The “B” Word: How a More Universal Concept of Beauty Can Reshape Architecture

There is a new school of architecture in Naples called “Building Beauty,” run by disciples of the former Berkeley professor Christopher Alexander. The name contains a deliberate reference to a word seldom used by establishment architects today—a word that Alexander believes embodies the natural order of things.


For those who follow science, the word beauty is also appearing frequently, particularly among evolutionary biologists, because birds, frogs, and other organisms seem to have a built-in aesthetic sense that facilitates procreation. How can animals have an “aesthetic”? Yale ornithologist David Prum believes that creatures such as the male flame bowerbird attract females with an elaborate ritual that uses its brilliantly colored feathers and a kind of mating ring on the ground that it has constructed specifically for the purpose. He describes the process as “arbitrary” rather than linked to some function that was required for natural selection, the evolutionary process that Charles Darwin explained in his book On the Origin of Species. And despite some skepticism among biologists, Prum’s theory is beginning to take hold, prompting others to investigate the role of beauty in the natural world. A recent article in the New York Times Magazine had a cover story about his work.


There is likewise an intense interest in what is called “neuroaesthetics” in the expanding field of cognitive science. Art, music, and architecture are getting some long-due attention from neuroscientists as they probe the brain’s capacity to understand the world through the senses, using the environment as a part of the thinking process. Some believe, as Prum does, that beauty in the environment, and among humans, is necessary for the survival and health of Homo sapiens, just as it is among other members of the animal kingdom. Moreover, aesthetic appreciation of beauty is hard-wired into our brains. It is not in “the eye of the beholder,” as we have long been taught. John Onians has published a persuasive book, European Art: A Neuroarthistory, that outlines the ways in which art has reflected cognitive patterns and evolving neural webs in the brains of people from various cultures and environments, from the Paleolithic period to the modern era.


Even more startling is the fact that ornament, the superfluous thing that Leon Battista Alberti said could be “added” to a building to enhance its beauty, is just as necessary. Animals have organic ornament that contributes to their beauty and desirability as mates, even though it may increase their visibility as prey. Puffer fish even construct elaborate rings in the sandy bottom of their habitat to attract mates, and the most elaborate designs produce the best results. Neuroscience has proved that patterns, textures, and edge articulation provide needed cues that allow humans to negotiate their environment.



In his monumental four-volume treatise The Nature of Order, Alexander linked some of the recent findings in evolutionary biology to architecture in discussing the necessity for beauty in the biosphere. Evolutionary development allowed us to survive and flourish precisely by adopting certain specific preferences for beautiful natural things. This is now being recognized in the developing discipline of “biophilia,” or the love of living things and their structures.


A fascinating new Italian journal, Intertwining, brings many of these ideas together. The Italian neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese has joined with the noted architect and educator Juhani Pallasmaa to initiate collaborations between like-minded scientists and designers around the world, many of whom support the theory of embodied cognition. If the first issue is any indication, this melding of art, science, and design will change the way we look at the designed environment. In his new book, From Object to Experience, Harry Francis Mallgrave urges designers to embrace the experience of architecture as their users do and abandon the longstanding obsession with form and object qualities. He correctly asks why the social dimension of design has been largely forgotten in contemporary practice: “Nothing is more important to human happiness and the expression of love than our socialization. Artistic expression is but a manifestation of this stepping stone of its development. Our penchant for ritualization, gestures and play, our cultivation of beauty and our sense of community—all are connected with this shared social ethos fundamental to our beings.” Contrary to what social scientists believed in the mid-20th century, humans in all cultures have a shared sense of what is beautiful that has been nurtured by experience.


One of the fascinating discoveries shared by biologists and brain researchers is the realization that places and specific environmental features contribute to the organism’s development of “aesthetic” preferences. Rainforest species cultivate colorful features and use green as camouflage, whereas desert creatures develop earth tones and lighter colors in their skin or outer layers. Likewise all traditional artifacts and folk arts, including architecture, are based on the materials and colors of the particular environment in which their producers live. Only architecture of the past century has renounced these regional characteristics—even so-called “critical” regionalism. A new research group founded in Stockholm in 2016, Place Science, has proposed a program that may yield data on how humans experience a sense of place, using tools available commercially as well as among university researchers.


The expanding cohort of researchers and designers who attend the biennial conferences of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) are involved in bringing aesthetic issues into the discussion of how the brain works. Many are connected to the healthcare professions because it’s clear that beauty in the therapeutic environment plays a role in healing. Johns Hopkins established the first medical institute for the study neuroaesthetics in 2016, presenting its first results at that year’s ANFA meeting. Strangely, few leaders of architectural programs attended the meeting, and even fewer seem to be aware of the research presented there. Tom Fisher, former dean at the University of Minnesota’s School of Architecture, indicated that his fellow deans scoffed at the idea of teaching neuroscience to architects when he broached the subject a few years ago.


Still, it is startling to learn that the deans of Northeast architecture schools are paranoid about young people following “postmodern” critiques of Modernism during the 1970s and 1980s, as it shows how entrenched these head-in-the-sand theoreticians are in our schools of architecture. You won’t hear any them cheering for the scientists who continue to show how beauty affects our health, happiness, and well-being. They don’t even use the word to praise the work of their best students, because it was banished long ago from establishment discourse. Like ornament, traditional aesthetic concepts of the true and the beautiful were stricken from the canon by Modernists after the 1920s and have seldom been discussed since. I emphasize seldom, because there was certainly debate about these ideas during the 1970s, and I participated in it as a student.  


So-called postmodern texts such as Learning From Las Vegas unveiled the faulty logic behind these attacks on the timeless, humanistic basis of visual design, first discussed by Vitruvius in the first century B.C.E. Instead of a balance between firmitas, utilitas, and venustas, Modernism gave us “utility + firmness = delight,” according to Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour. We continue to embrace that preposterous formula today. Scientists aren’t fooled by it any more, so why should architects continue to emphasize the “functional” and the “tectonic” in aesthetic criteria? As I have argued in previous essays on Common Edge, ignorance of 20th century history is no excuse for flaccid pronouncements about Postmodern aesthetics being a byproduct of Reaganism or MAGA, or attacks on authors who espouse views that criticize the academic establishment.


Beauty isn’t political or ideological. It is connected to our development as a species and will always be a vital concern to those who want our society to be just, equal, and concerned with the truth—which is, yes, beautiful to behold. John Keats and Friedrich Schiller were not wrong about the necessary relationship between two things we believe are fundamental to our humanity, and one of them begins with “B.”



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