I’ve lived and worked in China for almost three years now. There’s many things I still don’t understand but there’s no urgency. These things will sort themselves out.
Representations of grass (1)
A Chinese Tier 2 city with aspirations to becoming a New Tier 1 city will generally have a metro system in place and, where I live, people are on the case. Overhead power cables are being relocated underground. Footpaths are either being widened and/or relaid after being destroyed by the roots of roadside banyan trees. Roads are being widened to include dedicated bus lanes and dedicated bicycle and e-bike lanes. After about three years of inconvenience the major roads are mostly done.
Once the roadworks are over, rocks, mature trees and shrubs are moved in and sods laid. The verge landscaping is in place within two weeks at most, but usually within one.
There’s also much construction going on. Most is behind site hoardings that are usually one of two types. An actual wall built of concrete block on the site boundary and topped by a tiled or imitation-tile capping will probably surround long-haul projects of four or five years. When construction begins, these walls will be kept fresh with graphics and encouraging slogans, often against a backdrop of artificial grass. Here’s two of this type.
Less permanent hoardings on shorter projects will be freestanding assemblages of modular panels. A hundred metres of two-meter high metal panels spanning frames inserted into four-meter long concrete bases can appear overnight. By the next night it will be sheathed in artificial grass and by the night after will have the project name alternating with graphics and encouraging slogans.
Sometimes, it’s as if metal panels simply have to be sheathed in artificial grass as quickly and expediently as possible. There’s a sense of urgency.
Sometimes, instead of artificial grass is a graphic of a close-up of a stylization of artificial grass. I don’t know how to understand this graphic representation of artificial grass that itself is a representation of grass. Is it post-modernismsquared? I don’t think it’s a case of a representation of something being as good as the real thing because site hoardings aren’t situations where you’d prefer to see real grass anyway. Having said that, in Shanghai once I did see part of a site hoarding that was an actual living wall.
Nevertheless, I definitely see an effort to avoid the sight of metal in gardens or when surrounded by plants. Here are four examples including a wrap of a country scene, two views of bamboo screening a water treatment plant, and bamboo screening an electrical distribution box and the metal fence surrounding it. I’m not imagining this.
Drains alongside roads and paths are fitted with metal grilles that stop them being clogged by leaves but these grilles may be covered with a layer of pebbles. This is a nice thing to do.
If metal has to be used in a garden, it’s often the colour green. For now I conclude that the sight of metal and grass together is not unsightly per-se. It might just be that the natural colour of metal is jarring or somehow discordant.
Along with painting the metal green, I also saw this which I thought strengthened my theory even though I wasn’t sure what my theory was. Perhaps all it is, is that people just prefer plants to metal. I won’t go back to my Chinese elements theory or invoke feng shui but green and greenery seem to be consistently countering metal.
Representations of grass (2)
The city of Wenzhou where I live is between mountains and the ocean and there’s much surface water as well as subterranean water. This and the ongoing relocation of overhead power lines underground means there’s a lot of manholes. A lot. Manholes for 10kVa cables occur in the middle of footpaths and access roads but also in lawns where they will invariably be covered by a piece of fake grass. Fake grass being fake grass, the colour is never the same as real grass and nobody’s fooled. I think I’d rather see the manhole than these poor attempts at disguising them but, once again, I get the feeling there’s something cultural at work. If this were merely the personal preference of individual gardeners then I’d expect to see more variation, less consistency of approach.
Metal or concrete manholes aren’t a problem if they are not on grass.
For three years give or take this hasn’t worried me. It’s just something that I noticed I was always noticing. Focussed on fake grass as I was, I didn’t pay that much attention to what was happening with other manholes in footpaths.
• • •
You see what’s happening.
Special cases are dealt with.
These next two are my favorites. I find it amazing somebody thought this was important. It’s all done by stonecutters with hammers and chisels and handheld cutters.
Here’s one being restored. These covers aren’t as robust as solid metal or concrete ones but still people think it is a good thing to do.
• • •
I think I finally understand. Discontinuity, when it invariably occurs, must be countered by a continuity. Before, I used to see the artificial grass as a discontinuity rather than a continuity, and although I still do, not so much. One person’s complexity and contradiction is another person’s simplicity and consistency. These next five images can be read either way.
Sigmund Freud is generally regarded as the father of psychoanalysis, that revolutionary circa 1900 idea that aimed to externalize and give expression to people’s innermost feelings in order to gain an understanding of them and, if not a happier life, at least a life less torn by anxieties and insecurities.
The Expressionism of the late 19th and early 20th century was all about the expression of realities formerly hidden beneath the surface. It was a heady time to be Alma Schindler/Mahler/Gropius/Werfel (1879-1964) and regarded as the most beautiful woman in Vienna.
Her first kiss was from artist Gustav Klimt but we don’t know exactly when or even why we know this.A citation is lacking but Klimt didn’t tell and, befitting an independent and. progressive lady, Alma’s diaries are famously unreliable.We do however know that Klimt was still painting kisses in 1906 some years after the event.
Alma’s first lover was Alexander von Zemlinksy, the man who taught her music composition. She would’ve married him but her family (apparently) said he wasn’t sufficiently famous so instead, when she was 23 in 1903, she married Gustav Mahler who was 20 years older but already famous for his powerful symphonies with their sudden and dramatic changes of emotion. Mahler didn’t encourage Alma to continue with her compositions but Freud suggested that maybe he should. Mahler followed the great psychoanalyst’s advice but, by that time, Alma had had an affair with some young man called Walter Gropius. Alma would later write, “He was obviously in love with me, and expecting me to love him back.” Mahler found out about the affair and demanded Alma choose between them. She chose Mahler, but Gropius would soon go off to WWI, Mahler would shortly die and Alma would move back in with her parents.
One day, her well meaning father introduced her to a talented young artist who would paint her portrait. She and the artist Oscar Kokoshka became lovers almost immediately. Kokoshka was to paint more than one portrait of Alma but Alma’s diaries paint Kokoshka as too possessive or controlling and so, for one reason or another, Alma’s attention turned back to Gropius who was now becoming famous after having completed along with Adolf Meyer, buildings such as the Fagus Works in 1913 and the Model Factory for the 1914 Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne. Alma and Walter married in 1915.
They had a child or, more correctly, Alma had the child of Expressionist author and poet Franz Werfel. This seems to have been common knowledge in Vienna at the time so the Gropiuses divorced and Alma married Werfel and they relocated to the US and had further adventures, as did Walter Gropius and new wife Ise, but none of this matters.
What matters for this post is that Alma wrote she was only attracted to – I paraphrase – “creative geniuses who can change the world”, and there was no shortage of them in turn-of-the-century Vienna. Her lovers and husbands were all Expressionists in their various fields. von Zemlinsky was an emotive late-Romantic composer something like Mahler but in the style of Schoenberg, if you can imagine that. Mahler was an emotive late-Romantic composter too, but in the style of Mahler. Klimt was all emotion. Werfel was an Expressionist writer not dissimilar to Kafka, and Walter Gropius was revealing things like staircases hitherto hidden behind masonry at the corners of buildings.
Later, Gropius and Adolf Meyer would go on to design the Dessau campus of The Bauhaus with its internal organization expressed on the outside with separate volumes for the teachers’ accommodation, the technical school teaching rooms, the Bauhaus studios and the admin offices. Articulated, we like to say.
When something to do with the inside of a building is expressed on the outside of a building it’s not trying to represent some inner human state. It just so happens that buildings also have an inside and an outside. They have an external appearance they present to the world and internal realities that govern how they function in that world. These realities are intrinsic to buildings. Buildings wouldn’t be buildings if they had only an outside.
I’m still not sure if something with only an inside is a building. It could be a false question because, for a person inside this house, the outside still exists as an idea. Or, equally conceptually, in this case it could be that everything not a void is the outside.Either way, no internal realities are getting expressed.
Expressing internal realities on the outside of a building isn’t representation, zoomorphism or personification. It’s just formalism and, as with psychoanalysis, the question isn’t what can be expressed but what helps us to make sense of the world. The Dessau Bauhaus building tells us something about its internal organization while The Mauritius Commercial Bank expresses nothing directly, although its mute organization and facade imply both solidity and security.
By the same logic, we might think Sou Fujimoto’s House NA or Philip Johnson’s Glass House express too much of their inner lives but revealing is not the same as expressing.
If we think of structure as a internal skeleton that’s normally hidden then we will think of skeleton-like structures on the outside of a building as “expressed” even though we don’t look at load bearing walls and think of them as exoskeletons as we would for a lobster. The structure of a building is something that can be on the inside of a building or the outside or on both. This is just structure being structure and nothing to do with expression. Expression for the sake of expression isn’t formalism but a mannerism or possibly a new Baroque.
Circa 1850, the servants in an upper-class London townhouse carried coal up to the fireplaces and ash back down. They carried hot water for baths, emptied chamber pots, refilled lamps and replaced candles. The servants and the servants’ stairs at the back of the house were the equivalent of plumbing, ducts and conduits. These inner workings of buildings were largely concealed until Hi-Tech made them (along with exposed structure) part of the external expression of the building. Again, one person’s natural expression was another person’s contrived mannerism.
Function can be also expressed in non Bauhausian ways. Frank Gehry’s Work Residence and Winton Guest House both express the idea of an internal functional diversity on the outside of the building even if we don’t know what the particular functions are.
The structure, services, organization and function of a building never go away but the choice to make them visible and express some truth about the building can go out of fashion and, usually as a result, out of sight. We can say the same for materials and construction. All buildings are the result of their materials and the processes of their construction. Some buildings are no more or less than this, while the point of some other buildings is to deny this reality.
We’re currently in a period where it’s unfashionable for buildings to look as if they’re constructed out of things called materials, or as if they’ve been organized according to what happens inside them. For a while now, the skin-deep, visible qualities of shape and complexion have been all that’s left. We can’t completely blame post-modernism for this. The internal organization of this next building is expressed to more or less the same degree as Dessau Bauhaus or the two Gehry projects above.
Kazu Shinohara’s 1983 House in Yokohama and his 1987 Tokyo Tech Centennial Hall were two examples of his new machine style with their assemblages of different parts where we don’t know what the parts mean or even what the parts are. It expresses something. We just don’t know what.
Still, the inside is the spatial negative of the shape we see on the outside and, were we inside the building, we’d make a correspondence between the spaces we are in, and what we remember of the outside. This isn’t saying much. Many buildings do do the same thing but with more conventional parts.
Appearances can be deceptive. Some buildings have extraordinary external appearances at odds with their mundane internal realities. This is where the metaphor of psychoanalytic expression of thoughts and feelings and the external architectural expression of internal realities breaks down. One way of keeping the metaphor alive is to understand this deceptive impression as a kind of repression, but this implies it might be as unhealthy and undesirable in buildings as it is in people.
Any building envelope has a correspondence between inside and outside. As with Shinohara’s House in Yokohama, we understand Frederick Keisler’s 1958 Endless House as a house with various spaces of sizes we associate with rooms and what we imagine happens in them. It’s still a house and its spaces are reassuringly domestic in size if not shape.
Large shell structures still have a correspondence between inside and outside but the problem is that it means nothing. All that remains is two sides of a dehumanized shell lacking indicators of materials, construction, function and scale (as in human). Such shells are said to be expressive but of what, other than the wealth of their clients and the eagerness of predatory practices to access some of it?
There’s probably not much that can be done about. An envelope lacking indicators of materials, construction, function and scale on the outside lacks even a notional interior to express. People are conceptually removed and, even when they’re admitted, are made to feel insignificant and irrelevant to the requirements of architectural expression. The architecture of neoliberalism operates exactly as expected.
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
000 00 0 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.
111 11 1 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.
222 22 2 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.
333 33 3 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.
444 44 4 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.
555 55 5 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.
666 66 6 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.
777 77 7 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.
888 88 8 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.
999 99 9 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.
AAA AA A The Beauty of DIFFERENTIATE
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.
BBB BB B 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.
CCC CC C 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.
DDD DD D 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.
EEE EE E 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.
FFF FF F 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.
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 previous post in this series described how this framework interpreted some words like Change, Transience, Uncertainty and Disquiet as far as architectural aesthetics is concerned. The aesthetic heyday of any building designed in the fashion of the moment will be fleeting but no building is aesthetically timeless. At the outset, I made it clear this framework would regard architectural aesthetics as simply a figure-ground relationship between a building as a MASS – as in something solid – set in surroundings of some kind. It never claimed to say anything about SPACE which I expect is a separate dimension but let’s just deal with MASS for now. TIME is a third separate dimension in which buildings have an existence but how figure and ground change (or don’t change) over time is another subject for another framework and another dimension. For now, while we’re still dealing with MASS, the only thing to remember is that the aesthetic signature of a building will not stay constant over time.
It decays, not in the negative sense of tooth decay or the decay of social or societal norms but in the neutral sense of radioactive decay in which complex and unstable elements can have multiple and competing paths to decay into less unstable elements. Uranium-238 is neither better nor worse than Thorium 234. They’re just different and betterness or worseness is not a useful frame of reference.
Uncertainty and Disquiet were framed in terms of the fundamental premises of the framework remaining unestablished. Both were exceptions proving the rule. If this framework is to be worthy of the name The Architecture of Architectures, then it must be possible to frame other elements of architects’ vocabulary in terms of it. These are the words we use when we talk about architecture, teach it, and frame and communicate our responses to it. This vocabulary of terms and meanings is far from stable, or even defined. Words such as form, space, organic and minimal are continually redefined and become the content of discourse rather than tools that are supposed to facilitate it. As an architect, Ludwig Wittgenstein was notoriously difficult to work with but, as a philosopher, his dictum “if something can’t be said simply then it’s not worth saying” is worth remembering. This framework fixes the meaning of words commonly used in architecture. These are the words we have and I only provide the beginnings of a glossary here so we can get on with talking sensibly about architectural aesthetics and not mistake quibbling over meanings for meaningful discussion or, worse, discourse. The real arguments are to be had in the relative relevance and importance of aesthetic Ideas of Separate, Unite and Negate, not the words we use to talk about them.
This word is commonly used to denote a first look at the volume of a building once the various area components of the program have been assembled but, as an instructor, this may just be my wishful thinking. For me, massing is a link between the inner program and the outer appearance but this is the application of knowledge (of a probable inside) to the volume seen externally. “Expressing” these inner workings in terms of volumes is only understandable if one already knows what they are. In the terms of this framework, massing is an Idea of Unite, that links (inner) Space with (outer) Mass. It is therefore outside the scope of this framework that deals only with buildings as a single mass seen from outside. This is not a limitation. It’s just that this is only as far as I’ve got. I’ve mentioned TIME as a separate dimension in which buildings exist but I’m not so sure about SPACE. Sure, buildings exist in space, but only as objects in it. People existing inside architectural space and that’s not the same thing. We’ll leave talk of inside space and outside space for another day. In short, ‘massing’ means Shape and whether that shape evokes associations of what’s inside is irrelevant for now as the only associations admitted are those evoked by the (attributes of the) building when seen with respect to its surroundings. In this next image, Colour in this next image also carries associations of the internal program. It has meaning (for those who can interpret it).
Architecture’s relationship with Nature is a troubled one. I’ve said it before but buildings are not self-replicating and never will be. Nevertheless, the word organic continues to be used to imply many things such as
that a building is a natural consequence or extension of its landscape
that a building is natural because it has curves (unlike “unnatural” buildings that don’t)
that it consists of organic products and components, organically produced and assembled
The general gist seems to be that organic buildings have some sort of affinity with Nature, or at least plants because animals, rocks, trees, clouds and the water cycle don’t figure much in these notions of Nature. Basically, it’s the new Art Nouveau. Organic is an Idea of Unite and one of the more popular ones.
Size is one of the six elemental building attributes. All buildings have it but when we talk about scale we’re talking about the size of a building relative to the size of something else that is usually another building nearby or otherwise seen together, or the size of a human being. Buildings are bigger than people because they accommodate them and their activities. Large buildings like apartment and office buildings are often created by vertically repeating typical floors of the same height and, because we know how high these floors typically are, we can estimate the size of the building. Sydney Opera House has no conventional windows, balconies or other indicators of how large it is relative to a person and so as a result it had this monumental quality (i.e. like a monument). The construction of this building nearby allows us to better the size of Sydney Opera House and we’re surprised when it is not as big as we had thought.
Much the same can be said for this building where nearby automobiles are the indicators of human size and tell us exactly how big the building is. Again, it’s not as big as we thought.
We can only tell this because we know how large a person is and this is why scale is an Idea about Size that can either work aesthetically to make the building unite with or separate from its surroundings. Whether a building actually is big or small relative to what it is seen against is tangible fact and either Size to SEPARATE or Size to UNITE.
The title of this post comes from Adrian Forty’s 2000 book Words and Buildings: A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture. The only thing I remember is that he wrote “whenever you hear the word ‘form’ you can be certain you’re in for a modernist discourse”. [Whenever you hear the word ‘discourse’ you can be certain you’re listening to an architecture critic or, worse, an academic.] The word ‘Form’ does mean Shape’ but, if it’s associated with Modernist discourse, it’s because it already contains associations for how you’re meant to understand that shape. Form is form+⍺ and that alpha is associations of modernity and progress that would make construction traditions dependent on materials, climate and handcraft seem dated and provincial. These are all Ideas of Separate in Time, but they also produced. buildings that stood in stark contrast to their surroundings. The word ‘form’ then it not neutral. It is more than difference – it is Detachment and is no accident that the Colour, Pattern and Shape of many Modernist buildings have this quality I call 2: Detach about them, and that their set of surface attributes can be summarized as 222.
Rhythm is a manifestation of the surface characteristic of Pattern. Everyone’s noticed how, over the past twenty years, patterns of window openings have generally become more irregular but not necessarily less rhythmical. The shuffly windows trope came into its own in the 1990s and is still with us as shorthand to indicate that some degree of design effort has been made, even though it’s only marginally more trouble to make windows shuffle than it is to not. It’s not clear who invented it. It’s a toss-up between Gio Ponti and the Politecnico Milanese and Asnago & Vender who were unaligned. I’ll side with A&V because a rhythm is only a rhythm if it’s broken.
This is another of those loaded terms. Architecture instructors are known to say things such as “there’s something wrong with the proportions” to dutifully nodding students but what they usually mean is that the proportions aren’t those conventionally sanctions – i.e. The Golden Mean, The Golden Proportion, The Divine Proportion, A:B = B:A+B. It remains to be proven if, like plants and other biological forms, the human eye has a physiological preference for this ratio because it confers an evolutionary advantage of some kind but we do know that the identification and appreciation of this particular ratio is learned. It is a cultural artifact. Stripped of all this baggage, proportion is just a set of Size relationships between components of a Pattern or Shape.
Even this brief look at some of the words in common usage in architectural schools and offices is sufficient to make us look closely at the words we use and ask what notions of Separate, Unite and Negate come already embedded in them. The word scale, for example, usually comes loaded with the notion of human scale and its indicators, with the absence of such indicators usually called monumental if on purpose and out of scale if not. If architects disagree on what words mean it’s because these embedded notions are not explicit. Despite all the problems and misunderstandings this causes, I suspect this language must have evolved to solve the problem of architecture being too simple and easily understood by non-practitioners.
The next post in this series will show how the architectural concepts of consistency, importance, strength and emphasis are defined in terms of this framework, and the one after will bring the sixteen types of architectural beauty together in one post.
This post, written in early May, concludes last week’s Comfort Zone post.
I’ve not been out much lately. The above photo shows my studio apartment in Dubai. I spend a lot of time at that table staring out the window, wondering what to write and, when I’m not doing that, I look at my walls and windows and wonder what they mean. In the photo you can see my three pleasures of cooking/eating in the distance, music and film as represented by the television in the middle-ground and, writing and communications as represented by the desk and laptop in the foreground. That’s most of my life. The air is de-humidified, filtered and tempered to 23.5°C. It’s my bubble, my shelf on the 45th floor, my space station. There’s food in the cupboards. There’s sources of energy and water. This apartment meets my base physiological needs and goes a fair way to meeting my psychological ones too.
It’s not huge. For a week or so, I felt I had to move all the furniture away from the walls to give me more options to go from one place to another. It felt a bit stupid. I wasn’t about to start running marathons but I did try to exercise using the fire-escape stairs as a Stairmaster but using the car park as a running track was less brutal and the prospect of cardiac arrest less terrifying.
I liked level four the most because, from there, I could see the frangipani and poinciana trees on the podium of the neighbouring hotel. It’s true – plants cheer us up. It was also good to feel the heat and hear what noises of the city were there to hear because my apartment has neither balcony nor openable window. I never thought I could live in an enclosed apartment, but, in Dubai, I don’t mind as it’s now early May and already 40°C outside. For the past two days, there’s been a dust storm.
Zaha Hadid once said she could live in a small apartment if it had an interesting view and all I ask of windows now is that they inform me of what’s going on outside. I appreciate how the long side of my apartment has the curtain wall and, though I never lack something to look at, there is such a thing as too much light between May and July. It was open space I was missing. I discovered someone had left the stairwell door to the rooftop open, so I climbed the ladder and stood on the roof of the elevator penthouse. It was no garden, but it felt good to have nothing but sky above.
I’d been lacking space and open space because of the building’s highly segmented design, but I was able to work around those limitations by repurposing other spaces. The car park and rooftop weren’t made for me to use or enjoy the way I did. These experiences were elemental pleasures and not aesthetic pleasures designed in accordance with the same cultural and educational values that generated the problem in the first place.
I read that, in Berlin, the Windowflicks project projected films onto blank walls overlooked by at least twenty apartments. In the evenings, residents could have the shared but distanced experience of watching a movie with their neighbours and, in doing so, enjoy a building in a manner for which it was not designed. This is the creative use of buildings.
Back inside at my table, I admire the way whoever designed this apartment, used the 1.5 x 1.5 metre column to divide the kitchen and bathroom from the living space. I appreciate this column being there, what it does, and how it looks like it is holding up a building. It owes me no more than that. I don’t begrudge its size. I appreciate how the curtain wall is slightly raked and independent of the column.
Between the two is a small space that doesn’t suggest any use but, if I had a cat, it would surely claim that space as its own. As I don’t, it’s home to my ironing board, vacuum cleaner, and laundry drying rack.
I’m thinking of an architecture in which different systems are simply juxtaposed and allowed to interact. Outside is the building system that I newly interact with via the car park and rooftop. Inside is the apartment system that I move around and interact with in mostly expected ways as far as activities and the placement of furniture is concerned, but I also interact with the space in unplanned ways, as far as the column system, the curtain wall system, and my things are concerned.
This is a different kind of space from functional space designed to satisfy spatial requirements, it is a different kind of space from decadent space designed to be over and above functional requirements, and it is a different kind of space from symbolic space that has some designer point to make, however enigmatic. The space behind the service elevators in these next three apartment plants in Foster+Partners’ 100 East 53rd St. project is similar in being neither functional space nor decadent space disguised as decorative space. It has no agenda.
This idea I’ve been carrying around for decades and have only just been able to articulate it. When I was a student of Shinohara’s, I would often be asked to accompany visitors to the atelier on tours of houses whose owners were amenable to such visits. The owners of House in Uehara were very accommodating and I took visitors there at least three times. In the photograph below you can see this house has concrete struts rising diagonally from the floor. On one visit, the leftmost fork held a month’s worth of newspapers prior to their being bundled and recycled. Underneath the near strut were the two cats’ bowls placed in the only place they couldn’t be kicked. It was a joy seeing people creatively living in their house.
If ever you lay down on a sofa to have a nap and you pull a throw blanket over yourself even though you’re not cold, it’s because your body is more comfortable when it’s allowed to find its own thermal equilibrium. I suspect a similar relationship exists between us and our living spaces, and that we’re more comfortable when we simply live in them in ways that make sense to us. An architecture that’s less prescriptive, but rich in potential for us to arbitrarily engage with it, just might make us feel more alive in these places where we seem to be spending so much of our time.