Sunday, June 9, 2013

Our Anxiety of Beauty and God

Interior wall and ceiling of the Sheikh-Lotf-Allah mosque in Isfahan, Iran. Photo: Phillip Maiwald
Later, Katalin Bende, also working on the project in our office, asked me to explain what I meant by this true liking and about people's fear of it, and why anyone could be afraid of true beauty. "What kind of beauty could go so deep that a person would be afraid of creating it?" she asked.

I told her that, in my view, a difficulty we modern people encounter can sometimes go something like this: When centers are properly distributed in a truly beautiful structure, one cannot avoid seeing the I (what a religious person might also call God). In the 20th century there has been something almost like a taboo, against seeing the I, or true beauty, or God. Hence the discomfort. This discomfort that modern people feel with real beauty – especially that architects and designers feel – is almost legendary. Working with architects, I have experienced it again and again. Many traditional shapes, especially the most profound shapes with deep and serious centers in them, for some reason trouble modern architects profoundly. Even when an architect does want to borrow a traditional shape for a building (as postmodernists sometimes do), he often feels he has to make the shape "modern" in order to feel comfortable with it. So, for many decades, architects of the 20th century felt that they had to take a traditional form and distort it, so that they could demonstrate that they had possessed it, and so that their colleagues would not laugh at them for being archaic.

Let me put it another way. The history of the 20th century has been one in which people do not want to see God nor, therefore, true beauty either. The role religion has, for many become uncomfortable. Many people want no part of it. They do not want, even, to get near it. And for that reason, they also do not (cannot) want, in their lives, any kind of true beauty. True beauty is the quality of being in touch with the I. A structure with true beauty – the beauty which brings something in touch with the I – is, in effect, something we cannot avoid, in some part, seeing God. For this reason, the underlying design vocabulary of the 20th century, almost throughout the century, asserted that designers should create structures which are "interesting", "pleasing", "fantastic", "exhilarating", "with elan", and so on – anything but beautiful – indeed never truly beautiful. That word has unalterable meaning, cannot be contaminated, and during the temporary insanity of the 20th century, struck a nerve which people could not tolerate. – Christopher Alexander, The Luminous Ground, page 295-296

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