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The Dynamics of Delight: Architecture and Aesthetics
Peter F. Smith, Routeledge, London 2003

Last week I was looking for an article on that 1990s phenomenon, design coding in order to add something to a post with the working title of Pattern. I didn’t find it but, in folders within folders I did discover a stash of other writing from about 2003, including the post that I re-publish here. I don’t remember if I was asked to write this book review or whether I just wrote it anyway. The date of publication does correspond to the date of the original review however.

I searched the above image on Amazon, where I learned that “Until recently Peter F. Smith was the Vice President of the Royal Institute of British Architects with special responsibility for sustainable development and Professor of Architecture at Sheffield Hallam University. Prior to that he was Head of the Leeds School of Architecture of which he is Professor Emeritus.”

Attempts to demystify architectural aesthetics are always welcome. We suspect beauty has its own logic and in this book, Smith looks for it in rules underpinning Nature. He doesn’t champion organic or cosmic analogies (thankfully), but suggests that our eyes and brains, BY THEIR NATURE, interpret the man-made world according to rules apparent in the rest of the organic world. Basically, our eyes and brains look for pairs of opposing information, “counterpoints”, and find beauty when one dominates without destroying the integrity of the other – at root five minus one, over two (a.k.a. the golden section, the Fibonacci series). People’s preferences for this height-to-width ratio have been empirically proven and it may well hold for other architectural dualities such as exclusion and belongingness, partness and wholeness, horizontality and verticality. The book proceeds as if it does.

As one would expect of a former Vice-President of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Smith makes good use of recent British architecture to illustrate the Fibonacci threshold for aesthetic stimulation. The Lowry Centre embodies counterpoint between rectilinear and curved forms. The British Library has a new-old counterpoint with St. Pancras Station. 

The book builds on its argument and suggests “rhyme”, “fracture” and “submergence” as the three ways a building intervention can relate to what’s around it. It’s obvious, but needs saying: For any two entities, differences between the two can either be emphasised (Fracture) or de-emphasised (Rhyme), or the identity of one can be negated to dissolve the duality (Submergence) and so remove any question of difference. But what is this information that architects manipulate to create counterpoint? To say “mass, space and light”, as many do, is meaningless outside the bubble of journalistic hype, but to suggest that architects merely place walls, roofs and windows also dissatisfies. Walls, for one, can read as patterns, shapes, colours, can define masses or spaces, and have meaning both in and over time. But what if horizontals rhyme and shapes don’t? What if people see counterpoints other than the designer intended? To Hong Kong eyes, the aggressive diagonal of Richard Rogers Partnership’s Montevetro building probably sends the adjacent Church of St. Mary straight to feng-shui hell (and perhaps explains Foster & Partners’ obsessively curvist Albion Wharf for the same financiers). Counterpoint may be in the eyes of the beholder. 

Smith says that knowledge can enhance our experience of what we see. Just as well, for an aesthetics reliant upon knowledge would lead us straight back to the dark days when “beauty” resided in the difference between what all could see and what a smug some knew. So I’ll pass on Hollein’s Haas-Haus if it means I have to take into account the variety of levels on which it performs. Everyone with eyes can have an aesthetic opinion and I’ll fight their corner.

Also lurking outside the formal aesthetic qualities of a building is metaphor. To say a building looks ‘like a gherkin’ is analogy. To say a building ‘is not the erotic gherkin it once used to be called’ is metaphor. Literary parallels strain. Let’s just say buildings can represent different things to different people – given half a chance, that is. Sadly, the way forward seems for buildings to come with press kits telling financiers, planners, judges, press and public what they represent. People are denied the opportunity to contemplate, say, Liebskind’s Imperial War Museum North and conclude its three bits perhaps represent air, sea and land, or possibly a world shattered by war. If it doesn’t resonate unprompted, it’s soundbite symbolism.

Symbolism. Another aesthetic bolt-on – but when the talk turns to archetypal symbolism you begin to wonder. To some, churches may symbolise an archetypal transcendental dimension, and to others an ongoing history of intolerance and oppression. Let them. What worries me more is the perpetration of statements such as “glass symbolizes open government” as fact. Some say symbols are substitutes for the real thing. 

To bring it all together, what we have then is infinitely many types of intentional and unintentional counterpoint acting to Fracture, Rhyme and Submerge. All of this can be confounded and/or enhanced by knowledge, symbolism and metaphor. And all of this occurs both in and over time. Is it any wonder then, that a detail can occasionally annoy, a window appear misjudged? Is it any wonder that oft-praised buildings have fewer, more obvious and more controlled counterpoints? What we have here is no recipe for beauty, but it does imply a framework for tangible and intangible architectural concepts. This is of huge potential value.

At the outset Smith stated that “It is only worth examining the experience of aesthetic pleasure if there are grounds for believing that there are objective truths underpinning the subjective experience of beauty.” Of beauty’s infinite manifestations, examining the ones one likes is a good enough place to start. Smith likes the Parthenon, Palladianism, domes, porticos and cathedrals – especially Lincoln. He doesn’t like early and mid- 20th century architecture. Wright is mentioned for the Guggenheim once commissioning him, Le Corbusier for some window/wall interplay at La Tourette, and Mies not at all. Post-modernism never happened. Deconstructivism an aberration. New forms resulting from ‘bioclimactic opportunities’ are illustrated by the usual suspects but we’re left in the dark as to whether they’re examples of beauty or virtue – a careless oversight given the English propensity to conflate the two. All these aren’t fatal omissions, but a book that aims to enthuse and instruct would do so faster and better with a more catholic range of illustrations good and bad. 

Aesthetics must explain the beautiful. IT’S ITS NATURE. But why not a Grand Unification Theory of aesthetics that maps relationships between architectural entities and simultaneously explains the beautiful, the mundane, the confused, the fantastic, the grotesque, the new, and the sensational? With all built and virtual reality placeable in its unifying matrix, the ugly would no longer shock or anger, the fashionable no longer thrill or entertain, the beautiful no longer astound or mystify. Do we really want to go there, swallow that red pill? Smith doesn’t. By the end of his journey he has made his peace with architectural aesthetics. Lucky man.

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