The two fundamental tangible attribute behaviours of SEPARATE and UNITE can’t explain everything. It’s true they’re what all people see but, precisely because of that, they’re also the basis for other, more complex types of aesthetic judgments.
Conventionally, discussions of architectural aesthetics have obsessed about qualities such as ‘harmony’, ‘proportion’, ‘rhythm’, and ‘scale’ and these must still be accounted for even though this framework is not derived from them. Rhythm, for example, can be thought of as having something to do with Pattern, proportion as having something to do with Shape, and scale as having something to do with Size. The number root five minus one, over two (a.k.a. The Golden Section, The Golden Rectangle, The Golden Proportion, The Fibonacci Series) features prominently in the history of architectural aesthetics and, although it may describe a characteristic of a building’s shape or pattern, it has no bearing on the tangible relationship between a building and its context. The eye’s preferences for this ratio may be empirically proveable but the intellectual appreciation of it is learned – the result of education, culture, knowledge. All these subjectivities have to be accounted for somehow.
Convergence of aesthetic opinion is further complicated by the fact that different viewers looking at the same object are very likely to perceive it differently. Further disagreements may occur not because of differences in what people see but because of what they think they see. And even if the same notions are identified, people can still disagree over their relative strength and importance.
Each attribute can be overpaid with up to three types of intangible notions.
These three categories are intangible notions of Separate, intangible notions of Unite and intangible notions of Negate. Conceptually, none is more important than the other two but I will start with (intangible) notions of Separate, and use the attribute of Colour to introduce the concept of notions of Separate.
Remember that the six attributes are mutually independent and Colour is no more important than any of the other five. If I use the Colour attribute now and more often in future posts to introduce a new aesthetic effect, it is only because we’re used to talking about the subjectivity of colour more than we are for the other attributes. We have the vocabulary for it, and are used to saying and hearing things such as “I don’t like red – it reminds me of …” etc.
Colour to 2: DETACH
Imagine a white building seen against a backdrop of trees. As far as colour is concerned, the building is white and the surroundings are green. This is a clear example of Colour to SEPARATE. But there’s also an infinite number of ways the colour white can be thought of as different from the colour green that we see in the surroundings.
- The colour white can also be thought of as not being a colour but the absence of colour contrasting with the very real presence of the colour green.
- The colour white can also be thought of as being all colours combined, and something very different from objects that only reflect light wavelengths in the green part of the spectrum.
- The colour white can also be thought of as the colour of purity in opposition to the sensual colour of the natural world.
Intangible notions are not absolute properties of a building and, although prompts towards a certain notion might be offered, there’s no guarantee they will be followed up. What people think cannot be controlled or policed. Already, we have some understanding of the mechanism for how and at what point subjectivities (resulting from education and/or culture and/or knowledge) affect aesthetic judgments.
In each of the above cases, the notional difference of the colour white reinforces the tangible difference already observed between the building and its surroundings. The tangible separateness of the colour is reinforced by a complementary way of thinking about it. This combination of the tangible reality of SEPARATE being reinforced by an intangible notion of Separate is the aesthetic effect DETACH. As words, detach is a synonym of separate. DETACH is still SEPARATE but it is now SEPARATE +𝞪 (and, as we shall find out, possibly +𝞫 and +𝜸 as well).
Pattern to 2: DETACH
Here’s an example of Pattern to Detach. The building is all lines and planes and shares no geometry with its surroundings. Moreover, the building also appears as an artificial object. This is not saying much. All buildings are artificial objects.
Similarly, we can’t see the Pattern of this next building anywhere else – at least not in this image. It is also an artificial construct, but unpretentiously so as it’s not trying to appear artificial.
The framework must account for the obvious as well as for the extraordinary.
Shape to 2: DETACH
One of the buildings in the image below has a different shape from the others. This would be apparent even if one didn’t also know the building was a mosque. Of course, the shape is a sign that conveys the notion of a mosque but it can only do this if one knows what a mosque is.
Position to 2: DETACH
This next building isn’t positioned with respect to any landscape feature natural or artificial. It also has a notional separation of position as it could be positioned in many other locations to much the same effect.
Alignment to 2: DETACH
This next building isn’t aligned with anything we can see. Moreover, being circular, it is incapable of being aligned with anything not concentric.
Size to 2: DETACH
The Empire State Building is the largest building seen in this image and, even though it might have been once known as the tallest building in the world, it is still special in that it was once the tallest building in the world.
Increasingly, aesthetic judgments being made on the basis of images of built realities, not to mention images of unbuilt realities. This aesthetic framework can be applied equally to the built reality, to images (that may or may not be accurate depictions) of a built reality, and to images of unbuilt realities known as “visualisations”. It is a tool to assist observers in making sense not only of the built environment, but of images of it, and images of proposals for it.
The notion of “artificial”
Although there is an infinite number of ways an attribute of a building can be thought of as being different from its surroundings (and new ones are being invented all the time), some ways are more common than others. This notion of artificial is a very strong one, perhaps because buildings are intrinsically and tangibly artificial things. There is not a single building on this planet that is not artificial. This ought to not need saying but the notion that buildings can be natural or organic is such a strong one that it does need saying.
The notion of “novel”
Perhaps the most important notion of an attribute to Separate is NOVELTY – something is known to have not existed before. This is a quality perceived by the viewer on the basis of his or her knowledge and experience. It is not something that resides in the object considered. Detach describes much attribute behaviour of buildings in natural environments because notions of ʻartificialityʼ are readily apparent. It explains the Modernists (and many an other architect’s) penchant for sites (or at least camera angles) on which other buildings don’t infringe. Novelty has been a powerful notion in architecture since the Victorians discovered its delights and The Futurists linked it to industry. Ever since, to be novel is to be good – at least until something more novel comes along. Moreover, the notional separation that novelty brings is destined to fade and be replaced by the notional separation brought about by the knowledge that (an attribute of) a building was novel once. The Empire State Building, for example, is still remembered as having been the tallest building in the world.
The word “novelty” was not chosen to denigrate the new, or at least no more than the term “innovation” idolises it. We have no neutral word to describe things not known to have existed before. Even the word “new” implies a worth derived by virtue of newness alone. Such is the attraction of news, newsfeeds, and the addiction of the media cycle. The upshot is that it becomes difficult to believe something can be new and not necessarily good.
I’m using the word Modernism loosely here, in the sense of what we think of as “heroic” modernism where, typically, the Colour, Pattern and Shape of a building are not to be seen in the building’s surroundings. More often than not, the contrasted building is the only building to be seen. At the very least, the building has all three Surface attributes of Colour, Pattern and Shape to Separate. Again, we can think of the Colour white as not being a natural colour, as a Pattern of lines and right angles as not being natural, and a rectilinear Shape as something artificial.
The building above, for example, is artificial in the sense that it did not come into being as a consequence of the processes of Nature, but it also (famously) intended to be thought of as a man-made object not unlike a machine. This learned intangible notion of “artificial” is overlaid on the tangible differences for the Colour, Pattern and Shape attributes – in other words, DETACH.
Whenever you see this trio of attributes acting to DETACH, you can be fairly certain you’re looking at a Modernist building. Irrespective of expediences of construction, the combination of Colour, Shape and Pattern to DETACH has proven to be a very resilient foundation for an architectural style.
- Detach is when a characteristic of a building looks different from what’s around it and at the same time makes us think of it as different. This makes it seem even more different.
- Detach supplies the pedestrian with a redeeming intellectualism.
- Detach is a strong effect because the difference we think resonates with and amplifies the difference we see. It is a level of “depth”.
- Detach is confident, conclusive and satisfying.
- Detach is conceptually strengthened difference.
Modernism, as mentioned above, is an example of Consistency for which the three Surface attributes of Colour, Pattern and Shape all act in the same way – DETACH. Whether or not this is perceived depends upon the notional differences of artificiality being recognised. People who do not recognise that notional difference will see those three attributes as SEPARATE. This aesthetic framework accounts for differences of aesthetic opinion in this way.
Consistency across all three groups of attributes (the three Surface attributes, the two Placement attributes and the sole Size attribute) produce the third of the sixteen types of architectural beauty – The Beauty of DETACH.
222 22 2: The Beauty of DETACH
The Beauty of DETACH occurs when the following six tangible conditions are satisfied for all six attributes, with each attribute evoking a notional [i.e. conceptual, intangible] separation as well.
A building’s colour is not seen (to be) in that building’s context.
A building’s colour can be ‘seen’ not to be in that building’s ‘context’.
A building’s pattern is not seen (to be) in that building’s context.
A building’s pattern can be ‘seen’ not to be in that building’s ‘context’.
A building’s shape is not seen (to be) in that building’s context.
A building’s shape can be ‘seen’ not to be in that building’s ‘context’.
A building’s position is not seen (to be) with respect to that building’s context.
A building’s position can be ‘seen’ not to be with respect to that building’s context’.
A building’s alignment is not seen (to be) with respect to that building’s context.
A building’s alignment can be ‘seen’ not to be with respect to that building’s context’.
A building’s size is not seen (to be) with respect to that building’s context.
A building’s size can be ‘seen’ not to be with respect to that building’s ‘context’.
The following analysis of the Farnsworth House is intended to show how the aesthetic framework accounts for what is commonly regarded as beautiful.
The colour of this building looks different from what’s around it.
The building is not the lurid colours of the natural world.
The pattern of this building can’t be seen anywhere else.
The building has the lines and geometry not known to Nature.
The shape of this building is different from anything else we see.
The shape of the building is not what we think of as “natural”.
The building is not positioned with respect to anything we can see.
The building could be placed in many other positions and to much the same effect. Alignment
The building is not aligned with respect to anything we can see.
The building could face in many other directions and to much the same effect.
The building is a different size from everything else.
The size of the building is independent of where the building is.
The beauty of DETACH, as it was with the beauty of SEPARATE and the beauty of UNITE, is simply a matter of certain conditions being satisfied, except there are now more conditions. Each of those conditions may not seem much, but it is difficult for arbitrary notions to satisfy them all at the same time and, moreover, for them to remain satisfied over time for many people. This is why fundamental notions such as “artificiality” are such strong ones in architecture. “Novelty” is also a strong notion in architecture, but only for a certain kind of architecture. With this post, the framework has explained three of the sixteen types of architectural beauty. Each type is distinct and identifiable, as the remaining ones will be. The particular type of beauty depends only upon what conditions are satisfied. Whether those conditions can be reverse-engineered to create beauty is an interesting question for later.
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In posts to come, buildings both famous and not famous will be used to illustrate and explain other, more complex aesthetic effects and types of (visual) architectural beauty. It is of course important to explain the hold that buildings thought to be beautiful have on us, but this aesthetic framework will also account for everything that isn’t beautiful as well as “the vast and bland no-man’s-land inbetween”. Rather than champion the existence of a beauty that is “absolute” [yet resistant to explanation] this framework provides a basis for understanding architectural aesthetics as subjective pluralism.
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The 2007 Draft: Introduction
The 2007 Draft: Derivation
The Architecture of Architectures (2007 ~ )
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