In the second part of this paper the simple themes explored in classical and symmetrical designs is developed in the more complex realm of contemporary culture:
“Although the principle of ‘similarity’ is of great importance within Gestalt ordering systems the most over-riding principle in operation is that of balance; that is the constantly shifting balance that balances all opposites within the constantly shifting matrix of reality. Returning to our discussion of beauty and high architecture, when I stumbled on to the importance of balanced opposites in an architectural work, I could not be certain that what I claimed to be seeing was in fact justified. It took some time before I was able to assemble enough examples and then the testimony of others to support my case. Early one morning many years ago, I found these lines in one of Aalto’s essays. “Whatever our task, large or small, starting from the day to day ugliness or the most sensitive emotional element, a town or part of it, a building, a traffic network, or then a painting or sculpture or everyday object, there is one absolutely vital condition that must exist for its creation before it can take on the significance that makes it culture. There are other conditions too, but we will start with this. In each and every case, there must be a simultaneous reconciliation of opposites.”
The Balance of Nature: The constant Reconcilliation of Opposite Forces
Alvar Aalto: “…… the Simultaneous Reconcilliation of Opposities.”
Aalto’s words helped to cement my growing conviction that aesthetics had an objective dimension. The relationships that I was seeing in the works that I had been analysing were being seen by others and it was becoming clear that many great works could be understood as ensembles of balanced relationships. Aalto’s own work was a master class in this regard, his works abound in oppositions reconciled, Juhani Pallasmaa’s recent analysis of Villa Mairea beautifully demonstrates this point. I went on to find it elsewhere in architecture and then to find critics in other cultural disciplines pointing out the same phenomenon in their own fields. In the field of music Leonard Bernstein has described how both symmetry and the technique of balancing opposed phenomena can be used to structure a work. With particular reference to the balancing of these opposed forces, he writes “We are …. dualistically constituted, in the systole and diastole of our heartbeats, the left-rightness of our walking, the in and outness of our breathing, in our maleness and femaleness. This dualism invades our whole life, on all levels; in our actions (preparation/attack, tension/ release) and in our thinking (Good and Evil, Yin and Yang, Lingam and Yoni, progress and reaction); and all these find musical expression in such oppositions as downbeat versus upbeat, half note versus quarter note and especially in the elementary musical structure of 2+2=4, +4=8, +8=I6, etc. ad infinitum.” And in relation to a specific example he writes; “But it’s not only in his operatic works that Berg has succeeded so remarkably where others have not. His sense of drama, his deft and just balancing of the incompatible elements, tonal or non-tonal, carry over into all his compositions. For example, his very last work, the beautiful Violin Concerto of 1935, solved that agonizing ambiguity to-be-or-not-to-be-tonal, in an equally satisfying way.”
Leonard Bernstein: 1918 – 1990 Carl Jung: 1875 – 1961
In the field of psychology, Carl Jung experienced a similar phenomenon with his patients. “This ‘outgrowing’, as I formerly called it, on further experience was seen to consist in a new level of consciousness. Some higher or wider interest arose on the person’s horizon, and through this widening of his view the insoluble problem lost its urgency. It was not solved logically in its own terms, but faded out when confronted with a new and stronger life-tendency. It was not repressed or made unconscious, but merely appeared in a different light, and so did indeed become different. What, on a lower level, had led to the wildest conflicts and panicky outbursts of emotion, viewed from the higher level of the personality, now seemed like a storm in the valley seen from a high mountain top”.
In his book ‘The Dynamics of Creation’, the psychologist Anthony Storr develops Jung’s thesis, and applies it more thoroughly to the creative process. Storr is able to conclude that when an artist is able to deal with the conflicting forces in his life as described above, he not only resolves the conflicts for himself, but in expressing the reconciliation within the work, is also setting up a matrix that others with similar conflicting concerns can enter. He quotes Harrison Gough: “Somehow, a creative product must be given a sense of reconciliation, of having resolved in an aesthetic and harmonious way the discords and disharmonies present in the original situation. The work of art, for example, for a moment reorders and brings into balance the tensions of forms and space, and in so doing, moderates the inner tensions of the observer, giving him a sense of encounter and fulfilment”. And he continues, “It is because the great creative artists can do this for us in their works that we gain so much more than mere pleasure from art. By identifying ourselves, however fleetingly, with the creator, we can participate in the integrating process which he has carried out for himself. The more universal the problem with which the artist is dealing, the more universal his appeal….… We all possess inner worlds which are, to varying degrees, at odds with our external world; and the contents of these inner worlds and the tensions engendered by them have much in common. The great creators, because their tensions are of universal rather than personal import, can appeal to all of us when they find, in their work, a new path of reconciliation”. Beethoven is an example of an artist racked by the conflict in his personal life, conflict which he was able to take into his work and bring to a peaceful resolution. In the most stressful periods of his life he is reported as saying that he could only find happiness in his work.
The TWO Madonnas: Conflicts to be Resolved The Ecstasy of St Teresa: Giovanni Bernini 1645 -1652
When an artist is able to reconcile conflict within his or her own life and give to it formal expression which can be integrated into culture, the work offers the invitation to all others struggling with the same conflict to share the reconciliation. At this point the individuals capable of sharing the work in this way will find the experience both meaningful and therapeutic. As Anthony Storr suggests above, the greatest artists seem to be capable of transcending the greatest conflicts and thus hold in their work a matrix which offers meaning to a wide cross-section of individuals and thus enabling a great step forward in culture.
In architecture we had such a step forward when Frank Lloyd Wright was able to ‘destroy the box’. He first achieved this, he tells us, not in the projects like the Robie House where the resolution of inside and outside spaces is very clear but in Unity Temple, a building that he had done earlier for the community in Oak Park, Chicago. In Unity Temple, a fitting title for the place where this event took place, he successfully reconciled and showed there to be a unity between mass and space; earth and sky; those two great opposites that had remained irreconcilable throughout the entire history of architecture.
Unity Temple: Oak Park, Frank Lloyd Wright 1906
In this building Wright set out to demonstrate a reconciliation of inside and outside, solid and void those two great polar opposites that had dominated architecture since mankind first pulled a stone to the door of his cave. Wright was preoccupied with this reconciliation throughout his career and realised it in many great buildings by judiciously dissolving inside spaces through partially glazed walls into external terraces and the landscape beyond. Interestingly however it was here in Unity Temple, a totally internal environment, that Wright felt that he had achieved this resolution for the first time. “…there perhaps is where you will find the first real expression of the idea that the space within the building is the reality of that building. Unity Temple is where I thought I had it, ……” “You will see, there in Unity Temple…. …..the sense of the great room coming through- space not walled in now but more or less free to appear.” “In Unity Temple you will find the walls actually disappearing; you will find the interior space opening to the outside and see the outside coming in.”
Wright referred to this idea as the ‘destruction of the box’. At the large scale of the building we see it in the basic disposition of the elements. Limiting our discussion to the temple block for the time being, we can see how the four stair towers pull themselves clear of the main mass and almost seem to skewer themselves to the ground. These four elements thus form the solid anchor to the block and allow the central temple space to push itself out between these anchored positions. The composition both grounded and freed thus seems to pulsate between these contradictory forces, with the one pushing and pulling against the other. At the upper level of the temple element, the solidity of the envelop breaks down into lead-lighted glazing, articulated externally by six columns on each façade. In a very real sense at this level, the interior is allowed to break out and light is allowed to pour in. Almost as if to underline this spatial movement, the roof at this point stretches out in a cantilever structure to form a canopy to the clearstory.
Placement of the Mouldings Dissolve the Corners Form and Space Merge
At the scale of the major building elements we can see that Wright was able to create the impression of mass and space interpenetrating and oscillating with each other, but even when we examine the solid elements in this composition we find the same principles being demonstrated. Internally the major temple space is penetrated by four solid stair towers and the space between these is layered with balconies. When we examine these stair towers we find that their solidity is challenged by the way that Wright has decorated them. Instead of using panels on each surface of the towers as was traditional at that time to reinforce each of the surfaces, the paneling is allowed to frame the corner of the tower thus effectively merging two surfaces into one. The effect that this has is that it breaks down the corners of these elements and seems to bring space into the solidity of the towers. The technique is repeated on the leading edges of the balconies and on the roof-lights above. The overall effect is that mass and space start to blend into one another even within the solid elements of the design. The form of the building thus begins to appear less substantial and one is left wondering where space finishes and where mass begins.
Unity Temple: Frank Lloyd Wright 1906
What we see happening here in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright in 1905-06 seems to have been exactly paralleled by similar attempts to create a unity between mass and space elsewhere in our culture. In the field of painting it was Picasso and Braque who paved the way in 1905-06, and it is Picasso’s `Demoiselles d’Avignon’ 1906-07 that made the first attempt at the dissolution of the solid, and the unification of Mass and Space. The Cubist work that followed in the wake of ‘Demoiselles d’ Avignon’ developed this concept, writing about Picasso’s painting ‘The Resevoir’ 1909, the art historian Timothy Hilton writes: “In all the houses and in the form of the reservoir at the bottom of the picture, there is no longer any feeling that mass is being represented as mass, but rather that the facts of the visuality of the village are transformed into shifting and merging planes, that everything is being dissolved.”
Demoiselles d’ Avignon: Picasso 1906
Again, directly concurrent with this movement in architecture and the arts, in the field of physics, equivalent relationships, this time in the form of equations, were also being used by Einstein in his famous ‘Theories of Relativity’ to relate energy and mass and space and time. Jacob Bronowski’s account of this period is interesting. “So the great paper of 1905 is not just about light, or as the title says, `The Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies’. It goes on in the same year to a postscript saying energy and mass are equivalent, E=mc2″ …. “To us it is remarkable that the first account of relativity should instantly entail a practical and devastating prediction for atomic physics. To Einstein, it is simply a part of drawing the world together; like Newton and all scientific thinkers, he was in a deep sense a unitarian.” …. “So in a lifetime Einstein joined light to time, and time to space, energy to matter, matter to space, and space to gravitation. At the end of his life he was still working to seek a unity between gravitation and the forces of electricity and magnetism.”
Albert Einstein: 1910
So Einstein, like Frank Lloyd Wright like Picasso were Unitarians, they were using the their ability to recognize ‘similarities within dissimilars’ to pull together parts of the world that had previously been considered separate, and in these three particular examples, concerned with the unification of mass and space, they quite remarkably did it in about the same year. It is in this sense that I defined ‘beauty as the quality of a work that reveals unity’.
Frank Lloyd Wight, Einstein and Picasso were Unitarians:
It is interesting that in some recent correspondence with Lindsay Clarke, the Whitbread winning novelist he said that “beauty is lost in almost every discipline these days except perhaps mathematics”. Good artists compose their work with great precision. I would suggest that great art has a balanced wholeness which is sometimes almost given, at other times strenuously fought for in numerous redraftings. The balanced organisation of such works seem to me to be not dissimilar to the complex matrixes of balanced equivalent relationships used in mathematics, and in great art, in beauty, perhaps no less precise. In giving precise expression to these balanced relationships the concept of care is paramount. To open up the middle ground of both experience and form the artist needs first to experience and feel the delicacy of the centre between life’s opposites and then balance the artistic form with the same care and delicacy as experienced within the centre. The real middle ground cannot tolerate any form of grossness or crudity and throws off any attempt to enter that is heavier than the lightest thought.
The Beauty of Mathematics: ….maths uses balanced equivalent relationships as does art.
I said at the beginning of the paper that the expression that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ is an expression that in my view has been wrongly interpreted to mean that beauty is a subjective phenomenon. Let me see if I can explain; my explanation has three elements to it. Firstly, if you have followed my argument so far you will realise that the creation of beauty is far from subjective. Artists are building formal relationships in their works to give physical form and expression to their inner forms and feelings. This is an objective exercise, not dissimilar to that of scientists testing their hypotheses, in which the artist goes through a rigorous series of iterations to match their inner form with the outer formal reality of their art. Sometimes the expression feels as if it were instant and given, at other times it has to be much more vigorously fought for. Only the artist or architect knows when that balance has been realised in their work. The smallest brushstroke or the slightest tonal shift can sometimes be enough to upset the whole ensemble and sometimes even after a work is complete the artist may remain critical of the whole, perhaps seeking to make minor changes here or there. Such a process seems far from subjective and such a process does not sit comfortably with the post-modern notion that ‘anything goes’. Secondly, the creation of a work of art has a qualitative dimension. What does that mean? Well simply expressed, some artists are more adept at handling form and are plainly better than others at creating a match between their inner content and the external realisation of the content in their art. This does not make art subjective; it makes it qualitative and it just means that there are poor artists, just as there are sometimes poor mathematicians and scientists. Finally, after the work of art has been created it has to be shared with the public. At this stage you will get supporters and dissenters of the work but does this render the work subjective? I would suggest no more than placing a work of science in front of the public, both will initially need their own small audience and both will need time to be accepted fully into culture.
So to recap I would like to suggest that beauty should remain an essential aspect of contemporary art and architecture. I hope that I have been able to present a definition of beauty that gives us a way of identifying a contemporary role for beauty within culture and a way for critics to discriminate between artistic contributions. This definition has I believe given us a way to challenge the post-modern notion that ‘anything goes’, without diminishing the autonomy and individual creativity of a pluralist contemporary culture. This definition of beauty could be used equally to analyse the Georgian examples cited at the beginning of the paper or any of the wide ranging languages of more contemporary architecture. Hopefully it gives us a handle by which we can re-engage with beauty without recourse to the languages of classicism or abandoning the pluralism of our contemporary culture. In my view it is time for beauty to be re-engaged in main stream art and architecture discourse, perhaps we here who have been championing Humane Habitat for many years, can lead that campaign.”