“Il bisogno di bellezza” tratto da editato da Policy Exchange è il principale think tank del Regno Unito nel Gennaio 2019.
The need for beauty
Sir Roger Scruton
What is beauty and why do we need it? All thinking people recognise that
this is a real question, and one of especial relevance in the disordered times
in which we live. Indeed, in the case of the built environment, there is no
question more urgent.
We should start with the small things, since they are easiest to understand.
In many everyday activities, such as dressing, arranging a room, putting
goods and flowers on display, we are concerned to get things to ‘look right’.
We do not do this merely for our own sake. Always there is an implicit
community of observers, for whom it matters how things look.
In effect we are making the adjustments required by social harmony. All aesthetic
judgment is like that, as Kant showed in his great treatise on the topic. As
he put it, in the judgment of beauty we are ‘suitors for agreement’, and
this means that others are free to criticise, to ask us ‘why?’
This does not mean that those who disagree can be persuaded; nor does it mean that those who agree can find the reasons for doing so. But it implies that there is some core set of aesthetic constants to which human
nature is attuned. In this matter aesthetic judgement is closely related to
moral judgement. The core moral judgements are objective, even though
nobody – not even Kant or Aristotle – has found the final proof of them.
They are objective because rational beings, consulting only the facts, and
setting aside everything that might compromise their impartiality, will
come to agree on them, or at least on a central core of them. You will agree
with your neighbour about the evil of murder, rape, enslavement, or the
torture of children, so long as you and your neighbour put self-interest
and passion to one side. Those who don’t agree with such judgements
cannot as a rule be persuaded; but that is because they cannot and will not
Something like this is true in aesthetics. About basic matters rational
beings have a spontaneous tendency to agree, provided that they set their
special and distinguishing interests aside. But in this area it is extremely
unlikely that they will disregard their own interests. Those most notorious
for rejecting basic principles are those with the heaviest investment in
doing so: in the case of the built environment, that means developers and
architects. There is therefore a powerful vested interest in the view that
there are no objectively valid standards of aesthetic judgement, or the view
that standards must always be shifting, in obedience to social, economic
and technological change.
Subtract the profit-makers and the vandals, however, and ask ordinary
people how their built environment should be designed – not for their
private good, but for the common good – and a surprising level of agreement
will be reached. People will agree, for example, on scale: nothing too big
for the residential quarters, nothing too broad or tall or domineering for
the public parts. They will agree on the need for streets, and for doors and
windows opening on to the streets. They will agree that buildings should
follow the contours of streets, and not slice across them or in any way
arrogate to themselves spaces that are recognisably public and permeable.
They will agree that lighting should be discreet and if possible mounted on
permanent structures. They will agree on the humanity of some materials
and the alienating quality of others; in my view, they will even agree about
details such as mouldings, window-frames and paving stones, as soon as
they set them in the context of comparative judgement, and learn to think
of them as chosen not for their own personal benefit, but for the common
good. The classical styles in architecture, in particular the pattern-book
vernacular familiar from Haussmann’s Paris and the comparable vernacular
of Georgian London, embody this kind of reflective agreement.
The Parisian vernacular. Credit: Mar Kiddo, Flickr (Creative Commons).
Traditional ways of building were based in composition, so that detail
followed detail and part answered part. The principles of composition that
they followed have been exemplified in all civilisations that have left a
record of themselves in their artefacts and buildings. They are followed
by life itself, and govern the process that unites part to part and part to
whole in a complex organism. Because these principles correspond to our
own life-processes, we intuitively recognise their authority, are at home
with buildings that obey them, and uncomfortable with buildings that do
not. The forms, scales, materials and surfaces of many modern buildings
deliberately flout these principles, and this is a sufficient explanation of the
hostility that they arouse.
Christopher Alexander, the Austrian-born British architect and theorist,
now a professor at Berkeley, has over decades consistently advanced the
idea of a timeless way to build.
There is one timeless way of building. It is a thousand years old, and the same
today as it has ever been. The great traditional buildings of the past, the villages
and tents and temples in which man feels at home, have always been made by
people who were very close to the center of this way. It is not possible to make
great buildings, or great towns, beautiful places, places where you feel yourself,
places where you feel alive, except by following this way. And, as you will see,
this way will lead anyone who looks for it to buildings which are themselves as
ancient in their form as the trees and hills, and as our faces are.
Alexander supports that far-reaching claim (made in The Timeless Way of
Building) with a kind of generative grammar of architectural form. He lays
down rules that produce results that can be understood by the ordinary
user of the building, who unconsciously recuperates the process whereby
the building is composed, in something like the way we recuperate the
deep structure of one another’s sentences.
Alexander is one of several thinkers who have proposed that the
solution to the problem of urbanisation is contained in the concept of
scale. Successful buildings are not given size and shape, as it were, in one
gesture, as though poured into a mould – though that is what happens in
the cast-concrete monsters and curtain-wall bottles that have desecrated
our cities, or the computer-generated bubbles and gadgets that have
erupted across them in more recent years. Successful buildings achieve
their size and shape, one important thinker has argued, by a hierarchy of
scales, which enables us to read their larger dimensions as amplifications
of the smaller.6 The architect ascends from the smallest scale to the largest
through the repeated application of a ‘scaling rule’, which requires that the
increase in scale from one level to the next in the hierarchy should be by
a constant multiple. The choice of the constant is not arbitrary, since life
itself seems to favour, in the fractal structures of snowflakes and crystals, in
the exfoliation of leaves and cells, a figure in the neighborhood of three,
and it is the ‘rule of a third’ which, according to Nikos Salingaros has been
applied by master architects throughout history – for example in requiring
windows to be a third of the width of the wall that they puncture. Any
number smaller than three will produce a cramped and cluttered surface,
in which higher orders are not clearly differentiated from lower, and any
number much larger will produce vast vacancies, such as we witness in the
blank walls of glass that are the ever more familiar background to city life.
6. Nikos Salibgaros, A Theory of Architecture, Solingen, Umbau-Verlag, 2006.
20 Fenchurch Street (A.K.A. the Walkie Talkie building), City of London – a monster
that has desecrated the City. Credit: Tom Parnell, Flickr (Creative Commons).
On that view modernism went wrong from the start, with Adolf Loos’s
famous dismissal of ornament – a dismissal that effectively left the lowest
end of the scalar progression undefined, so that everything larger became
free-floating and ungrounded. Likewise, the use of poured and moulded
materials that are without their own deeply embedded fractal structure is
responsible for much of the lifeless quality of modern buildings, whose
surfaces are without those textures that we recognise in flesh, rind and
cliff-face: textures that themselves yield to scalar analysis. Similarly, the
narrow boundaries that frame modern buildings – the edges of steel
girders, the abrupt stumps of pilotis, the alloy frames of windows that
cannot be opened, and the invisible edges of sliding or revolving doors
– all serve to render boundaries weak, machine-honed and inflexible, as
well as costly to produce and usually produced off-site, without reference
to local conditions and irregularities.
Elder Street, Spitalfields – the aesthetic constants of Georgian London. Credit:
Andrea Kirkby, Flickr (Creative Commons).
Architecture without meaningful detail or grainy textures estranges us,
because it frustrates our visual and cognitive capacities. The aesthetic
constants are rooted in life-processes that lie deeper than any single tradition
of visual grammar. We understand these constants by incorporating them
into a visual language shaped by comparisons and adapted to the needs
of social life. Only in the context of a live tradition are such constants
really intelligible to us as aesthetic demands. In order to take note of them,
therefore, we need to work within an adaptable grammar of form.
Styles change by adapting, and buildings too adapt. If we abstract from
the present and future functions of a building, and ask ourselves how it
should nevertheless be constructed, then we have only one reliable guide.
It must look right. We should not search behind the appearance for the
hidden reality. Aesthetic value is the long-term goal, utility the short-term
benefit. Nobody wishes to conserve a building, if it does not look right;
but if it does look right, someone will find a use for it.
However, most users of a building are not clients of the architect. They
are the passers-by, the residents, the neighbours: those whose horizon is
invaded and whose sense of home affected by this new intrusion. This
is why patterns and types are so important. The Georgian pattern-books
offered precedents to builders, forms ultimately derived from temple
architecture, which could be relied upon not to spoil or degrade the
streets in which they were placed.
The result was the creation of whole townscapes that we are now eager to live in and equally eager to conserve.
The failure of modernism lies not in the fact that it has produced no great
or beautiful buildings. It lies in the absence of any reliable patterns or
types, which spontaneously harmonise with the existing urban decor, and
retain the essence of the street as a common home. The greatest need today
is for a pattern-book that is faithful to the enduring principles of aesthetic
order, while adapted to new materials and new building techniques. Only
prejudice prevents us from developing such a thing. It is unfortunate that
this prejudice is taught in all our schools of architecture.
It is pertinent to add that the issues that I have briefly surveyed in this
article will be addressed in a more practical way by the Government’s
Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, of which I am chairman. The
Commission has to report on the ways in which the public demand for
acceptable design and beautiful aspect in the built environment can be
satisfied, within the constraints affecting new development. There is no
one style, no one template, no one conception of space and its uses that
will satisfy the many demands before us. But if we do not put beauty at the
top of the agenda we risk blemishing forever the face of a country whose
beauty is one of the most important reasons why our ancestors laid down
their lives in its defence.