Candy Prizes at a Kids’ Party

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The next chapter of Dreher’s Crunchy Cons was really, really good. I say this because he went after some pet peeves of mine with a meat axe. The chapter was entitled “Home,” but a more informative title would have been something like “The Architecture of Home.”

“Drive through a historic district of any town or city of reasonable size, and even if the houses there are down-at-the-heels from neglect, you will pick out beauty and harmony there that you cannot find in newer subdivisions, with houses that cost vastly more. Even shotgun houses built for the working class have more charm and dignity than contemporary McMansions” (pp. 96).

When it comes to how we configure the places where we live, and worship, something has gone very, very wrong. And we have no real way to fight back, because we have drifted into an aesthetic relativism.

“Yet I doubt these folks would say there is no important difference between hearing Bach sung in a Baroque jewel box church in Germany, and some happy-clappy 1970s hymn burbled in one of those crapped out Our Lady of Pizza Hut churches slapped together in suburbia during the Nixon presidency. Aesthetics matter, and anyone who has been to the beautiful cities and towns of Europe, and has seen how older buildings of greatly differing styles and ambitions exist harmoniously with each other and their surroundings, knows it” (p. 96, emphasis mine).

In pursuit of this crucial point, Dreher cites two important books. First there is Jonathan Hale’s 1994 book, The Old Way of Seeing, and James Kunstler’s book, The Geography of Nowhere. With the exception of the very last part of his book (where his worldview collapses under the weight of the glories he has spent the book describing), Hale’s book is simply glory upon architectural glory. Nancy read it a number of years ago, and then read it again recently. Inspired by my wife’s diligence, I read it last year and the book opened up a completely new world. Unfortunately, it is a world that is not currently under construction anywhere near you. About the only contemporary application you can make is that of explaining to yourself why new subdivisions are so mud-fence ugly. I have known that they were ugly for a number of years now — Hale shows exactly why. Take a typical house under construction today, and try to explain the geometric relations inherent in the placement of windows. Well, there aren’t any. New construction ignores, defies, spits upon ancient and embedded codes for building that God placed in the world — regulatory lines, proportion, the golden scale, or the golden section.

Dreher points out that architectural patterns that strike as beautiful function in a mysterious way (p. 97), but there is no mystery at all about which patterns have this effect.

“But if you ignore the secret language of patterns known even to the ancients, what results is ugliness, boredom, and disspiritedness — even if the layman lacks the words and the understanding to explain why” (p. 98).

This does not mean that houses are built with no purpose or point today. The most common principle is personal convenience inside the house — location of the home theater room, say — and this convenience does not include any kind of aesthetic comfort. And since no one has been trained to identify this kind of thing, we are all left with a vague sense of accumulating unease.

Dreher points to one of the themes of his book — suspicion of the newer, bigger, faster — in a quotation from one of the people he interviewed. “You know how we conservatives have the whole free-market thing piled into us, and we get into that mindset: new is good, expansion is good, growth is good” (p. 116).

This is a place where I have differed with Dreher before, but the difference on this point is not a matter of aesthetic principle. I still favor free market solutions to economic problems, including this kind of problem. But this does not mean that I think the free market will solve this kind of problem in five minutes. It does not mean that any snapshot judgment of the market is good — but give it time. The free market is currently throwing these kinds of houses across the landscape like they were candy prizes at a kids’ party. As the Eagles put it in one of their songs, can’t remember which one, “they put up a bunch of ugly boxes, Jesus, people bought ’em.” But remember, the middle ages — back when they knew about regulating lines and all the rest of it — built lots of atrocious things also. We just don’t have to look at them now, because there was no reason to save them. The best survives, and we don’t have to look at any of the ramshackle units built in the 1350s. The thing that should encourage us is that, in the long run, stupidity never works. We have no reason to believe that these houses will be anything but disposable living units. It is possible to build a house that will stand for five hundred years, and which ought to stand for five hundred years. We are not currently building very many of them — but the ones that we do build will the ones our descendants will ooh and aah over.

This was a great chapter, and worth the price of the book.

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