21 November 2009

Gothic Cathedrals, Worldviews, and City Planning


G.K. Chesterton used Gothic architecture to illustrate aspects of a Christian worldview, including in his discussion of Christianity’s paradoxes in the sixth chapter of Orthodoxy.

Paganism had been like a pillar of marble, upright because proportioned with symmetry. Christianity was like a huge and ragged and romantic rock, which, though it sways on its pedestal at a touch, yet, because its exaggerated excrescences exactly balance each other, is enthroned there for a thousand years. In a Gothic cathedral, the columns were all different, but they were all necessary. Every support seemed an accidental and fantastic support; every buttress was a flying buttress. So in Christendom apparent accidents balanced.

In a recent City Journal article, Theodore Dalrymple discusses the ideology and touches on the worldview of the architect Le Corbusier. He quotes Le Corbusier on Gothic architecture.

Gothic architecture is not, fundamentally, based on spheres, cones and cylinders.... It is for that reason that a cathedral is not very beautiful.... A cathedral interests us as an ingenious solution to a difficult problem, but a problem of which the postulates have been badly stated because they do not proceed from the great primary forms.

Dalrymple points out Le Corbusier’s vision went beyond just physical space and comprehended a whole view of society. He quotes Le Corbusier again.

We must create farms, tools, machinery and homes conducive to a clean, healthy well-ordered life. We must organize the village to fulfill its role as a center that will provide for the needs of the farm and act as a distributor of its products. We must kill off the old voracious and ruthless kind of money and create new, honest money, a tool for the fulfillment of a wholly normal, wholly natural function.

Then Dalrymple traces all this to Le Corbusier’s view of humanity. Dalrymple put it this way.

A terminal inhumanity—what one might almost call ‘ahumanity’—characterizes Le Corbusier’s thought and writing, notwithstanding his declarations of fraternity with mankind. This manifests itself in several ways, including in his thousands of architectural photos and drawings, in which it is rare indeed that a human figure ever appears, and then always as a kind of distant ant, unfortunately spoiling an otherwise immaculate, Platonic townscape. Thanks to his high-rise buildings, Le Corbusier says, 95 percent of the city surface shall become parkland—and he then shows a picture of a wooded park without a single human figure present. Presumably, the humans will be where they should be, out of sight and out of mind (the architect’s mind, anyway), in their machines for living in (as he so charmingly termed houses), sitting on machines for sitting on (as he defined chairs).”

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