Colin Ellard Ph.D.

Mind Wandering

The Flames of Notre Dame Teach Us the Importance of Beauty

A catastrophe throws our attachment to beauty into perspective.

Posted Apr 19, 2019

LeLaisserPasserA38 [CC BY-SA 4.0]
Notre Dame in flames
Source: LeLaisserPasserA38 [CC BY-SA 4.0]

I learned that Notre Dame was burning just as I was making my way to address an auditorium filled with a crowd of architectural cognoscenti. It was a special event at international design firm HKS Architecture’s Dallas headquarters. As an experimental psychologist specializing in psychogeography, my mission was to try to convince the crowd of the power of beauty.

My experimental work shows that the aesthetic values of architectural design exert a measurable impact on brain and body that can be large enough to reduce physiological stress and extend life. Building facades that lack interest, complexity, and attractiveness bore us so much that they put our nervous systems to sleep and change our brain and body chemistry. Designs that inspire awe make us kinder people and may even help our bodies build resilience to disease. Beauty restores and heals; ugliness degrades and sickens. In my address, I wanted to push a roomful of keen fans of good design a little further down the path to beauty. I wanted to convince them that architectural ugliness can be fatal.

My hosts, fascinated as much as I was by the sad serendipity of the moment, encouraged me to address the fire in Paris in my speech. But I couldn’t do it. I knew that if I tried, it would feel like giving a eulogy for a dear friend. I was worried that my voice would crack, I would feel the creeping paralysis of verklempt muteness, and my talk would end in awkward silence and embarrassed shuffling towards to the post-talk reception. All of this for a building I have visited exactly twice.

Many of us have now seen the searing images of the emotional impact of the loss of the building written on the faces of those witnessing the conflagration. We’ve heard of people who have never seen the building breaking down with grief at the loss. We are hurting. We are hurting, we say, because of the loss of an iconic building immortalized in film and literature. We are hurting because of the loss of a symbol of France’s history. Of civilization itself.

Well, maybe. Or maybe it is because of a sense that an increasingly rare and treasured resource, beauty, is on life support. Maybe it's because in our bones, we know that we may never again see a time when it is tenable to design and build structures whose main purpose is to elicit awe, an awareness of immensity combined with an experience of epiphany—a building that can actually reset one’s world view. A building that can change who we are—and for the better. 

We live in a world that is increasingly bereft of beauty—a built world that looks like a Corbusian fantasy of machinic sleek surfaces and blank forms. This world honors speed and efficiency at the cost of awe-inspiring adornment and leisurely appreciation of the simple pleasure of a good aesthetic.

French President Emmanuel Macron is working to lift spirits and to convince his country—and the world—that even though the grand old Dame has suffered a mortal blow, there is still hope that she can be restored. Crowdfunding campaigns have been invoked. We are voting in the currency of our choosing for the power of beauty. I want to believe him, but I’m struck by a delicious irony: While I spend a good deal of my professional life trying to convince those who hold the reins of power over the apportionment of beauty in the built world that beautiful, meaningful design matters, the outpouring of grief, support, and cash for a structure that very few of us really knew in the flesh suggests that in our bones, we know the real truth of this catastrophe. 

The truth is that beauty moves. Beauty matters. In a world increasingly preoccupied with the virtual, the digital, the instant gratification of a pulse of electrons, a pristine, frictionless sheet of glass or steel and the holy grail of the Return on Investment, the tactile qualities of a structure built with care, adornment, and attention to detail matter as much as they ever have. More, because we know that such structures are disappearing and are irreplaceable.

Let’s use the fire as impetus to drive us to an obvious conclusion: Beautiful design can help to make us better. Let’s save Notre Dame, certainly. But let’s remember why this building, and others like it, matter so much to us and use that lesson to mobilize for a beautiful future.