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Architecture that afflicts, but in a good way
Other Feminisms will take a break next week, because my family has a short term logistical emergency (but the good kind, I promise). In the meantime, I wanted to share something on buildings and beauty. Meanwhile, I had the pleasure of reviewing American Shtetl, a legal and cultural history of the Jewish enclave of Kiryas Joel, for First Things.
I appreciated reading a recent conversation between David Schaengold and Matthew Schmitz on Radiopaper (a project for public, collaborative conversations run by Schaengold). They start out by talking about film noir, and then make their way over to architecture, and a famous 1982 debate between Christopher Alexander and Peter Eisenman.
Here’s what Schaengold says:
For Alexander, the best thing a building can be is "absolutely comfortable." Whenever I read the debate transcript, I feel like Alexander almost has me convinced—he's certainly not wrong that there is an odd prejudice against pitched roofs in architecture—until I come to that line. It's a weird thing for Alexander to say, because only shortly before, he has been talking about the experience of Chartres as so overwhelming that it's understandable to feel panicky about it. That doesn't sound like absolute comfort to me.
I wish they had talked about Chartres a little more, because it represents neither man's ideal. Eisenman has reason to reject it because it offers an emotional, sensuous experience. Alexander has reason to reject it because that experience is frequently an uncomfortable one. The word I would use to describe this sensuous discomfort is beauty (not a fully satisfying term because that word also means lots of other things in English). The effect of Chartres, at least to some percentage of those who visit it, is a total disruption of the ordinary course of one's existence in the world. The effect is like that of the statue of Apollo in Rilke's poem. In the poem, the statue speaks to those who see it, and says "you must change your life."
I appreciate this discussion, especially as we all have an appetite for beauty. But sometimes (especially e.g. in the context of the self-care industry) the beauty on offer is a very clean, tame, almost sterilized beauty. It’s the beauty of AirSpace, a term coined by Kyle Chayka to describe the flat placelessness cultivated by places like WeWork and many AirBnBs.
In contrast, the beauty of Chartres is more like what Edmund Burke characterizes as the sublime.
The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. […]
Indeed, terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently, the ruling principle of the sublime. Several languages bear a strong testimony to the affinity of these ideas. They frequently use the same word, to signify indifferently the modes of astonishment or admiration, and those of terror. θάμβος is in Greek, either fear or wonder; δετυος is terrible or respectable; αίδέω, to reverence or to fear. Vereor in Latin, is what αίδέω is in Greek. The Romans used the verb stupeo, a term which strongly marks the state of an astonished mind, to express the effect of either of simple fear or of astonishment; the word attonitus (thunder-struck) is equally expressive of the alliance of these ideas; and do not the French étonnement, and the English astonishment and amazement, point out as clearly the kindred emotions which attend fear and wonder?
You wouldn’t live inside Chartres, and I don’t know many people whose homes incorporate this kind of sublime, arresting beauty. (The exception is people who live near enormous features of natural beauty—not mountains safely in the distance, but crags that shock you with your smallness.) It leaves me curious what this discussion means for homemaking and hospitality.