My Friend, the Architect (Part Three of A Conversation)
Dwelling Places: A Review

Beauty and Utility

Suburbs"Everything, from reaping the corn to blessing the meal or carving a chair, was an action giving thanks for God's creation, and artistically satisfying activity.  All they made and did was essentially functional: there was no time, energy, or space to make anything without a practical purpose; beauty and utility were inseparable.  Today we find the reverse.  Beauty and utility are widely regarded as separate streams: we all need utility, but beauty is considered to be an indulgence, peripheral to our main concerns in life." 

(Christopher Day, in Places of the Soul, speaking of pre-industrial peoples)

Beauty is absolutely essential to life, almost as necessary for our sustenance as food and shelter.  Places should have beauty, and yet we we look across much of suburbia and we see uniformity, a kind of deadening conformity brought on by strict appearance codes or busy-body planners or simply unimaginative builders and designers.

I live in a suburban area, and yet my neighborhood touches on what is (barely) left of an old two-lane country road, where Johnny the firewood salesman still lives in a ramshackle mobile home under the trees, firewood stacked all around, a few simple ranch style homes, next door to him.  Is this beauty?   Well, it may not suit our refined tastes, but I like it.  I like the reminder that once we didn't all live in 3000-5000 square feet houses with manicured lawns and sprinkler systems.  (Johnny resides in a bed of pine-straw, with no grass.) 

Looking closely at a couple of the ranch homes, I see flower beds and fruit trees, not the manicured kind but the homegrown kind, a little ragged but still with color.  One ranch home has been removed, the property slated for town-home development.  Four or five hand-planted flowering trees next to a circular drive remind me that this was a "place" for some souls, at one time, that life was lived out here for probably more than one generation.  And I find it sad that this place is now almost gone, for when the trees are cut and bulldozers have reshaped the contours of the land, we will no longer know where that "place" was, as it will finally be gone.

Beauty doesn't have to look like what we think it should be, or what city planners think it should be.  It's individual.  It's not neat and tidy and uniform.  New subdivisions are functional (they provide shelter), and they have an appearance of order and beauty, but real beauty is a bit wild, a bit unsettled.  How do we get that back?

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