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An Ordinary Beauty

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I remember MUJI in Japan from the early 1980s as retailers of relatively inexpensive and basic items of clothing that were either white or black. Only afterwards came things like the pencil cases, files, folders and storage units that are such a huge part of Japanese living but, even so, MUJI products remain difficult to mistake for DAISO products.

By the late 1980s MUJI had their own shows during Tokyo Fashion Week and people could look at your collarless plain white shirt and say “Oh that’s MUJI isn’t it?” When everything else has an identifiable logo then not having one is invariably seen as an identifiable characteristic even if it’s not intended as such.

It could be that brands are threatened by non-brands. It’s easy to see why a brand whose existence depends on apparent difference, would fear a product with an actual difference resulting organically from an actual ethos. But threatened brands have nothing to fear because all they need do is encourage people to see the non-brand as a brand and have it judged by the same superficial qualities brands are. Brands may appear to promote difference but what they really do is ensure conformity. In architecture, the sadder consequence is that having an ethos works against recognition and The Misfit Architects are proof of that 

We’ve been here before. Henry-Russel Hitchcock’s 1932 introduction to The International Style claimed Hannes Meyer’s radical functionalism was a denial of aesthetics and, as such, an aesthetic in itself. There’s a logical fallacy here – non sequitur I think. It’s like saying a willingness to be transparent only proves how much one has to hide.

Radical Functionalism was an architectural approach that disregarded the visual properties of materials and thus placed itself outside the scope of conventional aesthetic judgments. Even so, buildings will always have visual properties and so there’ll always be people who will judge them. The real question is “are visible qualities the only qualities capable of being an aesthetic and carrying notions of beauty?” Empirical observations suggest so but we still don’t know – there’s no theory and nobody’s looking for one.     

Still. When we see something that isn’t consciously aesthetic, are we seeing a specific type of formal quality, or the absence of a formal quality?

This is the question posed by the photographs of Bernd & Hilla Becher. [1] The Bechers’ photographs aren’t of a single crane or water tower or lighthouse but composite photographs of usually nine, twelve or fifteen. We easily spot minor differences in shape and proportion but the Bechers have made it more difficult for us to see how they differ because they are showing us identical structural and functional typologies, they are using similar camera angles and distances, taking photographs under similar flat grey skies and with the sun at a similar altitude and azimuth. Furthermore, the black and white prints eliminate colour as a differentiator. We’re encouraged to look for similarities. 

If the Bechers had wanted us to discover some shared “formal” aesthetic quality they might have chosen to photograph Gothic cathedrals or Baroque palaces or any other type of structure manifesting some “formal” aesthetic quality usually manifest as “architectural” pretensions. Instead, I believe they photographed what they did because they wanted to show us what happens when none of those are present. I believe they wanted us to see beauty in artificial things devoid of aesthetic pretence.

Contemporary photographer Andreas Gursky was taught by Bernd and Hilla Becher though in what sense he was taught I don’t know. [4] This is one of his photographs.

As for what this photograph and those of the Bechers have in common, we can say both make us look more closely at things we wouldn’t normally look more closely at. The Becher’s photographs may display a quiet dignity but Gursky’s show a quiet power and heroism that’s somehow epic. Somebody must like it because Gursky is the most financially successful photographer the world has ever known. The photograph above was recently auctioned for somewhere between US$1 mil. and US$15 mil. I don’t know the reason for the spread of these numbers but the order of magnitude is impressive.

Here’s four more of Gursky’s photographs, each epic in its own way.

The dimensions are also epic. Price aside, I would love to own and hang Rhine II [above] in my living room to look at everyday but it measures 2063 x 3575 x 50 mm and even my longest wall falls short by 50cm. Any photograph with dimensions such as these is saying its proper place is in a gallery.

It’s the job of art to make us notice it but there’s little that’s mundane about any of these photographs. The closest any comes to being a usual sight is the façade I unwittingly took a photo of in January when I didn’t even know of Andreas Gursky. You’re welcome.

The building may be mundane and beautiful but my photograph is just mundane. Unlike the Bechers, what I suspect Gursky is doing is mining overlooked subject matter for its novelty. Not that it matters much if a building that most people are indifferent to is the subject of a multimillion dollar photograph. When photographs are auctioned for millions there’s more at work than questions of formal aesthetic qualities or even their absence. Where does the value lie?

Just as property developers don’t care what type of property they develop, art investors don’t care what type of art they invest in. They may have their preferences but whether they’re aesthetic or financial we don’t need to know. What if they’re both? Perhaps art investors see a different kind of beauty in potential financial return? Does this make them philistines? shrewd investors? clever ones? or all three?

Even if we suspend objections such as these, we still need to ask “Why should photographers have to teach us to appreciate the beauty of the ordinary, when we could be doing it ourselves?” This is the big question and it’s the job of Art to make us continually question our reality. But does it ever reach so deep? With Duchamp, the surrealism of the found object as sculpture arose from mundane objects being exhibited as if they were art. This, we discovered, was sufficient to make it art. Dadaism didn’t make us appreciate the beauty of bicycle wheels and kitchen stools. It made us question the nature of Art.

Gursky may be showing us a new type of beauty in “mundane” scenes but, rather than being rewarded for teaching us how to find and appreciate it for ourselves, I suspect he is being rewarded for objectifying it and so making sure we never do. I suspect fame and its consequent financial reward are bestowed on people who ensure potentially useful ideas never gain popular currency.*

  • For neglecting to mention the human concerns of Modernism when he introduced it to the US in 1932, Philip Johnson was awarded the first Pritzker Prize.
  • If we look at Le Corbusier’s buildings and proposals in terms of their value as vehicles for his career, then this next proposal worked wonders. Never mind that it did more to discredit high-rise living than it ever did to promote it. Better living conditions for more people in Paris or anywhere else was not its concern and certainly not the result. 

I could pick any of the misfits architects to illustrate the other side of the same point but I’ll use Mario Asnago & Claudio Vender as they worked closest to the idea of an ordinary beauty.

Because we’re not taught to see beauty unless we’re being told to see it, seeing beauty in ordinary things such as the position and spacing of windows means we first need to be alerted to its presence and this is what Asnago & Vender did. They made small parts of their buildings perceptibly strange in order to make us look and appreciate what they had done. It was a useful idea, and also a polite and economical one. This is not the kind of idea architecture cares to remember.

Moreover, they saw the history of Milan in terms of “what’s already there” and didn’t use these “lesser” architectural devices for decoration but in order to knit their buildings into streetscapes in a way that was respectful without being deferential. This is not the kind of attitude architecture cares to recognize. 

  • Despite what Italian architects Asnago & Vender had been doing in and for Italian cities since 1930, in the 1960s Robert Venturi cleared the path for the plunder of Italian historic architectural motifs as a source of superficial architectural meaning first in America, and then around the world. In 1991 Robert Venturi received the Pritzker Prize.
  • We might also consider what has happened since and how Rem Koolhaas and his stable of architects have successfully promoted architecture as spectacle devoid of content.
  • Concurrent with this we have content as spectacle with the rise of virtual architecture, datascapes as architecture, “everything is architecture,” and vizualizations as a form of virtual architecture with only a tenuous link to reality.

US President Trump’s former advisor Steve Bannon is credited with the rallying call “Flood the zone with shit!” – the idea being that people will become incapable of judging for themselves what’s real and what’s not. Architectural media had already adjusted to these new circumstances in which politics and much of our lives is now conducted and the daily spew of architectural imagery continues to dull our ability to judge what is virtuous and what is unacceptable. Or even care. Our threshold for stimulus is now so high that, mistaking stridency for skill, we think something good simply because we noticed it.

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*Some future post will re-state this blog’s theme and lay out evidence for how architectural fame and fortune are granted in inverse proportion to moral content, ethical principles and humanitarian benefit. (The inverse proportion arises from representations of moral content, ethical principles and humanitarian benefit being the inverse of actual moral content, ethical principles and humanitarian benefit.)

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Related Posts:

  1. Honorary Architecture Misfits: Bernd and Hilla Becher
  2. Architecture Misfits #26: Asnago & Vender
  3. Making Strange
  4. more on Andreas Gursky: