The Beauty Problematic… or, “What’s your malfunction, Student Architect #99219?”

Tom Morgan asks why architects have such an aversion to the concept of beauty.

October 1, 2007

Beauty is problematic. The history of architecture reads as one long and uninterrupted struggle to resolve this problem — this question of beauty. As the craft meanders on through the centuries, technical and programmatic advances are absorbed and inscribed with a bare modicum of fuss, while the perennial problem of beauty perseveres. Beauty is analysed, codified, deified, stripped bare, overloaded, and, when all is deemed to have been for nought, isolated and ignored.

Or so it seems. The real problem with beauty is its wallflower recalcitrance – its stubborn refusal to get into the spirit of things; its intractable inability to play nicely with all the diverse theoretical programmes that promise explication. It remains unfazed by the attention and will do as it is wont to do — blithely bestowing its gifts upon isolated edifices even as the debate as to its very nature peaks in ferocity. It becomes apparent that beauty — a thing integral to architecture, and the muse for much of our cherished architectural theory — is indifferent to our attitudes; entirely unwilling to be pinned down and classified, and untroubled by our own, feigned unconcern. We have to accept that Beauty is at once antipathetic and simultaneously inherent to the act of architecture.

This is why we now mention beauty — for this appears to be a time where beauty — having frustrated us and edged us to the brink of madness – has been all but isolated and ignored. In the face of beauty’s permanence, such an act of indifference — feigned or otherwise — seems, at best, petty. At worst, this tendency toward negation holds deleterious consequences for the practice. We do not wish to overstep our bounds – we are not counselling or cautioning, merely voicing a desire — asking, essentially, what became, and what will come, of beauty.

Nor do we imagine that a reconnection with beauty will be simple — for beauty remains problematic.

Our personal and immediate problem with beauty lies in its dangerously unresolved relationship to both the subjective and the objective. If we stray too close to the latter, we end up back at the beaux arts – too close to the former, and we have no grounds for our initial criticism. Subsequently, we are affected by a sense that while it is entirely possible that there is a thing called beauty, it is looser and more nebulously defined than Platonic truths would insist.

Certainly we do not imagine the talk of beauty to involve a discussion of pure aesthetics — or return to the stylebooks of the Georgian era. This is not a question of taste. Similarly, we do not see beauty as the carte blanche elevation of all and every form under the sun. Our beauty is an awkward creature, and it is pinioned uneasily somewhere between the absolute and the chaotic – between, if we must generalise, the singular conceit of modernism and the multivalent schizophrenia of the post modern.

This uneasiness is not only restricted to our attitude toward beauty – increasingly, this unease defines all of us, all the students staggering out of the ruined wilderness of post-structuralism and non-standard architecture and data-scapes. We are an uneasy mob — as frightened by the simple axioms of modernism as we are by the discursive intellectual excursions of the post-modernists. We are also rendered uneasy by more pragmatic concerns; among them the tenuous nature of our tertiary funding places — or, for those amongst us who are being forced to pay up-front, the seemingly mercurial or rapacious nature of the institutions — and the corresponding sensation that teaching is a mere secondary for the players in the tertiary education industry.

Simultaneously, we are perturbed by our relationship to history. Modernism sought to restart history, Post-Modernism sought to end it, yet we seek nothing so much as sense of scale. From where we stand we can see the detritus of both of those great theoretical clades of the 20th century, and over and around them, the implacable and inescapable creeping mass of history. Moreover, we are aware that elements of both theoretical discourses persist into the immediate now — and, bewilderingly, stretch far back, farther than we would credit, into the dark ages of the pre-modern. Thus our picture of history is similarly uneasy – we have, perhaps, an understanding of a great chain of commonalities, a precarious melange of the modernist vision of historical inevitability and the post-modern understanding of multivalent and equidistant meaning.

Finally, we are unnerved and rendered uneasy on a personal level. We are bemused by emerging technologies that threaten our hard-won technical nous, frustrated by theoretical paradigms that we lack the necessarily arcane knowledge to unpack and programmed design processes that we recognise implicitly as being past their prime. Moreover, we are troubled by the overwhelming hostile public appraisal of architects and architecture, troubled by the spreading terror of suburbia and development, troubled by the death of the utopia and the persistence of ego, troubled by our own powerlessness when compared to the heroism of the modern and the intellectualism of the post-modern. Troubled, in short.

This does not imply that we repudiate the efforts and events of the last century – on the contrary; we recognise in them a temporal majesty and mastery, a domination of a certain time and a certain intellectual and artistic spirit. We also understand that these events form the basis of our intellectual and practical tutelage, and that we are indelibly marked by the goings-on of the modernists and their antecedents. Yet we are simultaneously aware that we can neither negate, nor restart, the course of history. Even framed in our terms of hyperbole, cant and generalisation, the massive weight and bulk of architecture is readily apparent. This is why we reach out to beauty, for it, too, is a constant figurer in the long and unremitting story of our craft.

Tom Morgan

Tom Morgan is a graduate architect and academic from Melbourne, Australia. He is a PhD candidate at Monash University, and is one of the editors of POST Magazine.

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