“Beauty is truth, truth beauty’—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
– Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats
There is a lack of beauty in modern life. “Form ever follows function,” We’re told that Beauty is merely an unnecessary ornament. Even though that ignores the full meaning of the quote. In reality, according to the originator of the phrase, Louis Sullivan, “Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law.” So, while the appearance of a thing should never be disconnected from its purpose, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be beautiful. That would imply that beauty itself was without purpose and, as we shall see, it is not.
Food, water, warmth, and sleep are just some of the basic necessities of life. It’s pretty obvious that we can’t survive without them. I’d argue the same is true for beauty. In some ways it’s even more necessary. As Dostoevsky said, “Man can live without science, he can live without bread, but without beauty he could no longer live, because there would no longer be anything to do to the world. The whole secret is here, the whole of history is here.”
Sadly, for many of us, a substantial amount of that beauty has perished from the world. We wake up and drive out into the gridlock. We sit in our cubicle next to our coworkers in their cubicles above and below other workers in their cubicles on other floors. All of us type away on identical screens until we eventually go back through the gridlock and get home. Maybe then finally have time to go to a park or play a game, or maybe we just sit on the couch and watch the same show that our neighbours and their neighbours and their neighbours’ neighbours are watching. You are just another cog in an ever-expanding machine. Where is the beauty in our lives? It has been replaced by drab monotony.
What modern architecture does right, it really does right. There is truly something awe-inspiring in a row of towering skyscrapers in the skyline. The view from an airplane window as it comes in to land is breath-taking. Cities from far away look amazing. However, up close and personal, the drab monotony comes back. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. Here’s an article from the NYT written in 1964. We’ve been living and working next to these ugly buildings as they slowly but surely tear down the beautiful architecture of the past replacing it with more of the same.
Suburbia doesn’t fare much better. Let’s be honest. Is there anything awe-inspiring of a row of houses of near-identical design? Not really. The only thing that makes you and your neighbour different is that you couldn’t pick his shade of green for your house so you had to pick that mud-inspired tan that you don’t really like. The endless variations on the same theme are enough to drive me insane. (A short trip, to tell the truth.) And good luck navigating without an address. In some parts of Canada addresses are meaningless. The terrain and even the houses themselves are so unique that you can navigate by landmarks. But try doing that in the city and you’ll find the opposite is true. Addresses are the only way to navigate in a world where every street looks just like the last.
It’s even more true of a high rise with identical apartments piled one on top of each other to fit as many people as possible inside. The only difference between the 23rd floor and the 22nd floor is that the people on the ground appear slightly smaller from the 23rd. Don’t get me wrong, with the high populations in urban centres, high rises and apartment complexes are necessary. Without cheap mass housing, there would be a lot of people without places to live. I just think we need to remember the costs as well as the gains. We need to remember to provide beauty for their residents. It’s easy for the well-to-do to live in an ugly city. When they need to see something beautiful they can buy a painting. Or go hiking in the mountains.
At one point, this lack of beauty wasn’t an issue. The average member of society always did one thing every week regardless of their economic status. They always went to church on Sunday. Regardless of who they were or how much they owned, they could see beautiful statues and domed ceilings every week. But gradually as society has become less religious and as religious buildings have begun to match their urban surroundings more and more, this source of beauty has faded as well.
As studies have shown, this has caused detrimental effects on our mental health. This is one of the reasons why urban environments are a greater mental health risk than rural ones. Without the beauty of nature we’re left with whatever the cities can or can’t provide. Of course, the drab monotony of the city has an effect on our workplace productivity too.
Fortunately, life finds a way. Though many of the traditional ways we’ve expressed beauty throughout society have faded, several of them are making a resurgence and new methods are appearing too. With smartphones we have access to all of the classic literature in our pocket. With gigapixel cameras and websites like 360 cities we can tour architectural and natural marvels without the costs of travel. Museums have digitized their contents so that we can see the relics of our past from across the world. VR technology has developed and become more mainstream, and this will only expand.
As we realize the importance of our surroundings on our productivity and well-being, traditional office layouts are being redesigned into more open concepts with a focus on aesthetics again. That’s why so many modern office buildings are doing away with the drab row of cubicles lit by fluorescent lights and replacing them with natural lighting and greenery alongside more character and personalization for employee workstations. Beautiful web design is replacing the clunky boxes of the past as we realize that beauty helps our companies stand out of the crowd. We’re realizing that not only does beauty have a purpose in the professional world, but that it helps make every aspect of both our professional lives and our life at home a little bit better.
All in all, I’m pretty hopeful for beauty. We’ve realized that it’s necessary in the modern world. We’ve seen that without it mental health issues rise, and in response we’ve begun rebuilding society to include the beautiful once more, whether that’s through new techniques and technologies or, by reinvigorating our cities with nature. The age-old truth that beauty should not be a privilege of the rich but a gift for the world has been made apparent. For as Dostoevsky says, “Beauty will save the world.”