The Brutal Functionalism of the Modern World

The modern world is, in many ways (and with little energy required to find examples), quite ugly. It is not that someone has attempted to make something beautiful but through lack of imagination or lack of will, mutilated the task. Rather, we live in a world that is seemingly unconcerned with beauty altogether.

On the left: the homogenous, grey steel structure commanding every street in Melbourne. It has been designed in such a way that the absolute minimum amount of material has been utilised in order to achieve the goal. One vertical pole, two horizontal joiners for lights, and two diagonal beams for support. It is brutal in its dedication to function and utter disinterest in anything else. This structure is not here to play games, it has a job to do. It is a very serious light. The structure on the right could come from another world, and in a sense, it does. Far more iron has been used than would be necessary to hold up the light. But that is, in a sense, the point, the flourishing waves and curls revel in the excess that is its mark of beauty. It is the very fact that the cascading form of swirls is utterly useless and unnecessary that makes it beautiful. Someone did something entirely unnecessary for our benefit. It is beautiful because it is not just a light; it is a delightful play of contrast between stiff iron yet fragile watery patterns, designed not merely to work, but to be enjoyed.

It is not just street lights that the brutal functionalism of our world reveals itself. Our food is much the same. Think of fast food. The worker might as well be a machine considering how they are treated as mere functions. Mustard, ketchup, onion, pickle, patty. Repeat. There is no love in the fast food experience.[1] It is food as fuel. Food reduced to the lowest common denominator. It is food as input, soon to be expunged as output. One does not savour the flavour or lounge (thus the ‘fast’ in fast-food). Fast food restaurants are devoid of all the things that make eating a humbling and joyful experience because it is not about food; it is about brutal functionalism in the pursuit of efficiency and productivity.

This is not just the case with lights or fast food. One can, with minimal effort, come up with myriad examples. We buy our plants in black plastic pots, devoid of substance and imagination, rather than terracotta or clay. We go to IKEA to buy chipboard furniture rather than visit craftspeople or antique stores.

Perhaps the reason we are all so interested in clothing fashion is because it is one of the few spaces remaining that has not been taken over by zealous devotion to functionalism. The day it is we will all be walking around in grey one-piece suits.

Skyscrapers and housing estates, tables and chairs, dinner plates and cutlery, phones and books; they are all mass produced items like street lights and McDonald’s hamburgers that are devoid of any love, care, and devotion. They are not made with an interest in making something beautiful for its own sake. So, we must ask ourselves, what is it that they are created according to? To what standard? According to what values?

The objects we see are produced according to the standards of efficiency and productivity. These second rate reasons serve a higher value: profit. It is simply more profitable to produce black plastic pots than to invest in terracotta with all the useless (yet wonderful) flourishes. Yet, in the process, something incredibly important is lost: beauty.

Unfortunately, we are not simply buyers and sellers living in a marketplace. We are people, people who wish to live in a world that is inspiring and moving. Art should not be reserved for museums or galleries, art should be a part of daily life, where society itself is a canvas for the flourishing of human creativity.

The notion that we should not or even worse, cannot make our society more beautiful because it would cost too much money is like saying you cannot build the desk you want because it would take too many centimetres. By living according to how much something does or does not cost, we have created a world where efficiency and productivity are the benchmarks for success, instead of how something inspires us, or makes us stop and wonder.

We may have saved ourselves a lot of money in building our street lights the way we did, but we lost something else in the process, something that we will never be able to compute on a profit & loss spread-sheet: we lost an opportunity to make society a work of art.


[1] Like with sex, sometimes we don’t want love, we just want pleasure. It may feel good, but it certainly isn’t beautiful, and there is only so long that pleasure can substitute for beauty.

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