Defining A sense of place, part 2: Beauty

There is no point to beauty. It’s something that transcends the human experience, lifts us out of a world plagued by heartbreak and evil. It grants a temporary reprieve from an otherwise fruitless and monotonous schedule.

Beauty, much like love or friendship, seeks to edify our existence and the time that we have on earth. A friend or lover is someone who, by simply existing and us thinking on that existence, can bring us out of the depths of sorrow and to see the meaning of life.

To create a quality sense of place beauty must be present. Without beauty, we are simply surrounding ourselves with a sterile, boring environment that gives us no reason to care. It’s the reason that graffiti is found on blank walls. Cement pillars and walls from parking garages or utilitarian buildings are magnets for the opposite of beauty. Because there is no beauty that exists there, it simply attracts more of the same. Obscene and ugly thoughts of men are put into a spray can and let loose on a canvas that brings no value and provokes no thought to act morally.

So too with suburban sprawl. An endless repetition of “the American Dream” gives the homeowners little to care about outside of grass. The houses were not built to push mankind forward or to radiate detail and hard work into the future. They were built as a mass produced commodity, seeking to sell us an ideal propagated by bankers and builders. Beauty is the reflection of the morals of a culture and the meaning of it’s society. If what you put up is meant to be disposed of in short order, we have to ask what’s part of the underlying cause.

Man seeks refuge. We look for a place to guard ourselves from others, the natural world and a place to establish lineage. In this, it is only natural that we beautify our surroundings. If we decide that a place will be reception to permanence, then we look to make sure that the place doesn’t drive us mad with monotony or blandness.

Photo courtesy of Tomas Laurinavicius

Photo courtesy of Tomas Laurinavicius

Examples of beauty adding to place are found everywhere. It’s an ornate door on a church, a beautifully cast rod-iron fence, or the cobbled streets instead of asphalt. As I stated earlier there is no purpose to these intricacies except to transport us from an otherwise monotonous routine.

The detail that often goes into beauty is a cultural anchor for hard work. The pleasing sensation we experience in the presence of beauty is derived from that hard work. When beauty is absent, it invokes laziness and numbness. There is no reason to honor people with monuments, yet we do it to show respect to those who have done something that required hard work. Monuments are often beautiful showing that hard work should be rewarded with the highest honor: beauty. Likewise in our cities we testified the hard work of entrepreneurs and citizens by erecting beautiful buildings.

Photo courtesy of Tomas Laurinavicius

Photo courtesy of Tomas Laurinavicius

Boring buildings and structures negate the ideals of hard work. The most ugly of our buildings, or lack thereof, are parking lots. The car was built for efficiency, but now we know that the car has mutated into a device that enables and even rewards laziness. Our cities followed suite in their design.

A sense of place is what made our cities some of the best in the world. Beauty in cities, was held in high regard in post WWII Europe, but was almost completely disregarded in post WWII America. Our lives had become pre-occupied with consumerism. The notion of “stuff” and “things” filled the void that beauty normally would. In post-war Europe however, they had nothing. A continent ravaged by back-to-back world wars looked to find a sliver of hope in the remains of their built environments. Beautiful buildings and beautiful spaces helped fill that void. Who needs material goods for yourself when money spent on beautifying your building would delight the whole city?

Buffalo

Buffalo, NY – 1908

As urbanists and architects alike talk about “walkability” or health or “sense of place,” we should keep in mind that these are simply additional benefits to beautiful cities. Beauty is what makes you want to walk and therefore makes you healthier.

As I see it now, if we simply focus on the utility of walkability and urbanism, we miss the point. A city built for utility will soon find itself useless because no one wants to live in an ugly city. And if no one wants to live in said city, what is the point of the city at all?

About Matthias Leyrer

Matthias Leyrer is a resident of Mankato looking to restore a fraction of its old glory. He writes about the economic, aesthetic, practical and financial issues facing the city of Mankato going forward.