Any Triviality Cries Aloud

Recently at the Thinking Housewife there was a discussion about the ugliness — the hatefulness — of modern churches. In a follow up, I sent Mrs. Laura Wood a picture and commentary about the Rothko Chapel in Houston.

Mrs. Wood started the discussion by linking to a good article, called “The Cult of Ugliness in America,” by Fr. Anthony J. Brankin at the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (quite a mouthful, that name, but I like how they don’t pull any punches.)

Let me quote Father Brankin: “Beauty and ugliness flow naturally into the world from the content or emptiness of the soul.” I copied this one out and put it near my work space. It seemed important.

Here are some ugly “religious buildings.” The Los Angeles Cathedral:

The Rothko Chapel interior:

… and exterior:

(Note how the only thing breaking up the brutality of this picture is the lone, scraggly tree in winter casting its shadow on the structure. Nature cries a feeble protest here.) I could, of course multiply these kinds of photos indefinitely. I chose these two structures because (a) they’re the ones that prompted the original discussion over at Mrs. Wood’s site, (b) these are famous and “important” structures, expensive and widely promoted. I’m not picking on the unfortunate taste of some little backwater. (Though it is also important what happens in backwaters, and it is revealing to see how ugliness has spread even there… simply for sake of discussion I’m limiting it here to the self-proclaimed big boys.)

But then, the old religions are not really the religion of today. They hang around in dessicated form, but the religion that most people actually feel strongly about is, of course, political correctness. (I almost wrote “feel passionate about,” but that would have been overstating the case. Very few are truly passionate about being PC — that would imply hearts afire with love and righteousness. PC adherents have righteous convictions — from their own point of view — but almost no one is happy to be PC. PC is a dread religion, a grey slave religion under which all must bow their heads, like the government in 1984, or the rule of Morgoth in the Silmarillion.)

So our truly representative temples wouldn’t be Christian or Jewish, anyway. They would be temples to political correctness. And indeed the Rothko Chapel itself, built in 1971, loudly proclaims its PC-ness in its promotional literature (don’t click unless you truly feel the need; it’s a depressing website). So first drain away tradition and specificity, then drain away any and all theistic content and what are we left with?

The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis:

The National Museum of the American Indian (is this the ugliest building in the world, perhaps?):

Oof. I was going to post some more but I’ll stop there… enough ugly buildings for today. You can prove this point a thousand times over by doing a simple image search.


“Religious art is the measure of human depth and sincerity; any triviality, any weakness, cries aloud.” — Henry Adams; Mt. Saint Michel and Chartres (a book that is itself a beautiful cathedral to wander in; free here and here).

With far fewer material resources, but with time, dedication, soul, devotion, and passion, our ancestors built exteriors like this:

… and interiors like this:

I can’t build cathedrals on my own. I can’t even be a part of an organization that builds cathedrals — though perhaps I’m not trying hard enough on that count. But, as Fr. Brankin says, “beauty and ugliness flow naturally into the world from the content or emptiness of the soul.” So instead I can, we all can, focus on small-scale beauty: harmony in the home, dignity of dress, and indulgence/participation in beautiful art (hearing and playing beautiful music, reading beautiful books, etc).

It’s funny, the world is so brutalist nowadays. Where it’s not overtly Stalinist as with the buildings above, it’s merely crass, commercialized and ugly. And yet there’s beauty everywhere. Trees — even weeds in the cracks in the cement — genuine laughter, the possibility of loyalty, and the poetry that lingers and rings still loudly from an earlier age. They all seem to proclaim that the ugliness, no matter how ever-present and intolerable it can seem, is just a passing stage. Beauty, ever trampled under foot, dies not.

12 comments on “Any Triviality Cries Aloud

  1. Proph says:

    I got in a spot of trouble a few years back when I penned an article for my college’s newspaper criticizing the hideousness of a new building being erected on campus, which was only objectively ugly but also clashed violently with the campus’ existing architectural tradition. The modern architectural regime (I hesitate to call it a tradition itself) embraces that which is ugly and weird because it’s evil: it instinctively loathes that which is good, and since beauty is a good, it tries to subvert it. As you say, it can’t deprive us of our sense of beauty, but it can certainly numb it.

    • outofsleep says:

      I tremble to recall the uber-PC articles I wrote for my college paper when I was an undergraduate! It’s a badge of honor to get in trouble with the powers-that-be on a modern campus.

      You’re right, too. When praising ancient buildings to the thoroughly indoctrinated man, he will often nod and agree with you. But if you suggested that it was possible, indeed desirable, to build something beautiful today, he’d either think it was impossible or … somehow… vaguely… WRONG.

  2. Anonymous says:

    The National Civil Rights museum is designed to look like the Memphis motel at which Martin Luther King was shot. That’s not a joke … look at the balcony.

    • outofsleep says:

      I was in Memphis recently for a social event that featured a large number of community leaders. Everyone and their families were white. We were told over and over what a great community Memphis is — local booster types trying to encourage visitors to give their town a chance, as is understandable. But over and over they mentioned that we had to go to the Civil Rights Museum… as if that were the very raison d’etre of the town. It became very creepy after a while.

  3. bgc says:

    I feel that architecture is pretty much a mirror of the souls of those responsible.

    By that account, modern institutional architecture is a perfect representation of bureaucratic, polically correct man: ugly, soul-draining, expensive, dysfunctional, arrogant and attention seeking, impractical and uncomfortable.

    It also represents the self-loathing and suicidal nature of secular modernity – since the apparatchicks build these things for *themselves* to dwell in…

    Example: the central administration building of (ahem) a representative UK institution of higher education – commissioned, designed, built and worked-in by mainstream modern managerial humans:

    Note: this is a south-facing building and/ yet it apparently has essentially no windows north, west or east – just a single, vast, south-facing glass front enclosing hundreds of cubic metres of permanently un-usable – nothing, hot air – in front of glass-fronted and open-plan offices.

    • outofsleep says:

      Gosh. One can practically feel the seething despair that pours off that building, right through the screen. One gets the sense that the architect felt he was being indulgent or playful when he allowed the little slanting rise halfway through the building. How droll. But this can’t continue forever, can it? Will we ever see a revolt in the architecture schools, or should we fear this because the buildings will become even worse?

  4. bgc says:

    There was a period around about 1990 when British Architecture went through a ‘postmodern’ period with various pastiches of earlier style – it was certainly an improvement on brutalist modernism, and I thought that maybe they had repented and reformed. But no, it was merely a blip of fashion and we are now back to brutalism – with the twist of bits of added on asymmetry. Often literally added on – for example a brutal rectangular box building with some ‘playful’ iron girders ‘randomly’ strewn across the surface. Like a joke made by a committee. Also these new buildings often almost lack windows altogether. Some, like the one illustrated, have no curtains or individual blinds but instead vast external blinds, controlled centrally by programs – supposed to regulate the buildings climate in the way that is abstractly ‘best’. Give the size, and price, and vast amount of permanently useless space, and the leaks and bad internal climate – it is hard to see how much worse buildings can get. But still no repentance nor reform…

  5. Mencius Moldbug says:

    You’d certainly also enjoy Ralph Adams Cram’s The Gothic Quest (1907). Cram, a noted architect himself (I believe a lot of the Princeton Gothic stuff is his work), is so reactionary he hates the Renaissance. I’m not sure I can go quite this far, but it’s inspiring.

    • outofsleep says:

      Thanks, Mencius Moldbug. I have already downloaded a copy to my e-reader. Wondrous thing, the internet. I’m a diligent reader of your own blog (my personal thanks to you for maintaining it), and I’ve read Carlyle and Sir Henry Sumner Maine thanks to your recommendations over there. So your suggestion comes weighted with favor already.

      Incidentally, I’m also a follower of Lawrence Auster’s blog, and I enjoy reading the occasional exchanges the two of you have over there. Speaking of good things on the internet, it’s elucidating to see you two go at it. Both of you are sane, straightforward, and honest. Both of you seem to agree on a great many things, and yet you clearly also have some differing opinions of topics of high import. The respectful and yet spirited way in which you hash out your disagreements is encouraging and thought-provoking for me.

      Henry Adams’ book seized me right from the start. His subject matter is fascinating, and he is — in my estimation — a first-rate writer. Just below the pantheon of True Greats, for me, and light years beyond most writers, even beyond the writers of his day when writing was, let’s face it, just better. I look forward to digesting Ralph Adams Cram as well. Cheers.

  6. Wyandotte says:

    While I despise those ugly buildings you are discussing, old architecture as it applies to houses isn’t necessarily better than something newer. I know I could not bear to live in a Victorian-style house with its little windows and narrow staircases, crowded with monopurpose rooms and dark, creepy feeling. Give me an American Craftsman bungalow any day, the older versions, not the cheap present knockoffs. They are way cheerier and more practical.

    Yet I see folks buying 120-year old houses of the Victorian era for a huge sum just because they seem to have a sort of cachet, are well-built and are lovely on the outside; but on finding the interiors unpleasant, they end up paying thousands more to make them more like newer houses. Not that I am defending the impossibly stupid multiple-roof-line mega or semi-mega McHouses of recent decades. My point is that maybe the large Victorian houses were the McMansions of their time, and the smaller versions attempts to copy the upper crust. I dunno. Just saying.

    • outofsleep says:

      This is an excellent point. Just because a building is old does not mean it’s good.

      Craftsman style homes in America are often the best style of home to live in. And they have their own kind of beauty. Certainly not the high grandeur of Chartres or Mt. Saint Michel, but then, those homes are not intended to be grand cathedrals.

      What’s good about the best “practical” American houses is that they are built with the family in mind. That is, the designer and the builder are trying to create a building that will be a nice, decent place to live in for the family that buys it. The building fits its purpose.

      We’re not meant to live in cathedrals. Cathedrals are places of worship. Humble homes are places to live in. Ugly homes are those that are not designed to live in, just as ugly churches are those not designed to worship in.

  7. […] via a long trail of enthusiastic clicking that started on the Thinking Housewife and lead me to Out of Sleep.  When I read through the post one particular quote stood out and I decided I had to have it.  […]

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