Don’t miss Joel Pidel’s reply, “Timeless Beauty: Conservatism’s Modernist Problem.”

I recently returned to the Chicago I knew as an undergraduate to find an unsightly railway stockyard transformed into one of America’s finest public spaces, Millennium Park. Its chief monument, the Pritzker Pavilion, was built by an architect I had learned to hate, Frank Gehry. But the snow was softly falling on that January day, and I had this eccentric complex of twisted metal almost entirely to myself. Framed by a forest of skyscrapers to one side, and by a distant blue strip of Lake Michigan on the other, the pavilion’s center seemed less an “apotheosis of megalomania” (to borrow Ralph Adams Cram’s description of Radio City Music Hall) than the pulsing chambers of a city’s vibrant heart. A scaly, snaking path—also by Gehry—adjoined the facility, and I welcomed its invitation to follow along.

Taking more of the city’s cues, I eventually arrived—after much walking—at the magnificent Holy Name Cathedral (“where Chicago goes to pray”). There, I saw another twisted metal sculpture predating Gehry’s creation and surrounding a Eucharistic tabernacle. Even Gehry’s style, I was surprised to discover, had its sacred corollary in this great American city.

The experience was a challenge to my assumptions regarding modernist and post-modernist architecture. Because I had assumed Gehry had to be bad, like every other starchitecht who flouts the tested principles of traditional design, I was unprepared for how beauty’s unexpectedness could scramble the narrative of decline to which I had been attracted.

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Milliner Photo JPEG

Gehry’s Prtizker Pavilion juxtaposed with Holy Name Cathedral Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament by Luca Lucetti (photos by author)

Consider two more examples from the same city. A still dominant narrative of twentieth-century American architecture casts Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright, as creative hero and the more influential Daniel Burnham as conservative villain, binding America to classicism. That is, until modernism—of which Sullivan was the forerunner—could set us free. But the rivalry of these two architects has been overplayed, as evidenced by the fact that parts of Louis Sullivan’s celebrated Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co. building, now the most beautiful Target in America, were elegantly completed by Daniel Burnham. Sullivan is actually far closer in spirit to Burnham’s City Beautiful movement than to much of the modernism that he presumably fathered. And yet, aspects of modernism betray their own marks of beauty as well.

Standing in front of Mies van der Rohe’s stunning Federal complex in the Chicago loop, following precise lines across the pavement and up the sheer black building to its crest, I finally conceded that the modernism I had grown to despise had to be judged on its own terms. Mayor Daley’s reckless destruction of earlier forms of Chicago architecture to make way for modernism may have been ill-advised.  But beauty, like grace, nevertheless shines through the cracks of bad decisions.  How many “modern” structures, I thought to myself as I stood within that Miesian grid, had I unfairly dismissed?

I had a similar experience with modern ecclesial architecture at the Saint Procopius Abbey, a Benedictine community in the Chicago suburbs constructed by Edward Dart in 1970.  Yes, concrete can be hideous, but standing in the spatial silence of Dart’s baptismal vestibule, I saw that it could also be exquisitely poured.  Entering the sanctuary itself and viewing the crosshatched metal frame, it seemed as if Chicago’s proud skyscraper, the John Hancock Center, had been gently laid on its side—human ambition dwarfed by divine reality.

David Bentley Hart’s latest book is of assistance here.

The apprehension of beauty is something simple and immediate; it is wholly elusive of definition—it never makes sense to say, “This is beautiful because…”—and yet it is inescapable in its force. One knows it, one experiences it, but no concept is adequate to it. That same horizon of the absolute that excites the mind’s desire for truth and the will’s desire for the good is also the splendor or luminosity or radiance of being, in which we delight for the sake of delight alone.

Hart rightly calls into question Aquinas’s threefold definition of beauty (integrity, right proportionality, and radiance). “The beautiful can be encountered—sometimes shatteringly—precisely where all of these things are deficient or largely absent.” Daniel Dennett’s Darwinian criterion for “beauty” (a disguised longing for food, shelter, and progeny) also comes up short. “Aesthetic desire,” Hart writes, “exceeds the boundaries of the physiological and material . . . A magnificent photograph of an uninhabitable desert can delight us in ways that a competent but uninspired photograph of a sapphire lake amid emerald tussocks and flowered rills cannot.” Instead, for Hart, beauty is “a radiant dimension of absolute value at once transcending and showing itself within the limits of material form.”

Christopher Alexander takes this same elusive definition of beauty and applies it specifically to architecture, helping me better understand the moments of transcendence I have enjoyed in Chicagoland. His remarkable trilogy, the first volume of which is The Timeless Way of Building (1979), and which now has a significant online presence as well, is nothing less than the resurrection of Burnham’s City Beautiful movement’s ideals in Berkeley, but this time under the wider aegis of what he terms “the timeless way.” Like Hart, Alexander refuses to define.

A building or a town will only be alive to the extent that it is governed by the timeless way . . . To seek the timeless way we must first know the quality without a name . . . This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named.

Alexander’s apophatic style can read like an architectural Tao Te Ching, and this has put off many readers. But his lessons are simple and wise, and anything but obscure: “Each building, and each neighborhood, gets its character from the patterns which keep on repeating there.” This is admittedly gnomic, but not gnostic. The aim is to discover the best of those patterns and to build, or not build, in a way that encourages them to flourish. Far from regurgitated classicism, the timeless way “is never twice the same, because it always takes its shape from the particular place in which it occurs.” Hence, there is no formula for this kind of beauty: “What this method does is free us from all methods.” But paradoxically, there are clear guidelines in Alexander’s project as well. To pull one gem from the depths of the over one thousand pages of Volume II, “A complex of buildings with no center is like a man without a head.”

This continually implicit definition of beauty will send us as much to overlooked Isfahan for good urbanism as to Florence or Rome. It will send us to find “urban” harmony not only in Wicker Park, Williamsburg, or a master-planned community for the rich, but even in presumably hideous strip malls, provided we learn to retrofit suburbia. Such flexibility enables us to criticize Frank Gehry when appropriate (and it is frequently appropriate), while conceding where his projects have given rise to rich pattern languages of their own (parts of Gehry’s Art Gallery of Ontario might be another example).

Still, the pluriformity of Alexander’s timeless way does not necessarily lead to diversity without a center. “Although this way has taken on a thousand different forms at different times, in different places, still, there is an unavoidable, invariant core to all of them.” I am disposed to associate that indefinable core with the indefinable God in which I believe. “God calls (kaloun) all things to himself,” wrote the sixth-century Christian Platonist Pseudo-Dionysius, “that is why he is called beauty (kalos).”

Some time ago, I was invited to begin some reflections on beauty and conservatism in this forum, in hopes that years in the political wilderness might motivate conservatives to consider cultural matters more seriously. But because of the prominence of the prejudice I myself indulged, this is a harder task than I had imagined. Conservatives frequently tend to trust only tested formulae. This is praiseworthy, to an extent. Traditional patterns should be valued, and they are frequently revelatory, especially now, after their long eclipse.  Still, tradition offers us no guarantee. Beauty does not always obey rules any more than it always breaks them.

Currently, the little energy conservatives tend to devote to contemporary cultural matters seems to be entirely expended in attack. Will conservatives eventually begin to accept and appreciate the new patterns of contemporary architecture? The enduring values in which conservatives believe—beauty among them—are more fecund than we think. We ought to be open to their new and unexpected manifestations. After all, what future is there for a movement without capacity for surprise?

This article was developed as part of the Thriving Cities Project at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.