It’s Time for a New Definition of Architectural Beauty

People keen to explain architectural beauty usually take some building already thought beautiful and go on to describe how its various parts create qualities such as harmony, proportion, rhythm, scale and so on. These terms are all borrowed from painting and music and imply that architecture is an art to which similar rules apply. Even if they don’t, choosing something you like and trying to work out what you like about it is not a bad place to start.

Problems begin when we try to convince others. It’s one thing to claim, “I think this is beautiful” and quite another to claim, “This is beautiful!” Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was making a personal claim on behalf of everyone in 1964 when he famously defined pornography as “I know it when I see it.” Over in Europe around the same time, though, post-structuralist thinkers were saying it was fine for anyone to have an opinion on Beauty (or anything else) and what’s more, it didn’t matter how much that opinion was shared with others. This is more or less where we are now but we’re still uncomfortable with total subjectivity. We’re too quick to say, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” at first sign of disagreement. We tiptoe around the concept of Beauty without questioning why we even need such a concept.

We have our cultural history to blame. Ever since those ancient Greeks, Beauty has been thought of as the only aesthetic quality worth worrying about. People strove to create it. They defined ugliness as its absence and blandness as its insufficiency. Buildings that didn’t go far enough were deemed unsuccessful and those that went too far were deemed pretentious. Even so, it was important to try because buildings were either Architecture if they tried, or vernacular or industrial buildings if they didn’t.

This meant that low-cost, utilitarian or mass-produced buildings could never be beautiful no matter how much they might be praised for their economies, efficiencies, simplicities or charm. This was extremely limiting. Until the late 19th century, it wasn’t possible for something to be beautiful if it wasn’t also virtuous. American architect Edward Tuckerman Potter (1831–1904) had a successful and prolific career designing beautiful architecture, such as Mark Twain’s house and the churches that represent 66 of his 79 known buildings. I’m sure he thought they reconciled Beauty and Virtue in architecture. I’m also sure he thought it wasn’t enough because he stopped in 1877 (at the age of 46!) and then went on to design tenement housing and high-rise buildings with the virtues of improved ventilation and daylighting. Only after he stopped designing gorgeous houses and churches did he shed his perceived obligations to architectural beauty and design buildings that, while still virtuous in the spirit of helping one’s fellow man, were also virtuous in more sensible ways.

But at least he did! Our narrow concept of Beauty has forgotten Virtue ever existed and actively prevents us from appreciating any beauty that isn’t visual. Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock took issue with Functionalism and derided it as it as an impoverished aesthetic rather than praise it for the social utility and resource efficiency that made it look like that. Brutalism continues to be condemned as an aesthetic failure rather than praised for its unpretentious economies of resources and processes. The maintenance and management failures of Pruitt Igoe have been used to condemn Modernism as failing Beauty rather than praise its intention to provide socially affordable housing.

There’s a pattern of Beauty being used to downgrade Virtue at work here. Despite our culture and media operating to desensitize us to Virtue, the fact we still take a dim view of buildings constructed by forced labor shows we still have a residual memory of Virtue as a component of architectural Beauty.

We need to restore this atrophied sensitivity to reclaim all the other unseen virtues, such as sustainability and energy performance. With ground source heat pumps there’s nothing to even see, but they are extremely virtuous. We should be looking at buildings using them and have that knowledge affect our evaluation of beauty. If a construction budget is tiny compared to the scale and importance of the task, then seeing the beauty in simple unadorned materials might not only be a good thing but an ethical or moral imperative. With Beauty as it stands, such buildings will be derided as cheap, ugly, and “not advancing the cause of Architecture.” Which is?

We may be currently aware of a need to build more efficiently using locally available materials and inexpensive processes but most other people around the world have done just that for millennia. Our history of architecture is not a useful resource. It merely chronicles the pursuit of Beauty. It has no place for sustainable tombs, energy-efficient palaces or functional places of worship. What it does have is a very strong correlation between architectural beauty and the wealth and power of those that fund it. A Martian could be forgiven for assuming architectural beauty exists to represent wealth and power either directly through unique or expensive materials and processes, or indirectly via the unique or expensive property it occupies.

Some yet-to-be-written history of virtue in architecture will document how fewer and less expensive materials were made to achieve the same ends. Gothic cathedral builders had nowhere near the level of resources of the Romans who, compared with the ancient Egyptians, were downright frugal with their materials and labour. Today, computers and other machinery make it possible to build in less time and with fewer slaves but this is just our way of dealing with those same forces that continue to shape buildings now as they did then, lowly and prestige alike.

Even notions of prestige beauty have to be continually revised downward to accommodate these pressures but never so far as to make architectural Beauty available to all. Top-end notions of architectural beauty make some quality impossible to achieve and flaunt the amount of resources that can be used in an attempt to achieve it. Buildings were never weightless, for example, but one of last century’s architectural preoccupations was for buildings to appear to defy gravity. A later quest for transparency was to involve a similar flaunting of resources. More recent ways to display an abundance of money and resources involve attempting to create the impression something as inorganic as a building is in fact “organic,” that something as artificial as a building is somehow “natural,” that something as static as a building is in fact “self-replicating,” or that something as immobile as a building is in fact “dynamic.” In today’s brave new world of architectural beauty, up is indeed down.

Featured image: Mark Twain House and Museum, via Wikipedia Commons. 


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