Born in 1606, Rembrandt became a hugely successful painter when he was still only in his twenties. He earned a fortune and lived a wildly extravagant life.
Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait with Saskia, circa 1636
But by his early fifties, he was all but bankrupt: he had to sell his house and all the beautiful objects he had accumulated. In the world of respectable, prudent Dutch merchants, his economic ruin was regarded as deeply shameful – and, self-evidently, it was entirely his own fault.
Around the time financial disaster struck, Rembrandt painted a self-portrait, burdened with an honest, deeply sorrowful awareness of his own idiocy and folly: it is evident in his eyes that he knows he doesn’t deserve anyone’s sympathy.
Rembrandt, Self-Portrait, aged 51, circa 1657 (National Gallery of Scotland)
Fittingly, given what he had gone through, his culminating masterpiece, painted at the very end of his life relates to another, more famous character who has behaved in a clearly appalling way.
Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1669
The picture illustrates a parable from the New Testament known as The Prodigal Son. The kneeling man has been prodigal – in the sense of profligate; he took his father’s money, ran away and spent it all on wine, women and song. The prodigal son stands in for Rembrandt himself – the waster who has brought ruin and disgrace upon himself. The son deserves to be hounded and humiliated. But this is not the reception he gets. In the painting, the elderly father-figure greets his son with great compassion and gentleness. Instead of giving his son the stern condemnation that he deserves, the father provides the love, warmth and forgiveness the son needs.
The picture conveys Rembrandt’s moving and very intimate realisation about the true nature of love: it reaches out to the selfish idiot, to the wastrel, to the passion-driven fool. Love properly understood is destined also for the undeserving.
Perhaps Rembrandt’s most moving work is a modest looking print entitled Christ Preaching. Significantly, it isn’t set in Galilee or Jerusalem in the 1st century AD. Instead the message of kindness is being preached in a back street of a Dutch town, in other words, to Rembrandt’s contemporaries.
Rembrandt, Christ Preaching, circa 1657
The message can be boiled down to three words: ‘I love you’ and it’s being beamed out to precisely the kinds of people who – in Rembrandt’s day – were viewed (with some justification) as particularly odious: they are, we can guess, thieves, layabouts, drunks, pimps and people who lent money at terrifying rates of interest; mean employers and con-artists. If Rembrandt were creating this work today, we might see – ranged around the alleyway – the representative unloveable figures of our times: a politician who incites conflict, the owner of a newspaper that puts profit above truth; someone who is proud of their vulgarity; a snobbish socialite, an arms trader, a feral youth, a sexual deviant or the kind of person who seems to take satisfaction in distressing others. It is to them that the message of love is being directed.
Rembrandt’s key insight is that everyone needs love – whether they deserve it or not. If we wait to be kind only to those who deserve kindness, we will be waiting for a very long time; in fact, we’ll have turned into monsters.
A strange and rarely remarked upon feature of buildings is that they talk. They don’t necessarily speak very loudly, it can sometimes just be a whisper, but if you go up to them and look at them properly, you can definitely hear them chatting.
Here’s the Mauritshuis, a museum in the Hague completed in the classical style in the early nineteenth century. Partly this building likes to talk about itself:
I’m dignified and stately. I place great emphasis on manners. I aspire to be calm and rational, but I hope not to be cold. I like to leave a place for sweetness and tenderness. How are you feeling?
Mauritshuis, The Hague, Netherlands, 1822
Sometimes a building likes to chat about its view of the world more broadly. This is more from the Mauritshuis:
It’s good to remember your ancestors because that helps to root you in time. We’re just one tiny moment in an incredibly long story. So many challenges have been overcome. Keeping history in mind acts as a buffer against the agitation of the present. I’ve got some Ancient Greek and Roman relatives.
Let’s listen to another very different building, the Villa Savoye built in a suburb of Paris by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier in 1930:
I’m from the future. I’ve had enough of tradition and the boring status quo. Recently, I journeyed in from another galaxy and settled nimbly in a pristine field. Stay with me and together we’ll invent a new, better way of life.
Le Corbusier, Villa Savoye, Passy, France, 1930
Of course, not every building talks to us in an especially pleasant voice. Some of them can be shouty or impatient. They can be bit like those people we meet who don’t look us in the eye, don’t register our mood and don’t ask us anything about ourselves. In a suburb of Madrid, there’s a large residential block put up by a team of Dutch architects that speaks very dramatically.
Hi kids, I’m not necessarily your age any more but I’m certainly up for some fun! Do you like my new sneakers? I’m so bored with convention. Let’s shake it up a bit, out with the old, in with the wild! Dancing anyone?
MVRDV architects, Mirador Building, Madrid, Spain, 2005
And then there are buildings that speak with true aggression. They seem to lock onto any insecurities we might have about ourselves, any worries we might harbour about the future and our capacity to get through it, and they will say things that are sure to collapse our mood.
Hope? You’ve got to be kidding. There’s no hope. You’re a little idiot and everything you do turns to rubbish. You might as well give up. Go away and die, crybaby.
The problem with buildings is that they have a great influence over our self-conception. Very often, we don’t have a settled sense either of our value or of the stability and goodness of society. On a good day, things can feel tolerable; we have a measure of confidence in ourselves and faith in our fellow humans. But on others, we sense our mood dropping. We are anxious and guilty, we don’t feel very well disposed towards who we are; we wonder whether other people aren’t simply cruel and out to get us.
Crucially for our state of mind, it’s the architecture that can help to push us either in a positive or a negative direction; it’s what buildings happen to be speaking about that holds one of the great keys to our mental stability. In a street that speaks of forgiveness, gentleness and modesty, the world can feel benevolent; we can be at ease and ready to be kind to ourselves. But if we’re stuck for too long in other environments, the external world starts to amplify the worst lines of our inner world. There are streets that talk to us sharply about shame, about being a nobody, about our life being valueless, about only money and success counting: these are some of the forbidding messages that can be articulated by doors and windows, building volumes and cladding materials.
It shouldn’t matter, but it tends to. Few of us are so impermeable to the voices of the streets that we don’t get lastingly affected. That’s why we ache for certain districts that can respect and like us – and are so scared of the remorseless negativity of others.
Those of us who are of a melancholic cast of mind should take special care with the buildings we spend time around. Their voices are likely to affect us particularly deeply. We are especially in need of messages that are going to support the more robust sides of our characters and keep our vulnerabilities at bay.
Most people, if they’re ever in a position to commission a building, will tell architects about the number of rooms they need and layouts they like. But if a key function of any work of architecture is to speak warmly to its vulnerable inhabitants, then in order to commission a House for a Melancholic, one might ask an architect to work on a building that, when finished, would be able say some of the following:
I know life’s often sad and difficult. I’ve been through a lot myself, I wasn’t born yesterday. I’m not in flawless shape, but you can be bashed around and get through it and still retain your integrity. You don’t need to be perfect to deserve to exist. You can be good enough. I’m cosy and strong. You’ve suffered a lot. I’m on your side.
A House to shelter a melancholic. Savioz Fabrizzi architects, Maison roduit, Chamoson, Switzerland, 2005
There are two ways of looking at Mount Fuji. As a geological phenomenon, it is classified as an active basalt composite stratovolcano, 3,700 metres high, 10,000 years old in its most most recent form, which last exploded in 1708, on the island of Honshū in central Japan, situated on the faultline where the Eurasian, Okhotsk and Philippine plates meet, with a mounting pressure inside its magma chamber of 1.6 megapascals – and an average temperature at its summit of – 5 celsius.
But Mount Fuji is simultaneously a psycho-spiritual phenomenon interpreted in both the Shinto and Zen Buddhist traditions as a conduit to, and guardian of, wisdom and enlightenment. There are temples and rituals in its honour. It is understood to have a meaning; it wants to tell us things. For Buddhism, humans are perpetually at risk of forgetting their true irrelevant position within the natural world. We overlook our powerlessness and unimportance in the universal order. This amnesia isn’t a helpful illusion; it is responsible for much of our frustration, anger and vain self-assertion. We rage at events because we cannot see the necessities we are up against. Buddhism regularly turns our attention to natural elements (rocks, rain showers, streams, giant cedar trees, the stars) because it sees in these occasions on which we can gracefully come to terms with our denied subservience. We can be reminded that we have no alternative but to submit to nature’s laws and that our freedom comes from adjusting our individual egos to what defies us. For Zen, Fuji is only the largest conveyor of a general truth, but it deserves special reverence because of the extraordinary elegance and primordial simplicity with which it delivers its message. Its beauty, visible on a clear day when its cone is newly sprinkled with snow, makes it a little easier to accept that we will die, that our plans will be ground to sand, that nothing we achieve will matter and that we are as nothing next to the aeons of time to which the earth has been witness.
The printmaker and artist Katsushika Hokusai was in his seventies and already famous in Japan when he hit on the idea that would immortalise his name. The project was to capture Fuji obliquely, to make it almost feel by-the-by and yet also magnetically present in a series of Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, published between 1830 and 1832. Hokusai never lets us forget the contrast between the eternal steadiness of Fuji, constantly resplendent and serene somewhere in the background, and the agitation, struggle, pain and over-excitement of human lives. We catch Fuji peeking out from behind a busy bridge over the Fuka river on its way out of Sumida; it’s in the background as workers and travellers do business together in the Sundai district of Edo; it’s there as some pilgrims have a picnic in the gardens of Kyoto’s Ryoan-ji temple and as a peasant leads a horse laden with saddlebags full of grass in Senju; it’s watching as a half naked craftsman makes a barrel in Owari province and as workers fix the roof of the Mitsui department store in Edo (a sign says: ‘Cash only’); it’s discreetly in the frame as some clam fishermen fill their baskets in Noboto Bay and a group of pleasure seekers have refreshments at a hanami (cherry blossom viewing) on Goten Hill near Shinagawa.
In some of the prints, the contrast between the puny defencelessness of vainglorious humans and the indifference of mighty nature is at a pitch. We feel pity and melancholy for our pride and what we are up against. In the tenth view in the series, we see a group of travellers wending their way around rice paddies on the eastern sea route near Ejiri in Suruga province. It’s autumn and a gust of wind has just blown. That’s all that may be needed to break our fragile hold on order; Hokusai’s humans are at once thrown into chaos. They struggle to hold onto their hats, their possessions fly into the paddy fields, and most notably someone’s papers (it might be anything from the manuscript of a novel to some tax returns – though what it really stands for is human logic and presumption) are being carried off into oblivion, and might end up in an adjoining province or a nearby muddy ditch. This, Hokusai is telling us, is what man is: easily buffeted, one gust away from disaster, defenceless before nature, trying to work out what it all means on bits of paper that are as evanescent as fireflies.
Katsushika Hokusai, Ejiri in Suruga Province
In the eighth view, the sun is setting over Fuji; it will be dark in half an hour. A couple of hikers are ascending the steep Inume Pass while, a long way behind them, two traders are following with heavily laden horses. We can tell this latter pair are in trouble. Those horses won’t make it up the pass in the darkness; there’s a strong risk someone will fall down a precipice. This may be the end of the road for the unfortunate traders. But the wider mood is not mournful or panicked. Fuji is serene, as it always is, even when in its shadow, people are being buried, or dying of cancer or imploring the heavens or regretting their lives. Nature doesn’t care one bit about us – which is both the origin of our damnation and, when we have learnt to identify with its motions, a source of redemption.
Katsushika Hokusai, Inume Pass in Kai Province
Then there is the most famous view of all, the first in the series. Three fishing boats are out at sea off the coast of Kanagawa. They are the fast oshiokuri-bune boats, each powered by eight muscular rowers, that would catch fresh fish (typically, tuna, sea bass or flounder) for the market places and restaurants of Edo. But today nature has other plans. It doesn’t care about this evening’s uramaki or the lives of thirty little people with families and dependents and hopes of their own. It’s decided to send a giant wave, 12 meters high, to toss things about and remind humanity of who is in charge. We shudder for the fishermen’s fates. This doesn’t look like a picture of survival, it seems a prelude to a wake. Fuji looks on impassively, appearing like a wave of its own, its tiny-seeming snow-capped peak impersonating the foaming sea closer by. We are pawns in the hands of forces that care nothing for us – and that will not mourn us a moment when we are gone.
Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kanawaga
Hokusai could have chosen to anchor his melancholy meditations on human powerlessness to any number of other natural phenomena: Thirty-six views of the Moon, Thirty-six views of Drifting Clouds, Thirty-six views of the Constellation Cassiopeia (a dim speck in the hemisphere 4,000 light years away). Against these too, his genius could have shown up our exploits in all their absurdity: a couple squabbling, a writer finishing a book, a person weeping at their medical diagnosis, a lover pining for companionship.
We are fated to have to take seriously ambitions and desires that make no sense in the wider scheme. We have to live knowing that most of what we do is in a cosmic sense ridiculous. Our lives are no more profound than those of an earthworm and almost as fragile. In so far as we can ever recover a little meaning, it is by ceasing to worry so much about ourselves and identifying ourselves with planetary reality – even to the point where we might contemplate our own mortality with a degree of resigned equanimity; by fully and generously appreciating our absurdity – and using it as a springboard to kindness, art and the right kind of sadness.
If there were to be a patron artist of melancholy, it might be the American abstract painter Agnes Martin. Over a long life (1912-2004), she produced hundreds of canvases, most of them 1.8 by 1.8 metres, showing not very much at all. From a distance, they can seem merely white or grey, though step nearer and you notice grid patterns hand drawn in pencil, beneath which run horizontal bands of colour, often a particular subtle shade of grey, green, blue or pink. There is an invitation to slough off the normal superficiality of life and bathe in the void of emptiness; the effect is soothing and moving too. For reasons to be explored, one might want to start crying. The works may appear simple but their effects are anything but: ‘Simplicity is never simple,’ she explained, having studied Zen Buddhism for many years and learnt that encounters with little can be frightening, because they remind us of our own ultimate nothingness, which we otherwise long to escape through noise and frantic and purposeless activity. ‘Simplicity is the hardest thing to achieve, from the standpoint of the East. I’m not sure the West even understands simplicity.’
In the little town of Taos, in the north-central region of New Mexico, where Martin spent her last years, one can visit the Agnes Martin Chapel, an octagonal room empty except for seven of her paintings and four steel cubes by her friend and fellow minimalist artist Donald Judd. We know how far we generally drift from what is important, how often we lose ourselves in meaningless chatter or attempts to assert our interests over those of others. The paintings bid us to throw aside our customary, relentless self-promotion. It is just us and the sound of our own heartbeat, the light coming in from an oculus above (across which a New Mexico cloud occasionally drifts), the patient work of thousands of hand-drawn grids repetitively punctuated by strips of the mildest hues of grey and pink – and the peace there would have been over the oceans when the earth was first created. Martin once remarked that her work was fundamentally about love, not the noisy exuberant Romantic variety, but the selfless patient sort a parent might feel for their sleeping newborn or a gardener might experience in relation to their seedlings.
The German early twentieth century art historian Wilhelm Worringer proposed that humanity had across history tended to make art of two kinds: abstract and realistic. On the one hand, there was an art of geometric non-concrete patterns (the abstraction one might see on a Navajo rug, a Persian mosque wall or a Peruvian basket), and on the other, there was art made up of depictions of people, things and places (lions in prehistoric caves, mountain landscapes, battle scenes). Worringer made an additional suggestion. What determines the sort of art a society is drawn to at a given moment is often the degree of chaos, difficulty and struggle to which it is subject. The more cacophonous a society, the more it tends to be attracted to the serenity and peace implied by the sober repetition of geometric patterns, just as quieter eras may seek out new vigour in bold images of mounted generals or waterfalls. We attempt to correct via art imbalances in our own emotional economy.
By implication, we shouldn’t suppose that Agnes Martin was as peaceful as the canvases she turned out. When still a young woman, she was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic and she suffered from repeated bouts of extreme depression. She would often hear voices in her head criticizing her and urging her to take her own life. It could be hell inside her mind. It is understandable that she might as an artist have felt compelled to produce some of the most serene works the world has ever known, that she gained boundless relief from spending hours – and overall decades – alone in a simple house on the edge of the New Mexico desert, listening to Bach and Beethoven, tracing grids on canvases and applying paint in colours that Zen Buddhism identifies with the renunciation of the ego and the alignment of the self with cosmic harmony.
If we are moved, if we are tempted to start crying, it’s not because our lives are themselves extremely serene. It’s because – like the artist herself – we have for far too long been familiar with mental perturbance, because we know what it means to have inner voices insisting on our worthlessness and how right one might be to die. Martin matters because she gives dignity to a longing for something infinitely more harmonious and loving than the world can generally offer. The canvases are like a map to a destination we have lost sight of and can’t get back to. They are our Ithaca. We might point to them and say that this is where we belong, this is the repository of everything we prize but have too fragile a hold on. The paintings lend us the courage to cut ourselves free from our unhealthy attachments, to say goodbye to concerns for status, to shun the pursuit of public esteem, to dismiss false friends who do us nothing but underhand harm, to accept the terror of disgrace, to reconcile ourselves to our own company and to pursue connections with just a very few honest souls who have known struggles and been rendered kind by them. The paintings are what we could be if we sat with our own feelings and let their range course through us, if we gave up using our clever minds to ward off sadness and stopped trying to make sense of every experience, if we made our peace with mystery and the encroaching darkness that will eventually subsume us.
Nowadays, by the typically perverse accidents of the art market, Agnes Martin’s paintings cost as much as airplanes. They can only generally be seen in bustling public museums. In a better world, we’d all be able to have a few. As it is, we can at least spend time with them in high quality online versions and printed reproductions. They are sad pictures, in the best of ways. They know of our troubles; they understand how much we long for tenderness yet how rough everything has been day to day, they want us to have the simplicity of little children and the hearts of old wise people who have stopped protesting and started to welcome experience. The titles that Martin gave her paintings indicate some of what she was getting at: Loving Love, Gratitude, Friendship and – best of all, I love the Whole World, which implies the sort of love one experiences not when everything has been hunky dory, but when one has after the longest time come through to the other side of agony.
Agnes Martin, I love the Whole World, 1993
We can follow the grids and be happy. There’s one rectangle after another, one dot after another, nothing more troubling than lines of grey and white, no more surprises and departures, nothing unforeseen or cruel, only Agnes’s careful pencil, riding along the little bumps that tremble beneath unprimed canvas. It’s like she’s guiding us step by step, as one might a small child or a very old person, from square to square, making the world more manageable again, reducing its strident, clattery riot to something we can ingest, she’s cutting up the food of life for us into very neat and precise squares. She knows how unsteady we have felt. Occasionally, after a lot of greys, she goes for a pink, as though to hell with reserve, why not surrender to sweetness and take a risk with innocence. She’s giving us a hug, she’s inviting us to come to the window and watch a new day with her through her frame.
To those who don’t see anything in her work, one hopes that life won’t teach its lessons too painfully. To everyone else, it will feel like a melancholy homecoming. One will know that someone else has understood, has been as ill, and has been as committed to hope, endurance and kindness.
In an odd but quietly very important way, works of architecture ‘speak’ to us. Some buildings, streets and even whole cities seem to speak of chaos, aggression or military pride; others seem to be whispering to us of calm or graceful dignity, generosity or gentleness.
However, a dominant strand of modern opinion doesn’t think it matters very much what our buildings speak to us about. It is deemed pretentious or over-sensitive to suppose that something as external as a building could really have much of an effect on our inner mood. We’d rather see ourselves as able to generate our psychological states independently of the colour, shape and texture of the walls.
And yet a more modest, permeable idea of who we are would accept with good grace that we remain in truth, very vulnerable to the voices of the largest, most public objects in our environment. Our inner states are heavily open to influence and we may be as harmed by architectural ugliness as we are by moral evil. Our spirits can be decisively sunk by a grid of city streets designed without any talent or care.
In modern commercial society, buildings are seen largely in terms of finance, cost and return on capital. Politicians impose some restraints on developers. There are frequently a few rules about height and environmental performance. But the full range of the kinds of damage that ugly buildings create for us has not been recognised or granted political expression. There’s nothing unusual in this. Many forms of public harm can be real yet ignored; it took many decades for industrial pollution of rivers to be interpreted as any real threat to the public good.
If we better understood the impact that ugly architecture has on our lives, its power to sap our spirits and give assistance to our worst selves, we’d surely legislate against it. But as yet, no politician who announced an intention to make the built environment more beautiful would prosper – or even be deemed sane.
In the utopia, architecture would more fairly be interpreted as a branch of mental health, with a crucial role to play in public contentment. And bad design would – at last – be interpreted as the crime it is to the health of the collective spirit.
This is an essay about beauty – and in particular about what makes something beautiful. We want to give you the answer right away:
BEAUTY = ORDER and COMPLEXITY
In other words, a thing is beautiful when it’s at an ideal midway point between being very ordered and very complex.
Let’s start with order – and let’s do so by looking – as we will throughout this essay – at the example of architecture.
Order can be very nice to look at. Here is the front facade of the Palace of Versailles:
But when we have too much of order, things quickly become boring. Many parts of our modern cities are very boring to look at.
There’s nothing charming or exciting or lovely here. The best thing that could happen is that you stop noticing the buildings. It seems that we want things to be ordered, but not too ordered…
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s something else that can go wrong: too much chaos. Modern cities and buildings can look very messy and chaotic.
Totally different kinds of buildings may be jumbled together; or there’s so much advertising you can hardly see the buildings (which aren’t very nice anyway); or huge, complicated roads just seem to plough their way through the city.
It’s very helpful to think about why we don’t like either boring or chaotic places. It’s to do with how our brains work. Our brains are all the time searching to find patterns in things and to make sense of what’s going on around us. If something is very, very simple our brains find the pattern immediately and we lose interest. It’s dull and tedious. That’s why hardly anyone in the world would find the rubber bath-mat fascinating to look at.
But if the pattern is too difficult to see – or if there’s no pattern at all – our brains get frustrated and annoyed.
We dislike chaos because when there isn’t enough order and regularity we can’t work out what’s going on. We feel lost and confused.
But there’s an ideal midway-point between the extreme of too little order and the opposite extreme of too much order.
TOO LITTLE ORDER <———-> MID-POINT <———-> TOO MUCH ORDER
(CHAOS) <———-> (INTERESTING) <———-> (BORING)
Something around the mid-point might look like this:
At first the pattern looks obvious: there’s a square with a curve at each side. But the more you look at it the more complicated the pattern gets. But even though it’s complicated, each complicated bit turns out to be very ordered. Our brains are moving all the time between finding a pattern, then feeling a bit confused, then finding more pattern. So your brain doesn’t get bored, but it doesn’t get very confused either. This is interesting. In the same way a story or a game is interesting when it’s complicated enough for your brain to keep on trying to work out what’s happening, but it’s ordered enough, so you feel you can make sense of it. It’s not too complicated but it’s not too simple either.
Our brains react in the same way to architecture. Here’s an example of interesting architecture – a row of houses in Telc, a small town in the Czech Republic in Central Europe. The houses were all built a long time ago, in the 1600s.
In some ways all the houses in this row are pretty similar. They’ve almost all got: three arches at the bottom, then three rectangular windows directly above the arches, then one window in the middle at the top level. The top of each building is quite fancy – it’s curved or stepped or pointed. So there’s a background of similarity – but each house is actually quite individual: it’s a different colour; some are highly decorated while others are more plain.
Our brains keep on spotting patterns, but the patterns aren’t simple; we keep on seeing variations, but the variations make sense. The more you look the more it feels quite ordered and quite complicated at the same time.
You can use the same idea to talk about this street in London built in the 19th Century.
There’s a lot of order, but there are lots of little variations. The house on the left is a bit lower than the houses on the right – but it has the same basic structure: it’s related but not quite the same. In all these houses, on the top three floors, each window sit directly above the one below – but not on the ground floor, where the windows and doors have a different pattern. The windows at the bottom are arched, and those above have square tops. But then there’s a special little trick the architect has used. The windows on the first floor up have brick arches above them – which are a little bit like the arched tops of the windows below.
It takes ages to explain all this in words (sorry!) but our eyes take it in very quickly. We see that these houses follow a definite pattern but we also see that it’s a complicated pattern.
Some very good modern architects have used the same idea – but in new ways. Here’s a row of houses that were built next to the water on a place called Java Island, which is part of the city of Amsterdam.
Overall there’s quite a strict pattern. Each house is the same height and width. And the colour range is restricted to white, grey and various shades of red and brown. And you are not allowed to use any curves. But within this basic pattern, each house is completely individual. The windows are different shapes and sizes, the materials change a lot, some have brick, others are mainly glass; some houses have balconies, others don’t. They’re similar, but different.
We know that lovely cities and buildings are interesting to look at. But now we understand something more of the recipe for loveliness; we’ve got an idea of how you make interesting architecture going forward, rather than simply appreciating it in the past. You have to have a strong, simple pattern with plenty of variation in the details. You need order and complexity. That will be one infallible route to beauty.
If the idea of being a ‘modern’ person and leading a ‘modern’ life still has an exciting ring to it, it’s at least in part down to the influence of an extraordinary Swiss architect Le Corbusier, who in the first half of the twentieth century wrote books, put up buildings and designed bits of furniture that conveyed the excitement, sleekness and glamour of the modern technological world.
Le Corbusier began his career by attacking the architecture of the Victorian age – and contrasting it with what he saw as the beauty and intelligence of engineering. ‘Our engineers are healthy and virile, active and useful, balanced and happy in their work,’ he exclaimed in his polemical book, Towards a New Architecture (1923), while ‘our architects are disillusioned and unemployed, boastful or peevish. This is because there will soon be nothing more for them to do. We no longer have the money to erect historical souvenirs. At the same time, everyone needs to wash! Our engineers provide for these things and so they will be our builders.’
Le Corbusier recommended that the houses of the future be ascetic and clean, disciplined and frugal. His hatred of any kind of decoration extended to a pity for the British Royal Family and the ornate, golden carriage in which they travelled to open Parliament every year. He suggested that they push the carved monstrosity off the cliffs of Dover and instead learn to travel around their realm in a Hispano Suiza 1911 racing car. He even mocked Rome, the traditional destination for the education and edification of young architects, and renamed it the ‘city of horrors’, ‘the damnation of the half-educated’ and ‘the cancer of French architecture’ – on account of its violation of functional principles through an abundance of baroque detailing, wall-painting and statuary.
For Le Corbusier, true, great architecture – meaning, architecture motivated by the quest for efficiency – was more likely to be found in a 40,000-kilowatt electricity turbine or a low-pressure ventilating fan. It was to these machines that his books accorded the reverential photographs which previous architectural writers had reserved for cathedrals and opera houses.
Once asked by a magazine editor to name his favourite chair, Le Corbusier cited the seat of a cockpit, and described the first time he ever saw an aeroplane, in the spring of 1909, in the sky above Paris – it was the aviator the Comte de Lambert taking a turn around the Eiffel Tower – as the most significant moment of his life. He observed that the requirements of flight of necessity rid aeroplanes of all superfluous decoration and so unwittingly transformed them into successful pieces of architecture. To place a classical statue atop a house was as absurd as to add one to a plane, he noted, but at least by crashing in response to this addition, the plane had the advantage of rendering its absurdity starkly manifest. ‘L’avion accuse,’ he concluded.
But if the function of a plane was to fly, what was the function of a house? Le Corbusier arrived (‘scientifically’ he assured his readers) at a simple list of requirements, beyond which all other ambitions were no more than ‘romantic cobwebs’. The function of a house was, he wrote, to provide: ‘1. A shelter against heat, cold, rain, thieves and the inquisitive. 2. A receptacle for light and sun. 3. A certain number of cells appropriated to cooking, work, and personal life’.
‘What [modern man] wants is a monk’s cell, well lit and heated, with a corner from which he can look at the stars,’ Le Corbusier had written.
Le Corbusier’s private houses which he built in and around Paris in the 1920s and 30s were unlike anything that people had ever witnessed, both inside and out. Le Corbusier took an interest in their smallest details, always with an eye to increasing efficiency.
Le Corbusier built much of the furniture himself, and was often to earn more money from it than from his architecture. His inspiration was drawn from the built-in furniture found in the cabins of ocean liners. On a trip back to Europe from Argentina, he made extensive sketches of the cupboards of his own cabin. He marvelled at how many things could be made to fit neatly into a small space, once a designer had taken care to study ergonomics instead of wasting time engraving heraldic motifs. One year, he spent many hours working out how to fit the largest number of pants and socks into the smallest possible space.
Le Corbusier was evidently one of the world’s greatest architects. But he was one of the world’s most disastrous urban designer. His manifesto on cities, contained in two books, The City of Tomorrow and its Planning (1925) and The Radiant City (1933), called for a dramatic break from the past: ‘The existing centres must come down. To save itself every great city must rebuild its centre’.
He wanted ever taller towers, some housing as many as 40,000 people. When he visited New York for the first time, he came away disappointed by the scale of the buildings. ‘Your skyscrapers are too small,’ he told a surprised journalist from the Herald Tribune.
By building upwards, two problems would be resolved at a stroke: overcrowding and urban sprawl. With room enough for everyone in towers, there would be no need for cities to spread outwards and devour the countryside in the process. ‘We must eliminate the suburbs,’ recommended Le Corbusier.
Simultaneously, Le Corbusier planned to abolish the city street. In his vision of the future city, people would have footpaths all to themselves, winding through woods and forests (‘No pedestrian will ever meet an automobile, ever!’), while cars would enjoy massive and dedicated motorways, with smooth, curving interchanges, thus guaranteeing that no driver would ever have to slow down for the sake of a pedestrian.
Even more than Paris, New York was for Le Corbusier the epitome of an illogical city, because it had managed to graft skyscrapers, the buildings of the future, onto a tight street plan better suited to a medieval settlement. On his trip around the United States, he advised his increasingly bemused American hosts that Manhattan ought to be demolished to make way for a fresh and more ‘Cartesian’ attempt at urban design.
Le Corbusier hated mixed use: all functions would now be untangled. There would no longer be factories, for example, in the middle of residential areas, thus no more forging of iron while children were trying to sleep nearby. The new city would be an arena of green space, clean air, ample accommodation, and flowers – and not just for the few but, as a caption in The Radiant City promised, ‘for all of us!!!’
Ironically, what Le Corbusier’s dreams helped to generate were the dystopian housing estates that now ring historic Paris, the wastelands from which tourists avert their eyes in confused horror and disbelief on their way into the city. To take an overland train to the most violent and degraded of these places is to realise all that Le Corbusier forgot about architecture, and in a wider sense, about human nature.
For example, he forgot how tricky it is when just a few of one’s 2,699 neighbours decide to throw a party or buy a handgun. He forgot how drab reinforced concrete can seem under a grey sky. He forgot how awkward it is when someone lights a fire in the lift and home is on the forty-fourth floor. He forgot, too, that while there is much to hate about slums, one thing we don’t mind about them is their street plan. We appreciate buildings which form continuous lines around us and make us feel as safe in the open air as we do in a room.
In his haste to distinguish cars from pedestrians, Le Corbusier also lost sight of the curious co-dependence of these two apparently antithetical forces. He forgot that without pedestrians to slow them down, cars are apt to go too fast and kill their drivers, and that without the eyes of cars on them, pedestrians can feel vulnerable and isolated. We admire New York, precisely because the traffic and crowds have been coerced into a difficult but fruitful alliance.
When Le Corbusier died in 1965, having had a heart attack in the South of France where he’d gone for a swim, he was responsible for building some of the most beautiful private houses of all time. His ideas had also destroyed some of the great cities of Europe and the United States. For a man whose ambition was to change the world, we can revere him – paradoxically – for the more modest things about him: his beautiful white washed villas, door handles and armchairs.
Romanticism is a movement of art and ideas that began in Europe in the mid eighteenth century and has now taken over the world. It is hard to go far on almost any issue without encountering a dominant Romantic position.
At the core of the Romantic attitude is a trust in feeling and instinct as supreme guides to life – and a corresponding suspicion of reason and analysis. In relation to love, this inspires a belief that passionate emotions will reliably guide us to a partner who can provide us with fifty years or so of intimate happiness. It also leads to a veneration of sex as the ultimate expression of love (a position which turns adultery from a problem into a disaster). In relation to work, the Romantic spirit leads to a faith in spontaneous ‘genius’ and a trust that all talented people will experience the pull of a vocation. In social life, Romanticism argues against politeness and convention and in favour of frankness and plain-speaking. It assumes that children are pure and good, and that it is only ever society that corrupts them. Romanticism hates institutions and venerates the brave outsider who fights heroically against the status quo. It likes what is new rather than recurring. The Romantic spirit pits itself against analysis; it believes there is such a thing as ‘thinking too much’ (rather than just thinking badly). It doesn’t favour logic or discourse. Music is its favourite artistic medium. It is offended by what is humdrum and ordinary and longs for the special, the rare, the distinctive and the exclusive. It likes revolution rather than evolution. The Romantic attitude disdains organisation, punctuality, clarity, bureaucracy, industry, commerce and routine. These things are of course (it admits) necessary but they are (as we tellingly put it) ‘un-Romantic’; miserable impositions forced upon us by the unfortunate conditions of existence.
The supreme symbol of the Romantic attitude is Eugène Delacroix’s legendary painting Liberty leading the People.
An invitation to Romanticism
Eugène Delacroix, Liberty leading the people, 1830
Romanticism has its distinctive wisdom, but its central messages have, in many areas, become a catastrophic liability in our lives. They push us in decisively unhelpful directions; they incite unreal hopes, make us impatient with ourselves, discourage introspection, blind us to the dangers of obeying instinct in love and work, turn us away from our realities and lead us to lament the normal conditions of existence.
The huge task of our age is to unwind Romantic attitudes and replace them with an outlook that might be called – for the sake of symmetry and historical accuracy – Classical.
A Classical view of life is founded upon an intense, pessimistic awareness of the frailties of human nature and on a suspicion of unexamined instinct. The Classical attitude knows that our emotions can frequently over-power our better insights; that we repeatedly misunderstand ourselves and others and that we are never far from folly, harm and error.
In response, Classicism seeks constantly – via culture – to correct the failings of our minds.
Classicism is wary of our instinctive longing for perfection. In love, it counsels a gracious acceptance of the ‘madness’ inside each partner. It knows that ecstasy cannot last, and that the basis of all good relationships must be tolerance and mutual sympathy. Classicism has a high regard for domestic life; it sees apparently minor practical details as deeply worthy of care and effort; it doesn’t think it would be degrading to tidy the laundry cupboard or do the household accounts because these are modest points at which our own routines intersect with the great themes of life.
Classicism understands that we need rules and, in the education of children, it trusts in the setting of boundaries. It loves, but does not idealise, the young.
In social life, Classicism counsels politeness as a way of keeping our true selves at bay. It understands that ‘being yourself’ is not something we should ever seek to be around anyone we care for. It also knows that small compliments and reassurances are of huge benefit to us, given our natural frailty and insecurity. It doesn’t disdain the writing of thank you notes.
Classicism believes in evolution rather than revolution. It trusts that many good things have to be accomplished by institutions rather than by heroic lone agents; and accepts the necessary compromises involved in working with other people.
In relation to careers, the classical attitude is at odds with the notion of vocation. It doesn’t look to our instincts to solve the complex problems of what we should productively be doing with our lives. Instead it sees the need for careful and extensive self-questioning. But it also assumes from the outset that all work is laborious and frustrating in some ways, rejecting the notion of an ‘ideal’ job, much as it rejects the ideal in most spheres. It is a fervent believer in the concept of things being ‘good enough’.
Unlike Romanticism, Classicism is cautiously welcoming of capitalism. It isn’t inherently sceptical of profit; it doesn’t see a concern with money as essentially sordid or shameful; money is just a resource that can be used foolishly or wisely. It doesn’t think that talking of money is wrong in relation to the issue of who one might marry; it accepts the role of the material in a good life.
Classicism has a particularly ambitious attitude towards art. It sees it as having a mission to seduce us, by means of an alluring, sensuous presentation, to keep wise and useful ideas at the front of our minds. Classical architecture – for instance – is ordered, tranquil and harmonious – because it recognises how vulnerable our inner spirit is to prompts coming from our environment and accepts how much we stand in need of pose, calm and serenity. It isn’t afraid of things being a little boring. A ‘quiet life’ is no insult for a Classicist.
Classicism admires compromise around things one doesn’t feel like compromising on; it has faith in slow and messy progress rather than in sudden ruptures. It’s not shocked by venality, corruption or selfishness (it assumes that these are natural parts of human character), but likes institutions, rules and laws because of their role in restricting the scope of our impulses.
Although the Classical attitude often conflicts with things that are very popular, it doesn’t in any way reject the value of popularity in itself. Indeed, its ambitions are firmly populist. If an idea is very complicated and difficult to grasp, Classicism assumes that it has not yet been brought properly into focus. It is suspicious of the narrows of academia and the cloistering of culture. The ideas we most need (it insists) can be presented lucidly and attractively and must spread far and with charm to be of any use to us in taming our chaotic and confused minds. Classicism sees no fundamental reason why wisdom can’t be very widespread. Indeed it takes this to be the definitive, realistic task of civilisation.
The School of Life is built upon a classical view of existence.
One of the most depressing aspects of travel is finding that the world often looks the same in many different places. The towers of downtown Tokyo are indistinguishable from those of Frankfurt or Seattle. That’s no coincidence. Modern architecture was founded on the idea that buildings should logically look the same everywhere. The early figures of Modernism were united in their bitter opposition to any kind of ‘regionalism’, which they saw as reactionary, folkloric and plain mediocre. If bicycles, telephones and planes (all harbingers of the new age) weren’t going to be done up in a local style, why should buildings? Down with chalets, wigwams and gargoyles.
The Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer began his career as an orthodox modern architect, subscribing thoroughly to this universalist credo. He was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1907 – and developed a passion for architecture in his early teens. When he went to study at the National School of Fine Arts, he fell in with a group that venerated the great European Modernist architects, especially Le Corbusier – who had insisted with particular vehemence on making sure buildings made no concession whatever to the culture in which they were located.
Niemeyer’s professional ambitions were realised when, in 1936, Le Corbusier was commissioned to come to Rio to design the new Ministry of Education and Health. Niemeyer was invited to join the team of Brazilian architects charged with helping the European to realise his scheme on this large and prestigious building.
While working with him, Niemeyer retained the utmost respect for Le Corbusier, but at the same time, he couldn’t help but observe how blind his guest was to the particularities of Brazilian culture and climate. With what would become his legendary charm, Niemeyer managed to persuade Le Corbusier to abandon some of his more hard-edged ‘universalist’ intentions for the building and to make some concessions to local conditions. Under his influence, the building’s windows acquired ‘louvres’ against the sun and, most spectacularly of all, Niemeyer persuaded Le Corbusier to commission an enormous traditional Portuguese piece of tile work, done up with abstract motifs, for the public areas on the ground floor.
Emboldened by his success with the building, Niemeyer felt ready to break free from European Modernism. He is to be celebrated for being perhaps the first architect anywhere in the world to practice a regional kind of Modernism: in his case, a Brazilian-infused modernism.
His first wholly original work was completed in 1943 (when he was 36), and was commissioned by the local mayor of Belo Horizonte, the future president of Brazil, Juscelino Kubitschek. It was a building complex that included a casino, a restaurant, a dance hall, a yacht club and most famously, a place of worship, now known as the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi, in Belo Horizonte.
Though the local clergy hated it (Archbishop Antonio dos Santos Cabral called it a “devil’s bomb shelter unfit for religious purposes”), it was quickly recognised as a masterpiece.
The complex had no straight lines on any plane, for Niemeyer now judged these to be European and (it was the heyday of Fascism) appallingly authoritarian. Architecture had in theory been liberated from oppressive structural conventions by the invention of reinforced concrete – and Niemeyer proposed that one should use the new freedom in more creative ways.
Niemeyer was henceforth to include curves in all his buildings, and saw them in a nationalistic light as being particularly Brazilian in nature. “It is not the right angle that attracts me, nor the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man,” he said. “What attracts me is the free and sensual curve—the curve that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuous course of its rivers and in the bodies of its beautiful women.” The latter point is telling. Niemeyer was deeply responsive to female beauty throughout his life. He was famous around Rio for his affairs, many with people dramatically younger than he was. At 92, he acquired a girlfriend who had just turned 25.
As in the Ministry of Health, the Pampulha Church had tiles across it. They reminded viewers that Brazil could be both modern and recall its heritage – that a church might nod towards the forms of a futuristic airplane hanger, and yet could at the same time accommodate a depiction of Saint Francis and some (distinctly charming) chickens.
The sensuality that Niemeyer enjoyed in his life also came to infuse many of his buildings. His Casa das Canoas (1951) repositions sensuality as part of a sophisticated, mature life. Instead of suggesting that it might be the special province of the young, the carefree, the louche or the pretty, he creates a home where one imagines you can be an accountant or work in the Ministry of Infrastructure (be a responsible, hard working person much concerned with technical and administrative problems) and relish your body. You can have a conversation that stretches your mind and also be gently exploring the back of your lover’s knee; or you might kiss in the warm shadows before taking a conference call about worrying regional sales projections.
The house is a bit like a confident and encouraging friend who makes reassuring murmurs at the right time. One could imagine a couple feeling safe enough in this house to be sexually adventurous in a way that felt impossible for years in their normal home.
Niemeyer’s most audacious attempt to use architecture to define Brazilian identity came with his designs for the new capital, Brasília. In 1956, Kubitschek asked Niemeyer to help create a wholly planned city in the centre of the country, free from the corruption of the old capital in Rio. Niemeyer drew up the National Congress, a cathedral, a cultural complex, many ministries and commercial and residential buildings. The atmosphere was dignified, hopeful, and in touch with the native environment. Apartment buildings were lifted on stilts to allow vegetation to grow beneath them, maintaining a connection with the local ecology and tropical climate.
Of course, Niemeyer’s works depicted Brazil not as it was, but as he believed and hoped it might one day be. He knew that architecture can point hopefully and encouragingly in a good direction. Brazil is a country of frenetic economic activity, of rainforest and Amazonian villages, favelas, soccer, beaches and intense disagreement about political priorities … none of which is apparent from contemplation of the National Congress in Brasilia. Instead the building imagines the Brazil of the future; it is a glass and reinforced concrete ideal for the country to develop towards. In the future, so the building argues, Brazil will be a place where rationality is powerful; where order and harmony reign; where elegance and serenity are normal. Calm, thoughtful people will labour carefully and think accurately about legislation; in offices in the towers, efficient secretaries will type up judicious briefing notes; the filing systems will be perfect – nothing will get lost, overlooked, neglected or mislaid; negotiations will take place in an atmosphere of impersonal wisdom. The country will be perfectly managed. The building, therefore, could be seen as an essay in flattery. It hints that these desirable qualities are already to some extent possessed by the country and by its governing class. Ideals flatter us – because we experience them not merely as intimations of a far distant future but also as descriptions of what we are like. We are used to thinking of flattery as bad – but in fact it is rather helpful, for flattery encourages us to live up to the appealing image it presents. The child who is praised for his or her first modest attempts at humour, and called witty as a result, is being guided and helped to develop beyond what he or she actually happens to be right now. They grow into the person they have flatteringly been described as already being. This is important because the obstacle to our good development is not usually arrogance, but a lack of confidence.
Niemeyer enjoys the beautiful dream of a Brazilian carnival in 2012, the year of his death. His then girlfriend was 42.
Niemeyer was prolific until his very last years, teaching around the world, writing and designing sculptures and furniture. He died in 2012, when he was 104 years old. He was given a hero’s funeral and thousands joined the cortege. What his nation was honouring was an architect who had given it a workable yet ideal portrait of itself. He had enabled Brazil to break free from a sterile European modernism – and to create buildings that better reflected the nation’s uniqueness. Niemeyer remains an example to all architects who aspire to put up buildings that remember the distinctiveness of their locales – architects who may like their phones to be universal in design, but are as keen for their buildings to be culturally specific.
We might expect that humans would display a powerful reflex taste for simple over obscure explanations. Yet in many areas of intellectual and psychological life, we observe a stranger, more unexpected phenomenon: a marked prejudice in favour of abstruseness, density, enigma and the esoteric. Explanations that come close to incomprehensible, that provoke puzzlement, that employ rare words and display no mercy for the reader’s stamina can secure mighty degrees of respect – as if we somehow implicitly believed that the truth could not come in a form that could be easily fathomed by us. So humble may we be about our own mental capacities, we can assume we are getting close to genius when we stop understanding anything much of what is being said.
It is problematic, therefore, that so many of the central truths of emotional life – the ones that we need to absorb and rehearse – have an elemental simplicity to them that violates our predilections for difficulty; that have some of the innocent plainness of a parable. To hear that we should understand rather than condemn, that others are primarily anxious rather than mean, that every strength of character we admire bears with it a weakness we must forgive; these are both key laws of psychology and entirely obvious-sounding bromides of the sort we have been taught to walk past without regard. Yet despite their so-called obviousness, simple-sounding dynamics are when they are ignored – eminently capable of ruining extended chunks of our lives. Three decades devoted to the unhappy pursuit of wealth and status may turn out to be driven by nothing more or less than a forgotten desire to secure the attention of a distracted parent more interested in an older sibling. The failure of a fifteen year relationship, a thousand nights of pain and fury, might have originated in an avoidant pattern of attachment established in the second year. Emotional life is never done with showing us how much we might have to suffer for so-called small things.
We should with grace acknowledge how much of what nourishes and guides us, how much of what we should be hearing about is astonishingly, humiliatingly simple in structure. We should not compound our problems by insisting on elevated degrees of mystery; we should not import into emotional intelligence a murkiness that would be legitimate only in the advanced sciences. Our vulnerability to basic psychological errors is no more absurd, and no less poignant, than the fact that an adult human can be killed by a well-aimed pebble or that we can die for want of a glass of water. Simplicity should never insult our intelligence; it should remind us to be nimble in our understanding of what intelligence comprises.
We need to be sophisticated enough not to reject a truth because it sounds like something we already know (but may not quite). We need to be mature enough to bend down and pick up governing ideas in whatever guise they may have adopted. We need to remain open to vast truths that can be stated in the language of a child.