On the Necessity of Beauty

In Architecture Matters by George Doddsleave a COMMENT

In one of his finest short stories, Earnest Hemingway wrote of a man who, having given up on such ineffables as beauty, desired of life only “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” (1933). For most Americans this seems the most we can expect of our cities. Conversely, a few years earlier, Sigmund Freud explained in Civilization and Its Discontents (1929) that while our enjoyment of beauty can be “mildly intoxicating,” it offers no cultural utility: “[Y]et, civilization could not do without it.” Why then have we seemingly ceded the right to expect that our cities not simply be clean and well lighted, but also beautiful? Even New York’s Central Park was realized largely on the argument of cleanliness, not godliness, and certainly not beauty.

Curiously, never has a society been so protected from infection and yet so fearful of it. Hence, we insulate ourselves from the strange and unknown, and worst of all, from each other. We use various prophylactics as we Purell® our way through life: suburban enclaves, rural retreats, private schools, country clubs, cable TV, Internet shopping, virtual chat rooms. So being out in public can seem particularly risky. It’s not unusual, for example, for an American’s second question about a potential restaurant to be about the bathrooms, something that would simply never occur in most other cultures. Yet, a nice cake of soap in the urinal and plenty of paper towels beats overcooked pasta or under-ripened melon every time.

It’s the same for our cities; as long as parking is free and easy, streets are absent unpleasant odors, and there aren’t too many people that don’t look like us, then all is well. By these standards, of course, Venice, Italy would have gone out of business long before the Black Death. Indeed, cities of quality succeed and persist, admired over time, despite their many utilitarian faults, largely because they function as inchoate “melding pots,” and because they delight.

Two years ago on a business trip to Madrid, I arrived, mid-morning, to a surreal scene. A city I had known only through film, books, and the stories of friends, looked more Walking Dead than Death in the Afternoon. Streets deserted, newspapers and odd bits of garbage blowing across vacant squares, major intersections piled high with debris. As it turned out, the streets were not just deserted; the police had closed them owing to organized protests. A garbage collectors’ strike had begun the day I arrived and ended the day I left. Timing is everything. Yet, Madrid is such a muscular city, filled with remarkable monuments—parks and gardens, museums and galleries, palaces and stately homes, great crowded avenues and quiet charming streets—that its urban qualities simply overpowered the towering mounds of waste.

But how does a city build such sinew? Where does it come from and how long does it take? Madrid is, of course, Spain’s capital, with over 3 million inhabitants. Founded in the 9th century, during its path to modernity it has melded many cultures. Here in Knoxville, we begin where we are, building upon what we have, and on what we desire to have. At times, these two can be in conflict, evinced in the recent controversy regarding a developer’s desire to build a store on top of one of Knoxville’s stately homes, The Howard House at 2921 North Broadway, which may have more than a little to do with the city’s right to beauty.

There has been much discussion of late in social media and in print regarding plans to develop a Walmart on a large tract of property in North Knoxville, part of which is occupied by this lovely “craftsman’s cottage.” Others have made the necessary arguments regarding why the building ought to be saved and that process seems well underway with the help of Knox Heritage, which recently listed it first amongst its 2015 Fragile Fifteen. North Knoxville’s need for such retail notwithstanding, it is difficult to believe that big-box stores are still in the business of tearing down perfectly fine buildings on the periphery of downtowns to further relocate business from center to edge.

As retail continues to morph from an analog to a digital platform, all over the country, and here in Knoxville, there are many big- and medium-sized boxes that have long been vacant. Large “brick and mortar” stores are coming to terms with the reality that they must provide far more than a clean and well-lighted place for their customers; even local shopping malls struggle to maintain something approaching full occupancy. The huge retail venues Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s have long been leading the way of “destination retail.” This concept is even seeping into healthcare as the Mayo Clinic is now a destination medical center.

Which leads to the question: If Walmart, or something of Walmartian scale, is interested in attracting yet another core Knoxville demographic with easy access to I-40, could not a more central location work just as well, particularly for something akin to destination retail, and help the downtown transform into “destination urbanism”?

More than a decade after the re-urbanization of Knoxville began in earnest, the urban core remains absent a single major retailer or grocery store. With a modified vision of its retail model, and a more modest footprint, there ought to be plenty of potential space within or very near the city center for something akin to a big-box program. If this sort of thing can be accomplished in Manhattan, where the world is far more dense, it ought to be possible here, whether the program is reconfigured within the entrails of the moribund and homely TVA “tower,” as part of a reprogramed and underused convention center, or beneath I-40 or James White Parkway on the edge of the Old City.

Not that Walmart is the sort of retail around which one would desire to anchor a city’s retail. Nor, I suspect, would anyone like to see the company’s insipid signage with its yellow sphincter facing Market Square for the next generation or two. Yet, a downtown location, one that reinhabits a long-vacant and high-profile building, or activates the dross space beneath an interloping Interstate, would be an opportunity for the world’s largest retailer to establish a new and healthy relationship with the physical environment upon which it depends—one that achieves something far higher than the least common denominator they delivered at the University Commons. 

Freud went on to say: “Happiness in life is sought first and foremost in the enjoyment of beauty … this aesthetic attitude offers little protection against the menace of suffering, but it is able to compensate for a great deal.” It certainly helped me during the menace of the garbage collectors’ strike in Madrid; it also helps explain why, for example, we find cave paintings as old as the earliest human-made tools.

If we as humans have been trying to make our settlements more attractive and commodious since we began dwelling together in primitive huts, is it such a stretch to imagine that when a developer requests approval for a large project, that the city ask how, for example, yet another big box surrounded by asphalt parking, contributes to making Knoxville a better place in which to live? In short, how does the proposal help the city build sinew and make it more beautiful?

Beauty is useless, yet it’s necessary for a happy and fulfilling life, and for the life of any clean and well-lighted city.

George Dodds’ Architecture Matters explores issues concerning the human-made environment, primarily focused on Knoxville and its environs. He has been teaching and publishing commentaries on the practice and history of architecture, urbanism, and landscape architecture for over 30 years. He has practiced in Detroit, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., has lectured internationally, and has served on the editorial boards of several journals. Since 2000, he has been on the faculty of architecture at the University of Tennessee.

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