Seventy-five years ago, an English poet described what he called “the modern problem:” that is, “of living in a society in which men are no longer supported by tradition without being aware of it.” The individual who “wishes to bring order and coherence” into his mental life and inner experience must therefore do “for himself what in previous ages had been done for him by family, custom, church, and state.” The break with immemorial traditions that this poet had in mind initially took the form of what would later be called “modernism”—a term broad enough to cover the difficulty of a T.S. Eliot, the deviations of a Picasso, and the dissonance of a Stravinsky.
One could question whether these figures simply articulated their age’s spiritual and cultural crisis or whether, with their aggressive, norm-breaking works, they actually amplified it. In any case, the crisis was real. And while one could avoid the products of these avant-garde artists easily enough, the experiments of modernism soon migrated from literary journals, galleries, and concert halls. In the mid-20th century, cities became the canvas for modernist experiments, where the break with traditions became inescapable. “Brutalism,” one of the most aptly named styles of modernist architecture, was savagely inserted into civic spaces which had maintained their own intergenerational dialogue of development for centuries, deafening, punishing concrete blocks and slabs. Other similar styles imposed different kinds of primitive utilitarian shapes: curved and angular structures of enormous size mocked and humiliated their surroundings; even now, their presence is a cruel and whimsical jest on an inhuman scale—and all, in some sense, at our expense.
If the architects of the 20th century made our cities metaphorically “unlivable” by depriving them of beauty, the economy of the 21st century is turning this description into an all-too-literal truth. To put the matter bluntly, Canadian families can no longer afford to live in houses. In February of 2022, the average house price in Canada was one-fifth higher than the previous year. In Ontario, for instance, the average home price is now over a million dollars. And a Scotia Bank poll found that 62 per cent of Canadians under the age of 34 are delaying their plans to buy a home; the number of all Canadians who say they are doing the same is 43 per cent.
In a situation like this, how can families thrive? How can the traditional pillars of social stability—marriage and the family unit—offer any support when so much pressure prevents them from being established in the first place? We know only too well how fiercely our culture militates against marriage: pornography, immodesty, and casual sex are ubiquitous in all forms of media; and technology only makes these virtue-corroding practices more accessible and further normalized by the day. But ours is not simply a culture inimical to its own stability at the level of virtue and spiritual health: we are entering into a world where family formation itself is becoming practically impossible.
If culture is a kind of “moral architecture”—the spiritual, intellectual, and artistic space in which we live and breathe—it should be no surprise that physical architecture is both a catalyst for cultural changes and a consequence of such changes as well. A culture that does not encourage the formation of families will produce young professionals, living alone or in transient pairs, who bid up the cost of living by making the income that ought to support future generations disposable on themselves. Likewise, a young family that wants to flourish in such an economy encounters a land of thorns and thistles. It’s true that poverty is a Christian virtue; but the involuntary imposition of poverty on a people that simply wants to receive the natural blessings of hearth and home is something that we must contest. Moreover, we must oppose the alarming policies that exacerbate this distressing situation.
Why, for example, does Canada have the lowest number of housing units per 1000 residents in the G7? And why, with one of the slowest “build rates” in the G7, are welcoming immigrants—not refugees fleeing from war or disaster—at a higher rate than other G7 countries? Is such upward pressure on house prices, at some level, by design? Do these increasing costs put Canadians into orchestrated situations where living in small, rented, urban cubes is their only choice? Tellingly enough, behavioural economists would characterize such situations as the result of “choice architecture,” wherein carefully arranged contexts give the illusion of freedom even while options are radically—and intentionally—constrained. We need to wonder whether the housing crisis that we now face isn’t quietly but obviously furthering an end that our politicians would call “sustainable” but to which we must, instead, give the name “inhumane.” Our leaders, we are assured, would never demand that we live in pods and graze only on environmentally-friendly plant-based fare; such suspicions, we are told, are baseless and preposterous conspiracy theories. And yet that grim, green world comes nearer to us with every passing year.
To live in houses within neighbourhoods; to raise children in societies which do not menace them with murder before birth and pervert them with unending corruption thereafter; to live nothing more than the lives of our parents, grandparents, and previous generations—these are not luxuries which are unreasonable to demand. We want to live in a world where the only obstacle to the practice of the virtues is our own fallen nature, where the “moral architecture”—of our economies, our built environments, our traditions, and our culture as a whole—is a help and not a hindrance. In desiring these good things, we are not asking too much; indeed, by not doing so, we ask far too little.