Beautiful Money, Beautiful World
Have you ever noticed how god damn bland our modern world is? I am forever in awe at the ornate, delicate detailing found in our older structures; even single storey dwellings from the late 19th century posses more character than the latest commercial skyscrapers. Thankfully, we have a wonderful documentary to help explain our current malaise. Why Beauty Matters, written and presented by the late philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, explores the idea that beauty is an essential aspect of a healthy life and culture. It follows that a lack of attention to beauty is horribly corrosive for the human experience.
Now before we go any further - what do we even mean by beauty? In his book Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, Scruton defines it as "the appearance of something that is attractive, satisfying and good." He argues that beauty is not just a matter of personal taste, but that there are objective standards of beauty that can be recognised and appreciated by all. In essence, beauty is a form of knowledge that is apprehended through the senses, evoking feelings of pleasure, wonder and satisfaction. There is a goodness and perfection in beauty, which can only inspire us to lead better lives.
We Wuz Robbed.
In this context ugly architecture is especially tragic. A crappy environment can have a daily impact on people's emotional and psychological well-being. That was certainly my experience growing up on the fringes of grey and sterile council estates. Our soulless glass boxes also convey a cultural decay and loss of tradition, which are oh so important for preserving local heritage and identity. Consider the cookie cutter design that varies surprisingly little from country to country; it cruelly robs us of our sense of place. Finally, and most painfully, our bland homes and workplaces only strip away our harmony with nature and its gentle, soothing intricacy.
So what, or who, are the main culprits for this sorry outcome? Perhaps today's secular society decreed that function is simply more important than form? By extension, are architects simply expressing our stunted imagination? There is also the lingering trauma of two World Wars, which brutally severed our link with tradition and incremental knowledge. Whilst these certainly contribute to the grey and crumbling edifices around us, I believe there is an underlying and more powerful force at play. One that simply incentivises us away from beauty and thus the creation of enduring, enlightening surroundings.
Y'see, for the last 100 or so years we have really eroded our most important measure (and language) for value; money! With the introduction of a floating fiat currency in the 1970s, this measure (in the form of the global reserve currency, the almighty US Dollar) could be manipulated at a moment's notice, and usually to suit fleeting government or central bank objectives. It is not immediately apparent, but without a steady or reliable reference for value we simply lose sight of long term, enduring work as we chase more immediate goals. And it makes commercial sense too - to the extent that we increasingly grab tomorrow's cash (i.e. debt) for today.
Your Money's No Good Here.
For architecture, the result is visibly obvious; we prioritise quarterly profit (to capture 'value' and survive in this fiat environment) at the expense of enduring beauty, which takes more time, consideration and effort to create. Consider the shoddy, uninspiring landscapes that developers have thrown up for the last 40+ years, all in the name of the quick sale. And now contrast with some of the Art Deco masterpieces that we still revere decades later. Is it just coincidence that the 1920s represented the last hoorah of the gold standard, and the start of our path towards flimsy money?
There is plenty, plenty more I could say about the current state of our built environment, but Roger captures our quandary vividly, for "if you consider only utility, the things you build will soon be useless." This invites a wider question; just how scrambled has our understanding of beauty, and it's value to our collective experience, become over the past century? For the time being, I shall leave you to further ponder the potential link between sound money and enduring architecture - and to watch Roger's compelling argument and perspective.
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