The 2007 Draft: Preface

The reality shown in the photograph above must have looked beautiful to photographer Virgile Lafreniere and, thanks to him, the ideas evoked by that reality are beautiful for us to contemplate. The igloo isolated in its inhospitable landscape says something of man’s tenacious existence on the planet. The entrance and the aurora borealis mirrored about the line of the horizon make us think of how our planet mediates between us and the Universe. The aurora arcs down to greet the curve of the igloo. The igloo’s yellow glow extends and completes the aurora’s spectrum of reds, blues and greens. The only three light sources of igloo, aurora and stars suggest some common purpose linking man, the sky and the cosmos. All these grand ideas of cosmic unity are suggested by the presence of the igloo yet the person who built it intended none of them. All that person did was build a simple shelter using what they knew and had to work with. Sometimes we try too hard to find meaning in things never intended to be anything more than what they are.

“Beauty is no quality in things themselves – it exists merely in the mind that contemplates them.”
David Hume

This post is the second in the series The Architecture of Architectures.

My first attempt at organizing all this non-linear information into book form was completed in November 2007. The result describes [the?] sixteen aesthetic effects and their properties, and contained a Preface, an Introduction with a “justification” showing how the framework fitted into philosophical thinking about aesthetics, and a description of how the six attributes were derived. A third part described the derivation of the framework in more detail. This post is the Preface and, upon reading it, you may recognise thoughts and perhaps even entire sentences from various posts over the past nine years. The Architecture of Architectures has not only coloured my thinking about architectural aesthetics, it has become it. I don’t mean to brag or tease but, by the time we get to the end, you will not be able to look at a building ever again without thinking WHERE it fits into this framework. Precisely WHAT you think about that building remains up to you, as it always was.


This book is about architecture and the love of it. It proposes a framework for thinking and talking about all buildings, not just those commissioned by the wealthy and powerful and that chronicle the history of architecture. This bias in the history of architecture is understandable as buildings of non-durable materials and built on other peopleʼs land do not tend to remain for very long. Those that enter the history of architecture are constructed to last, and remembered because they were designed to make an impression. Just as fire requires Heat, Oxygen and Fuel in order to happen, all buildings require Money and Land. The third element is Will for buildings do not occur spontaneously. This is the nature of buildings.

It has always been possible to build expediently using available materials and inexpensive processes but there is no market other than a captive one for those buildings. These are the buildings that have disappeared into history along with their users. At the same time, it has always been possible to build using expensive materials and complex processes. It is also possible to use them to create a building that looks as if it were constructed using inexpensive materials and simple processes but this never happens. All buildings may require money, land and will in order to exist, but some buildings do more and articulate not the possession of money but Wealth, not land but Property, and not will but Power.

The history of architecture is not one of modest tombs, unimposing palaces and functional places of worship.

Adam Smith famously wrote “With the greater part of rich people, the chief enjoyment of riches consists in the parade of riches, which in their eye is never so complete as when they appear to possess those decisive marks of opulence which nobody can possess but themselves.” Beauty in general and architectural beauty in particular tends to be defined in terms of what appeals to the wealthy, whether it be an expression of wealth, property, power or other qualities they either possess or wish to be seen to possess. Sometimes, these qualities include sensitivity, humanity and an appreciation of ʻthe finer things in lifeʼ.

In his book “Marks of Opulence”, Colin Platt charts the correlation between the economic history of art and the aesthetic history of art.

Despite a suspicion that beauty is what the wealthy can afford, spending vast amounts of money on a building is no guarantee of creating it. A beautiful piece of land may not necessarily make for beautiful architecture but it definitely facilitates the perception of it.

The aesthetic history of architecture may be top-driven but the technical history of architecture charts the course of making fewer and less expensive materials go farther to achieve the same effect. Construction-wise, Gothic cathedral builders could not draw upon the same resources as the Romans – who themselves were laughably frugal when compared with the Egyptians. Computers today may make it possible to build with even less time and fewer resources but, fundamentally, are merely a contemporary way of reacting to these same two forces that have continued to shape buildings, the prestige and lowly alike, for millennia. Access to state-of-the-art computing resources is as unevenly distributed as it is for any other building resource.

For a while, novel geometries, sometimes inspired by the natural world were used to shape buildings. Here, the impossibility lies in making buildings, those most artificial of objects, appear to obey laws guiding the shapes of natural ones. Try as some might, buildings are not self-replicating and never will be but attempts to make them appear so guarantees the necessary level of decadent wastage to sustain an aesthetic as an aspirational product. Nevertheless, should technological innovation ever lower the level of resources required to achieve that or any other aesthetic effect, that effect will lose its value-adding status and a new one will take its place. Natural laws apply to the marketing of beauty.

As the level of wealth people today can reasonably aspire to dwindles, itʼs no surprise that the aesthetic marketplace is driven by the desire to appear to have more than one actually does, and that notions of beauty and asset value conflate. As ever, this means that low-cost, utilitarian and mass-produced buildings can never be beautiful no matter how much they may be praised for their economies, efficiencies, simplicities or charm.

There is no aesthetic history of vernacular architecture.

Top-end notions of beauty take some quality impossible to achieve and articulate the attempt to achieve it, thereby guaranteeing that vast quantities of architectural resources can be expended in the process to sustain high-end architecture as decadent endeavour. Buildings were never weightless, for example, but one of the concerns of Modernism was to design buildings that appeared to defy gravity. Later, the quest for transparency was to involve a similar flaunting of architectural resources. Opportunity for architectural display is not limited to the conventional operands of materials, and land, but also to less tangible ones such as access to light, view, skills, computing power, and process. With its obsession on eliminating construction joins, Minimalism attempts to deny the fact that a building is, in fact, a built object – something neither easy, cheap, nor even possible to achieve.

Creating the impression of having more that one actually does, continues to be admired as inventive and innovative, but two factors have remained constant throughout the aesthetic and technological histories of architecture – money and, in as much as it is separable, land.

All buildings require money and land in order to exist.

Itʼs no surprise to find that architectural endeavour has been concerned with articulating the possession of both, and that the resulting buildings are the ones that have shaped architectural history.

Despite this, buildings remain objects in a physical context of some kind and, by and large, this is how they are thought of. Images we have of buildings are often indirect ones formed from photographs presenting buildings in a certain manner but, photographs being photographs, they do not and cannot tell the entire story. A photograph of a building on a hillside can be cropped to exclude neighbouring buildings and imply a physical context that is not the case.

I was thinking of this house when I wrote that. How differently would we think of it if we saw or even if we knew there were neighbouring houses cropped just out of frame? (There aren’t, as it happens, but the question is a valid one.)

Photographs provide us with images of notions of buildings and might differ from the reality of a building when visited and seen directly. Ultimately, they tell us nothing more than how someone would like a building to be perceived. Words do the same. Phrases such as “growing out of the land,” “a part of the landscape,” “as if it had always been there,” and “takes advantage of its location” occur often in architectural criticism and journalism and it is taken for granted that this is a good thing even though buildings in stark contrast to their surroundings are sometimes seen as beautiful as well. We never hear “appears smaller than it actually is” or “in total disharmony with its context” as terms of praise. Architectural beauty seems tied to the desire to forge relationships with property one may not necessarily own. The aim of this book is to show how this is articulated.

The intention of this framework is to demystify architectural aesthetics and this cannot be achieved by an approach akin to counting the stars in the sky. Rather, this framework maps relationships between buildings and their physical contexts in order to explain the chemistry not only behind the beautiful, but also behind the mundane, the confused, the fantastic, the grotesque, the new and the sensational as well as the vast and bland no-manʼs-lands in-between. Such knowledge has a price. Once all built reality is placed within a unifying framework, the ugly may no longer shock or anger but the fashionable will no longer thrill or entertain and the beautiful will no longer astound and amaze.

The Periodic Table did as much for chemistry when it organised The Elements and their attributes into a framework that provided insights into their behaviours and combinations. Its greatest benefit to chemistry and to mankind was to liberate both from the false claims of alchemists. In the same way as understanding of the properties of elements didn’t diminish the wonder of the Universe, identifying the attributes, actions and behaviours underlying architectural invention should not diminish our appreciation of it. More likely it will enhance it as genuine invention will be easier to identify. We will be able to see architecture as more than the chronology of styles and the charting of individual career trajectories it is now and escape this seemingly captive orbit of fashion. If for no other reason than this, it had to be done.

• • • 

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


2 thoughts on “The 2007 Draft: Preface

  1. jonathan

    My appetite is suitably re-wetted. But will it take 12 years to get to the next chapter, or the end………?

    1. Graham McKay Post author

      hhh not that long I hope. The post numbers are nothing more than numbers. At one post every three weeks or so I reckon we should be done in two years and a bit. I have plans for a Volume II on Space and a Volume III on Time but I’m running a bit behind. Graham.

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