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While Defining “Beauty” is a Dead End, Studying Its Properties Definitely is Not

Do you want to design beautiful places? You can, but don’t start by trying to define “beauty.” That’s a dead end that usually terminates at “in the eye of the beholder.” Instead, translate this 19th century insight into 21st century terms: An encounter with a built environment engages not only eyes, but all of the interacting senses and the rest of a mind and body as well. In the end, what matters to the beholders—what holds their attention and what they’ll remember—is immersion in their own emotional, social, practical, and aesthetic whole-body experience.

We’ve now learned enough about that experience and about the “beholders” to be able to predict and design places likely to excite aesthetic pleasure, the flows of emotions and body chemistry that lead them to say: Beautiful. But “beauty” is something else. It’s a quality of the place itself—in effect, what individuals, on their own or in a culture or a community, agree it is in practice. Beauty is local, in terms of both place and time. That’s why it’s been defined in so many different ways, fueling successive battles of styles over decades and centuries, and the energetic preservation of regional styles in historic districts with their design guidelines and pattern books, or the original debasing of Gothic architecture by attributing it to barbarians, and the skirmishes among the partisans of the “modernisms” and the “traditional.”

And they’re high-stakes battles. Look around: as individuals, as societies, and as civilizations, we dedicate, often sacrifice, immense resources of time, wealth, and committed lifetimes just to create, to honor, and to pursue the pleasures of aesthetic experience and visions of beauty.

The important point for a designer is this: Although the experience and meaning of a built environment are necessarily different for each culture or beholder, we all share an evolutionary past. Our biological origins have been fleshed out and elaborated in each of us over a lifetime of cultural learning and experience, and together they have created a core of human values, desires, capabilities, instincts, and strategies that still keep us alive, secure, oriented, learning, and thriving. And in fundamental biological ways, our minds and bodies are all enough alike to have created cohesive cultures and global ideologies and architecture. Think about classical Greece and imperial Rome, which have inspired admiration and imitation across continents and millennia, through revolutions and generational changes.

When you set out to design, you experience this shared, evolved core of human qualities as predispositions, preferences to build in some ways and not in others.  Their origins were in survival strategies, developed over millennia, but you can see the process at work today, when, as a community, we find design solutions to newly discovered threats called sustainability, urban security, rising sea levels, or pandemic. We’re continually adapting, building in some ways and not in others, and it’s still about “survival.”

Aesthetic Pleasures

Further, as we evolved, our genes built our brains to reward us when we are thinking and acting in ways that enhance our odds in the competition to survive, and to advance, day-by-day, enhancing our lives. And when we come up against our limits, we still have the ability to engage our boundless imagination and create the means to advance by transcending our frustrating human constraints and the vulnerabilities that limit what we can win or achieve; and, beyond merely surviving, we prosper and we civilize. 

In any case, that “reward” in the body is the flow of emotions and body chemistry that we experience as a compelling pleasure. We recognize ideals realized or a search rewarded, or breathtaking, spellbinding lucidity or enlightenment, especially when embedded in the surging warmth of eros, the thrill of fulfillment or wholeness or open-ended sense of possibility. I think this is what Vitruvius called “delight.”

The Crystal Palace in London in 1854. Drawing by Albrecht Pichler, a principal in the Hart Howerton firm.

While we all share the potential, the actual intensity and breadth of each individual’s aesthetic pleasure naturally depends both on innate levels of sensitivity and on cultivated personal skills, on nature and nurture. But we all, in some measure, from superbly trained connoisseurs to children in their own simple, earnest endeavors, share the evolved desire and capability, even in fleeting moments.

The Experience: Release, Insights, and Kinship

We tend to talk about beauty and aesthetic pleasure in isolation, but as experience they are linked to other even more fundamental human capabilities and innate survival strategies. That’s what fuels their power. As a start, we share that innate desire and ability to release ourselves from the confining, habitual outlook imposed by daily life and, in effect, enter into another reality. This is commonplace in drug-induced body states, of course, but descriptions of the experience are found across the spectrum of human experience and creative activity. It’s at the inner core of the arts, where gifted artists, actors, or musicians can bring their own deepest emotions to the surface and evoke a compelling experience in an audience, transporting them out of their accustomed world into another. Some tell about their spiritualand often religious—experience in these terms. In a parallel way, those who have mastered meditation tell about a “release” on their path to clarity and insights. Others describe a feeling called “flow” or “out-of-body” moments, when time seems to stand still and they feel themselves exceeding themselves. 

Then, as we’re inspired by new insights, we tend to go on to identify with the extraordinary abilities of the human beings who created the “beauty.” In a sense, we share in their worldview and for a moment experience as our own, the hand and mind of people performing at the peak of human power. We may not identify with the architect or artist as a personality, but as a resonance, a kinship, and then feel we are encountering in their artistry what is latent in ourselves. 

“Two-Thirds of What We See Is Behind Our Eyes”

An experience of built environments starts with the perceptions of the sensory information that is racing through a brain and body. They awaken movement, memories, associations, imagination, reasoning, reflection, everything we are. But, again, for designers the important point is that each of us overwhelmingly describes, judges, and admires the places we’ve built using the same vocabulary and concepts that we use to describe people and our natural setting. We don’t even try to communicate the experience of architecture without referring to what we know best: our own minds, bodies, and the natural forces we live with. We’ve had no choice. Each of us is like a lens, or a filter, that focuses what we see or sense, and we become the primary context that gives meanings to what we build.

In other words, we experience environments in the same terms we experience ourselves. Architect Geoffrey Scott spelled it out in a very effective way in The Architecture of Humanism, still admired and in print after 200 years: “The whole of architecture,’ he writes, “is invested by us with human movement and moods. … [We spontaneously look for] conditions that are related to our own, for movements which are like those we enjoy … and recognize their fitness when created. And, by our instinctive imitation of what we see, their seeming fitness becomes our real delight.” He calls the response an “unconscious mimetic instinct” and “transcribing architecture into terms of ourselves.” Today, his insights can now be better understood in the context of recent brain research, the discovery of “mirror neurons,” and an organizing concept of experience as “embodied cognition” and “simulation.”

Here’s a sampling:

We routinely describe a building in terms of human attributes: skin, skeleton, the primacy of the face, gestures or “body language,” and make our first judgments. We look for a human atmosphere, a mood or an attitude: warm and welcoming, aggressive, retiring, dignified, lively, sensible. We look for a unified body, a composition with harmonized parts and proportions paralleling ourselves, and we expect to find a core, centers, boundaries, and hierarchies of size, height, richness, and location, all like our own and our surroundings, so that we can “read” stories about the place, simplifying its complexity into an order and relating the place to our own life narrative.

We’re constantly aware of forces of gravity and feelings of balance. We welcome symmetry as nature’s own work,”  at rest or in compositions that harmonize a stable “order” and sense of control. But we’re just as comfortable with balanced asymmetry, when its lines and forms have the “grace” of a human body in motion or at work, or even awkward and tense when that’s what reflects and satisfies our current state of mind.

We take pleasure in finding rhythms like our own and preferred color patterns. We feel the exhilaration of achieving heights and soaring in the context of primal emotions. Orientation, navigation, the choreography of spaces, comfort, allusions to every gender difference imaginable—all come into play.

Further, we tend to admire places where we sense the qualities individuals have needed to survive and prosper or transcend limitations: energy, spiritual enthusiasm, strength, durability, authenticity, integrity, vitality, optimism, and places honoring the wisdom or courage of ancestors.

Philosopher Alain de Botton summed this up in an effective way in The Architecture of Happiness: We tend to infuse architecture with human life and then ask, What kind of person would this place be? This anthropomorphic way of thinking may be dismissed as a “pathetic fallacy,” but it was a prevailing way of thought in the Italian Renaissance, centuries of dazzling creativity and beauty in architecture. And it’s ubiquitous today. Look at the way that businesses build a “brand” using architecture and landscapes. They induce their publics to attribute essentially human or natural qualities to their inanimate products or corporate identity: competence, creativity, glamor, refinement, caring. And that’s what we “buy,” in architecture as well, to enhance our own perceived identity.

We Find the Pleasure in All of These “Dimensions 

In addition to the sculptural, spatial presence of a place, is the pleasure in recognizing excellence in performance, in fine materials, in exceptional ingenuity, craftsmanship, or in fitness to purpose. We respond to the art of effective problem solving. We think “handsome is as handsome does” and call “beautiful” workability and efficiency in engineering, cost-effectiveness, “ideals realized,” and solutions to complex puzzles in engineering, the sciences, and mathematics.

Section of the Garnier Opera in Paris in 1875, a symbol of French cultural life, named for its architect. Drawing by Albrecht Pichler.

Another dimension is added when we can read ourselves into the ongoing story of a place, and the life of the people who seem to belong there, recognizing our own ideas or tastes or history in something larger than ourselves. Places we build are like accomplices in our lives, and when they trigger the rewarding body chemistry of belonging and bonding, or ownership, we incorporate them into our life’s narrative and say: Beautiful.

The same happens when we recognize an ideology, especially one that reflects our own values, ideas and theories, or personal moral vision, expressed persuasively and reaffirmed in a design. The achievements may be intellectual, but the experience is emotional, and we tend to think Yes! and to say, Beautiful. Reaching out further beyond our human limits, we identify sacred sites and build places intended to elicit intense spiritual feelings of connection to a larger world. We design them to change body chemistry, and when they do, the surging feeling, because it parallels an aesthetic experience, leads us to talk about beauty in faiths, beliefs, or rituals.

Even more pervasive, we coevolved with natural settings. Our lives are utterly dependent on their health and our success at stewardship. And we find ourselves responding to the pleasures of sensing fertility, cycles of growth and rebirth, purposeful flows and vivid sensations. Or the pleasure may be in the composition of a landscape, mystery, or awe in the face of the air, light and scale. And when we build in harmony with a natural setting and climate, all of the senses reaffirm that we’re biologically where we can thrive. Then, aroused or thrilled, refreshed or contented, we each experience in our own way the “beauty of nature.”

In other words, if you want to design “beautiful” places, first do what you’ve probably always done: Look at how the local mix of people or culture define “beauty,” what it is in  their geographic or ethnic, history, or spirit-of-the-times based world, that stirs their unique aesthetic experience today. But that’s clearly not enough. Look at all of the dimensions of beauty that are found in the places we build. Then, if, in addition, you understand the shared, evolved origins of aesthetic pleasure in here, in ourselves, that underlie and drive our individual visions of beauty, you can release your searching senses to explore new territory, opening up new opportunities for innovation and your own latent creativity.

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