What is the stuff of architecture? What is it made of?
If architects are capable of producing it and others are capable of recognising it, we must all be able to access certain basic quantities in order to do so but what are they? To say “mass, space and light”, as many do, is meaningless outside the bubble of journalistic hype, but to suggest architects merely place walls, roofs and windows also dissatisfies. For one, walls can be perceived as shapes or colours. They can define masses and spaces that produce sensations yet also convey meaning both in and over time. One thing is certain. With objects as artificial as buildings, we can be sure that beauty, when it happens, is no accident. The magic has been input somehow and by someone following certain rules consistently, if not consciously, and with some aesthetic goal in mind.
Consider food, that other fundamental for human existence. Its production is constrained by what is available for any one day, season or era, what can be afforded, and by the imagination. Cooking also has cultural and geographical variables although these arenʼt as strong as they used to be. Itʼs also subject to the pressures of timely production and can be as prosaic or as elaborate as cicumstances demand. Like buildings, food can symbolise notions of status however they may change and, moreover, is also subject to forces of fashion and marketing across the entire spectrum of its production. Cooks and chefs alike substitute ingredients as and when necessary to create value-adding tastes and textures using more procurable, less expensive ingredients. Food manufacturers may use additives to create the sensation of authentic or more expensive ingredients but cooking with only the freshest and finest ingredients and using time-consuming or expensively-contrived processes is all too often mistaken for culinary excellence.
An architectural beauty solely based on the assembling of premium materials would be highly suspect and at this point the analogy fails. The presence of premium materials is usually flaunted and thus readily identifiable but our primary source of information about buildings is gained from our sense of vision, and vision can be deceived more easily than taste. Unlike our tongues that have taste receptors for the five tastes of sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami, our eyes only have one type of optical receptor that doesnʼt distinguish between light from one source and that from another. All visual stimuli are processed into visual information. To a degree, timber can be convincingly patterned to look like marble, plastic can be formed to appear to be granite, veneers used to create the impression of solid timber, and alloys plated to resemble solid metal. In all these cases a less expensive material is being used to create the impression of a more expensive one.
This is why the use of premium materials is usually accompanied by reference to the non-visual qualities of those materials – the fragrance of cedar, the weight of gold, the coolness of marble, the warmth of solid wood and so on. A beauty that resides in such non-visual attributes is resistant to photographic recording, limiting the appreciation of that beauty to those able to access it. With architecture, this usually translates as the intended users or ʻthe ownersʼ if the building is residential. In any case, whilst a timber floor can be thought of as beautiful it does not, in itself, constitute architecture. Clearly, the materials one has to work with can facilitate the creation of delight but architectural creativity lies in manipulating the attributes of those materials.
Colour, Pattern and Shape are the three basic visual attributes of any tangible object. More precisely, these are three qualities our brain extracts from optical information fed to the brain by the eyes and that we attribute to the object perceived. Being light, all visual information is colour information of some sort. In passing, it must be mentioned that in total darkness, vision is ineffective and any talk of visual aesthetics is meaningless, but colour information itself is only part of the story for perceiving colour is not the same as perceiving an object. Colour in isolation could just be a smudge on a landscape, an obstruction of vision. Two or more colours enable the perception of pattern but a pattern could merely be spots before our eyes. It is when colour and pattern allow us to perceive shapes that objects are recognised and this may go some way towards explaining why the act of designing is so strongly linked with the creating of shapes. Colour, Pattern and Shape are primary attributes because if none are perceived, it isnʼt possible to perceive an object let alone a building.
Despite this hierarchy of perception, Colour, Pattern and Shape are mutually independent as far as buildings are concerned even though they may all be the consequence of materials used. Colour, Pattern and Shape are surface attributes that describe the “what” of a building.
Other attributes come into play once an object can be extracted from its background and recognised. We can perceive where it is with respect to its background, or with respect to any other object recognised. We can say things like “the tower is on the hill” or “the house is in the clearing”. Position is a fourth attribute of buildings. Alignment is another. Alignment describes how an object is placed with respect to a viewer or another shape that is recognised. We can say things like, “the house fronts the street” or “the building faces the sea” Position and Alignment are mutually independent as, for example, a square table can be positioned in the centre of a square room but aligned so it isnʼt parallel with the walls. Alternatively, it could be parallel with the walls but positioned somewhere that is neither a centre, corner, midpoint, or on an axis. If Position describes the “where” of a building, Alignment describes the “how”.
The sixth attribute is Size. Colour, Pattern and Shape information let us know if what we are seeing is an object but Size describes how prominent it is, how much of it there is. Size is relative bigness and, as such, is dependent upon distance and viewpoint. Size describes the “how much” of a building.
These attributes are grouped above. There are the three Surface attributes of Colour, Pattern and Shape, the two Placement attributes of Position and Alignment, and the Size attribute. All are visible, tangible qualities of any object. Objects also have other perceivable tangible qualities accessible by senses other than sight. Our sense of touch tells us about texture and temperature whilst, through reverberation and echo, our sense of hearing tells us about size and materials of spaces. Our sense of smell can inform us about location and materials. Our sense of taste is little used in the recognition, let alone the appreciation, of buildings but this says more about the essential nature of humans than the essential nature of buildings.
Qualities such as embodied energy, thermal mass and energy efficiency are also tangible but unless made visible through physical form (as distinct from physical form being used to symbolise them) to enter the realm of visual beauty, they remain mere indicators of a particular virtue called sustainability. Increasingly, energy-efficient buildings are being seen as virtuous, but whether energy efficiency will stay a virtue of performance or come be perceived as an intangible form of beauty remains to be seen.
Now, the six Attibutes can have either of two tangible states and each of these can have from zero to three intangible ideas associated with it. This gives the following possible combinations of Attributes and Ideas. While acknowledging that it exists, the tangible state of Negate is ignored as it has no meaning for (visual) architectural aesthetics. [In one later version I did give a more detailed explanation showing an expanded table that was then shrunk, but rather than risk confusion now, I will talk more about that when the time comes.]
On the left are the six mutually indecent attributes of any building and to the right is a list of names of the sixteen possible combinations of tangible and intangible actions, shown along with their components.
EACH OF THESE SIXTEEN COMBINATIONS IS AN IDENTIFIABLE AESTHETIC EFFECT.
Descriptions of them for each attribute form the core of what is to come. The exposition on the far right is merely a guide to what combination the names represent. Red or blue respectively indicate whether the tangible action for an attribute is Separate or Unite, and pale red, blue or green identify the presence of any intangible actions associated with that attribute.
Behaviours are paired 0–1, 2–3, 4–5 … with even-numbers members indicating the attribute acting tangibly to Separate, and odd-numbered ones that it is acting tangibly to Unite. The pair 2–3, for example, consists of the core pair of two opposing tangible actions with an intangible action to Separate. Pairs 2–3, 4–5 and 6–7 show all possible combinations for one intangible action. Pairs 8–9, A–B and C–D show all possible combinations for two, and Pair E–F shows the only combination with three.
The numbering within pairs is arbitrary in the sense that an attribute acting to Separate is no more or less important than one acting to Unite. Nevertheless, it is apt that the first two states be numbered 0 and 1 as they are binary – there is either one or the other. Larger numbers indicate a greater number of intangible actions but within the group having one intangible action for example, pair 2–3 is inherently no more important than pair 4–5 or pair 6–7. Nevertheless, the three pairs of this group follow pair 0–1 because they are more complex. Similarly, pairs having two intangible actions follow those with one, etc. It must be noted that pairs 2–5 and 3–4 could exist if pairs were formed according to whether an intangible attribute acts to reinforce or contradict the intangible action. This has not been done because the adopted pairings highlight instances where whether an attribute is acting tangibly to Separate or to Unite is contentious. This will be explained in more detail later.
The names describe the characteristic effects of the different combinations of attribute actions. The first two, Separate and Unite are clearest as they denote the “unadorned” tangible attribute behaviours. Those that follow become more abstract and weightier (or murkier, some might say) as they involve the subjective and transitory identification of one or more intangible actions. Befitting the binary actions they describe the names Separate and Unite are antonyms, as are all the pairs of names that follow. Moreover, all names are transitive verbs reflecting the fact that behaviours are the result of someone acting upon (or failing to act upon) an attribute to make it do something. Not only are all pairs of names antonyms, they are also synonyms of Separate and Unite in concordance with the status of the tangible attribute at the core.
This post marks the end of the preamble. Understanding the mechanisms of architectural aesthetics was never going to be simple, but it turned out to be not that complicated either. Following posts will have more pictures.
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The Architecture of Architectures
The 2007 Draft: Preface
The 2007 Draft: Introduction
The 2007 Draft: Derivation
The Architecture of Architectures (2007 ~ )