The Historical Spectator.

How We Lost Beauty

Introducing his book How to Study Architecture, Charles H. Caffin argues that beauty is as essential as utility in civilization, and the placement of utility above beauty is a relapse into something worse than barbarism. Mr. Caffin died in 1918, the year after this book was published, so fortunately for him he did not live to see the complete triumph of utility over beauty.

Architecture is the science and art of building structures that, while in most cases they serve a useful purpose, are in all cases designed and built with a view to beauty. Their motive is beauty as well as utility.

In certain instances, as, for example, the triumphal arch, the motive may seem to have been solely one of beauty. On the other hand, when we recall that the arch was erected as a memorial to some great man or some great exploit—the Arch of Titus, for example, commemorating this general’s capture of Jerusalem—the imposing dignity of the structure, by compelling attention and exciting admiration, would actually serve the purpose for which it was erected.

Indeed, the distinction which people are apt to draw between the useful and the beautiful is not necessarily so sharp as is supposed and is largely founded upon ignorance or a mistaken attitude toward life. The tendency to be satisfied with the utility of a thing and to regard beauty as a fad, impractical and wasteful, shows that, although our civilisation may have progressed in some respects, it has fallen back in others. For there is nothing more surely certain in the history of human progress, than that, while primitive man had to exercise his ingenuity in providing for the necessities of life and in the making of tools, implements, utensils, and so forth to achieve his needs, he was not satisfied that his work should be merely useful. He had a mind to make it pleasing in shape and by means of ornament. And this attention to beauty grew as men grew in civilisation, becoming most conspicuous as their civilisation reached its highest point; and continued through the ages, until machinery began to replace the individual craftsman.

For the individual craftsman, responsible for making a thing from start to finish, must, if he is worth a hill of beans, take a personal pride in making it as well as he can. As the Bible relates of the Supreme Creator, “And God saw everything that he had made and, behold, it was very good.” And the craftsman, so long as he is free to create out of his own knowledge and his own feeling, must be able to feel this, because there is an instinct in him, an imperative need of his own nature, that he shall be proud of his work. It is a wonderful fact of human nature that when it works freely, putting forth all its capacities, it is prompted by this instinct, not only to make useful things but also to make them well and as beautiful as may be.

But gradually machinery took away the workman’s control of his work. He ceased to design, lay out, and carry through all the details of his work to a finish. He has come to be intrusted with only a part of the operation, and that is performed under the control of a machine that turns out the work with soulless uniformity. The craftsman has degenerated into a repeater of partial processes; he has become the servant of a machine; a cog in a vast mechanical system. And, with the development of high power machines the output of production has been increased, until quantity rather than quality has tended to become the ambition of the system.

It has followed as a logical result of this taking away from millions of men and women the privilege of being individual craftsmen, creators of their own handiwork, that they have grown indifferent to the quality of the work turned out; taste, which means the ability to discriminate between qualities, has diminished and a general indifference to the element of beauty has ensued.

From How to Study Architecture by Charles H. Caffin. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1917.