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Love You Long Time

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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.

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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.

  1. Archaic societies thought beauty and morality were the same thing.
  2. Greeks were still getting it wrong as they thought beauty and goodness and virtue were still connected somehow. Losers.
  3. “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.
  4. 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.

Teheran Hilton 1965

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.

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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.

  1. 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.Facebook-to-Build-a-Second-450-Million-Data-Center-2
  2. 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.
  3. Increased global poverty has not made a huge impact on architects’ bottom lines.
  4. 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.make it rightCommunities displaced for other reasons remain well off the radar. This is Azraq, one of the world’s newest cities.133214337_13957982889211n

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.



  • Hi Graham,
    I’ve been following your blog with great interest since I first got to know it and I like it a lot. Especially what you write about architecture being more and more reduced to likes and dislikes, to a fashion or lifestyle statement, is, I think, very important.
    That being said, I’ve thought a lot about your criticism of Schumacher and Hadid and I have to say: I don’t, I can’t agree. That has nothing to do with either of those persons, I really couldn’t care less about them, I just feel you expect to much of architecture.
    Take the Belvedere palace in Vienna or rather its gardens, for example.

    When finished in 1721, they were an example of extreme luxury and opulence that could only have been built by one of the richest men of the time, prince Eugene of Savoy (interesting character, by the way, the quintessential gay general). Yet whenever I’m there, what I see is an example of how the world could be. Situated slightly above the but very near the old city centre, its order, open space and beauty are such an enormous contrast to the chaos, density and, well, ugliness of the surrounding areas, a contrast that really shames those areas.
    By saying the Belvedere is an example of how the world should be, of course I don’t mean to say everybody should life in palaces but I do think “beauty and comfort shouldn’t be the privilege of an elite but a natural part of human existence”, as a GDR book about European castles and palaces says. In political situations like in the early 18th century or today, I think giving examples of that is really all architecture can do. I don’t know if Hadid’s architecture does, I rather doubt it. But her disinterest in morality and her working for dictators, while certainly making her a bad person, says nothing about the quality of her architecture.
    I feel that in a way you’re sticking to the old Le Corbusier saying “l’architecture est à la clef de tout” (architecture is the key to everything). The positive examples you give, like the one in India, I’m sorry but they seem ridiculous to me and make me think of Wilde’s “but their remedies do not cure the disease, they merely prolong it”.
    A truly new and better architecture can only come into existence in a new and better society. This is why I think the only important architecture, the true heir to all that was progressive about the Belvedere and all other architecture, were the housing estates build by the welfare states in the West and the socialist states in the East. They, and they only, were the kind of architecture, that, at least sometimes and of course in varying decrees, tried to find actual solutions to actual human problems without bothering too much with artistic pretence. So I believe a new society, preferably one even better than the one destroyed in 1989 is the actual key to a new architecture.
    Until then, I guess we’re stuck with the likes of Hadid and the idiotic academic cant of some Schumacher. I do admire you for taking the time to point out where they are wrong, especially knowing that their fans won’t even notice. To me, your most valuable criticism isn’t, however, about their lack of morality but about the fact that they’re just doing their best, very good actually, at creating a brand and making money which is really all an architect can do in a capitalist system.

    • Phillip, thanks for taking the time to share those thoughts. I found some images of the Belvedere and it was easy to imagine it’s a nice place to be. The closest I’ve experienced is probably the gardens of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Or Richmond Park in London – not that I’m a dog-walker or anything. But you’re right, I probably do expect a bit too much and my continual disappointment is the impetus for many of my posts, including today’s. I guess what I’d like to see is for people to see the underbelly of architecture as well as the sparkly “glamour”. It’s interesting you mention Hadid’s choosing to work for dictators is not necessarily a comment on the quality of the architecture. It’s interesting because Deyan ( Sudjic has said that architecture is not about politics. This is the man who wrote “The Edifice Complex – The Architecture of Power”, who examined the motives of Albert Speer, etc. I think Sudjic’s slipped over to the dark side. But in his current job, Sudjic praises the quality of the architecture whilst asking us to ignore its politics. I don’t really trust the political judgment or the aesthetic judgment of Heydar Aliyev’s son. I only know he has lots of money and can do what he likes. And architects have always liked people with lots of money and who can do what they like. In the spirit of the Belvedere, Aliyev Jnr. has already provided us who are never going to visit with a conversation piece, which, sadly, is all we seem to want from architecture.

      The things I wrote about in India are heartwarming and I’m still glad somebody’s doing it. It’s probably not architecture and how can it be when our hearts and minds are in Azerbaijan? Or Shanghai? I’m reminded of Mother Theresa – she didn’t really do much to improve people’s lives, she only encouraged them die a bit more tidily. Nevertheless, I do believe and continue to believe that architecture can make a difference and, like you Philipp, see that brief moment in the early 20th century as a missed opportunity. For a few decades now I’ve thought that societies get the architecture they deserve. I don’t want to believe it’s true, but I’m not seeing much evidence to the contrary. I guess, as you say, for a while we’re going to be stuck with the definitions/personifications of architectural success that we have. I’ll continue to do what I’m doing, as I’m sure they will too. Thanks for reading Philipp. Please stay in touch.