I am posting here parts of a keynote presentation that I gave recently at a conference hosted by The Rizvi School of Architecture in Mumbai, India. The conference chaired by Professor Akhtar Chauhan, his students and staff was the 13th organised by the Rizvi School on the theme of Humane Habitat. The 9th International Architectural Student Design Competition was held to coincide with the conference.
Conference Debate and Post-Conference Celebrations:
The paper I present here goes over some ground already posted on this blog but addresses more directly the question of ‘Beauty’. For reasons of brevity some of the supporting analyses have been left out of this piece . Hopefully it will all still hang together.
“I am delighted to have been invited to give a paper at this conference. What makes these conferences special for me is that we come here to talk about a variety of issues in the context of ‘Humane Habitat’. This theme fascinates me and has fascinated me for several years. How do we define a ‘Humane Habitat’, what separates our discussions at these meetings from the discussions at any other international conference on architecture and urban design ….. what constitutes a ‘Humane Habitat’?
So how do we define a contemporary ‘Humane Habitat’? How do we distinguish ‘Humane Architecture’ from architecture more generally? In extreme circumstances I think we all know when we walk into an inhumane environment, we feel depressed, impoverished, sometimes even threatened. I guess if we chose to we could all create such environments in our minds, as architects perhaps some of us could even create such environments on paper, Frank Lloyd Wright controversially once said that he could design a house that would guarantee a divorce within six months. If an inhumane habitat diminishes us, a ‘Humane Habitat’ must make us feel, enlivened, enriched. A humane habitat meets our needs, tempers our environment, supports our day to day activities and in the best examples enables us to engage with the highest parts of ourselves. A humane environment therefore complements us as a species by putting us in balance with our world and thus completes us. If we allow ourselves to think at our highest levels for a moment, an environment that completes us, in every sense of the word must be beautiful. So for me ‘Beauty’ is an essential aspect of ‘Humane Architecture’; indeed I think we should start to think of beauty as the defining aspect of Humane Architecture.
Macierzynstwo: Stanislaw Wyspianski 1905
For centuries ‘beauty’ was used to distinguish great art and architecture from the mere mediocre. Within Western culture Georgian architecture stands forward as one of the periods that are often considered to have generated some of our more beautiful buildings. Georgian Architecture, that dominated the development of Bath, benefitted from the fact that it was able to evolve over several generations and that it worked with a limited range of materials. It also used a restricted formal vocabulary that reflected the culture of that time. Modern culture in contrast, is much more pluralistic in social terms but also in terms of the technologies available for use and the formal design systems that have developed to match that pluralism. Interestingly within the pluralistic culture of modernism and post-modernism, beauty seems to have been forgotten and not just forgotten philosophically. On sites between those Georgian examples that I just cited, more contemporary houses and flats have been built. The Planning Department of Bath limited the scale and materials used to match the materials and scale of the Georgian context, but we will perhaps all agree that the elegance and beauty of the earlier examples is missing in these more contemporary buildings. John Selwyn Gummer, former Minister of the Environment in the UK, recently said that “beauty had become an unmanly word” in our modern; post-modern world. At the risk of damaging my manhood, for the rest of this paper, I plan to argue that it is time that we as architects reclaimed beauty, and reclaimed it as a defining quality of Humane Habitat. This is not going to be an easy undertaking; we cannot return to the past but let’s see if we can get a little closer to a genuine understanding of how beauty might be defined to give a critical armature for our pluralistic culture.
Georgian House: Bathwick Hill, Bath Georgian and Contemporary Housing: Bath
When ‘anything goes’, which has been a dictum within conceptual art and architecture since Duchamp, then beauty by extension is excluded. Post-modernism in recent years has developed the same concept to new extremes, kicking any grounds for aesthetic judgement into touch. It is commonly said that ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, an expression that in my view is wrongly interpreted to mean that beauty is a subjective phenomenon. I will come back to this theme at the end of the paper. Interestingly the world of post-modernism is also considered a world of subjectivity. Within a post modern world everyone’s opinion is as valid as everyone else’s. It is not surprising that within such a world view that beauty has totally lost its foothold.
Urinal: Marcel Duchamp 1917 Store: Graz, Austria Peter Cook
So how would I define beauty? Let me put my definition on the table straight away and then spend a little time filling out how I came to this position. I would like to suggest that ‘beauty is the quality of a work that reveals unity’. In my dictionary an artist, architect, or for that matter a poet, musician or any cultural contributor is someone who is able to recognise and express ‘the similarities within dissimilars’. Architecture and the arts are therefore part of a process of reconciliation. A cultural contributor of any discipline is someone who is pulling the world together; finding previously isolated fragments of reality that somehow belong together and through their skills showing how they can be conjoined, so that others can momentarily share the same experience of unity. This definition if substantiated would give purpose back to art and architecture. I plan to show how this has always been the role of great art and architecture. Minor art would be those works that reveal a reconciliation of minor events or the reworking of reconciliations already revealed. Great art and architecture would be those works that show for the first time the unification of more significant phenomena that had previously been considered distinct or irreconcilable. Against this definition it is not enough to merely juxtapose differing phenomena, a technique that has lately become so popular; great art may shock, but it is not the role of art and architecture to shock as some in recent years have seemed to believe. If we accept this position then the post-modern dictum that ‘anything goes’ loses its legs and we need to re-examine what we mean when we say that “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder”. From this perspective ‘beauty’ is therefore free again to take centre stage within the disciplines of art and architecture, not as prettiness or sweetness but as a genuine contribution to the unity that culture can bring to a sometimes fragmentary world.
Girl with Pearl Earring: Jan Vermeer 1665 My Bed: Tracy Emin 1999
If ‘beauty is the quality of a work that reveals unity’, then this suggests that there is an objective quality to the work. We may not immediately recognise that objective quality in a rational sense, the sense of unity may just be a feeling of resolution, but for a work to create an experience of unity that is shared, confirms an objective dimension to a work. Let us look further to establish how that sense of unity is created. I suggested earlier in my definition that it called for the ability of the artist or architect “to recognise and express the similarities within dissimilars”. What are the similarities that the artist is using? Well first and foremost they are the similarities that reconcile the conflicting experiences within the artist’s life and then within the forms that they select to express that resolution. At a fundamental level both experience and artistic expression are differing aspects of form. Form is a word that describes many differing dimensions of our reality. Like ice and water vapour being differing aspects of water, forms range from the ethereal realms of mental and emotional forms, thoughts and feelings, to the gross physical forms of mountains and valleys. Form is what we are: when we think we think in form, when we feel we feel with form, when we touch, see and smell we use form and when we create we match our internal intentions, thoughts and feelings with external forms to express those intentions.
The world of form is so all enveloping and so close to us that we sometimes fail to realise its full power. A piece of cardboard will bend even under its own load, yet change the form by folding it to make corrugations and the same thickness cardboard will carry many times its own weight. A block of cast iron or steel will sink when placed in water, yet the same cast iron or steel worked into an appropriate form will float and sail across the oceans. When several hundred people crowd on to a transatlantic jet and the load of all those people and their belongings lift off into the sky, it is the power of form in operation; the power of form performing what earlier generations would have called miracles. When a piece of Mozart’s music moves us powerfully to tears it is the same power of form in operation. Simple sounds, vibrations in the air, when arranged with the care and precision of a great musician’s pen, strike deeply into our psyche and can take us on a roller coaster ride through the highs and lows of our emotions. Although the form of a Mozart symphony is of a different order to the aerodynamics of a Boeing 747 it is never the less the same power of form being precisely applied in both cases.
When we step out of the skies and into the more familiar formal realms of the city we often seem to operate under the impression that form has lost its power. Yet if form can lift us both physically and emotionally into the celestial realms by what means does it loose its power when it enters our cities. The truth is that it does not. Form continues to have power but form used mindlessly, releases power indiscriminately. The psychologist James Hillman suggests that contemporary cities are having a desensitising effect on their inhabitants. In his words urban form is having an ‘anaesthetic’ rather than an ‘aesthetic’ effect on humanity. In constructing our urban environments we seem to have forgotten that form has power; that poor form makes us feel poor; ill conceived form makes us feel ill. If urban form has this power to diminish us then we need to remember that the converse must also be true, and that a truly aesthetic environment is indeed a therapeutic environment. In other words great architecture and art can heal but out of the myriad of forms available to us which are the forms that we should choose? To open up this issue we are going to start with an examination of form making in nature and the natural laws that seem to control the making of those forms.
Animals were creating homes for themselves millions of years before homo-sapiens started to engage with this activity. Fossils of spiders using web constructions have been found dating back almost four hundred million years; by comparison homo-erectus emerges only one and a half million years ago. The complexities of animal constructions are also remarkable and sometimes staggeringly sophisticated. The ventilation systems developed by termites in their nests, which have reached as high as four metres in some instances are amazingly elaborate. Each species of termite has evolved a slightly different system but the nest mound of the Macrotermes bellicosus has developed an air conditioning system which is able to move oxygen around the mound and into its deepest chambers, providing a fresh supply of oxygen to each of as many as two million residents. It is hard to believe how such complex systems have evolved within the natural world and how this information is able to be passed down through the genes. Yet even within the same species, (Macrotermes bellicosus) the termites living in Uganda have evolved a ventilation system that calls on different laws of physics to those living in the Ivory Coast.
Weaver Birds building their Nests
The ecology of an animal home is impressive. It is coherent, appropriate in its responsiveness to need and wholly integrated into its environment. It is as beautiful as the rest of nature and its forms seem to respond to the same natural laws that guide the creation of form more generally in the natural world. The form making laws of nature offer consistencies. Biologists and zoologists suggest that there is what they call a ‘convergence’ towards the most appropriate form for a particular need and context. We see it within the mammal world. Placental and marsupials have evolved in isolation on different continents for the last fifty million years yet each grouping have evolved similarly formed creatures limited by temperature size and environment. In two instances, the parallels between placental and marsupial forms are so close that it would be difficult even for an expert to make a distinction without handling them. Or again, a Basking Shark, an Ichantyosaur, and a Porpoise all share in common the form of a fish, even though the second belongs to an extinct group of reptiles and the third of course a mammal and more closely related to a horse than a fish. The similarities of the solutions generated in all of these instances are causally brought about by the independent adaptation to a common mode of life, but the fact that they give rise to similar forms, suggests that within the natural world there are laws that govern the selection and order of form relative to context and need.
Since most of us would agree that humanity is completely co-terminal with the natural world then we might reasonably expect that the rules that we call upon when we take it upon ourselves to create form, could reasonably be argued to derive from the same source, generated by the same patent operating with the workshop of nature. Over the last hundred years psychologists have been able to identify rules of perception that explain how we identify and respond to form. Interestingly, their work has demonstrated that human and animal perceptual systems share many of the same characteristics. Although much of this work was done almost a hundred years ago the theories most influential in this field remain the theories of the Gestalt school; their work examined the ORDER of FORM.
SIMILARITY: Red Objects are related by Colour. Window and Wall related by Similar Forms.
The ordering principles as defined by the Gestalt school of thought that are of most use to artists and architects, are ‘similarity’, ‘proximity’, ‘symmetry’ ‘closure and good continuation’, ‘figure-ground’ and ‘centre of gravity’. In terms of our thesis for today if ‘beauty is the quality of a work that reveals unity’, and if the artist/architect needs to be able “to recognise and express the similarities within dissimilars”; the first principle that interests us here is that of similarity. By way of example let us look at the principle of similarity as used in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. If we start with a very simple symmetrical building, the Winslow House, we may be able to make the links back to the Georgian examples, before we move into more difficult territory. It will also be interesting to observe how consistently these principles are applied. This consistency acts as a reinforcement of ideas and such reinforcement seems to be an important part of any architectural language whether we are looking at the work of FLLW or Peter Zumptor.
Winslow House: Emphasises the Horizontal Traditional Georgian has a more Vertical Emphsis
Two principle design ideas:
i To emphasise the centre
ii To emphasis the horizontal
i Emphasising the centre
- The elevation is symmetrical
- The main entrance is in the centre
- The general proportion of the house is picked up in the entrance surround
ii Emphasising the horizontal
- The general form is a horizontal rectangle
- ……as we have seen the entrance surround reinforces this
- Over hanging eaves
- Shadow line of upper windows
- Shallow pitched roof
- Wide and dumpy chimney
- The stylobate: the raised ground floor
- The transoms in the windows
- Even the selected shape of the bricks
If we look at the development of FLLW’s work after the Winslow House we find that these two principles are developed further. The emphasis of the centre changes, it becomes less about symmetry and more about an asymmetrical balancing of centre. The hearth becomes the centre of an asymmetrically balanced dwelling. The emphasis of the horizontal however is given greater and greater emphasis. Let us look at the Robie House.
Robie House: 1908 Copings: One technique used to Emphasise Horizontal
In the Robie House the idea of horizontality that was started in the Winslow House is developed much further here.
- The extended eaves become the dominate form in the scheme.
- The ground floor is completely concealed to emphasise a developed stylobate
- The garden walls have heavy copings to emphasise the horizontal
- Even the coursing of the bricks is emphasised, vertical joints played down, horizontal joints raked to strengthen the horizontal.
What we see here in the emphasis of the horizontal is that a third idea has developed. The building is stretching out to embrace the landscape and in the process the inside and outside start to blend with each other. What I am calling here a third idea was of course in his work for many years, he called it ‘the destruction of the box’ and I would like to come back to that later.
The themes developed in the first part of this paper have explored and perhaps explained the ordering structure of classical art and architecture in which the principle ordering device is bilateral symmetry the remainder of the paper moves into more complex yet equally powerful ordering systems.