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16 Types of Beauty

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Historically, defining beauty as singular, mysterious or beyond explanation must have served some function such as helping perpetrate some system of aesthetic elitism or stylistic churn. I only say that because it still does. Claiming, as I am, that architectural, visual Beauty is not the mystery it’s made out to be isn’t a popular stance. It’s far more common to claim that Beauty is simply something that must be believed if the aesthetic system is to function. For one, Patrik Schumacher says so on p306, The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Vol. I.

It wouldn’t be the first time something has been defined as unknowable but I don’t know how it’s possible to claim that Beauty is unknowable and then in the same sentence claim to have knowledge of one of its properties – i.e. what its function is. Perhaps Schumacher meant to say that having people believe in something unknowable has its uses. You could interpret “Beauty must be shrouded in mystery in order to fulfill its function in the design process” as saying just that, but this is a design process we need to escape, not perpetrate. Only a sham design process would revert to hocus focus to sustain some illusion of utility.

Wouldn’t it be far simpler and more intellectually honest to have a knowable Beauty whose mechanisms are understood and explicit? That way, those who choose to tailor their design decisions to contrive a certain outcome would be free to do so. However, if they do, they can expect more structured scrutiny and precise criticism of the aesthetic choices they made as well as critical judgments on whether the required result was achieved and, if so, if it was worth it. We’d have a more intelligent design process, we would have less magical but more coherent design and, crucially, we would have more intelligent evaluation of it.

The biggest benefit we can expect Beauty being knowable is that our preoccupation with it will lessen, freeing us to get on with other things such as incremental improvements to other, non-visual, forms of architectural beauty.

In the previous post in this series, I suggested we think of architectural aesthetics as a slot machine with six wheels, each of which can stop in one of sixteen different positions, giving a total of 166 different outcomes.

= 16,777,216 is the number of possible and unique combinations of aesthetic effects that six mutually independent building attributes can together produce. This is the number of unique architectures in the world. This number is finite but imposes no limits on creativity because any one architecture can have any number of manifestations of it.

= 16 x 164 = 1,048,576 is the number of architectures that have the same effect for any two attributes. This alone has no meaning, but 8 x 164 = 524,288 is the number of architectures that have the same unifying effect for the two Placement Attributes. I call this Importance, but it could also be called “Formality” and shares aspects of “Classicism” and “Neo-classicism”. An almost-consistency might exist when two out of three Surface attributes have the same effect but I don’t know yet.

= 16 x 163 = 65,536 is the number of architectures that have the same effect for three attributes. This also has little meaning except for when those three attributes are the Surface Attributes and we get what I call Consistency.

= 16 x 16 x 16 = 4,096 is the number of architectures that have the three Surface Attributes forming a group with the same effect (such as for Consistency), the two Placement Attributes forming a group with the same effect (such as Importance) and the Size Attribute (that always is a group of one). I called this Strength, although some other name may be just as good. This means that Consistency + Importance = Strength. I’m fine with that.

= 16 x 16 = 256 was the number of architectures for which all but one attribute have the same effect. I called this Emphasis as the differing attribute is always the one highlighted.

= 16 is the number of architectures that have the same effect for all six attributes. I call this uber-consistency Beauty. There are sixteen types of it. Beauty is as good a name as any for these 16 improbable architectures. That there are more than one type of Beauty one goes some way towards explaining why we may think one building beautiful and at the same time think another completely different building also beautiful.

With only sixteen combinations out of a possible 16,777,216, it seems as if Beauty really is a one in a million occurence but this is not the case. This “one in a million” is the number of routes that lead to (a) Beauty. It is no guarantee that one in a million journeys will end there.

It would be if Beauty were a random occurrence but, while it is possible to say that Beauty is the result of certain criteria being followed intuitively even if those criteria aren’t explicit, it’s more likely the case that a consistency of thought is lavished on only two or three of the six attributes, and the others are left to be determined for better or worse by some combination of circumstance, intuition and chance.

What this framework does is propose workable criteria that collate and link visual and aesthetic (i.e. subjective) information for every building that has ever been built or will be. It explains known phenomena as well as provides insights into aesthetic phenomena less acknowledged. It is not enough for it to just explain the beautiful. It must explain everything else as well. The previous 22 posts in this series explained everything else. This post is about the sixteen types of Beauty.

The Sixteen Types of Beauty

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The Beauty of SEPARATE

The Beauty of SEPARATE involves no subjectivities and is one of the easiest types of beauty to appreciate and achieve. All attributes are visually distinct from their surroundings. It’s not that we’re unreceptive to it for we recognize it in certain industrial and engineering structures. People once, quite rightly, saw it in aeroplanes, automobiles and ocean liners. The Beauty of Separate is refreshing for its absence of whimsy, nostalgia, reference and other forms of aesthetic grandstanding.

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The Beauty of UNITE

The Beauty of Unite is also free of whimsy, nostalgia, reference and other forms of aesthetic grandstanding even though all building attributes share something tangible with their surroundings. Vernacular architectures such as the Masai village are the best example of this. All houses are the same and all relate to each other in the same ways. These traditions are of course culturally handed down. It is not that nobody thinks to make all their houses the same and in the same way. It is just that nobody thinks they need to be any different.

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The Beauty of DETACH

When all six attributes look different and all are reinforced by a sense of difference (whether that be “modern” or “artificial” or some other), we have The Beauty of DETACH. This framework wouldn’t be fit for purpose if it didn’t explain why we think about certain buildings the way we do. Any aesthetic framework must explain the beautiful but The Beauty of DETACH is only one of the sixteen types of Beauty.

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The Beauty of ATTACH

A building doesn’t have to be white and made of metal and glass to be different from its surroundings. Here, all attributes have a visual unity with their surroundings but they can also be thought of as as artificial as the building above.

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The Beauty of EXTRACT

This is a tricky one. Everything certainly looks different from everything else but there’s also an uncanny sameness about everything, as if some unspoken rules are being followed such as, “don’t make two adjacent buildings the same”, “don’t have more than one domed building or more than one tower” or “don’t paint adjacent buildings the same colour”. In short, the Beauty of EXTRACT is that of contrived difference, and most likely results when the work of one designer attempts to look like the work of many over time. With this example, the idea of “the single hand at work” is the idea that unifies these otherwise different buildings.

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The Beauty of COMBINE

The Beauty of COMBINE is the opposite of The Beauty of EXTRACT. No building is contrivedly different yet there is a unifying sameness about which we don’t feel uneasy. What we are seeing is the coherency of vernacular architecture overlaid with motifs that, though individually different are all products of the same culture. The Beauty of COMBINE can also be thought of as the opposite of The Beauty of Detach. Whereas Farnsworth House had a visual difference reinforced by a notional difference, The Beauty of COMBINE has a visual unity reinforced by a notional unity. Both are very strong effects.

sanaa yemen
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The Beauty of DISGUISE

This next building does what it does successfully and across all attributes – unlike The Duck, the size of which readily gives it away as not being what it appears to be. True, dinosaurs are equally improbable but mapping aesthetics to simultaneously account for the dimension of Time (in which all buildings exist) is something that will have to wait. For now, this building is a good example of The Beauty of DISGUISE – when buildings stand out from their surroundings yet appear to not be buildings. Hiding in plain sight.

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The Beauty of MERGE

Having a building not look like a building has its advantages, most of which serve some military purpose. The idea is to make a building – usually some bunker or fortification – not look like what it is to an observer who, in all likelihood, is looking for it. While such buildings may not stand close scrutiny, the idea is to make a building merge with its surroundings so successfully that it has no (visual) existence as a building to distant observers.

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The Beauty of ALIENATE

Buildings that look like spaceships are the clearest examples of The Beauty of ALIENATE because the notion of “coming from outer space” encapsulates the two notions of difference and of a building not being a building. As an aesthetic effect, it’s fairly easy to identify. It too, has its place and is just another option in the architect’s bag of tricks.

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The Beauty of ASSIMILATE

The Beauty of ASSIMILATE is that of merging with the surroundings, but not in a weird way even though it is as wonderfully unreal as The Beauty of ALIENATE. This example isn’t a real castle but from this distance everything about it including that growing up out of the very ground thing tells you it is and has always been. Overlaid with those visual cues is the notion of picturesque composition although, to be fair, castles have historically tended to occur in craggy coastal landforms with good views over the surrounding landscape. It works both ways.

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This is my poster building for The Beauty of DIFFERENTIATE although there are many other contenders we’re all familiar with. These are the buildings that look different and their notion encapsulates the idea of unity with the surroundings, and the idea of not being a building. Giving a building the qualities of some local flower usually works. If you’re in Singapore and it’s a lotus blossom floating on the water, job done. The Beauty of DIFFERENTIATE is just that – different. We’ve all seen flower buildings now. There’s not the notional difference of something innovative or original.


The Beauty of INTEGRATE

We can think of The Beauty of INTEGRATE as the perfect reproduction – or as pastiche if you don’t approve of that sort of thing unless it’s restoration or recreation of something that existed once. This is a modern building, and an office building at that. Everything fits in and everything matches, including Size and scale. There is no separation or difference whether real or notional. This means there’s no surprise or originality either. This is not to denigrate this as a form of Beauty. It’s just one more out of sixteen and none is inherently better than any other – they are merely different.


The Beauty of JUXTAPOSE

Unsurprisingly, The Beauty of JUXTAPOSE depends upon all attributes being visibly different from the surroundings but overlaid with a notion that encapsulates an idea of separation and an idea of unity. This example was discussed in detail in the post on C:JUXTAPOSE but religious buildings in elevated places tend to do this.


The Beauty of CONFLATE

It’s no surprise that this building can be used to illustrate one of the sixteen types of beauty and it happens to be The Beauty of CONFLATE. Again, and given all that’s been said about this building, it can’t not be – at least from this particular viewpoint, and at this particular time of year. In wintertime when the building still has its warm browns and yellows, the trees are bare and the ground and waterfall white, it becomes an example of something else.


The Beauty of DESIGNATE

Beauty for effects involving three ideas is highly contentious as it is nearly impossible for people to hold the same three ideas for six characteristics for any length of time. Conceptualy, Sydney Opera House has aged well. It is no longer novel or new, but it is still remembered as a building that was new and novel once, and this can’t be said about that many buildings. It is one of the few buildings in the world that actually deserve to be called iconic according to the current use of the word.


The Beauty of ASSOCIATE

After the drama of The Beauty of DESIGNATE, The Beauty of ASSOCIATE seems almost an anticlimax but is just as difficult to achieve and to sustain even though its unity with its surroundings may seem effortless. All attributes of this building unite with the surroundings, the surface ones doing it via transparency. That transparency also hits all three notional buttons and is sustained by apparent lack of contents. It is barely a building.


And that’s it. I never expected a unified framework for architectural aesthetics to be simple but nor is it that complicated. These next two pairs of illustrations show how the sixteen types are formed. The analogy with light and colour fits. The red green and blue ellipses represent the three types of idea that, in combination with either of the binary states of 0 and 1, produce the various primary effects 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7, secondary effects 8, 9, A, B, C and D, and tertiary effects E and F.


This framework comprising six building attributes and sixteen aesthetic effects can explain why we arrive at the aesthetic judgments we do when we look at a building. Any building. All buildings.

16,777,216 architectures are all there is. 15,059,072 (approx. 90%) of these are subjective in having one or more attributes of a building evoke one or more kinds of idea in a viewer. Nevertheless, how a building appears is no longer the mystery it was. Architectural aesthetics is no longer akin to counting the stars in the sky.

This knowledge has a price. Now that all built reality can be contained within a single unifying framework, the ugly need no longer shock or anger, the fashionable no longer thrill or entertain, and the beautiful no longer astound or mystify. The Periodic Table did the same for chemistry when it organised The Elements into a framework providing insights into their properties and behaviours. It liberated both chemistry and mankind from the false claims of alchemists. It did not diminish the wonder of the Universe.

Knowing the elements and chemistry of architectural aesthetics should not lessen our appreciation of architecture. It should instead enhance it as we learn to see architecture as more than the chronology of styles or the charting of individual career trajectories it is now. Even if for no other reason than this, it had to be done.

Graham McKay 24 Jan. 2021


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

Notes & Exceptions
Words & Buildings
More Words
The 16 Types of Beauty


  • Graham, 1/24/21 is a milestone in architectural history from my perspective. It’s like you say, it needed to be done. Why not you? You saw the onion long ago and peeled it. It’s not uncommon for new theories to be initial sleepers, but in time, this will be widely adopted. Well done on this profound body of hard work my friend.