|We can have all the ugliness we're willing to put up with.|
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.|
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.
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."
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.|
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.