Beauty and utility
It is common for people who wish to see beauty in contemporary culture to be critical of architecture, say, for being ugly because it is designed on ‘utilitarian’ principles. What they mean by this is that the architect has not considered how to make his design beautiful because he is only interested in creating a building that serves its function. For example, a newly built library is ugly because the architect only considered how it could house and give people access to books and made no effort to incorporate a beautiful design. The critics of such a library would argue, typically, that the artist ought to have made the library beautiful as well as creating a design based upon its utility (or to use another word, ‘usefulness’).
I would argue slightly differently. I would say that when any human artifact is made well it is beautiful. Beauty is not something that is an add-on to its usefulness. Rather when the library is as useful in the fullest sense of the word, it is inevitable that it will be beautiful. Beauty, as I see it, is intimately bound up with utility, because when it has integrity, everything about it is in conformity to its purpose.
The problem with our ugly library is not that the artchitect was utilitarian. Rather, because he only considered the material instead of the spiritual needs of readers, he did not understand the full purpose of a library. If people are to be at ease and able to read in peace and tranquility, the building must be a beautiful environment for reading. These functions of a beautiful library are related to our spiritual needs. Any information that we read and which is grasped by the intellect will have an impact on our spiritual lives too and it is important that the environment predisposes us to open to both spiritual and intellectual formatin through what we read. Traditional church architecture has been proven over time to create the environment leads to contemplation of God. The main focus on the design of churches is as a place of worship, however activity of worship properly includes the engagement of the intellect through the reception of information that is imparted to us via written and spoken word. It is appropriate, therefore that the design of a library should draw on that of a church, so that we learn what we read in such a way that it raises our hearts to God. And, traditionally this is precisely what we see. It is no accident that the libraries of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges are built in the gothic style. The design of the library is not identical to the college chapel, being proper to the function of a library, but it is closely related to it.
This is not suggesting that every human activity has a spiritual component. Rather, since the human person is a unity of body and soul, even activities directed primarily towards the good of the body, must impact the soul as well.
Take the most mundane of activities, say, cleaning our teeth. I brush my teeth every day because I want to be healthy and I don’t want my breath to smell bad. I cannot for the life of me see how I can brush my teeth spiritually! However, to have bodily health contributes to my well being as a person and hence contributes in some indirect way to my spiritual health too, thereby enhancing my capacity to undertake the work of the Lord. A toothbrush suited to its purpose will therefore have a beauty that speaks of this greater picture of the benefits of cleaning our teeth in a way that is in harmony with its primary purpose, and will incline us to use it for the benefit of our health. This is the utility of beauty in a toothbrush! It would be perfectly reasonable, therefore, to incorporate traditional proportions, which are rooted in the beauty of the cosmos, into the design of toothbrushes.
When, unlike a toothbrush, the object we are considering does have a direct impact on the spiritual life, such as how we pray, then it is all the more obvious that its beauty, which directs us to God, has a direct impact on our ability to carry out that activity well. The beauty of sacred art plays a direct role in raising our hearts to heaven which is what we must do to pray well. This means that everything associated with the liturgy for example, the art, music, architecture, vestments and so on, must be appropriately beautiful in order to serve its purpose well.