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On beauty

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Beauty has been banned from the studio. She peers through cracks in boarded windows at the new architecture of performance. The story of her exile is one that spans two disparate events: Sullivan’s dangerous assertion that “form follows function” and the economic downturn that forced a restructuring of architectural practice in the 21st century.

The latter was the blow that erased Beauty’s place in public discourse. A capitalist economy relies on progress and growth, especially in times of duress; this necessity in times of dwindling funds produces a desire for cheaper, more efficient structures, where discussion of Beauty are seemingly moot. It appeared that for the contemporary client, a building’s ability to come in on budget, produce efficient, effective workspaces, and low overhead, were its sole value. Huxtable would disagree, of course, arguing that a building’s street presence, i.e. its appearance, is part of its effective performance, but her voice has been in the minority in recent boardroom discussions. So when Bjarke Ingels argues for a skewed pyramid as the new image of the skyscraper, Ingels’ arguments are based on social and sustainable performance, without acknowledging an underlying desire for a new form to please, or not to please, the eye.

Echoes from the past enter into this contemporary climate to speed along Beauty’s exit. Sullivan, perhaps unknowingly, has given architects permission to ‘explain away’ form via function. Today, though we’ve substituted ‘performance’ for ‘function,’ we have retained the original wording’s suggestion of an inevitable aesthetic. This seeming certitude has liberated the architect from having to discuss Beauty as a visual quality. This is not to say that architects stopped caring about form, but that they stopped speaking to each other about form through a formal language. In insisting that Beauty be the result of performance, principles of aesthetics (proportion, composition, etc.) have become slaves to the principles of the machine.

Our reluctance to discuss non-performative aspects of form with our clients is not, as we would like to think, a way to find grounding for the discipline in science, to protect it from the whims of a fickle economy. Presenting forms as self-evident is an untruth, as the presented form is, in fact, nothing but one possible compositional solution to the technical problems at hand. We resort to discussing the ‘elegance’ or ‘beauty’ of the concrete solution (the fewest moves, the cleanest details, etc.); if we disengage ‘beauty’ from ‘problem-solving,’ we find ourselves treading uncertain waters. This reluctance, then, is a means of skirting around the roles intuition and subjectivity play in formal composition, for the fear that what is, in fact, an expert opinion, might be perceived as an amateur’s experiment.

We are fooling ourselves, and selling ourselves short, when we only officially consider Beauty in this limited scope. If architecture were merely elegant problem-solving, it wouldn’t need architects. Certainly, the client is capable of educating him or her-self on programmatic adjacencies and hiring a coordinator to manage the engineers and contractors to make a structure habitable. We must believe that we are being hired because we have an aesthetic position that the client deems valuable, as he or she is unable at arriving at that position on his or her own. No, we are not simply ‘beauticians,’ but in addition to being coordinators, space planners, physicists and carpenters, we are artists – and the client knows this.

If we have been stripped of our ability to have conversations about Beauty outside of the context of performance, if our generation has lost the vocabulary that would allow for critical aesthetic discourse, the question remains, how do we get it back?

- Amrita Raja

Amrita Raja was the 2012 Shepley Bulfinch Summer Design Fellow. She is a member of the Yale School of Architecture Class of 2013.

2 Responses to “On beauty”

  1. Tad Jusczyk Says:

    You make some well-reasoned points about what beauty is not, but what, exactly, is it? It seems to me that you are arguing for Hegel’s artistic supplement, that “architecture is whatever in a building that does not point to utility,” which is a standpoint fraught with contradictions.

  2. Angela Watson Says:

    Beauty is subjective. She is subject to the context her judges place her in. The judges in turn are influenced by their own cultural environments, experiences and even moods.
    It might be interesting to examine the popolar descriptions of “beauty” such as being or not being “skin deep”.