Monday, April 15, 2019


We can have all the ugliness we're willing to put up with.
Picture this intersection I saw in a middle-class neighborhood near my Berkeley home, but which you could find in any town in the USA:  on one corner stands an aging fast-food joint; on another a ramshackle grocer.  On the third corner is—surprise!—an ill-kept liquor store. On the fourth corner there’s nothing at all—just a weed-choked empty lot.  

Ugly?  You said it. Yet in the past, whenever I’d drive through this dreary crossroads, I’d mentally excuse it with, “Well, you can’t expect to find beauty everywhere.”

But you know what? I don't pass things off that way anymore. Not only should expect to find beauty everywhere—if you don’t find it, by thunder, you should demand it.   

The Greeks considered beauty integral to well-being.
Nowadays, it’s become somehow sissified to insist that one’s built environment be beautiful—not just decent and functional, but inspiring to look at. Yet rather than being a quality that everyone can expect, beauty has become the exclusive franchise of architects, planners, and decorators—professionals who, let’s face it, are generally perceived as a bunch of wimpy prima donnas. We leave it to this lonely bunch to harp about the way things ought to look.  

 History tells us it wasn’t always so. The Greeks, those aesthetic rascals, sought beauty at every turn, and they weren’t embarrassed about it either—their prose alone makes that perfectly clear. Their successors, the Romans, may have lowered the hallowed Greek standards a notch or two, but they could still appreciate a well-turned arch of triumph when they saw one. 

The Japanese make most everything into
an aesthetic statement—even drinking a cup of tea.
The Japanese obsession with beauty is legendary, as evidenced by that culture’s art, architecture, landscape design, and even by its ritual tea ceremony. Nor is this eye for beauty confined to the wealthy--even the humblest Japanese home shows a fastidious concern for the pleasing arrangement of furniture, flowers, and food on a plate.      

In the United States of the late-19th century, concern with the declining quality of life in urban centers led to grass-roots improvement societies aimed at beautifying neighborhoods and creating public parks and amenities. By the turn of the century, such concerns were galvanized under the rubric of the City Beautiful movement, led by architects such as Daniel H. Burnham, who gave San Francisco a majestic—if yet-unfulfilled—scheme for its civic center, and whose executed plan for Chicago gave that city much of its downtown splendor.

Daniel Burnham's plan for Chicago, 1909—here looking
south down Michigan Avenue.
"Make no small plans; they have no magic
to stir men's blood."
“Make no little plans,” said Burnham, “they have no magic to stir men’s blood.  Make big plans, aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die.” 

How sad, then, that we’re willing to settle for so much less today: lookalike strip malls; acres of asphalt; crackerbox housing. I believe it’s not so much a shortcoming of the American character as a general sense that, with all the troubles we have as a nation these days, a beautiful built environment is just too much to expect.  

That’s a pity. Perhaps, like the Greeks, the Japanese, and even our own 19th-century forebears, we should consider the possibility that beauty is actually an integral part of a healthy society, and not just so much window dressing.  

Yet this is where we've ended up.
The mediocrity of so much of our built environment should tell us something, however: the search for beauty begins with the individual. It isn’t something to be ceded to planning bureaucracies—the jolly folks who brought us the blight of downtown freeways, cheerless housing projects, and retrograde design review boards, and who've also made damned sure that automobiles and not people remain king of the hill.

No, don’t hang your hopes on a change from without. Take a look around you. A more beautiful world could begin on a street like yours.

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