Although our society expects to find aesthetic pleasure in the built environment and depends on architects to produce it, for years now the concepts of “aesthetics” and “beauty” have been fading from design theories and manifestoes. And further, for many in the design and construction world, “aesthetics” is still an enigma—vague, unquantifiable, hopelessly personalized. Yet, the potential and the desire for aesthetic pleasures are clearly latent in all of us: over millennia, our species has continued to dedicate immense resources—time, wealth, and committed lifetimes—just to create and to honor those pleasures.
Most of us describe these pleasures as encounters with beauty, excellence, art, or a form of truth, and we have a rich and fascinating literature that explores the qualities that each of these words describe. And that’s one place to look for practical guidance. But for a designer to learn how they can cause these qualities to emerge, day by day, out of the creative ferment of a design process, it’s more useful to understand the subjective human experience that makes us say them: the pleasure of feeling a breathtaking, spellbinding lucidity; enlightenment; surging warmth; and the thrill of fulfillment, a search rewarded; or a sense of transcendence.
The actual range, details, and intensity of these feelings—of a person’s aesthetic experiences—depend on both an innate sensitivity and cultivated personal skills, an interacting of nature and nurture. Multiple parts of the brain are involved, and as learning, beliefs, and habits alter the architecture of a brain through a lifetime, each individual’s experience necessarily comes to vary in scope and passion. Professionals and educated elites, whose training has created and organized more specialized, open neural pathways in a brain, enjoy the pleasure of reading more “languages” in more depth and dimensions, but they’re not alone. Children, in their own earnest endeavors, have in some measure a parallel awareness. And at its core, our human nature is enough alike that millions of us have shared aesthetic judgments across continents, through cultural revolutions, and over millennia. Designers can learn why.
In our mind and body, aesthetic experience, like other pleasures, is a “reward.” It signals we’re doing something “right,” something that enhances our well-being, a civilized word for biological survival. And like those other pleasures, it arises spontaneously, at many levels, in everyday life. It may be what is most alive inside us.
Aesthetic experience, as art historian E. H. Gombrich pointed out, is not confined to works in the fine arts. Even in fleeting moments, we take great pleasure in recognizing excellence in performance, of exceptional ingenuity or fitness-to-purpose. We respond to the art of effective problem-solving. The pleasure of thinking “handsome is as handsome does” or saying “beautiful,” is not somehow above or beyond “function;” it’s linked to our biological ability to detect what will promote our own winning, survival, and prosperity.
In this connection, New Yorkers may say words to the effect that “not getting too hung up on beauty is what makes life possible and exciting here.” But the city is filled with excellence—extraordinary design and engineering, applied human competence and energy—enhanced survival, prosperity and mastery at a high level. And tens of millions of people travel across oceans and continents just to experience the pleasure of being there to feel part of it.
Another dimension of aesthetic pleasure is added when we can read ourselves into the on-going “story” of a place—something larger than ourselves. What we build—especially “home” territories—are like accomplices in our lives, and when they trigger the rewarding body chemistry of possession or belonging and bonding, we say “beautiful.”
The same happens when we find an ideology, especially one reflecting our own values or personal moral vision, expressed and reaffirmed in a place we’ve built. Or when we discover a conceptual order and what feel like “essences,” we take pleasure in the clarity of ideas or our mastery of theories, as they make puzzling pieces fall into place. It happens as discoveries emerge in mathematics and the sciences as well as in design. And while the subject matter may be intellectual and the realization symbolic, the experience is still visceral and emotional, and we say “beautiful.”
We find another dimension in the beauty of nature. Our lives are utterly dependent on the health of our ecosystems, and we find an aesthetic pleasure in their fertility, in their awesome scale and power, their cycles of rebirth, purposeful flows, inherent mysteries and surprises, all expressed in vivid stories told in light, color, space, sounds, tastes, and scents.
Woven through each of these experiences, and, in a sense, at their essence, is our direct visceral perception and a kind of mapping or simulation, the proprioception within ourselves of the physical forms and movements surrounding us. Architecture is a body-centered art, and, in Geoffrey Scott’s words, we “recreate in ourselves, imaginatively, the physical conditions suggested” by our environment. And this is not optional; it’s everyday life. We have extraordinary detection skills in our sensory systems, and we mirror sensations of spaces, boundaries, weights, rhythms, proportions, shelter, thrust or repose—an arch that springs or a line that soars—and temperatures, sounds and scents. Then when a place satisfies a search or stirs impulses that we enjoy within ourselves, we experience the “delight” that’s inherent in the art of architecture. We feel, in a sense, a “beauty for its own sake.”
In return, we attribute human qualities to the places we build. And they are all perceived within a body-chemistry of human energy and desire that the Greeks called eros—the pattern of inborn instincts to pursue gratifications that create and continue life. Reproduction and the erotic, of course, but also the warmth of passionate attraction, committing, and possessing, add a compelling power—an aesthetic level—to the sensory responses
These responses, when they arouse intense feelings, naturally focus our attention, and then our imagination follows and tends to release us out of the preoccupations of our constricted daily life into the enhanced reality of this new experience. Descriptions of the release, this momentary sense of transcendence, are found all across the spectrum of human experience: in drug-induced escapes, of course, but also in meditation, or in the feelings called “flow,” or being “transported,” or “in the zone.” In those moments of heightened awareness, warped time, amazingly clear perception and concentration, you sense you’re exceeding yourself. Then, in that state, you’re feeding survival-based imperatives: to learn, to explore, and come to live in a deeper, richer reality of human existence in the world where we evolved.
Encountering architecture, landscapes, and urban places, many of us, released and inspired by the fresh insights, go on to identify with the extraordinary abilities of the human beings who created this environment. Emotionally, viscerally, experiencing what they’ve done, we sense we’re sharing in artistry at the peak of human power, and in those moments of resonance we recognize a human nature not unlike our own. We sense a kinship, a bonding, and that we’re encountering in their artistry what is also latent in ourselves.
Beauty, then, is not a characteristic of a place, but a word used to describe a feeling, or more precisely, the body chemistry, aroused by the complex perceptions of the beholder. At the core of what we call aesthetic experience is a pattern of reward circuits that we bring to life with our design. And they gain power as they’re woven into our primal drives for insight, bonding, and transcendence. We’ve released our innate ability to reach outside ourselves and participate in a performance, feeling for a moment that we’re sharing in the most effective skill or wisdom that human creativity has ever had to offer.
This essay is an excerpt from the author’s book, A New Look at Humanism.
All drawings by Albrecht Pichler, courtesy of Meadowlark Publishing.