The Mystery of Beauty
We’d all like to believe in some everlasting unchanging measure of worth, architectural or otherwise, but it’s a losing battle. The old Vitruvian warhorse of Firmitas, Utilitas and Venustas has been patched and updated for centuries now. Yet still it’s around.
Sure we can think of Firmitas in terms of structure and stability and Utilitas in terms of function or usefulness, but the third quality of Venustas (modernly mistranslated as Delight rather than the more accurate Beautiful because it is moral) is as distant as ever. It’s slipping away even further now no-one can believe in Objectivism.
Like most thinkers two millennia ago, Vitruvius was an Objectivist. He believed that certain works of art and architecture had this thing called Beauty that existed, like a spirit in a rock, independent of any observer. Later, Subjectivists maintained that Beauty is whatever people said it was and a particular brand of Subjectivists called Post-Kantian pluralists took this further and claimed anyone is entitled to have an opinion and, what’s more, it didn’t matter how much that view is shared by others. This seems to best describe the world as we experience it.
To show how modern they were and allow more scope for individual interpretation, Post-Modern architects loaded their buildings with multiple “readings”. They championed freedom of choice but maintained control of what the choices were.
One recent attempt to incorporate genuine subjectivity into Venustas/Beauty/Delight says it exists when a building communicates the spirit of its purpose. This sounds like it’s being defined in terms of function but to ‘communicate a spirit’ is subjectivity squared. And then multiplied, as we have to accept that buildings communicate different things to different people. There’s still the Post-Modernist smugness in the assumption those communications are always going to be of value at the one end, and accurately and passively received at the other, but the fact remains: If Delight’ exists when the spirit of a building’s purpose is communicated to a target audience, then it seems like it’s really just another name for another type of Utility.
These next bits come from A.C. Grayling’s “Philosophy 1” (Oxford University Press, 1998.)
“Past attempts to explain architectural beauty have taken what was conventionally regarded as beautiful as their starting point and dissected them in terms of building elements manipulated to create qualities such as ‘harmony’, ‘proportion’, ‘rhythm’, ‘scale’ and so on.“
Identifying what one likes about the things one likes is not a bad place to start, after all.
This classic philosophical stance assumes that beauty is the only, or at least the fundamental, aesthetic quality. Ugliness, blandness, mediocrity are defined negatively as the absence of those qualities. However, even within the same field of art, things considered beautiful are so diverse it’s difficult to imagine a single quality common to them all. This is often given as proof of the mystical and unknowable nature of beauty.
Objectivist philosophers like Vitruvius maintained that some works of art were inherently beautiful regardless of who is observing them. This implies that beauty is governed by rules.
Subjectivist philosophers believe that objects have no aesthetic qualities other than being able to produce certain responses in the person experiencing them. This is what Hume summed up as ‘beauty is no quality in things themselves – it exists merely in the mind that contemplates them’. Hume and, later, Kant didn’t want to allow beauty to be completely subjective and suggested that differences of aesthetic opinion at least indicate the existence of a something on which opinions differ. They still had to describe the subjective character of aesthetic judgments without permitting a riot of aesthetic opinions.
Either way, the problem remains that
“if aesthetic judgments are to be distinct from mere likings and qualify in some sense as rational, then they must in some sense be open to justification.“
• • •
In The Autopoiesis of Architecture, the concept of Beauty makes its first appearance on page 157.
Two footnotes point us (forward, annoyingly) towards further explanation
but, for the time being, we’re meant to
- Believe in Beauty and that
- Beauty, in conjunction with Function, drives architecture.
No justification or evidence. We’re just asked to believe.
The author is obviously an Objectivist at heart for, on the same page, he defines Beauty as “formal resolution” and so implies Beauty has rules that are followed to a conclusion called a “resolution”. It would be nice to be told what those rules are but I already know that we’re not going to, either here or in Vol II.
3.8.3 The Mystery of Beauty.
Here’s the first two paragraphs.
Did you see that? “Attention to beauty and aesthetic values demarcates architecture from science and engineering.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that Beauty is real, merely that some people like to believe in it. However, if they do believe in Beauty, then they get to feel special – which is fine – but, as is often the case, superior to other people such as scientists and engineers following the path of more rational and provable truth.
That’s all we get. The last sentence is particularly worrying. Apparently, reflecting upon what Beauty is can’t be done while designing, even though Beauty is guiding the design process by (supposedly) telling the designer when he/she/her Dameship has arrived at it. We end the chapter no wiser than we were at the beginning when the author stated “Beauty must be shrouded in mystery in order to fulfil its function in the design process … to bring the design decision process to conclusion …” This is not an argument. It is a statement of belief.
• • •
There’s a lot about this book that worries me and a lot of that has to do with creating the appearance of knowledge and the projection of authority. The methods aren’t new.
The plain cover: This implies that what’s inside is important enough in itself and does not need added fanciness. It’s all about the contents.
There aren’t any pictures: They say a picture’s worth a thousand words and we know what’s meant by that. But why use a picture when you can say it in a thousand words? Another way a book can convey an air of authority is by having a lot of words and by making it appear as if every word is essential.
An intricate system of numerical indexing: This is a way of creating the appearance that every word is not only essential but worth quoting and referencing. Making them easy to find implies they are important enough to be searched for. We’ve just seen what Schumacher 3.8.3 had to offer.
Length: I’m estimating The Autopoiesis of Architecture Vol. I weighs in at 180,000 words which is about the same as the 181,253 of the New Testament, but the approx. 300,000 of Vol. II is still half the 593,493 words of the Old Testament. A combined total of 480,00 for the Autopoieses against 774,746 for the Old and New Testaments. TAoAI+II is still short of The Good Book OT+NT, but it’s making a challenge.
Difficult to follow: A book of authority is not a page turner. It’s not even meant to be read sequentially. It’s not meant to be taken on holiday to wile away the time in pleasant surroundings. It commands complete attention and paying anything less is disrespectful. The continuation of that attention is challenged by contents that morph from thought to thought with scant regard for continuity. Books of authority are designed to be dipped into every now and then like your favourite box set when the fancy takes you.
Tone: In the same way as sadists and masochists, or the needy and the controlling unerringly find each other and call it love, imagined authority finds its natural partner with imagined inferiority. An authoritarian author will make a submissive reader feel stupid if they don’t understand, or that they’re lacking in intellect or dedication if the words they read pass before their eyes but the meaning doesn’t penetrate or their argument unfold. Writer and reader are locked in mutually symbiotic relationship.
To this list we can now add
Adopting the structures of religious texts: In The Mystery of Beauty, the author is asking us to:
- believe in something whose existence requires an act of faith,
- allow that belief to guide our (design) behaviour and determine when we’ve done good and not bad,
- accept that that something we believe in can never be known and
- that it all has to be that way in order for the system to work.
This sounds like a religion to me! The real narrative of The Autopoiesis of Architecture is to convey the weight of authority to people willing to believe. If it makes people feel happy and special, then this is not such a bad thing. Schumacher can believe whatever he likes as long as he doesn’t think other people are scum for not thinking the same. Except he does. Ref: Bad Form.
From the first witch doctor onwards, power has been linked to creating the impression of possessing privileged knowledge about how the world works – about what rules have to be followed and how. Mayan priests, for example, convinced their populations that a live person had to be sacrificed every morning if the sun was to rise. It turned out not to be so.
• • •
Early on in The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Schumacher dismissed the idea that Religion was a Great Communications System on par with art, economics, politics and law and went on to formulate his loose-fit extended analogy that intends to illustrate how architecture is one.
Back then, I didn’t understand why he felt that statement needed making. I still don’t. But if Schumacher doesn’t think that Religion is one of the great functions systems of society, then I don’t think he should adopt the look, feel, argument and purpose of it to claim Architecture is one and, by association, present himself as a deliverer of truth.
I’m still not seeing the light.