From City Journal:
One of Dickens’s villains boasts that he’s never moved by a pretty face, for he can see the grinning skull beneath. That’s realism, he says. But it’s a strange kind of realism that can look through life in all its vibrancy to focus only on death.
Much of today’s architecture brings that misanthrope to mind. Beauty? For our advanced culture, it’s as spectral as classical philosophy’s two other highest values: the good and the true. A building might be cutting-edge, boundary-breaking, transgressive. But simply beautiful? The arts have transcended such illusions.
A pity. Part of the pleasure of metropolitan life is the pre–World War II city’s manifold loveliness. When you see the illuminated Chrysler Building glowing through the evening fog, or walk by the magnolias blooming in front of Henry Frick’s museum, ravishing outside and in, or gaze up at the endlessly varied historicism of lower Broadway’s pioneering skyscrapers, you know you are Someplace—someplace where human inventiveness and aspiration have left lasting monuments proclaiming that our life is more than mere biology and has a meaning beyond the brute fact of mortality. Like all our manners and ceremonies, from table etiquette to weddings, beauty in architecture humanizes the facts of life. So we don’t want a machine for living—a high-tech lair to service our animal needs—but rather a cathedral, a capitol, a home, expressive of the grandeur, refinement, urbanity, and coziness of which our life is capable.
Two recent Manhattan buildings gracefully exemplify the life-affirming architectural humanism I have in mind. First is a gemlike house at 5 East 95th Street, just east of Central Park, by celebrated London architect John Simpson, designer of the enchanting Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace. Completed late in 2005, it looks like an independent townhouse but is, in fact, an extension of the landmarked Beaux-Arts mansion at 3 East 95th Street that Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer designed in 1913 for Marion Carhart, a banker’s widow, who died before she could move in. In 1935, the Lycée Français bought the house, and years of high-energy students left the structure battered by the time the school sold it to a Hong Kong–based developer in 2001. Layers of battleship-gray paint covered the first floor of its grimy limestone street wall; the interior, with its institutional bathrooms and fire doors, had grown shabby; and a jerry-built, three-story 1950s annex, resembling an auto-body shop, adjoined it at 5 East 95th.