The Interesting and the Beautiful

Jacqui Alexander addresses the fraught topic of architectural beauty, and asks why it is so often dismissed in architectural discourse.

October 1, 2007

Within the discipline of architecture, there is a perpetual conflict that occurs between the mind and the eyes. Unfortunately, one is not analogous to the other, and all too often, the architect is forced to privilege intellect over beauty or vice-versa. The struggle is not as straightforward as a tug-of-war anchored by two dichotomous objectives. Rather, it is more like a series of footpath closures on both sides of a street, ensuring that the pedestrian must hop between the left and right paths, in order to progress in the direction they need to follow.

Post-Modernism favours the re-conceptualization of architecture over any conscious aesthetic agenda. Roland Barthes’ “Death of the Author” could have just as easily been a treatise on the “Death of the Architect.” Melbourne largely participates within the Post-Modern school of thought and its processes; supporting the surrender of the designer’s authorship to a chosen system, enabling certain outcomes that would not have ordinarily been obtainable through logical planning. Whether this means typing a series of algorithms into a computer-modeling program to generate form, or extrapolating movement throughout space from an abstract mapping exercise, this method delivers an architectural outcome that is more of a ‘refined accident’, than an intentional application of an aesthetic sensibility. The difference is evident in the language that we to use to describe our local contemporary architecture; we have a tendency to complement a good building as ‘interesting’ rather than ‘beautiful.’

The obligations of the architect are openly discussed and understood within the institution and beyond it. Architects are well aware that the decisions they make will have ramifications socially, environmentally, economically, and politically. But perhaps since Boyd, there has been no explicit local discussion of an aesthetic responsibility.

At university, we are trained to think about architecture critically and analytically, dismissing intuitive responses as literal, naïve or superficial. While this attitude is intended to engender the thorough interrogation of ideas, it often has the reverse effect — leaving students architecturally constipated without the security of a consistent rationale. This shift from intuitive to analytical thinking brings with it the intellectualization of beauty; we begin to develop our own assessment criteria — far more broad than a simple discussion of aesthetics — to qualify certain objects as ‘good’, or ‘interesting’, yet simultaneously, we become divorced from our instinctive attraction to beauty.

If we are lucky enough to retain a conscious aesthetic sensibility, all too often, our intuitive responses are not an adequate representation of — or are in direct conflict with — our intellectual rationale. This is only natural, seeing as beauty as a discourse is almost totally absent within the institution.

Actually, it’s hiding in there somewhere; we just choose to disguise it by using words like ‘ornament’ or ‘poetics’, which are more comfortable to speak of because they are grounded in intellect.

Since the Middle Ages, attitudes towards beauty in architecture have been divided. The advent of the Industrial Revolution brought with it the accessibility of steel and the rise of the structural engineer, while a new uncertainty was suddenly cast over the role of the architect.

In the midst of this era, architect Sir George Gilbert Scott argued that the validity of architecture lay in its concern for beauty, “as distinguished from mere building, (architecture) is the decoration of construction”.

A brief history of beauty in 20th century architecture is perhaps necessary to gain a basic understanding of the current aversion we have to its discussion.

The rise of Modernism in architecture was accompanied by the denial of an aesthetic agenda in favor of social and technological endeavors. Post-Modernist thought recognizes that the previous period’s commitment to science and technology was perhaps not as pure as it claimed to be; that in fact, the allusions to the machine were more often than not an aesthetic predilection, rather than borrowed functionality.

This critique of aesthetic intent led to the realization that the appearance of a building can operate entirely independently of, and in complete contradiction to its function. While this notion offered a new freedom of form after the very dogmatic Modernist period, it could be suggested that the ability to exploit the separation of form and function relates closely to the ‘perpetual conflict’ aforementioned in this paper.

And while Post-Modernism scorns the rigidity and rules of the Modernist period, the necessity for order and rigor has not disappeared. We have simply become more esoteric in our established rule systems. It has become fashionable to look to the multiplication of red blood cells, to the habitat of pigs, or to the number of vegetarians per capita as the genesis for our projects. One cannot help but to question the relevance of such investigations. For the main part, our understanding of conducted research is too simplistic to make a significant contribution to the respective discourses that we draw from, and de-contextualized, the synthesized information seems tenuous, at best, within an architectural discussion. Is it all just a case of rationalising an aesthetic or formal endeavor, and if so, why can’t we just admit that we want to design something that looks, well, nice?

All this clutching at straws again points at the insecurity of the discipline. Buffeted between science and art for as long as the profession has existed, architecture has never been able to define itself with any conviction, or even reconcile what its role should be. It seems we are unsatisfied with devoting our energies to the challenges that exist within our own discipline; inhabitation, function, sustainability and beauty.

Of course, beauty is a subjective thing. It does not strictly qualify for academic discussion, because it is entirely egalitarian; beauty does not require any authority to determine it. But beauty, in whatever form it appears to the beholder, is something that is universally appreciated. It is its ‘subjectivity’ that apparently encumbers its discussion within the institution. Such an attitude means that architecture can never openly be criticized for being ugly. Too frequently, we find ourselves wandering through contemporary buildings in Melbourne that are terribly unattractive, yet we excuse them because perhaps we have ‘misunderstood’ the motivations of the architect, or we are ill-informed about the critique that they offer.

It is arrogant and elitist to excuse ugly buildings simply because they are intelligent. Popular opinion does not take into account the intellectual motivations driving our architecture. Individuals hire architects to design beautiful and functional spaces. Institutions commission ‘intelligent’ architecture. As designers, we need to be able to identify our own aesthetic predilections, and we must learn to embody such qualities in our own work.

Rather than an effort to discredit intellectually motivated architecture, this is an attempt to promote the open discussion of beauty so that it is equally recognized and considered in the design process. Beauty does not need to be taught, but it does demand debate.

Currently, there is too much room for students to slip through the cracks of the institution, without having learnt that beauty is a valid part of architecture that requires just as much consideration as context, experience, sustainability, planning etc. A step in the right direction in restoring popular faith in architecture, such a discussion would help to liberate Melbourne from the Post-Modern psyche that we are so locked into, almost 30 years on.

 

Jacqui Alexander is a co-editor and founder of POST Magazine. She is a lecturer in the Architecture program at Monash University Art, Design and Architecture (MADA) and a director of Alexander Sheridan Architecture.

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