Yesterday marked the eightieth anniversary of the death of H. P. Lovecraft, an occasion that provoked a great deal of ambiguous observation in the media, mostly due to the tension between Lovecraft’s genius as a creator of a fictional world and his almost comically absurd levels of racism. In noting the anniversary of his passing, I thought I would break from my usual topics of discussion to talk a bit about one of Lovecraft’s other obsessions, Georgian architecture. As most readers of Lovecraft’s fiction, and especially his letters, know, Lovecraft was obsessed with Georgian and Georgian Revival architecture and found in it the form most pleasing to his sense of aesthetics. “Lifelong antiquarianism has caused me to lay zestful stress on historic backgrounds & traditional architectural minutiae,” he wrote to Fritz Leiber.
I was thinking of this when I read an interesting column in The Spectator discussing a recent report from Britain which found that Georgian architecture was a key factor linking the country’s best places to live. According to columnist Ed West, studies have found that houses with traditional architectural elements (even new ones) sell for 5% to 15% above the price of nontraditional houses. “So why don’t the authorities at local and national level do the obvious thing and make more town centres look like Edinburgh or Cambridge, and so make beauty available to more people?”
That’s a great question, and it’s probably one that Lovecraft would have asked as well. I wonder if the same reverence for tradition would hold here in the United States, where there is less history and whole cities lack any traditional architecture at all. I think that it might, if the McMansion craze is to be taken at face value. These clapboard and foam fantasias draw (badly) on traditional architectural styles and elements, albeit out of proportion and without the fineries of traditional style. But the reach for those forms suggests that Americans would prefer traditional styles, if anyone still knew how to build them correctly. I can recall, for example, a doctor in my hometown who wanted to live in a Victorian house, but he also wanted to live in a ritzy neighborhood, so he built his own from scratch. It was a laughably awful imitation, instantly recognizable as a fake. Similarly, here in Albany, when a Victorian brownstone near the city’s main park burned down and had to be demolished, the owners of the land tried to rebuild it in the traditional style, and whether through changes in material or lack of talent, it sticks out like a sore thumb, its details too simple and its proportions all too wide.
West blamed unloved forms of modern architecture on two things: (a) architects who are aggressively “contrary” in designing buildings at odds with public taste and (b) regulations that prevent traditional architecture in the name of public safety and access. Since the latter doesn’t apply to the United States—where building shapes and ornamentation are generally not regulated aggressively—it does make me wonder why people purposely build ugly buildings that they know people don’t like. West sees the issue as a political one, and he urges conservatives to oppose regulations that restrict Georgian architecture, offering the pseudo-Trump slogan “Make Beauty Affordable Again.” It seems that he sees modern and postmodern architecture as a kind of liberal conspiracy to dehumanize cities and towns.
Lovecraft was in agreement, more or less, writing in a 1927 essay on Vermont, “On the towns of the lower coast the blight of mutation and modernity has descended. Weird metamorphoses and excrescences, architectural and topographical, mark a menacing tyranny of mechanism and vice-royalty of engineering which are fast hurrying the present scene out of all linkage with its historical antecedents and setting it adrift anchorless and all but traditionless in alien oceans…” I’m not sure he entirely saw it in explicitly political terms, but rather that modern capitalism had run roughshod over traditional culture. I imagine that’s also the reason behind strip malls and Walmarts and the bland consumer architecture of modern America, which could use traditional architecture to look like attractive town squares, but choose to be ugly beige nothings, probably because it’s cheaper.
I think that aesthetics play a role in our perceptions and help to shape our view of the world. Ugly buildings can be alienating, and a perceived lack of beauty (even if architects think brutalism and postmodern hodgepodges are lovely) contributes to a perception of alienation and decline. The trouble, though, is deciding what is beautiful. I imagine that in places that lack colonial and Victorian layers, like the new U.S. cities of the south and west, perceptions of beautiful architecture differ from those that do. That’s probably why imposing one style—like the infamous “beige box” style—from coast to coast feels more impersonal and alienating than traditional regional architecture.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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