Discussion Notes for Friday AM Discussion Group | (the A.M.s)


February 26, 2021


What is a beautiful building? To be modern is to experience this as an awkward and possibly unanswerable question, the very notion of beauty having come to seem like a concept doomed to ignite unfruitful and childish argument. How can anyone claim to know what is attractive? p28


“It wasn’t always thought so hard to know how to build beautifully. For over a thousand discontinuous years in the history of the West, a beautiful building was synonymous with a Classical building, a structure with a temple front, decorated columns, repeated ratios and a symmetrical façade.

For hundreds of years…few Classical architects or their clients felt any impulse towards originality. Fidelity to the canon was what mattered; repetition was the norm. When Robert Adam designed Kedleston Hall (1765), it was a point of pride for him to embed an exact reproduction of the Arch of Constantine (c.315) in the middle of the real elevation. Thomas Hamilton’s High School in Edinburgh (1825), though it was made of sombre grey Craigleith sandstone, sat under sepulchral Scottish skies and had steel beams supporting its roof, was lauded for the skill with which it imitated the form of the Doric Temple of the Parthenon in Athens (c.438 BC). Thomas Jefferson’s campus for the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville (1826), quoted without shame from the Roman Temple of Fortuna Virilis (c.100 BC) and the Baths of Diocletian (AD 302), while Joseph Hansom’s new town hall in Birmingham (1832) was a faithful adaptation, set down in the middle of an industrial city, of the Roman Maison Carrée at Nîmes (c. AD 130).

Then, in the spring of 1747, an effeminate young man with a taste for luxury, lace collars and gossip bought a former coachman’s cottage on forty acres of land in Twickenham on the River Thames – and set about building himself a villa which gravely complicated the prevailing sense of what a beautiful house might look like.

Any number of architects could have furnished Horace Walpole, the youngest son of the British prime minister, Sir Robert, with something conventional for his new estate, a Palladian mansion, perhaps a little like his father’s home, Houghton Hall, on the north Norfolk coast. But in architecture, as in dress, conversation and choice of career, Walpole prided himself on being different. In spite of his Classical education, his real interest lay in the medieval period, which thrilled him with its iconography of ruined abbeys, moonlit nights, graveyards and (especially) crusaders in armour. Walpole therefore decided to build himself the world’s first Gothic house.

When he was done, being temperamentally disinclined to keep any of his achievements quiet, Walpole invited for a tour everyone he knew, which included most of the opinion-formers and gentry of the land. For good measure, he issued tickets to the general public as well.

After a viewing, many of Walpole’s astonished guests began to wonder if they, too, might not dare to abandon the Classical mode in favor of the Gothic. The fashion started modestly enough, with the construction of the occasional seaside or suburban villa, but, within a few decades, a revolution in taste was under way which would shake to the core the assumptions on which the Classical consensus had formerly rested.

The factors which fostered the Gothic revival – greater historical awareness, improved transport links, a new clientele impatient for variety – soon enough generated curiosity about the architectural styles of other eras and lands. By the early nineteenth century, in most Western countries, anyone contemplating putting up a house was faced with an unprecedented array of choices regarding its appearance.

Architects boasted of their ability to turn our houses in Indian, Chinese, Egyptian, Islamic, Tyrolean or Jacobean styles, or in any combinations of these.

But in the century that followed, they [became] entrepreneurs with a penchant for variety and whimsy. Instinctively scornful of the martial sobriety of the Classical tradition, they competed to attract clients through the playfulness and exuberance of their developments, as epitomized by a street in Plymouth which combined, within only a few hundred metres, a row of Roman Corinthian terrace houses, a Doric town hall, an Oriental chapel, a pair of private homes in the Ionic style and an Egyptian library.” (pp.29-44)

From: From the Garden to the City by John Dyer

“Theologian Stanley Grenz groups the things we create into four broad categories: things, images, rituals, and language. A thing is simply any physical object that people create, from a bridge over a river to the utensils with which we eat…As we create and use things, images, rituals, and language with others, we are sharing not only those items but also what they mean to us. The word we use to summarize this transfer of meaning is culture.

Now there are probably as many definitions and views of culture as there were trees in the garden [of Eden] – but we are going to use the word culture in a very simple way. My good friend Professor Barry Jones would say that the sharing of things, images, rituals, and language mediates three things to us: identity, meaning, and values. Theologian Emil Brunner captured this idea when he wrote that culture is the ‘materialization of meaning.’” (p.47-48)


  • What meaning(s) were being “materialized” during the time the Classical style reigned? What about during the transition to the Gothic style? 
  • What is the “meaning” behind the variety of architectural style we experience now?

**All content unless otherwise noted from The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton . Content for this discussion compiled by Chris Fox