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The Architecture of Architectures

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Sixteen categories ought to be more than enough for any blog so the plan had been to merge MEDIA and MARKETING as who can tell the difference anymore anyway? I’d wanted to make a place for something I’ve called The Architecture of Architectures. Instead, I’m going to file it under THEORY because that’s what it is. As a name, The Architecture of Architectures is a grand one and I hope to prove it’s an accurate one as I document the process by which I arrived at what I believe is a unified theory of aesthetics, and then go on to describe it. Posts relating to this will be interspersed with other posts and, at the rate of one post per month, I expect it will take eighteen months to three years to serialise. Slow Theory.

There’s a reason for this. Ideas should not be subject to a business case anyway but the world of commercial publishing has no appetite for image-heavy books that are expensive to produce and have no guaranteed market. Who cares anyway? The world of academic publishing also sets its own limitations with academics farming citations in paywalled gardens. Both ecosystems offer no guarantee the information will ever reach persons who might find it useful and make use of it. On the other hand, the online dissemination of information is immediate, inexpensive and potentially viral but mostly instantly forgettable. For me to upload the whole thing in one hit as open source knowledge may create some spike of interest today but it would only be displaced by something more diverting or less demanding tomorrow.

This “architecture of architectures” or “unified theory of aesthetics”  – a poetics, if you will – is a conceptual framework that organises and describes the mechanics of visual (architectural) aesthetics and with a workable degree of precision. It’s my attempt at making sense out of the world of buildings and what they look like. As with any good conceptual framework such as The Periodic Table, the place of a building in the framework is both identifier and description.

What I hope to show by all this is that architectural aesthetics is not the mystery it’s made out to be and that architectural beauty is capable of being comprehended – not in the sense of appreciating it when we stumble across it, but in the sense of understanding how it is generated. This is an important distinction. Attempting to find patterns and similarities in what one likes is a reasonable enough place to start any inquiry into the nature of architectural aesthetics but it can’t be allowed to stop there. Conclusions must point to truths more fundamental and general than any one person’s likes and dislikes.

This series of posts will document where mine led. I’m happy for it to be either confirmed, refined or refuted, but would be pleased if people were to find it a useful way of thinking about architectural aesthetics and, in particular, that particular subset of it we call Beauty. The default is to define Beauty as unknowable and for it to remain so [as if that alone constituted proof] and for all suggestions otherwise to be branded blasphemous. This is how belief systems endure. But what if architectural aesthetics was understandable? And that that unique subset called Beauty is and has always been knowable?

• • •


[Atelier of Kazuo Shinohara, Tokyo Institute of Technology, 1980-83] During the first year of the master’s program I found myself thinking about how furniture was designed and placed in architectural spaces. This was prompted by my observation that some designs and placements of furniture could enhance a space while others would detract from it. My professor Kazuo Shinohara was aware of this and he wasn’t the only architect to insist on the interiors of his houses being photographed with selected items of furniture prior to the owners moving in.

Shinohara claimed he had no interest in his houses after handover and I remember thinking of this when looking at this next photograph. I visited this house after completion but prior to it being photographed as I don’t remember the Kuramata furniture there. Tables and chairs tend to be human in scale and let us know how large a space is but, with this image, there’s also a sense that the furniture has been chosen and placed to suit the space. I began to wonder how much any spatial effect was dependent upon having sympathetic furniture placed sympathetically inside? It made me think a space dependent upon such synergies was inherently weak.

The insides of Shinohara houses generally looked very different after the owners moved in. It’s easy to see how House in Uehara maintained a strong presence no matter what the occupants filled it with. I remember the forks of the columns collecting the week’s newspapers prior to bundling and collection, and underneath them the cat’s bowls where they couldn’t be kicked. Some of the other houses had the same presence, in varying degrees.

These thoughts led to me wanting to know how many ways a furniture object could relate to an architectural space and why some worked with the architecture and others not. The outcome was my masters thesis Interior Design Research Based on the Design and Arrangement of Objects「物のフォルムと配列からみた室内意匠の研究」. All present at my defense were profoundly underwhelmed.

I enrolled in the PhD course but later withdrew and, after a while, became a reasonably competent technical translator specialising in patent documentation for consumer electronics and semiconductor manufacture. It taught me how to identify innovation and define it. In 1993 I relocated to London and continued to work as a translator, this time translating research reports for securities companies. This taught me to see land not as landscape, Nature or even a site but as a fixed asset with value.

Around 1995 a friend gave me her collection of interior design magazines and this renewed my interest in objects in spaces and how not only furniture, but semi-architectural objects such as fireplaces and staircases exist within them. I clipped images and organised them into folders for each of the six fundamental attributes I had identified in my thesis: Colour, Pattern and Shape were the three Surface attributes. Position and Alignment were the two Placement attributes. The sixth I called “Aesthetic” and this next image was the one I used to illustrate how objects could appear different yet still be united by an intangible idea.

As we know, or at least were taught, the space and the objects inside it share the notion of function in that they are the way they are because they satisfy some supposedly functional criteria – I say “supposedly” because Le Corbusier claimed the shapes in the paintings are the ones the eye wants to see. Despite that niggle, we can regard both the space and the things inside it as sharing some quality we can’t see. It’s an intangible quality dependent on knowledge.

The folders grew in size and I divided them into two, one for when an attribute was visually different from its space, and the other for when the attribute was visually similar. I called these two states Separate and Unite. I don’t remember what other images I used but these next two images are examples of Pattern “uniting” a space and the things within it.

These next two images are examples of Alignment “uniting” a space and the things it contains.

My collection of folders so far followed the structure of my master’s thesis with the five attributes of Colour, Pattern, Shape, Position, Alignment and Aesthetic operating to either Separate an object from its surroundings, or to Unite them with it. Some important breakthroughs happened more or less simultaneously mid-1995.

  1. The first was realising that the same framework could be applied to buildings and their contexts in a figure-ground kind of way.
  2. I realised that the thing I had called Aesthetic was not an attribute in itself but a separate layer of intangible notions overlaid on each of the attributes. In the photograph of the Pavilion de L’Esprit Nouveau the notional similarity of “functionalism” is suggested through Shape for objects such as the building, the table and the chair but through Colour and Pattern in the case of the pictures and rugs. [Le Corbusier had suggested his Purist paintings were “what the eye wanted to see.”]
  3. Furthermore, these intangible notions could either work to reinforce a difference or similarity or work against it. In other words, they were ideas (or notions) of Separation and ideas (or notions) of Unity.

At the same time as I lost the attribute of “Aesthetic” I also gained a new one. For a short while I called it Presence but it soon became clear that what I was really talking about was Size – how much of a building there was, and that Scale was a notion of Size. My framework now looked like this.

attribute actions 2

Three things make it a reasonable basis for a universal framework of architectural aesthetics.

  1. The six attributes are common to all buildings, no matter when or where they are built. They are the fundamental qualities all architects and builders manipulate, whether consciously or not. Because of this,
  2. The aesthetic framework applies to all buildings and not just those that are consciously aesthetic. Moreover,  
  3. The ability to look at two things and say they are different or the same is universal and, unlike the intangible notions, independent of age, culture and education.

For the next eight years or so, while working as a financial translator and, later, as a design architect, I organised this information in the hope of finding a way to communicate it. Hard copy folders became cumbersome and so everything was scanned. Around 2003 I used Quark to format much of the information into A3 pages divided into six columns. There was one page for each attribute and two columns (Tangible and Intangible) for the two states of Separate and Unite. [Thanks to Tracy for letting me use her A3 colour printer. And no thanks to Iomega Zip drives as these files no longer exist.]

Nevertheless, from considering images such as these next, I reasoned there must be a third type of idea. The image on the left is an example of both Colour and Pattern to Unite but the image on the right uses Colour and Pattern to deny the existence of the building – at least to an enemy pilot overhead. This state I called Negate. It’s basically an excess of Unity that negates the identity of the building. Negate is when a building is not what it appears to be. Negate is when we’re made to wonder if a building is actually a building.

Negate does have a tangible state but this state has no meaning for visual aesthetics since there’s no building to see or consider. For example, how are we to know this next image isn’t of a building perfectly disguised as a haystack? We would have to suspect it might be before we can even ask ourselves the question.

This might seem like wordplay but ideas of Negate are very important for architecture for what is truly innovative architecture but something that makes us re-evaluate what a building is or can be? With the addition of Ideas of Negate around 2003, the framework arrived at its current form.

attribute actions 2

• • •

Around 2007 these thoughts coalesced into a first draft that I called The Architecture of Architectures. There were to be various other working titles over the years. Around 2011 it was briefly called My First Book of Architecture and, not long after, The Architecture Style Index. For a couple of years around 2015 it was called The Sixteen Types of Beauty but, as is often the way, the first title turned out to be the most apt.

This has all been an introduction to what promises to be about twenty linked posts. There will be some more preamble before I introduce the framework itself, one effect at a time. The June 2013 post Aesthetic Effect #5: COMBINE was only one part of what I now intend to disclose in full. The next post in this series will be The 2007 Draft: Preface.

• • • 

The Architecture of Architectures
The 2007 Draft: Preface
The 2007 Draft: Introduction
The 2007 Draft: Derivation
The Architecture of Architectures (2007 ~ )



  • Great introduction. Leaves me wanting more. Looking forward to reading the series as it develops!