The Urgency of Beauty

Enjoyable usefulness on a budget

If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.

–William Morris

Have nothing in your house that doesn’t “spark joy,” right? Nothing that doesn’t have a home of its own. Nothing that is in disharmony with the whole. Nothing that isn’t contributing to the smooth operation of the household. Until: the next stack of junk mail arrives, and the cat scratches the couch.

There’s an urgency and insistence in this quote—it’s urging us toward a higher standard. Have nothing in your house that doesn’t match these criteria. A tall order. It doesn’t say how useful or how beautiful, and nothing about how the degree of usefulness or beauty is determined. It also doesn’t acknowledge the budget. The constraints of time and resources that must be traded off in shaping a place into usefulness or beauty. It carries the hint of an perfect destination, in which there’s a place for everything and everything is in its place.

And yet it’s a useful beacon. William Morris is urging us because it’s important. This might be a mantra or scanning signal to tune into as we practice repair, building, and pattern shaping. Is it useful? Is it beautiful? Is it enjoyable? Does it provide enjoyable usefulness? Both the individual objects, and also the relationships between the objects (the centers), and the activities that “keep on happening there.”

Beauty is life-affirming and life-giving. If cut off from beauty, you will feel its removal as a retraction of life.

–Fr. James Neilson

When we’re surrounded by ugly things, or useless and broken things, we feel it as a “retraction of life.” It’s a sense that the place, the patterns, the people haven’t been cared for. They need urgent attention, we must care because wholeness is a necessity. Even with our limited time, energy, and resources, we must urgently and carefully look for ways to do what we can. Don’t rush, don’t delay.

Beauty … is, I contend, no mere accident to human life, which people can take or leave as they choose, but a positive necessity of life.

–William Morris

It doesn’t matter how perfectly beautiful or useful something is—in fact, the things with rough edges and incomplete sketched sections are often more beautiful. “Imperfection” is often a requirement to allow “wholeness and harmony in the whole” to emerge. Rather, what matters is the attempt. It’s enough to see the signs that someone has cared for it the best they could with the time and resources they had. It’s enough to know someone is paying attention.

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.

–Simone Weil

Here in the Pattern Workshop, we’re interested in putting this into practice in the “timeless way of building.” How do we repair, build, and create things that carry the Quality Without a Name? How do we increase the degree of usefulness, beauty, and wholeness in our days, works, and relationships?

There is much more to say on the nuances between beauty and usefulness—both important but incomplete clues toward the Quality Without a Name on their own. But it will need to wait until next time.

For now, I’m making myself a “sensitive recording plate” for signals of usefulness and beauty. An exercise:

  • Acknowledge that you have limited time, energy, and resources. Perfection isn’t the goal.

  • Take 20 minutes to wander the place (your home, your room, your neighborhood), getting a sense of the whole.

  • Ask yourself if you notice anything particularly useful, or beautiful. Or anything particularly… un-useful, or un-beautiful.

  • Ask yourself what you might do to repair or increase the sense of life or beauty or usefulness (by adding, removing, or adjusting).

  • Take that step, no matter how small, and check in to see if you feel an increase in life.

  • If you have more time, repeat the cycle. If not, plan to take another cycle tomorrow. It’s enough to do what you can with what you have.

Christopher Alexander’s “fundamental process”:

  1. At every step of the process—whether conceiving, designing, making, maintaining, or repairing—we must always be concerned with the whole within which we are making anything. We look at this wholeness, absorb it, try to feel its deep structure.

  2. We ask which kind of thing we can do next that will do the most to give this wholeness the most positive increase of life.

  3. As we ask this question, we necessarily direct ourselves to centers, the units of energy within the whole, and ask which one center could be created (or extended or intensified or even pruned) that will most increase the life of the whole.

  4. As we work to enhance this new living center, we do it in such a way as also to create or intensify (by the same action) the life of some larger center.

  5. Simultaneously we also make at least one center of the same size (next to the one we are concentrating on), and one or more smaller centers—increasing their life too.

  6. We check to see if what we have done has truly increased the life and feeling of the whole. If the feeling of the whole has not been deepened by the step we have just taken, we wipe it out. Otherwise we go on.

  7. We then repeat the entire process, starting at step 1 again, with the newly modified whole.

  8. We stop altogether when there is no further step we can take that intensifies the feeling of the whole.

Christopher Alexander in The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth:

The builder has a rough mental conception of the buildings which are to be built. He also has a definite fixed budget. As he starts to build, he is constantly paying attention to the evolving structure, asking all the time, how to make it more "whole"—more deeply connected with the community and the buildings next to it. He has a flexible attitude, looking always for… where things can be improved. Whenever he sees something which is not quite right, or undecided, he starts to make mockups—to see, and evaluate, the right way to make each thing. And, all the time, he is juggling money. The money is fixed. If he just has to put more money into one thing, in order to make it just right, then he also has to take money away from another thing, and accept the roughness or informality that follows. The lack of perfection he accepts in various small ways is the price he pays to achieve wholeness and harmony in the whole.

The emphasis always, every day, by every craftsman, is on the evolving wholeness of the campus, on the satisfaction of the people who are making the buildings, and the fact that they have put their souls in it. It is based on reality.