The beauty of the city

Imre KÖRMENDY

(From previous issue No.31)

The beauty of the city was studied many times in many ways, and was thought to be discovered in several forms. The beauty of the city is geometric order for some, or else the apparent or actual disorder, irregularity. Some people recognize the artistic, unique, historic value of individual buildings and details; others see the beauty of colours, materials, turrets, roofs or pediments. Several scholars studied the interrelations. Some get pleasure from great projects like avenues, boulevards, architectural ensembles, parks and attractions, others discover or tend to discover the local spirit and attraction in small aspects like a fine detail or a crooked solution or else a memorial site. Some prefer tightness, narrow streets; others give preference to spaciousness and placid spatial proportions, high elevations or extensions. Some are convinced about the beauty of artificial, manmade environments, others celebrate the towns adjusted, lost or hidden in the natural environment.

Casa verde

Casa verde

Recently a new phenomenon emerged in Pest, the world of ruin pubs (“romkocsma”). It is popular mainly among young people; has even become the theme of a university thesis. At first one easily classifies this phenomenon as a frolic of the youth (Juventus ventus), a way of quest and revolt. (The ordered built environment symbolizes for them the social order, where they do not have a place, or they do not find it, where the role allotted for them does not meet their expectations, does not harmonize with their self evaluation. Or else it may just be a fashion, nostalgia...). However, if one tries to go deeper into thoughts and literature, one may attain interesting discoveries. In Sándor Weöres’ Talks on beauty one can read for instance:

“My friend, the painter Árpád Illés told me once:
—There is nothing distasteful in Nature. What is more: it even corrects human distastefulness. Take a look at a tram-car: a blatant matchbox, painted yellow. But if you watch the city from the mountain top, colours match each other, and even those moving little yellow trams enrich the view. Or take an ugly chandelier you can see in most of the bourgeois flats: take it to the forest, bury it in the ground among the roots, then go and uncover it after a few months, and you will see that nature will have beautified it as much as she could.”
„What follows was told to me by him and other painters:
—It’s worth observing the splodges, cracks on damp, withering walls. There aren’t any pleasenter contours, more beautiful groups of colours anywhere. The brief or scattered forms of the splodges, the thick or thousandstringed lines of the cracks are full of harmony to an extent that human art can reach only in its clearest eras. Having the utmost colour variations, the greenish, bluish, yellowish shades of grey are reddish, dull-green, rusty colours, always in a simple and powerful harmony. But the eyes of men are accustomed to the rattletraps of the fair, and find it difficult to orientate towards the divinely beautiful.”

The growth of plants on abandoned buildings, life breaking through the walls may be a magic of nature if we discover its beauty or beautifying effect. If creping ivy is allowed to grow outside the planned holder, it will frame and shape the covered surface. If one turns pages in other books, one can find another poet’s journal. János Pilinszky wrote in his excellent book entitled Á propos of a city about his walks in Dubrovnik:

“In Dubrovnik the houses are built of white stone, which could be the sibling of the whitest marble. The rain, wind and time wore slowly this white stone flat and even like wax, and by magic put gentle surfaces on the walls like human skin on the bright face of a child or the wonderful hand of an old man.”

Because of the significance of the anthropomorphic approach – highlighting human similarities in the world of architecture – let us take a glance at works of art about human beauty. Chiara Lubich, an outstanding 20th century author wrote the following:

“Our eyes may not be accustomed to see beauty or can only see the natural beauty of human life, because our soul is rough. Though what is more beautiful before God: the innocent face of a child, which is so bright and alive like nature itself; or the brilliant youth of the young girl, which is fresh like the flower with opening petals; or else the old man with wrinkled face, white hair and bent back, who is so helpless, awaiting death only?... these all are different beauties. One is more beautiful than the other, And the last is the most beautiful.....the wrinkles and lines drawn on the brow of the old, their bent bearing, trembling movements; their words expressing life experience and wisdom; gentle countenance, childish and female at the same time: this is a beauty which we do not recognize.”

Reflections on these quotes bring us towards the understanding why people are attracted to old buildings, streets, neighbourhoods. These are like elderly
people with lots of experience and wisdom, who are eager to talk about history, about the bygone times, and who let us know from where we are coming and what we are building on.

“The honestly worn stairways and loose door handles and in the building the thick, truthful columns awe everyone who enters”

– wrote Gyula Illyés about the building of the French National Convent, and these words are relevant for ordinary houses or neighbourhoods.
Weöres describes this notion in his essay on the Beauty of the young and the old:

“The young face, with its constantly changing happy and sad fairies: a glittering, whirling, seducing beauty. The old face with its solid forms and
the even net of wrinkles: [is] not seducing, [is] sublime, [is a] calm beauty that exists in itself. People of today are yanked by sensuality, know
only the seducing beauty, and only a few have eyes for the powerful beauty of the old face. And they mostly disfigure their young faces and form
the poster of their sexuality from it; and disfigure also their old faces, because they safekeep the miserable wreck of youth on it.”

These lines of thought may be relevant for the juxtaposition of contemporary architecture and the old buildings of the cities. The new buildings do not necessarily bear erotic signs but rather the efforts to be different, trendy, fashionable and exceptional. On the old, shabby houses the partial renovation of a detail
– a shop, a balcony, a few windows or a part of the eaves or of a wing – makes a grotesque appearance. The renewal of a part instead of the whole architectonic
unit is no more than a miserable effort to make younger appeariance. Walt Whitman said that “The young are beautiful - but the old are more beautiful than the young”. These words refer to inner beauty, to the love for elderly men and women, and they also explain why many people are attracted to old houses, streets, neighbourhoods: because they have served, provided many people with homes, protection, joy and life.

/read the rest of this post in issue No.31/

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