Saturday, December 27, 2008

Do We Need Beauty More Than We Think?

I have been aware of the importance of beauty in both the natural and the man-made world for about as long as I can remember. Born though mainly not raised in London, whenever I am there I spend a lot of time looking up at the wonderful architecture of Wren, Vanbrugh, Nash and Jones, to name but four. Growing up in the countryside of south Bucks, half way between London and Oxford, I loved the cherry trees, with their oozing bark, and the kind of daily dawn chorus that it seems you can now only hear in Ravel's Daphnis and ChloƩ.

It was living in Rome and Paris, however, that made the beauty of buildings most real for me, with Rome having the extra delight of so many fountains and groves of trees interleaved with buildings and alleyways that consuls and emperors had passed by. There were also birds by the thousand. I remember many times feeling an extraordinary sense of connexion with the past as I walked past Trajan's column, along the edge of the Forum or down the Appian Way, and could almost hear the voices of Horace and Martial, two such warm and human poets that the ink seems to be barely dry on their writing.

What really intrigues me is what effect beautiful and harmonious architecture combined with nature, particularly trees, has on the mind and heart of both the individual, the city, society and the culture. It is easy to get too lyrical and romantic about this - Martial complains of the tiny 'cell' he inhabits in Rome, and Italian films from the Fifties illustrate grinding poverty, but making our surroundings beautiful must have had value, because over at least the last two and a half thousand years in the West, we have spent fortunes on trying to create environments that go way beyond the simple need to keep the rain off.

It may be that studies with Positron Emission Tomography and other advanced techniques of neuroscience will help explain why beauty really is important to civilisation, and perhaps why, at least for some, there are elements of classical architecture and landscape that are peculiarly satisfying. In the meantime, cycling through Golden Gate Park in San Francisco with trees like the umbrella trees of Rome and stopping at the children's playground with its classically inspired rotunda (containing a carousel) and a small art school loosely cast in Romanesque style, I felt a certain sense of belonging, even though we have been here less than a month.

Part of the charm - both as pleasure and magic - is engendered by the trees in a place, and though we may soon be wondering how to find the wherewithal to rebuild our misbegotten modern ugly - and grossly inefficient - cities, planting trees is an inexpensive step towards harmonious urban form and maybe even some greater civic sense. Trees can also help give the rest of nature a toehold or two, while beautifully removing some of the excess carbon we have seen fit to put in our air. I can't help dreaming that if we could grow enough trees, we might one day be able to put the songs back in our silent springs.

1 comment:

Jan Steinman said...

It's oft said, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

I am a bit wary of those who express a desire for beauty, because it often seems they desire a particular form of beauty — one that may be at odds with what I feel is beautiful.

Yea, harmonious relationships between trees and architecture are lovely. But so is a stack of salvaged building material!

I think beauty in the abstract is especially important: a beautiful idea, a beautiful turn of chords in a Harold Arlan tune, a beautiful site plan that will necessarily require what some people might think is ugliness for some time as it is slowly and deliberately developed.

And what is beauty, anyway? "She was of average beauty" might say it all, as studies of reactions to composite faces show that the more faces added to the composite, the greater the perceived beauty.

Is beauty then the ordinary, the average, or as Julian might say, the timeless? Perhaps. But I find delight, and even beauty, in the unexpected abnormality: the Amish quilt with one square purposely sewn in wrong, the diminished chord that seems all wrong until it is resolved to a minor seventh, the untidy desk illuminating the complexity of its owner's mind.

So yea, I'm all for beauty. But I think I'm against defining it too precisely!

Jan Steinman, EcoReality Co-op