Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Roger Scruton - Why Beauty Matters

I though Roger Scruton's analysis of modern architecture was too harsh in the documentary Why Beauty Matters. It is hard to argue his point on the lack of beauty in the abondoned concrete buildings built only for utility in the 60's. However, I feel modern architecture seeks to marry the utility of a builing with an aestetically pleasing structure. Scruton, on the other hand, claims that the old builing style was "replaced with a new type of junk... which results in a new failure to fit and is there simply to be demolished." I think that the newer style of design is far more interesting and should not be lumped into the same category as the purely utlitarian builings of the 60's.

Then, Roger Scruton considers the cafe. He explains to the audience that the building was once a forge. This raises the question of the original purpose of this building--the structures original purpose was utility. The difference between the building and the buildings of the 60's is that this one is still in use. He says: "People come here from all around becuase it is the last bit of life remaining and that life come from the building."
He argument speads from there to say that when we put usefulness first, we lose the art, but when we put beauty first, and what you do will be useful forever. I think that it would be hard to form an argument where the original forge was built for beauty.


  1. I agree about the forge. In his desire to criticize all things modern, Scruton oversteps in both condemning absolutely all art and probably should have been very careful in criticizing architecture (He is a philosopher, not a historian, urban planner, or an architect.) He really should have stuck to criticizing postmodern and modern art.

    However, churches might be a good example of Scruton's critique as they are designed to elevate the mind. Just from my experience, at least many of the Catholic churches recently built within the last sixty years seem rather utilitarian buildings often placed at odd angles. Compare these with many of the European cathedrals. In my opinion, church architecture have fallen to utilitarianism and pushing the bounds of originality for its own sake.

  2. I agree with both of you about Scruton's rather sweeping condemnation of modern art, architecture, and music. However, I think his point with the forge example in the film is not what it might seem to be. Scruton's position in the book upon which the film was based is a little more subtle.

    Scruton writes:

    "...the emphasis on beauty might in certain cases be self-defeating, by implying that our choices are between different degrees of a single quality, so that we must always aim for what is most beautiful in everything that we choose. In fact too much attention to beauty might defeat its own object. In the case of urban design, for example, the goal is, in the first instance, to fit in, not to stand out. If you want to stand out, then you have to be worthy of the attention that you claim, like Longhena's church. This does not mean that the humble and harmonious street is not beautiful. Rather, it suggests that we can understand its beauty better if we describe it in another and less loaded way, as a form of fittingness or harmony. Were we to aim in every case at the kind of supreme beauty exemplified by Sta Maria della Salute, we should end up with aesthetic overload. The clamorous masterpieces, jostling for attention side by side, would lose their distinctiveness, and the beauty of each of them would be at war with the beauty of the rest."

    So the beauty of the forge, for Scruton, is a more humble, but no less significant, kind of beauty that he terms "fittingness." It was built with "utility" in mind, but it also exemplifies a kind of appropriateness to its surroundings and a human scale that Scruton finds lacking in modern architecture (architecture is actually one of Scruton's areas of specialty in aesthetics, along with music).

    1. That makes more sense. I might have been a bit hasty myself.

      In my opinion, churches though should be designed with the intention of standing out with "supreme beauty" within an urban context, separated from world as sacred space. Perhaps, the fault of modern churches could be their inclination to blend too easily in a modern setting.

      Maybe the video (and BBC) was a bit misleading so as to be more provocative, reach a wider audience, and save more time.

  3. I forgot to add this, but then maybe Roger Scruton's criticism lies more in modern architecture's unabashed and deliberately provocative design - which seemingly seeks to assault "appropriateness to its surroundings."

    I'm thinking of that - dare I say it, hideous (?) - gaudy glass and steel structure built on the Northern Kentucky skyline heading over the Brent-Spence Bridge, the one that makes a half-turn on itself.

  4. Even though, you can say Scruton was harsh in the way that he went about attacking modern architecture I do, however, don't find it to be out of place. I do agree that today many buildings really lose that element of being different and unique. As I watched the video for a second time I thought about some of my favorite college campuses. Ohio University and Miami University are hands down my favorite and its more because they have that old architecture buildings that you can just look at and get a since that they have some meaning and value behind it. The University of Cincinnati is ranked number 14 in Forbes for best campuses last time I checked yet I don't find it nearly as aesthetically pleasing as the other two campuses.

    I think we fail to realize Scruton's generation and are quick to label him as harsh when really he comes from a generation of hand built brick by brick establishments. I don't think that Scruton meant to come off as harsh but rather disappointed with the way modern society compose things based off sure size losing that element of beauty.

  5. Good points. I certainly agree about Miami's campus. That was by far one of the most beautiful campuses I've seen near here. That's true about Scruton's generation, but he also did not keep in mind the changing standards of architectural beauty and consider there might be other kinds of architectural aesthetics.