When the modern city enshrines the temporariness of facelessness as a permanently utilitarian way of life, then something has gone dreadfully wrong…

The Aesthetics of Architecture by Roger Scruton (Princeton University Press, 2013)

One of the principal observations of Sir Roger Scruton about the modern city is an architectural observation. Modern architecture expresses the modern city’s godlessness.

But what does it mean to embody godlessness in architecture? The observation may be understood if we take our bearings from classical architectural models.

If God is knowable, then he has a face. So it is also with human beings. But the buildings characteristic of modern architecture do not have faces. Or, if they do, they are best described as still largely functioning to display a kind of facelessness.

Witness the faceless skyscrapers whose façade of windows simply mirrors their surroundings. Rather than offer their own distinctive face to the public sphere, they offer only a kind of obsequious anonymity. They mirror a narcissistic city back to itself.

Moreover, a cult of uniformity prevails, at least insofar as no true architectural plurality flourishes. The lack of individually distinctive faces on modern buildings is what makes us experience them as ugly. At most, they offer gimmicks and flashy forms of the incongruous and the unexpected. But this is merely a variant on the selfishly uniform godlessness that is at the root of their genesis.

What do we see, in contrast, in the classical architectural models? Perhaps it seems doubtful we can find anything in those ancient structures that might teach us how to build today. In particular, what sorts of faces do classical buildings have?

In his new introduction to The Aesthetics of Architecture, Sir Roger Scruton writes: “The Roman building types—arch, aedicule, engaged column, pilaster, vault and dome—can all be seen as attempts to retain the sacred presence of the column, in the full context of civic life.”

The classical column is a prime example of a feature of a building that resembles the upright human shape. Analogous to a human body standing upright, it does not mirror a self back to itself, but rather incarnates a sense of community. That is, it does so as a similar—but other—shape is placed beside the true humans, in the city it supports.

But the uprightness of the city’s tallest buildings performs a different kind of mirroring. It militates against human settlement. The skyscraper’s uprightness may resemble the human form, but it is not the same height. It towers so far above the humans that it does not function to mirror a community of equals.

Neither is it just a little bit taller, as a column is, to inspire aspirations amongst the community’s humans to be just a little bit nobler in stature than they already are. Rather, the uprightness of the skyscrapers is so gargantuan that it makes humans feel small and insignificant as individuals. At most, it can inspire them only as a collective mass of united citizens; for example, to be proud that the sum total of their endeavors is able to build monuments to their society’s greatness, on the magnitude of the pyramids.

Yet the facelessness of these glass and concrete giants is their most disturbing feature. As Sir Roger writes in that same introduction, “The new city is a city in which glazed facades mirror each other’s emptiness across streets that die in their shadow. The facelessness of such a city is also a kind of godlessness.”

It is elsewhere that Sir Roger explains this godlessness in greater detail. Mark Dooley, in Conversations with Roger Scruton, asks Sir Roger to explain what architecture has to do with God. Sir Roger begins by reporting the tradition that “on Mount Sinai, God gave to Moses not just the Ten Commandments and the law, but also the design for a temple.” In other words, building is a public matter that no less implies the involvement of divine commandments.

In the words of Sir Roger, it is “the building of a temple” that constitutes “the first step towards undertaking the communal task of settling.” The city begins with its sacred space. The function of the temple imbues the secular with the sacredness it requires: “It is a consecration of the land, and a bid for home.”

On other words, one cannot build a home, nor can one feel at home, without an implicit use of the divine as a reference point. The eminently practical function of the temple is that it becomes “the thing that reminds you that you are together” in the city, and reminds you that you must leave peaceably together “under a shared obedience,” says Sir Roger.

Thus, when the worst trends of modern architecture corrupt the architectural design of churches, we find ourselves in a truly horrific situation. As Sir Roger puts it, “if you can’t build a temple and get it right, all other building is merely provisional and utilitarian. It becomes a matter of putting up sheds.”

But the corruption of architecture is located in this ubiquitous exaltation of the utilitarian that has extended now even to sacred spaces. It exalts the secular and pragmatic, thus violating the gifts of sacred space for the city. Therefore, rather than mirror details first conceived in the sacred space, the public spaces, in their turn, deny godliness by insisting on the mundane utilitarianism blessed by the mundane churches.

“Real architecture is precisely getting beyond the shed to the settlement, in which the earth is transformed from a mere habitat to a lasting habitation,” says Sir Roger, and he gives a favorite example: “This we see wonderfully accomplished in Venice, which is a lasting work of the religious imagination, a vision of eternity rising like Venus from the sea.”

There are such things as architectural truths. For example, we have affirmed the observation of Sir Roger: “Buildings should stand up. They should have a vertical emphasis and not be built out of horizontal planes.” Yet we have said skyscrapers should not stand up only to dwarf us. They should not look at us without possessing their own distinctive faces. (If they do, they should not exist.)

What gives the façade of a building its face, according to Sir Roger, is “lines—especially lines which are borders or edges.” Therefore, an essential feature of buildings rightly made is that they “should have mouldings so as to collect shadows and give a sense that this is the boundary.”

To live with anything less is to display an “ignorance of human nature.” The beginning of wisdom, in this regard, is to realize that, as human beings, we desire face-to-face encounters, in order to feel happy and fulfilled. Anything less is unsettling. It is to be endured only as a temporary measure and permitted only for utilitarian reasons.

But when the modern city enshrines the temporariness of facelessness as a permanently utilitarian way of life, then something has gone dreadfully wrong. Until we return to the temple or church that smiles upon us, we will be at a loss. Until we have similar faces everywhere to greet us in the public spaces where we live, we will never be fully at home. For without those faces smiling on us, we will be unable to smile back.

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