a box of glass and steel. It inspires confidence. The house I grew up in is built of brick as is Pearl Road Elementary School, where I labored as a young scholar from 1957 to 1964. The building dates from forty years earlier, before artists replaced architects and when there was no shame in a school looking like a factory or mill. We went to school, after all, as our fathers went to work.

The elementary school where I work is of the modern school, insubstantial and tacky, an architect’s idea of a “nurturing [not learning] environment.” Its model is not a factory but a shopping mall. Some sixty years ago the eminent Irish architectural critic Myles na gCopaleen (Further Cuttings, 2000) diagnosed the mind responsible for such flotsam:

“This type of lad has got a feminist psychology, hence his preoccupation with pretty coloured bricks, glass blocks, tinted slates, strange foreign timbers, `plastic’ materials that will submit to sweet fancy in shape, colour and surface. His manipulation of these materials is, of course, frilly, `poetic’ and undisciplined. His is the decorative obsession. Ask him to give you a building and he will go to work on his `façade,’ hoping that when that is approved it will be possible to squeeze in some sort of building behind it.”

The only redeeming quality of such buildings as my school is their Kleenex-like evanescence. Accelerated decay and squalor are built into the plans as surely as “Mother Earth” murals, surveillance cameras and urinals that turn reliably into geysers. In the final chapter of The Pleasure of Ruins (1953), Rose Macaulay reminds us to look at new buildings geologically, beyond the scale of a single human lifetime:

“Very soon trees will be thrusting through the empty window sockets, the rose-bay and fennel blossoming within the broken walls, the brambles tangling outside them. Very soon the ruin will be enjungled, engulfed, and the appropriate creatures will revel.”

It’s a chastening thought (and goes on for another half-page), like the Time Traveller’s view of the dress shop across the street from his lab in George Pal’s film of The Time Machine (1960). Macaulay gets even more apocalyptically inspired in her final sentences:

“Ruin must be a fantasy, veiled by the mind’s dark imaginings: in the objects that we see before us, we get to agree with St Thomas Aquinas, that qua enim diminutae sunt, hoc ipso turpia sunt, and to feel that, in beauty, wholeness is all. But such wholesome hankerings are, it seems likely, merely a phase of our fearful and fragmented age.”

Macaulay takes her Latin phrase from this passage in Summa Theologica (translated by T.C. O’Brien):

“Beauty must include three qualities: integrity, or completeness--since things that lack something are thereby ugly; right proportion or harmony; and brightness—we call things bright in colour beautiful.”

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