I’m not in love with the modern world

By Hannah Sparks

Amanda Joinson/Collegian

The Fine Arts Center is ugly, especially when it rains, and its layout is bizarre to say the least. Herter Hall is equally as ugly, and a creepy tunnel connects it to the unattractive Bartlett Hall. In fact, most of the buildings on campus – the Campus Center, Worcester and Franklin dining commons and the concrete jungle, Southwest – aren’t very pretty.

It’s nothing personal, and certainly not unique to UMass. All over the world, ugly buildings stand as monuments to our recent architectural past. Many of them were designed in the Brutalist style, an offshoot of Modernism that became the dominant style after World War II, when devastated European nations were looking for cheap ways to rebuild. Brutalism, so named by Swiss architect Le Corbusier for the use of a type of raw concrete called “Béton brut,” fit the bill.

Its structural integrity, bare-bones simplicity, and lack of bourgeois frills caused Brutalism to take hold in Communist countries as well. While Communism failed in Eastern Europe, relics of that history still loom. Even in countries not looking to rebuild or reboot, Brutalism caught on as a futuristic aesthetic and helps explain why so many ugly buildings dot our campus.

Now that it is the “future,” however, they feel dated and even alien, reminders of a time after one war and full of fear of another.

“Form follows function,” a phrase coined by American architect Louis Sullivan, was a Modernist idea that came to take on a near moral significance that still has resonance today. Case in point: ugliness is so familiar to those born and raised in modern America that many view it as nearly comforting. The sight I look forward to most when returning home is getting off the highway and driving down the familiar stretch of road containing, amongst other things, gas stations, fast-food joints and a 7-Eleven just before the turn onto my street. And in a strange way, these ugly things feel like home.

However, sometimes I wonder if the love of the ugly reflects in me is only an adaptation to what British philosopher Roger Scruton calls the “cult of ugliness.” Its advocates believe that the modern world is so random and meaningless that it is irredeemable by art, and so in the past century or so, art has increasingly sought to shock or disgust audiences in an attempt to make statements or break certain taboos. Scruton wonders if the world will be made even more meaningless if we lose truly beautiful art as an escape from our often difficult lives.

Scruton notes that in our modern utility-based society, “something has a value if it has a use,” and sarcastically asks, “What’s the use of beauty?” Beauty does indeed have a vital use, but it’s not one that is immediately obvious.

Beauty feeds people in important personal and spiritual ways often glossed over in modern culture. As someone who is interested more in “humanities” topics than “useful” topics, I’m often met with questions such as, “What’re you going to do with that?” or, worse, “Why not study something useful, like science or math?”

There is no denying the usefulness of science and math, but we must keep in mind that usefulness is not a zero-sum game. Without “useless” artists and thinkers evaluating and questioning the onward march of progress, creativity and beauty run the risk of being stamped out, labeled as excessive and not deserving of time and attention.

Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. There are beautiful things, natural and manmade, all around.

On the UMass campus, the Old Chapel and buildings such as Stockbridge hall or the dorms of upper Central pay homage to a prettier past. Without some knowledge of why we’re losing our grasp on the truer beauty of earlier times, however, as those buildings deteriorate, so will our memories of a time before concrete slabs and geometric walls. Connoting beauty through utility, as proponents of Brutalism have, leads one to believe that things that are actually beautiful like novels or poems or works of art or marvels of nature aren’t worth anything because they don’t have a practical use.

Scruton’s other modern cult, the cult of utility, dominates our modern landscape and devalues those seemingly useless things that are extremely important to our spiritual and aesthetic lives, lives many people forget we actually live. We live them quietly, so quietly in fact that the loudness of modern life can drown them out. Don’t let this happen.

Hannah Sparks is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]