If we just look at the left half of the image above, you’ll see the six categories that I call fundamental building attributes across the top, and below each of them are sixteen possible values – states they can take, effects they can produce. The state of any one attribute is independent of those of the others. Simply put, architectural aesthetics is a slot machine with six sixteen-sided wheels. 166 = 16,7778,216.
This number 16,7778,216 is the number of architectures in the world, the number of possible and unique combinations of aesthetic effects that six mutually independent building attributes can together produce. The number is large yet finite. Having a limit to the number of possible combinations of aesthetic effects in no way limits the number of manifestations of effects producing those combinations. That bit remains infinite. This is a framework, not a stylebook.
The only way there can be any more combinations is for there to be other fundamental building attributes in addition to the six of Colour, Pattern, Shape, Position, Alignment and Size. They must also be tangible, visual attributes. This framework is not about the aesthetics of building performance or economics, but then, architectural aesthetics never is. I might wish for the building performance to be recognized as a form of beauty but, when I say architectural aesthetics is visual aesthetics, this is just me stating the reality.
Six architectural characteristics and sixteen architectural aesthetic effects produce 166 unique combinations of effects that can be represented as names using hexadecimal digits, for example, as 229AA7 or 88743C. These names, or “signatures”, have meaning only as sequences of digits. (They are not numbers that can be added or subtracted, for example.)
You can think of this number 16,777,216 as the number of possible aesthetic signatures – each is unique. The majority of these signatures describe a series of disconnected effects that either contradict or cancel each other and produce no synergy. They’re like slot machine wheels that don’t align. However, and it’s usually the result of some person following some rules whether intentionally or by instinct, some of these 16,777,216 architectures will have effects that are identical and produce patterns of synergies that describe known aesthetic qualities.
This post is about the architectural phenomena of Consistency, Importance, Strength, and Emphasis which are easily identified and explained in terms of this framework. There are probably more. Beauty is one of the most prized and the most elusive and will have a post of its own.
The word consistency is used a lot in architecture, particularly so in architecture schools. For students, it’s a fearful word when tutors and instructors point out a lack of it for it can apply to many things. Unless both parties share a frame of reference for how the terms are being used, accusations of inconsistency are taken with a grain of salt, much like that other juror banality “I think you’ve missed an opportunity here.” What is Consistency?
Of the 16,777,216 aesthetic signatures, Consistency is when the three Surface attributes of Colour, Pattern and Shape exhibit the same effect. In slot machine terms, it’s cherries for the leftmost three wheels and whatever for the others. This means that there are 16 x 163 = 665,536 architectures we can think of as having it – roughly one in 25. Consistency is therefore rare, but not that rare. Here’s 16 of those 665,536.
The three leftmost attributes – the blue columns – are the Surface attributes and when they all exhibit the same effect we have what’s called A Style. Architectural styles are powerful things because each of the Surface attributes evoke the same notions. In the previous post in this series, I said it’s no accident that the Colour, Pattern and Shape of many Modernist buildings have this quality I call 2: DETACH, and that their set of surface attributes can be summarized as 222. If we were to think of Modernism as a style, then that style could be dissected as each of the Surface attributes looking different from what’s around them and, at the same time, evoking a consistent notion of them being different. White meant “modern”, lack of fussy ornament meant “modern”, a boxy architecture of (dominant) horizontals and (less dominant) verticals meant “modern”. All three Surface attributes are pressing the same buttons. This is Consistency in architecture. Consistency through Detach (222) is the style known as Modernism.
Consistency in architecture means the essential minimum of elements required to define and identify a style are in place. There’s no way of placing or sizing a building that’s peculiar to Modernism, Postmodernism, Deconstructivism or Parametricism. Styles say nothing about where a building is, how it relates to its surroundings, or how big it is. Here’s another building that can be described as consistent, and as Modernist, even though it’s not white. Here, the consistent notion is of “artificial” as opposed to “natural”. It’s also a 222.
But other effects can also produce Consistency. In this next example, the Colour, Pattern and Shape attributes of the lighthouse are all different from those of the surroundings. The shared notion is that they have all been chosen because of that (Idea of Unite) to make the building more noticeable (Idea of Separate). This is always a good thing for a lighthouse. This is Consistency achieved through the effect JUXTAPOSE (CCC).
Say what you like about our friends the flying saucer building, but they have Consistency through aesthetic effect 8:ALIENATE in that these buildings have Colour, Pattern and Shape, that 1) looks different from what it around it, 2) evoke notions of being different (i.e. coming from somewhere else – possibly the future) and 3) appear to not be those of a building.
What’s important with these qualities is the notions evoking the respective effects are shared by the three or two attributes. In other words, a single notion encapsulates two or three other notions – such as with the notion of Modern. The notion of a flying saucer building encapsulates an Idea of Separate (i.e. not from around here) and an Idea of Negate (viz. not being a building) at the same time. It’s important that the different attributes evoke the same notion. [I don’t know why this is more powerful, but intuitively it makes sense.]
- Consistency is when the three Surface characteristics of Colour, Pattern and Shape all exhibit the same effect.
- These architectures create strong visual impressions. The depth or complexity of those impressions depends upon the number of types of idea in the consistent effect.
- ‘Heroic’ Modernism had Colour, Pattern and Shape each looking different and evoking notions of artificial. Any building with an aesthetic signature beginning with 222 is likely to be a Modernist building.
- Architectural invention tends to focus on manipulating surface characteristics as there is more scope to contrive when compared with Position, Alignment and Size.
- 16 x 163 = 65,536 architectures have Consistency.
Importance is when the position and alignment of a building have a visual unity with surrounding landscape features. Throughout history, this has represented power and authority. These unities typically involve symmetry and axes. They aren’t limited to two dimensions as religious and governmental buildings often have associations involving differences of height. Importance and Consistency are mutually independent. Importance is exhibited by 8* x 164 = 524,288 architectures – it’s relatively easy to achieve. [*The 8 comes about because only eight of the 16 effects have UNITE at their core.]
We recognize Importance immediately for it has that combination of axiality and symmetry known as “formality” or some classical variant. Importance is independent of Consistency but, as we will see later, can co-exist. Here’s three more examples. The contextual landscape feature is often man-made, occasionally on purpose.
Strength is three consistent groups. All three Surface characteristics exhibit the same effect and the two Placement characteristics also exhibit the same effect which doesn’t have to be the same as for the Surface attributes. Strength is thus the union of Consistency and Importance. (The Size characteristic is always a consistent group of one.) Strength is exhibited by 16 x 16 x 16 = 4,096 architectures. This is becoming rare, but we immediately recognize that we’re experiencing something. Here’s two examples, both quite different.
Kingdom Tower in Riyadh has the surface weirdness of a flying saucer building (888) coupled with a “formal” positioning and alignment (55), though some may say “authoritarian”. Moreover, the difference in Size also says something (E), possibly the same thing.
The Surface attributes of this church are an example of Consistency through the effect 2:DETACH, yet it is not a Modernist building. [All Modernist buildings have Consistency through DETACH yet all buildings having Consistency through DETACH are not Modernist.]
Emphasis is when there is a single, non-identical effect. Five of the six attributes all evoke the same effect and the non-identical one is isolated and emphasized. This is easy to understand. Emphasis is exhibited by 16 x 16 = 256 architectures. Both these examples show Emphasis for the Colour attribute although it is generated by different combinations of effects. There are 256 such combinations of effects but, to repeat, there still remains an infinite number of notions that can generate the individual effects. In other words, architectural “creativity” or “expression” is not compromised. It’s just not the mystery we’re used to it being presented as.
This is the last post of 2020. In the past I’ve done top-tens but not recently as it’s cheap and easy content. I’ve thanked everybody who’s emailed me and made my life richer and the blog better for it, and I’ll do that again now. Thank you all! In previous years I’ve also apologized to people whose questions I haven’t yet responded to and, shamefully, I’ll do that again and you’ll have to take my word for it that I haven’t forgotten. When all that’s done what’s there left to do? It’s always nice to end a year with positive thoughts that make sense of where we’re coming from and where we’re going.
We English speakers see the future as “in front” of us and the past as “behind”. It’s what we do. Our language is how we perceive the world and make sense of it. I learned last week that the Chinese word for next, when qualifying time words such as day, week or year, translates as below while the word for previous translates as above. Last week is ‘the week above’ and next week is ‘the week below’. I’m still getting my head around there being an other way of comprehending the passage of Time, that it “flows” from down to up and not front to back. I’ve no idea what this means. All I know is that this way of spatializing the world existed long before the word spatializing was invented and Chinese go to work and go home, buy and sell things, and write songs and poetry unpeturbed by notions of spatial practice. It’s true, the English language does have its colloquialism dip one toe in the water but that’s just a way of approaching some arbitrary option and not the inevitable future. Whether the future is hurtling towards us from below or in front of us, I’d still prefer to jump into it feet first than crash headlong into it.
With that thought, I’d like to wish us all a Happy and feet-first New Year!
The 2007 Draft: Introduction
The 2007 Draft: Derivation
The Architecture of Architectures (2007 ~ )
Notes & Exceptions
Words & Buildings