From City Journal:
One of Dickens’s villains boasts that he’s never moved by a pretty face, for he can see the grinning skull beneath. That’s realism, he says. But it’s a strange kind of realism that can look through life in all its vibrancy to focus only on death. Much of today’s architecture brings that misanthrope to mind. Beauty? For our advanced culture, it’s as spectral as classical philosophy’s two other highest values: the good and the true. A building might be cutting-edge, boundary-breaking, transgressive. But simply beautiful? The arts have transcended such illusions.
A pity. Part of the pleasure of metropolitan life is the pre–World War II city’s manifold loveliness. When you see the illuminated Chrysler Building glowing through the evening fog, or walk by the magnolias blooming in front of Henry Frick’s museum, ravishing outside and in, or gaze up at the endlessly varied historicism of lower Broadway’s pioneering skyscrapers, you know you are Someplace—someplace where human inventiveness and aspiration have left lasting monuments proclaiming that our life is more than mere biology and has a meaning beyond the brute fact of mortality. Like all our manners and ceremonies, from table etiquette to weddings, beauty in architecture humanizes the facts of life. So we don’t want a machine for living—a high-tech lair to service our animal needs—but rather a cathedral, a capitol, a home, expressive of the grandeur, refinement, urbanity, and coziness of which our life is capable. Two recent Manhattan buildings gracefully exemplify the life-affirming architectural humanism I have in mind. First is a gemlike house at 5 East 95th Street, just east of Central Park, by celebrated London architect John Simpson, designer of the enchanting Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace.