Editors’ Note: This week, we are running a four-part series on the necessity of beauty across contexts: art, homemaking, architecture, and education. This series critically examines the role of beauty in renewing culture. This is the third essay, in which Mark Dooley explains how beauty in architecture is a call to transcendence, permanence, and belonging. 

What does the way we build tell us about the type of people we are? Many assume that architecture is simply a functional enterprise with no philosophical or theological significance. The truth is, however, that no aesthetic discipline matters more than architecture, and that is because, unlike the other arts which can be ignored at no personal cost, the way we build directly impacts everyone. Moreover, in the built environment, we see our values captured in material form. In civic buildings and homes, we tangibly perceive the self-image of society, community, and family life. They testify to our deepest longings, our eternal aspirations, and the extent to which we are committed to future generations. Of course, we build, first, to put down roots, to settle and to make a home. However, the way we do so signifies much about how we perceive the meaning of home, its place in our lives, and the sacrifices, if any, we are prepared to make for its preservation. To put it simply, the built environment mirrors or reflects the consciousness of those who designed it and those who dwell in it. This means, in turn, that it stands as the most reliable guide to what Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel called “the Spirit of the age”. 

This being the case, what does contemporary architecture say about our self-image? When I was growing up in Ireland in the 1970s and 80s, the capital city of Dublin comprised a blend of architectural styles: Palladian, Regency, Victorian, and Edwardian. All these were, to a greater or lesser extent, founded on classical architectural principles, incorporating columns, moldings, and ornament. Even in cases of novelty, there was never a radical break from the styles and principles of previous generations. There was a seamless harmony in design that was rooted in the sacred architecture of the churches, whose steeples dominated the skyline of every town and city in Ireland. Built in the Gothic and classical styles, those churches reminded the inhabitants that they belonged to what Edmund Burke called the “eternal society” that is founded on a “primeval contract” between the living, the dead, and the unborn. The church was the cornerstone of the community, a symbol of its determination to dwell in that place and to consecrate its days to the preservation and sanctification of present, past, and future. 

Standing in its shadow were buildings and homes that also spoke of permanence, each one distinct by virtue of its individual character or personality. From the grandest classical constructs to the most modest dwellings, all smiled on the world beyond their windows. There was no attempt to shock or strike awe simply because everything was built to harmonize with the surrounding streetscape. Their purpose was to fit in rather than to stand out, and, in so doing, they permitted a form of neighborliness that consolidated community. Even in those places where poverty and deprivation prevailed, there still existed a sense of home and settlement, one in which people had the support of their neighbors. Their terraced homes faced one another as though offering mutual solidarity. There was a deep sense of civic pride in such places, exemplified in the way their inhabitants sought to beautify their brick-built abodes. Cleanliness, order, and beauty were their hallmarks, signifying their profound respect for themselves and their neighbors. From a single glance at their dwellings, you could tell that these people valued virtue, integrity, and a desire to endure despite the hardships of their lives.

Start your day with Public Discourse

Sign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.

New Experiments in Living

Amid all this, there were, however, what we could call “new experiments in living.” Taking their cue from the Modernist revolution of the 1960s that swept across Western Europe, and chiefly inspired by the collectivism of the communists, architects sought to replan the urban space according to pseudo-socialist ideology. The first strategy was to resettle the inhabitants of the inner city in high-rise monstrosities and sprawling estates located on the very edge of suburbia. Ignoring age-old building conventions and constraints, the modernist architects opted for pure functionality at the expense of harmony and beauty. Such things were considered “bourgeois” accretions that had no place in the modern world. Drab uniformity was the order of the day, the result of which was a soulless, ugly dystopia that soon descended into social chaos.

Alienated from each other, and finding nothing redeeming in their living spaces, the people forced to live in such places suffered the natural estrangement that comes from the tyranny of disenchantment. That is because, when our world is stripped of beauty, culture, and time-honored elegance, people become strangers to the world, to others, and to themselves. It is in that moment that the world becomes faceless, and thus something to be defaced. And so it was that these places soon fell victim to chronic anti-social behavior and lawlessness. Eventually, the high-rise towers were subject to a predictable fate: they were torn down and their inhabitants were resettled in an environment eminently more conducive to human harmony and dignity.

It is a simple truth that people will only respect what they value and cherish, and they will only value those things with which they can identify. No art form more profoundly symbolizes the identity of a people than its architecture. That is because it is founded on their desire to dwell in a place, to shape it in accordance with their needs and interests, and to ensure that it harmonizes with the natural environment so that our buildings enhance rather than defy the world that surrounds them. That explains why, up to quite recently, the ancient cities of Europe had unique characteristics that distinguished them from one another. The way they were built expressed their history, identity, and political and religious values. However, in changing the way we build, we not only change the way we live, but completely alter the identity of the common home. 

For example, to insert a building of steel and glass into a classically planned street is not only to defy prevailing architectural norms, but also, to use a symbol of homelessness to undermine a traditional settlement. You cannot identify with a sheet of glass devoid of a proper doorway, its primary purpose being to disorient rather than to welcome. Having no defining characteristics or personality, it stands faceless and unresponsive before us. It does not testify to the history or the culture of the place in which it is set, but speaks to us of nowhere when what we desire is to belong somewhere. It is a monument to alienation and estrangement totally disconnected from the natural, social, and cultural fabric of the world that is obscured by its formless shadow.

Beauty is the face of love because it attracts and invites our attention and affection.


If our cities have been ravaged by functional and experimental buildings that snub the surrounding streetscape, it is not only because the architectural establishment has, to quote the late English philosopher Roger Scruton, “declared war on beauty,” but also, because it is the product of a culture of immediacy and egoism. Indeed, warring against beauty is one of the primary features of this culture of immediacy that is the pervasive feature of our contemporary predicament. By a “culture of immediacy,” I mean one that thinks only in terms of the present at the expense of past and future, and one that caters solely to the needs of the current generation. This goes hand in hand with what I call the “culture of amnesia,” where, because of our preoccupation with ourselves, we forget that we belong to something much greater than ourselves. Scruton would describe it as a “culture of repudiation” insofar as it repudiates our social, moral, cultural, political, and religious inheritance. Absent generations are written out of the equation because only this generation, with its specific tastes and preferences, counts. In our own minds, we are neither trustees nor stewards: we are consumers of whatever it is that we presently desire. This signals the triumph of the “I” over the “we,” selfishness over responsibility, and the living over the dead and unborn. 

If beauty is rejected, it is because it thwarts immediate gratification and imposes on us a burden of responsibility for the preservation of the past. Beautiful things do not constitute the mute objectivity of the world, but the sanctification of time and place, a place where others labored so that we can rest. Consider, for example, the Capitol building in Washington, DC, and the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. First, both buildings, although magnificent, do not draw attention to themselves simply for their own sake. If anything, their beauty enhances and enriches the surrounding environment. They are majestic without being pompous, beautiful without any vestige of vulgarity. Moreover, the reason why there was such a shocked response to the fire that destroyed the cathedral in 2019, and the assault on the Capitol in 2021, was that both are symbols of home and settlement, of identity and belonging. They are loved because they speak to us of the sacrifices offered on our behalf by absent generations. In both buildings, we encounter what Hegel called the “Spirit (Geist)” of our forebears. In and through their beauty, we have a revelation of who we are at our best and where we have come from. That is why, when they are consumed by fire or attacked by a mob, we perceive the destruction as something of a personal catastrophe. It is an attack on us, what we stand for, and what we value.

Without beauty, neither the Capitol nor Notre Dame could command the love and respect that they do. Hegel rightly perceived that recognition is a precondition of love. That is, we must be able to identify with the other for love to be possible. When I stand before the Capitol or Notre Dame, I do not feel a sense of intimidation or alienation despite their grandeur. To the contrary, their beauty reveals a face of love in which I recognize myself. That is why buildings can be loved, and, indeed, why they must be if our longing for home is to be satisfied. If I cannot recognize myself in the built environment, if all I perceive are lifeless, functional entities, I am condemned to a life of loveless estrangement. In such places, the dead have no place to dwell among the living, and thus we become strangers to the world and to people alike. 

Beauty is the face of love because it attracts and invites our attention and affection. If, as I say, it imposes a burden of responsibility, it is because, unlike the functional entity that merely serves my present and passing purposes, the beautiful entity speaks of something greater than me. It is a symbol of homecoming, of what attaches us to a place, and of our will to survive come what may. It is, therefore, something that serves the entire community, not only by linking it to absent generations, but as that which offers a sanctuary in which I can be reconciled to what I would otherwise be estranged from. It is there neither to be used nor consumed, but to be cherished and loved. 

If the functional or experimental entity is without a face, the beautiful entity smiles gracefully upon the world that surrounds it. It invites us not simply to behold its external beauty, but to look beyond its façade to what it enshrines and embodies. That is why beauty requires investment, time, and effort to maintain. Being not solely for my pleasure but for all who dwell and will dwell here, the preservation of beautiful things is not without its cost. The same, of course, applies to personal beauty, as when a person goes to great effort in beautifying their appearance and clothes. Once again, however, they generally do so, not solely for themselves, but for those they encounter.

The Worthy Cost of Beauty

If, therefore, beauty comes at a cost, it is one worth paying. This is especially true in the case of architecture, as a recent lesson from history reminds us all too vividly. When the Soviets conquered and ruled Eastern Europe after 1945, they declared war on religion and culture. For them, both typified the “false consciousness” of the bourgeoisie: a false consciousness that served only to alienate its victims from their true nature as purely natural beings. Historical materialism would eliminate this false consciousness for the sake of the authentic identity of what many called the “new socialist man.” Consequently, economics, rather than culture or religion, was now perceived as the true driving force of history and social transformation. People were, first and foremost, workers whose self-satisfaction was realized through total engagement with the material world. This meant that beauty was neglected, or, indeed, actively suppressed, in favor of utility. The result was a world in which, as Scruton put it, there were no “intimations of infinity,” the voice of absent generations having been silenced in a soulless void. 

The socialist world was one without beauty and the result was that its inhabitants were alienated from each other and their common home. The old buildings of Europe still stood amid the grim factories, warehouses, and faceless apartment blocks, but, through wilful neglect, they lost their charm and stood as symbols of a paradise lost.  In being denied access to their traditional culture, and their world having been totally reshaped in the image and likeness of this new socialist man, the people were not only hopeless but made to feel like exiles in a place they once called home. 

If Marxism had sought to surmount alienation by denying the redeeming power of art, religion, and philosophy, Hegel had forewarned what would happen if materialism formed the fundamental basis of identity and self-consciousness. The only way we could be redeemed from isolation, alienation, and estrangement, was, Hegel argued, through what Marx had dismissed as “false consciousness.” In other words, we cannot authentically live in a world without beauty, harmony, or the sanctifying rituals of the religious way of life. We need the world to appear familiar, a refuge from ever-gathering storms. If, therefore, the built environment appears formless, lifeless, and devoid of a human face, it will merely reinforce isolation. However, through art and culture, we find our way back home, and that is because they connect us to our history, our past, and to the homeland of the heart. They reconcile us to the world, our forebears, and the ancient wisdom enshrined in what Matthew Arnold described as “the best that has been thought and said.” 

Nineteenth-century English writer and philosopher John Ruskin put it well when he said that, while we might be able to exist in the absence of traditional or classical architecture, “we cannot remember without her.” Hence, it is “in becoming memorial or monumental that a true perfection is attained in civil and domestic buildings.” That is why he condemns as an “evil sign” the construction of homes and civic structures “to last for one generation only.” For him, a house is nothing less than a temple, one in which “it would make us holy to be permitted to live.” If we grieve at the prospect of such a home’s being swept away, of a time when no respect will be “shown to it, no affection felt for it,” and no good to be drawn from it by our children, it is because all that we have treasured will then be “dragged down to the dust.” 

Domestic homes and buildings that embody the enduring values of our common homestead are, however, not meant to satisfy, as Ruskin says, the “little revolution of one’s own life, not meant for ‘present delight, nor for present use alone.” They are not meant to alienate but to bind and reconcile us to an inheritance ingrained in stone. As Ruskin beautifully concludes: the greatest glory of a building is “in its Age, and in that deep sense of voicefulness, of stern watching, of mysterious sympathy, nay, even of approval or condemnation, which we feel in walls that have long been washed by the passing waves of humanity.”

Unlike the new “environmentally friendly” and purely functional box homes that appear like Lego constructions, the old Georgian terraced homes that line the streets of London and Dublin were not built to satisfy the little revolutions of one’s present life. They have endured not only because they are beautiful but because they have answered the needs of multiple generations. Today, most of them serve as offices, diplomatic embassies, or museums. However, should the need arise, they could easily revert to their original purpose.

The same cannot be said of those modernist or postmodernist structures that now dominate the skylines of all Western cities. Built to awe and impress, to disorient and depart from conventional form and style; they are designed more to emphasize the genius of the architect or to advance an ideological agenda than to sit seamlessly and comfortably within the urban fabric. Hence, when architectural fashions change, they appear outdated, anachronistic, and unfit for any other purpose than that which was originally intended. By contrast, the classically built commercial office or home stands the test of time because it adapts to changing circumstances and it is built to fit in rather than to stand out. The shock and awe of the postmodern building only lasts for a limited time before it begins to appear gaudy, dated, and worthy of demolition. 

Of course, there are structures, like St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the Empire State Building in New York, that inspire awe due to their grandeur and majesty. However, the reason they never appear outdated, anachronistic, or obtrusive is simply because they were not built in defiance of the city or as monuments to those who designed them. Rather, they were built, in the case of St. Peter’s, to offer glory to God, and, in that of the Empire State, to demonstrate the vast reach of American industry. Built respectively in the Baroque and Art Deco styles, both buildings do not sit like uninvited guests at a family gathering but are very much at home among the neighboring structures. Moreover, the fact that they have been admired and cherished by generations of pilgrims and tourists proves once again that, in architecture, beauty and harmony are not optional extras, but are the keys to enduring appeal and timeless love.

Consider now the architecture of the postmodern city, where monstrous glass towers each vie for supremacy of the sky and where flickering billboards dominate the streetscape. Such a city leaves few traces of absent generations. It is a city of mirrors in which the living see only reflections of themselves. By reconfiguring the city so that it retains no element of tradition, we evict the dead from their home among us. This is a city built solely for present purposes, for the needs of a generation that never sleeps, never reflects, never mourns. As described by the late postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida, “this architecture called deconstructive . . . begins precisely by putting into question everything to which architecture has been subjugated, namely the values of habitation, utility, technical ends, religious investments, sacralisation, all of those values which are not in themselves architectural.”

Put simply, postmodern structures are indicative of detachment, rootlessness, and a refusal to commit to anything beyond the moment.  In seeking to “disfigure” architecture, postmodernism is making much more than an aesthetic statement. In building with glass and steel rather than stone, and in rejecting customary patterns, postmodern architects insist they are pushing conventional boundaries in the name of what is different or other. That is why they define architecture as something that must always be open to the novel and unexpected. From their perspective, traditional architecture is merely a “construction” that endeavors to contain or subdue what is “radically other,” thus rendering it subservient to the same.

The fundamental message of postmodern architects is this: instead of trying to domesticate the dead, instead of trying to memorialize them in stone, we should simply surrender our ghosts. Thus, the way we build should reflect surprise and disorientation rather than stability and certainty. It should reflect absence rather than presence. It should, moreover, extinguish what Ruskin called “the lamp of memory” in favor of what Derrida termed “the catastrophe of memory.” Consequently, postmodern architecture seeks to redesign the civic, commercial, and living spaces in such a way that they be rendered entirely novel, porous, permeable, and open to the future. We must live, not in the light of eternity, but in the opaque silhouette of the unexpected, the strange, and the monstrous, defined by Derrida as what “frightens precisely because no anticipation had prepared one to identify this figure.” 

To plan a city or a house according to such logic is to disregard the established norms of settlement, belonging, and the very idea of home itself. It is one thing to apply it to the relatively abstract sphere of academic discourse, or even to painting and literature, but quite another to impose it on the actual human world where people must labor and live. That is because, as Hegel understood, people cannot flourish when their lives are threatened by such uncertainty. Without experiencing acute alienation, as a result of which they become detached from the ties that bind, people cannot live with both eyes on a future that heralds the incoming of the unfamiliar and the monstrous. To do so is to build solely to shock, as indeed so many civic and cultural buildings now do.

This element of the culture of amnesia severs its inhabitants from the true source of their identity. The primary purpose of building is to establish a home that will survive, and that exemplifies the values of its past and present occupants.

The Voice of Comfort, the Voice of Home

Humans are natural homebuilders. We desire a solid sense of identity that can only be realized by shaping the world in our own image. In so doing, we domesticate what is different and identify with it until it becomes known and recognizable. Once again, this is what Hegel called “identity amid difference” or a sense of identity that recognizes that we are not self-sufficient but mutually reliant beings. Hence, it is simply illusory to believe that we can live without a home, or without being able to make familiar what appears, initially at least, as alien. It is an illusion to think that we could happily live in a society or adapt to structures that aimed at “the destruction of memory itself,” that rejected monuments, memorials, and holy abodes in favor of what Derrida termed “an absolutely radical forgetting.” This, indeed, would be to deny the essential motivation for all building. To paraphrase Martin Heidegger, we build to establish a permanent dwelling here on earth. By erasing from our common dwelling all memorials to the dead, postmodernism, like communism and its fellow travelers, prioritizes rupture over continuity. However, following Ruskin, we can say that while we might be able to exist in the absence of traditional or classical architecture, “we cannot remember without her.” That, once again, is why he insists that “it is in becoming memorial or monumental that a true perfection is attained by civil or domestic buildings.” 

This element of the culture of amnesia severs its inhabitants from the true source of their identity. The primary purpose of building is to establish a home that will survive, and that exemplifies the values of its past and present occupants. 

All of this explains why Roger Scruton spent the last years of his life endeavoring to turn the tide against ugliness in architecture in favor of beauty. From 2014 to 2020, he took a leading role in various British government initiatives to “build better, build beautiful.” Scruton understood that “classical buildings endure because they are loved, admired, and accepted, and enjoy an innate adaptation to human needs and purposes that fits them into every normal social and political change.” 

That, however, is precisely why war has been declared on all things classical and beautiful. If traditional architecture reconciled us to our past, our world, and to absent generations, the “flight from beauty” that we see, not only in architecture but in all the arts, is an attempt to sever us from the past, the world, and the “passing waves of humanity.” The assault on family, tradition, history, and religion—all of which form part of the culture of repudiation and that of amnesia—is part of what Scruton called “oikophobia” or “the repudiation of inheritance and home.” That stands in sharp contrast to “oikophilia,” which translates as “love of home.” If, as Scruton put it, beauty “calls us to renounce our narcissism and look with reverence on the world,” oikophobia demands that we renounce that reverence by remaking the world “as though love were no longer a part of it.” Thus, we are now subject to a “loveless culture, which is afraid of beauty because it is disturbed by love.”

All these thinkers, from Hegel and Burke to Ruskin and Scruton, who consider beauty as fundamental to our fulfillment, do so because they follow the sacred scriptures in identifying the human journey as being one from alienation to reconciliation. If, in our fallenness, we are alienated from our sacred source, our family, community, and history, our purpose is not to remain there. If anything, the primary goal of life is to reconcile with each of those things so that each becomes an integral moment of self-consciousness. This we do by making recognizable what was once alien or strange, unfamiliar, and threatening. The child builds, not simply to play, but to consolidate his identity in what lies beyond himself in the objective world. Building is, in other words, an objective representation of the person or people who build. The conclusion of this process ought to be, as Hegel instructs, the “union of subject and object,” by which he means that what was once alien is now familiar because it smiles back at us with a human face. 

If, however, the world has been wantonly disfigured or uglified, the reconciliation promised through the beauty, imprinted on the soul of the world by our forebears, can never be realized. We will, as Scruton laments, “wander through this world, alienated, resentful, full of suspicion and distrust.” We will remain fallen, and thus rootless, unsettled, and estranged from all that can offer refuge from the ubiquitous hedonism and oikophobia of the contemporary situation. But that, again, is precisely the point of all those modern movements that have turned their backs on beauty. Their primary purpose is to detach us from those things which serve to perpetuate the traditional, spiritual, moral, and political values of Western civilization. 

People cannot live in a state of perpetual alienation without great social and moral cost, as the example of the sink estates and high-rise ghettoes (now a permanent feature of Western cities) clearly demonstrates. As Hegel clearly saw, when forms of existence no longer satisfy our desire for self-recognition, they inevitably collapse. And that is because, without beauty, we can never be anything but strangers to this world. Indeed, as Scruton remarked: “Once we start to celebrate ugliness, then we become ugly too. Just as art and architecture have uglified themselves, so have our manners, our relationships and our language become crude.”

Beauty, in contrast, is “the voice of comfort, the voice of home.” It is the “voice that settles us, the assurance that we belong among others, in a place of sharing and consolation.” To seek the return of beauty is not, therefore, a refusal to face reality or a wistful yearning for a time long since gone. If anything, it offers hope in place of despair, for its principal purpose is to reattach us to reality, to the world, its people, and its sacred source. If we are to truly feel at home in this world, we must be able to identify with it, to see it animated by the spirit of the living and the dead. As Scruton says, this will only happen when we understand that, in architecture, beauty “is not an optional extra to our mental equipment.” If we are to feel at one with the structures in which we labor and dwell, if they are to endorse our existence here on earth, beauty must take precedence over all other factors. Without it, the battle for the soul of civilization cannot be won.   

Image by evannovostro and licensed via Adobe Stock.