In the West, we tend to look at a paradox as something to resolve. It feels easier to resort to the binary oppositions that pervade the structures with which we are taught to think, with issues defined in black and white and hard lines drawn between good and evil, wisdom and ignorance, dominance and supplication. This is not a wise way to navigate through the world. Lost in this approach are the abundant gradations of life that make humanity interesting; lost are the connections between people and things that break when the boundaries become too constricting. We might instead consider embracing paradox.
Embracing paradox is about embracing plurality. When confronted with opposing elements that appear to be mutually exclusive, embracing paradox means developing the capacity to conceptualize—and, more important, feel—that they can be taken together holistically: that an “either/or” relation can instead be held as “both/and.” The question becomes one of simultaneity and balance, and of whether that balance is healthy or helpful. There is potential here to undo some of the binary thinking that operates across culture, which may—but not always—be gendered: binaries between the rational and the emotional, between strong and soft, between thinking and caring. Across all of these oppositions, we advocate for the beauty and vibrancy in being both. A folly I designed in 2019, “Andromeda Re-Imagined,” expresses this sense of balanced duality in an emotionally resonant way.
Particularly intimate and therefore especially significant among these dueling dynamics is the interplay between the heart and the mind. In the context of architectural design, we might look at this as a split between a thought process that is linear, logical, verbal, and ultimately pragmatic, and a creative process that is nonlinear, visual, intuitive, and emotional. In professional contexts, even in supposedly creative pursuits, we find that pragmatism is overwhelmingly favored over processes, which might be more closely associated with emotionality. Even though we all feel deeply, emotionality has come to be fundamentally connected to social ideas of femininity, and thereby trivialized—considered effete and superfluous—and denigrated according to a patriarchal paradigm. But what happens to our professional cultures, to our creative output, to our ways of being in the world, when emotion is suppressed?
Taken to an extreme, lack of empathy begets cruelty, and when emotion is disallowed from healthy expression, it can erupt in disastrous ways. It may be critical on the battlefield to be able to attack without hesitation—but is architecture an act of war? This transactional logic of economic self-interest will never create a sustaining sense of care or community—nor, within design practices, will it create an environment in which to develop architectures that are well-loved, or that adequately sustain the lives of their inhabitants. There is an established paradox dynamic in architecture between collaboration and vision, and an increase in seeking hybrid models for practice that combine individualistic creative expression with structures that give voice to a greater number, thereby divesting from practices that support the fiction of the heroic sole (usually male) author. Going further, the question remains: How can we use care and emotion as part of the design process, to blend the rational and the emotional and design both from the heart and the mind? How would we go about this, and what kinds of creative expressions—currently repressed from the range of what is possible in architectural design—might flourish as a result?
There is certainly more that we can accomplish when it comes to developing emotional meaning in our buildings and cities. When Robert Venturi wrote, in 1966, “I like complexity and contradiction in architecture,” he nudged open the door to a vast universe of potential design expression that had been excluded by the “puritanically moral language of orthodox modern architecture.” These austere and minimalistic architectures of Modernism have, during the past century, been heavily revered for their poetry and their power. In an effort to find the essence of architecture, however, Modernism has tended to follow a reductivist approach, which, in cases where the pursuit of purity has fallen short of poetry, has had the effect of stripping the architecture of its emotional content. Venturi’s rallying cry to embrace a messy hybrid, of valuing “richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning,” invites us to question rigidity. But it still favors the intellectual over the emotional: as quickly as he supports complexity and contradiction, he also disparages “the precious intricacies of picturesqueness or expressionism.” Yet the lyrical expressionism of Studio Gang’s Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo is exactly what makes it a welcoming and iconic design.
Venturi’s attitude is exemplary of the way in which a whole range of creative expressions and aesthetic gestures have been left out of architectural design. In many ways, Modernism was itself a reaction to the “picturesqueness or expressionism” of earlier styles, and in retaining this point of view, Venturi also left the door half-closed to substantive change, deepening the exclusion of emotional meaning as a value in architecture. If the first century of Modernism can be considered an architecture of abstraction and ideas, then what might we design if we turn our attention, in this second century of Modernism, to an architecture of emotional abundance?
The language used to value and describe architecture is significant in this. We rarely see buildings praised for their sweetness or grace, or how lovable they are. Similarly, nowhere in Complexity and Contradiction does Venturi use the word “beauty.” Such language is generally seen as pejorative, with any positive connotations caveated by a lack of seriousness. The same year as that book was published, the Temptations recorded the hit single “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep,” and American culture was swept up in a transformation of how we see our inner selves in relation to the outside world. Beauty came to be understood as fundamentally superficial, with architects reducing the “prettiness” of their designs to be taken with more gravity, and refusing to accept that emotional meaning has any value at all.
But could we consider that the axiom “beauty is more than skin deep” might be worthy of our attention? We do, after all, need and want beauty in our lives; emotional resonance forms the basis of human relationships with one another, and is vital to our well-being. Furthermore, the disconnection many feel with buildings and cities only contributes to ambivalence about their preservation, where much is needlessly demolished and rebuilt at great cost to the environment. Considering that the most sustainable things in life might be those you will never throw away because you love them too much, emotional meaning could play a vital role in building sustainably. Without an emotional engagement with built environments that are beautiful, lovable, and demanding of care, we will continue to destroy our surroundings, haunting modern life, and damaging the planet.
This brings us back to other paradox dynamics: the tension between alienation and vibrancy, globalization and individual expression. Different architectures might provoke different emotional responses in different people, and beauty and lovability can be seen as highly subjective. So how might we design in a way that will be emotionally resonant right across a range of cultural and individual contexts, without slipping into genericism? A good example of balancing a sense of history, local culture, and modernity in a delightfully playful way is Presence in Hormuz 02, by ZAV Architects.
What might be helpful is to look at lovable design not as a specific style, but as more of a set of emotional intentions. How do we want people to feel about a space? What emotions are appropriate for the project to be successful? Welcoming, hopeful, comforting, uplifting, humane, and optimistic are all emotions that are often overlooked or abstracted past a point of resonance. To create architectures that are resonant and welcoming and well-loved—that support the full range of human expression—we need those architectures to themselves have a sense of humanity and of individual expression. Work by E. Faye Jones poetically manifests nature and humanity in his work—see, as a fine example, Thorncrown Chapel.
There is a fundamental reciprocity here, between the individual and their environment, where more loving and emotionally resonant buildings and cities will support a public that is more loving and emotionally responsive, and vice versa. What we, as humans, seem to universally seek is the opportunity to sing with a clear and resounding voice—a voice of self-determination that cannot be imposed upon or constrained by others. At the same time, we want to have that voice accepted and supported by the communities that surround us. If we are to find a way to embrace this paradox between self-expression and belonging, we will need to celebrate our differences to the same degree that we currently cling to conformity.
We are in the midst of a compelling evolution, if not an actual revolution, but it takes time for humans to adapt to change. While there is much confusion about the future of gender and what progress can be made, it is critical that we address the cultural tension and deeper dialogues that are emerging. Most important, there is an incredible opportunity to explore a rich emotional landscape that has long gone unwitnessed. There is a powerful sense of insight that comes from being in the in-between spaces of a largely binary culture. From conflict we can emerge with new perspectives, as it is often the differences between us that create the conditions for humanity to thrive. Let us aspire to unlock the resplendent feast that our emotionally rich, diverse, and holistic world can provide—if we listen with intention.
The author is editor of Towards Abundance: The Delightful Paradoxes of Gender, from which this essay is adapted. Featured image: Andromeda Re-Imagined. Photo by Hannu Rytky.