And make it beautiful…. that’s a tall order.
First you have to figure out how to build it. I’ve tried to build a variety of things, and I know firsthand how often the result can fall short of your initial vision. There is a reason for engineers – they answer the questions that artisans don’t think about. Will it stand? Will it perform its function? Is it safe? Will it bear weight? There is a reason disciplines are segregated, because few people can pull off more than one role at a time. It’s also why there are teams in any building project: one to have vision, one to come up with a detailed plan, a whip to iron out logistics and barriers, lawyers to make it legal, a mechanic to build, and an artisan to make it beautiful.
And yet, in the making of things, beauty seems to have no real purpose. The world could be quite an ugly place, and you could argue that skipping matters of beauty saves money. The thought has occurred to me watching the new builds that have become popular in Oakville. The box-like “modern” homes are a builder’s dream because everything fits together at 90° and the dimensions are likely premised on exact sheets of plywood to save on cutting. No angles to figure out. No particular details that are a challenge. For a finish, slap some stucco onto the exterior. I’m only partially joking… one recent build has left me rather agog because I kept wondering if they were going to “do something” with it. Apparently they were not. They were just going to leave it ugly. It’s just a box with stucco and some slots for windows. Sure hope it’s nice inside. If the residents won’t spare the neighbours I hope that they at least please themselves.
If people wanted proofs there is a God, never mind facts and logistics. How about the existence of beauty? Nature seems at first glance to land on the side of beauty as some kind of random accident. Yet, look at a spider web in the morning dew. Not only an engineering feat, but glistening and in perfect proportion. The same thing if you sight down the rows of a honeycomb and wonder how all those hexagons were made to be perfect. It’s that first chapter of Romans which notes that behind such splendour, there must surely be a God. Beauty seems to be out there waiting to be noticed as if God also has something inextricable to do with human beings.
Nature teaches us that beauty can also be functional. You can see how beauty is practically figured in the art of trim. Mouldings have a venerable past coming from the ancient Greeks who made such details part of the design. Mouldings are just decorated engineering features, like a drip edge to direct rainwater away from the foundations of a structure. You could make a structure shed water in a clumsy way, but it comes back to the issue that if you’re going to make it, why not make it beautiful?
You also can’t fool people. Artists abound who will throw paint at a canvas and charge gullible people wads of cash. The buyers are afraid that asking questions will make them look ignorant. This played out in a recent news item, where a Danish artist was paid almost a hundred thousand dollars, and then handed in two blank canvasses. He even called the art pieces “Take the Money and Run”. The museum smelled a rat and wanted their money back. They asked where the skill and work lay. He responded that the skill was thinking up the idea, and the work was mailing the invoice.
Luckily, most artists are not that dishonest. There’s an artist in every one of us that responds to beauty and knows when we are being had by an inferior substitute. It’s why the famous painter Norman Rockwell would welcome in the postman and the paper boy to offer their opinions on his latests work. He believed that God-spark that recognizes beauty is resident in all of us.
All of this came to mind when I saw a picture of a stairwell from a castle in Slovakia. I have inwardly remarked on such features in European cathedrals, those structures premised on making the masses praise God from sheer audacious beauty. Try to build a basic staircase for something like a patio. You’ll find out that there are codes you must follow. You can’t make a good staircase if you ignore the basic rules. Rise and run are established by convention. Use good tools and perhaps a template for consistency. In the end if you pay attention, you may get a serviceable staircase. Now, make it from stone. There’s another level of skill. Then make it circular. Figure out that rise and run on a curve, and in a way that ascends the interior of a structure in an organized and logical manner that human beings can navigate. Make it so that people won’t slip or stub their toe. Then make it beautiful. It’s not so easy, is it?
Hence the photo of the beautifully executed stone circular stairway took my breath away. It was a feat of that God spark that thinks of beauty, before human beings got too busy and cheap to care. The builders knew that people would pause to catch a breath, so they made beautiful portals along the way where you could enjoy an elegant vista while resting. In case you were inspired to holiness, the vestibules featured sculptures of saints and patriarchs. The builders apparently knew something, that after all these human structures have fallen into ruin, the mystery of beauty is something eternal. Artists may not understand why, but they are at least wise enough to heed that silent voice which plies on their hearts in the process of creating.
The very famous nineteenth Psalm aptly sums up this mystery for us. It begins in a way that should make any artist catch their breath.
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
No sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth.