Or not – it seems, if you believe The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap. 3.8.1: The Historical Transformation of Aesthetic Values. We begin this academistic overview in some unidentified pre-Greek time where ‘aesthetic’ responses were dogma if beneficial to society or taboo if not.
All archaic societies and cultures institutionalized ‘aesthetic’ values in the form of rigid distinctions between good and bad that were taken for granted and did not tolerate questioning. [p302]
Already, we can see where this is heading. We soon lose the quotation marks and ‘aesthetics’ becomes aesthetics. Later on the author goes on to say that the society of the ancient Greeks did ‘evolve’ a bit more
although the beautiful, the good and the true were still felt to be correlated.
This tells us a lot about the author – most of which we knew already. Like how he thinks the beautiful and the virtuous ought not be connected. Having ridded beauty (for aesthetics now equals beauty) of any connection to morality, the author then attempts to bind it to functionality because functionality can’t be as glibly dismissed. It has to be dealt with head-on. Let’s not forget that he and his boss are rather sensitive to claims of “not working” or “not properly thought through” or “looks pretty but what about X?”. Here’s what he does. To strengthen his claims for “the hidden rationality of aesthetic values”, the author writes that the beauty seen in the famous proportions of Palladian interiors articulate a formula for better daylighting and ventilation. OK – here’s a well-ventilated Palladian interior. Pleasant. Airy. Here’s what’s on the other side of those well-proportioned windows. Clearly, we’re not in Venice where the buildings across the via are six feet away. The amount of light coming through a window might also depend on what’s outside that window. Just a thought. So was Palladio’s endgame to provide rich Renaissance landowners with better ventilation? We may never know. Neo-Palladians certainly didn’t pick up on the Palladian virtues of adequate ventilation. They probably thought it a bit drafty. Instead, they added chimneys. We don’t think of Palladio now as the grandfather of passive design any more than we think of the roof of the Parthenon for its drainage properties. [p303] Personally, I think the author’s thesis of aesthetic value = performance is highly suspect and probably A Convenient Untruth. I also suspect Palladio was the next design con-man after Alberti whom the author claims, really began this thing called architecture. That’s probably true, if you buy into the author’s claim that the Egyptians, Goths and assorted civilizations and cultures didn’t actually produce any architecture because they weren’t aware they were producing architecture. A quick re-cap.
- Archaic societies thought beauty and morality were the same thing.
- Greeks were still getting it wrong as they thought beauty and goodness and virtue were still connected somehow. Losers.
- “The Classical aesthetic regime lost its rationality and became a hindrance to the further development of the built environment.” [p303] I assume he’s talking about the Chicago School.
- The necessary battle to overcome Classicism “was waged and won by the heroes of Modernism. The technological and social revolutions called forth an aesthetic revolution, establishing and aestheticizing non-Classical proportions, new compositional (organizational) patterns and new tectonic features.
The author finds extra validation in Tafuri but I see this in terms of architects just following the money and giving the new breed of client what they want. This ‘reading’ of mine chimes with point 3, above. Early department store owners for neo-Classical ornament when all they wanted was inexpensive and quick-to-build large boxes with lots of windows? Likewise the patrons of International Style architecture. There’s nothing particularly heroic about it. Client pays architect to design a building that makes a statement about them and/or their business or country. Here’s the Tehran Hilton, 1961.
I admit to being stumped by the closing paragraph of this section. We sort of end where we were last chapter (and post) and are reminded that the function of aesthetic codification is to economize on functional analysis and performance testing. What comes after is interesting.
The performative vitality of any specific set of aesthetic values is historically limited.
I don’t understand. If, as the author’s been saying, aesthetic values have an underlying performativity, then that performativity would still remain regardless of whether or not those aesthetic values were valued. It’s aesthetics that’s dependent upon performativity, not the other way around. I’m sure Palladian rooms remain well ventilated even if their architectural stylings aren’t so aspired-to these days.
Aesthetic values should aestheticize those spatial patterns and architectural morphologies that perform well with respect to the vital life processes of contemporary society.
This sentence is a big scaling-up of the original idea. We’ve gone from air and rainwater to the vital life processes of contemporary society. I hope we get to find out what they are. I don’t think we’ll be hearing any more about ventilation and roof drainage.
Ananchronistic values get in the way of progress.
I can see how they might, but that depends upon what you want to call progress.
Outdated, reactionary aesthetic sensibilities need to be exorcised.
If they linger, there must be a reason why. Maybe everyone’s not convinced by the alternatives on offer.
Thus aesthetic revolutions are a necessary complement to societal evolution.
This is not as untrue as it sounds for societal evolution usually does bring with it a new set of clients for architects to work for. Even history can be reduced to marketing and cashflow. Not a popular viewpoint, I’ll admit.
* * *
This notion of societal evolution has been running through this book from the beginning and I’m still not sure what it is. Here’s my top three societal evolutions I think we are / the world is currently experiencing.
- The computing thing. All sorts of buildings are needed for this. I just re-read Green Computing and the Smart Shed. Here’s what a Facebook data centre looks like. Somebody’s designing them. It’s an aesthetics-free zone. Aesthetics only come into play for pet PR projects.
- Increased globalisation and increased international opportunities for architects to make a name for themselves in upstart countries. (I’m not going to name names.) This is the type of client that would find beauty in an architecture devoid of moral virtue.
- Increased global poverty has not made a huge impact on architects’ bottom lines.
- Displaced populations. We’re seeing more temporary communities displaced by extreme climatic events or war. Organisations such as Make It Right aim to restore communities as quickly as possible in spite of the intervention of architects.Communities displaced for other reasons remain well off the radar. This is Azraq, one of the world’s newest cities.
These are what spring to mind whenever I read “societal evolution”. As a theory, the Autopoiesis of Architecture must fulfil some function (because it exists) but as a way of making sense out of how and where society is evolving, I don’t really think it’s up to the task. I’m sure the task will get redefined to suit, possibly in the next chapter
3.8.2 Aesthetic Values and the Code of Beauty.