Skip to main content

Beauty, Sublime and Happiness

The happiness we pursue is more enduring and rewarding than the transient emotional lift of the sublime's novelty and drama. It resides instead in the beauty in the buildings we build and the urbanism we make with tradition’s guidance.
Beauty on the G T B ball

Figure 1: Beauty on the G T B ball

In two previous pieces I argued that urbanism is the place where we protect and enjoy our natural right to pursue our happiness, and I discussed the idea that happiness resides in our enjoyment of the good, the true, and the beautiful. (Figure 1) I used my G T B ball to illustrate their commonality and separateness, and I left open what to call their shared core: God, the gods, Nature, or whatever word we use to personalize the moral order of an ordered universe that is also a part of our individual, human nature. I noted that the good, or justice, pertains to things done, and the true to things known. And I called for separating judgments about the good and the true from judgments about beauty, which pertains to things made and may serve evil and not present the truth and still embody beauty and pointed to a few fallacies when doing so.

Architecture as a thing made seeks to embody the ideal of beauty. When present, it connects us to the core where we also find the good and the true where the heart’s happiness is fulfilled.

Cass Gilbert, West Virginia Capitol, Charleston

Figure 2: Cass Gilbert, West Virginia Capitol, Charleston

Here we are planted squarely in the western, classical tradition. A tradition is what binds individuals into a community that provides its members with security, shelter, and sustenance, and it guides their way of living together. Distinctive to the western, classical tradition is its constant absorption of new knowledge and experience with innovations to serve present and future ambitions, which has resulted in a history of enduring and changing practices in the civil life and in the buildings and urban realm they have built to serve and express their common purposes. (figs. 2, 3)

Joseph Paxton, Crystal Palace, London

Figure 3: Joseph Paxton, Crystal Palace, London

It is common to distinguish between what individuals need and what they want. To survive the need security, shelter, and sustenance; to flourish they need the best possible embodiments of the ideals of the good or justice, the true, and the beautiful. To achieve these goals they established civil orders that serve both individual and communal efforts. To supply security, shelter, and sustenance communities use the art of building. To pursue the ideal of the good, the true, and the beautiful that lie beyond survival and allow the flourishing and fulfillment of their individual unique natures, they elevate the art of building to the art of architecture, and they extend the art of architecture into urbanism to serve and express the diversity of purposes as they pursue their individual and communal goals

E. L. Boullée, National Library

Figure 4: E. L. Boullée, National Library

Different communities have different traditions for governing and building, but across the long career of the classical west there is both continuity and diversity. We see it in classical cities from Athens to New York, from Rome, London, and Paris to Boston, Washington, and San Francisco, a grouping that no city in China fits, and one that is increasingly being destroyed here and in China.

Santiago Calatrava Vall

Figure 5: Santiago Calatrava Vall

Vitruvius sketched out how to build classical urbanism. The art of building must satisfy the three conditions of commodity, firmness, and delight, or functionality, stability, and pleasure. Today we might say these are satisfied by a fine automobile that takes us were we what to go when we want to go there.

He also wrote that the art of architecture must satisfy additional requirements, namely, symmetria, eurhythmia, and decorum, words better understood then than now. Symmetria (which is not biaxial equality) or proportionality makes a building congruent with the harmonious order of the universe, eurhythmia calls for adjustments based on the architect’s judgment to make the building’s symmetria visible, and decorum requires using traditional forms of buildings serving similar purpose to assure that it expresses that purpose and takes its appropriate place within the assembly of buildings producing urbanism. With architecture, we find that a beautiful building offers pleasure to the sight through the art of building PLUS beauty through its resonance with the harmonious, proportionate universal order. PLUS its clear expression of its contribution to the community’s and individual’s pursuit of happiness.

Montgomery Miegs, Pension Building, Washington

Figure 6: Montgomery Miegs, Pension Building, Washington

Today, the previous paragraph is probably foreign to most architects and the developers, bankers, building officials, journalists, critics, and others who share the responsibility for building the urban realm. We are all indebted to the Age of Empiricism and its maturity in the Enlightenment that dismissed the authority of princes and priests and lodged elsewhere. Where? We can follow two trails.

One trail runs from the seventeenth century through the French Revolution and into Modernism. It puts logic above reasoned judgment, it replaces history’s guidance with the latest opinions and technologies, it gives greater weight to passionately held opinions than to reasoned conclusions based on experience, and it has replaced responses to the beauty in buildings with judgments made in the eye of the beholder that are beyond disputation.

Replacing beauty is the aesthetic category of the sublime. The sublime is the presence in the emotions of intense, reckless pleasure, the more intense the better. Architecture offers it in buildings with huge size or height and novel, never-before-seen forms. Novelty quickly pales, which leads to greater extremes—vaster, taller, less comprehensible. Here the art of building becomes one with ever higher rollercoasters, ever louder music, and ever raunchier entertainment where personal rapture separates individuals into inexpressible ecstasy. (figs. 4-6) There is room for the sublime as an enhancement of the beautiful but never as its replacement.

B. H. Latrobe, Baltimore Cathedral

Figure 7: B. H. Latrobe, Baltimore Cathedral

The other trail began in ancient Athens and Jerusalem and eventually ran through what Lincoln called an experiment. From ancient and modern natural and English common law was forged the United States Constitution. We all know its foundation: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

But nearly everyone now neglects the next words: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Here we seek the best possible achievement of the good, the true, and the beautiful to facilitate the pursuit of happiness, and to that end we build buildings and practice urbanism.

Bernard Maybeck, Packard Avency, San Francisco

Figure 8: Bernard Maybeck, Packard Avency, San Francisco

Beauty is still available in the buildings and urbanism we make, and that beauty contributes to our happiness. Our contact with the beautiful begins in a sensory organ that gives us emotional pleasure just as the sublime does. But the beautiful goes farther, and more softly. Beyond the emotional pleasure the qualities that provoked the pleasure find their way to the intellect or mind or brain or whatever one cares to call the seat of reasoned judgment. Here the more profound qualities of human nature come into play to evaluate the extent of beauty’s ideals in qualities such as those that Vitruvius sketched and his successors have elaborated. If the judgment is positive, the report goes out to the soul or heart or whatever name a person gives to the quality that human nature uniquely shares with the harmonious universe, and there beauty is discerned and happiness is enjoyed. (figs 7-9)

J. R. Pope, National Gallery, Washington

Figure 9: J. R. Pope, National Gallery, Washington

Everyone is equipped to have their experience of beauty just as everyone can sing. Few can sing beautifully, but instruction can bring improvement. So too with beauty: few can make beautiful buildings but instruction can improve practice, and so to with seeing, assessing, and discerning the happiness beauty provides.

Validation? For more than 2500 years we produced and enjoyed beauty; some still do. Our neglect and indifference and not our incapacity or a change in human nature has led to our willingness to degrade the beautiful urbanism we have built; we can again build beautiful buildings and make beautiful urbanism. 

Buying Guide Spotlight

Cambek™ Designer Doors Custom Carriage House Style Garage Doors

Cambek - Designer Doors ◆

Cambek™- Designer Doors® is a manufacturer of fine custom entry doors, garage doors, and matching millwork.

Related Articles

Saint Peter's Basilica

Beauty and Justice

The pleasure and happiness we find in traditional and classical architecture and urbanism is the counterpart to the good and justice sought by the civil order it serves and expresses, a connection between justice and beauty that is alien to Modernism.

Carroll William Westfall

The Value of Tradition in Urbanism

Urbanism is what we build to serve our needs and desires in families and neighborhoods and on up in scale to cities, states and nations. It is the grandest, most complicated, complex, and extensive thing we build, but we underestimate its role in our lives, and it is tradition that makes urbanism valuable for us.

elementary school

Buildings, Urbanism and Two Kinds of Beauty

Carroll William Westfall discusses the relationship of good urbanism and beautiful buildings.