Beauty in Buildings: What's the Use?
March 15, 2011
When the Modernists declared that form follows function, did they really intend for the built environment to look so ... dreary? Maybe beauty is an essential building function--not just something for the interior designer to work out at the end.
As Amelia Amon of Alt.Technica begins her presentation on "beautility" at BuildingEnergy, I become uncomfortably aware of her outfit. She looks like a fresh spring flower. I look like a person who chose a barely passable skirt and did a bad job of ironing it.
I soon forgot my fashion failings as the talk began. After a long day of having ROI graphs and wind speed/altitude charts flashed in front of me without quite enough time to process each one, immersing myself in a bit of philosophy felt like lying back in a warm bubble bath. Aaaaah. Was this really work?
The Work of Beauty
Well, that's just it. We tend to think of aesthetics as the "play" part of the building: an afterthought, like the extra ring I'd put on my finger to spruce myself up a bit that morning. A matter of personal taste. A chance to go on a fun shopping trip after all the real work is done.
But can beauty do work too?
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Amon defines beauty as a natural organizing principle, and believes that "beauty is a function in itself" and "a sign of connectedness" to the natural world. Her fellow presenter, Justin Good (a lecturer and the executive director of The Sanctuary at Shepardfields), defines beauty as "the perception of wholeness." It's not really in the eye of the beholder or just a matter of taste, he maintains: the vast majority of people agree on which things are beautiful and which are not.
Beauty and Biophilia
He explained some of the work of Christopher Alexander, including the idea that a truly sustainable building system not only has internal coherence but also harmonizes with the systems around it and all the systems within it. According to Good, when we talk about the life of a building or the life of a neighborhood, that is "not a metaphor." A building really can be alive. As defined by the two presenters, beauty is closely related to biophilia.
Alexander's is a theory of aesthetics, metaphysics, and ethics, all rolled into a rather eccentric philosophy of architecture. His theories have been applied liberally by computer programmers--and hardly at all by architects. "This is off the conceptual chart in Modernism," said Good. That was the understatement of the day.
Common Sense for Everyday Architecture?
And yet, it all makes so much sense. Good showed us many photos juxtaposing contemporary buildings with more antiquated ones. The entryway of a cathedral compared with the entryway of a 1950s post office, for example. Every last one of us knew instantly which door we preferred if we wanted to get out of a thunderstorm. How have these apparently universal emotional responses been stripped out of everyday architecture? After all, don't most people become architects because they are good at both math and art? What happens to the art bit after you graduate?
Aside from unwittingly helping bring object-oriented computer programming into being, Alexander is also known for a 1982 debate he had with postmodernist Peter Eisenman. People seem to remember this debate mainly because Alexander dropped the f-bomb. Twice. My curiosity piqued by Good's talk, I read a transcript of the debate and discovered that Eisenman thinks the cathedral at Chartres is "boring." Huh.
The Cutting Edge Isn't a Nice Place to Sit
More intriguingly, Eisenman expresses the belief (he pretends his belief is just his own personal taste, but no one is fooled) that architecture should make people uncomfortable. That it should reflect our alienation from the natural world rather than providing a respite from alienation. (So much for my warm bubble bath, or at least its architectural equivalent.) Alexander believes the opposite, and does not try to pass it off as a groundless personal opinion. He is unabashedly prescriptive. Interesting, since in the end I think Alexander's system of thought is much more open-minded than Eisenman's.
But I am a writer, not an architect. I am new to BuildingGreen, and my study of postmodernism in school was all about deconstruction--the kind you do to literary texts, not buildings. So I'm curious how architects react to the idea that beauty is an essential building function--and also to the idea that beauty as a primary function of architecture has been mostly stripped out of contemporary design. Is that an overstatement?
Maybe Beauty Isn't Natural
Perhaps it is really just a matter of taste. Do beauty and biophilia really have to map so closely? Maybe the 1950s post office--or, to be more fair, the St. Mary's Cathedral pictured above--is just as attractive as Chartres, and we're only clinging to some outdated Romantic concept of beauty. On the other hand, there is a lot of research showing the tangible, measurable advantages of biophilic buildings, including a recent study about improved health outcomes in hospitals that allow better access to sunlight and the outdoors.
How does beauty come into your everyday work? Do you think the built environment should foster a connection to nature? Or should it reflect our alienation from nature, as a reminder that all is not well with the world? Or perhaps you think beauty and nature are not inherently connected. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.