Blog Post

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.

The entryway to the St. Mary's Cathedral in Tokyo features concrete, glass, and steel, and gives a wooden nod to traditional church doors. Is it beautiful? Does it look alive? Click photo to enlarge.

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.

The entryway to the cathedral at Chartres, a "boring" building, according to Peter Eisenman. This doorway is certainly busy. Is it doing any work? Click photo to enlarge.

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.

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Comments

March 17, 2013 - 9:16 pm

I often wonder what the world would be like if modern architects had followed someone like Gaudi instead of LeCorbusier or Brutalism.  The conceit and desire to make the built world emulate machines rather than nature has created barren, ugly environments, made architecture irrelevant to most people and has left nature in crisis.

Beauty like nature is a primary need, it should be part and parcel of any design and should be woven into the design as much a function. Function alone, makes you wish you were dead.

Valli BAC Sustainable Design student

June 21, 2012 - 4:14 pm

Great thread to start as a traditional farmers son from Dorset in the UK, this is why I started designing and making my own timber frame buildings. Predominantly architects look at vernacular local buildings and forget that that "chocolate box cottage" was built using readilyavailable local renewable materials, out of necessity from not having the energy for centralised local production or for material conversion. This developed local styles where form followed function and developed character and beauty. Local self build could assist in reestablishing this vernacular paradigm and revitalise neighbourhoods and artisan skills. greenwoodfutures.co.uk

June 19, 2012 - 1:26 pm

This is something I grapple with a lot as an architect.  My flippant answer is to look beyond style or era and simply ask how the building or the space or the detail feels.  Beautiful is only one option here.  The Holocaust museum in DC is not necessarily beautiful but it manages to capture some very powerful emotional content. I have been in some modernist buildings that have made me feel gloriously uplifted. I have felt the same in some very old buildings.  I think how we repond emotionally to architecture is paramount even if that emotion is somewhat nostalgic.  Even if the space is simply a bathroom. Even if the emotion is not joyous.

June 18, 2012 - 11:08 pm

Beauty and Happiness -  One of the books on this topic that I have really enjoyed for its content as well as its literary feel is Alain de Botton's "The Architecture of Happiness".

June 18, 2012 - 1:24 pm

This is a good topic to consider as the times are tough. Briefy, most players in the built environment are not advocates of beauty except as a side issue. They don't like ugly. But financial forces, Building Contractors, Real Estate Brokers and some clients do not place a value on beauty beyond "curb appeal". Lots of that please but keep the costs down.

As an Architect of 35 years my idea of beauty is that it comes from the core principals of spacial organization, materials selections, light and shade, and even symbolism in forms. Human ritual and contemporary contexts can be developed in beautiful ways. It is easy to know when a space is comfortable and pleasant when you are there. That is a kind of beauty. It is easy to know when a structure is interesting to look at and attracts the viewer with meaning and scale. That is an environmental integration of the best kind.

To the extent that all parts of the built environment impact the "natural" world for better or worse, they matter more than we know. It is our duty to sing as beautifully as we can amidst the fog of developments that are built without a beauty component and thereby humanize a brutal process.

June 18, 2012 - 11:51 am

When I speak of greener buildings, I always make the case that the space, the building, the finishes need to be beautiful.  Beauty is not merely visual, but also acoustic, kinesthetic and more.  The space needs to feel good, the finishes need to be attractive, comfortable, supporting of health and they need to be durable. 

If beauty is left out, the space or place will not be cared for, will not win the hearts of the users and will be neglected or replaced - neither is a good deal for sustainability.  If the space or place is loved, supports the users, looks good even after years of hard use, cleans well and appeals to the senses (all of them), and functions well it will be a durable and a long-lasting, sustained place.

Beauty is necessary in the equation; part of the design, not an afterthought and not the driver.

March 19, 2011 - 12:30 pm

I am an architect and would love to give you my opinion.

Beauty is an essential building function -- It certainly should be. I agree with Alexander that buildings should make you feel comfortable. If we are to make the correlation between buildings and nature, I think many would agree of the inherent beauty in nature. Could/should/ought our buildings reflect that same beauty? Nature is so very functional, yet beautiful too.

Beauty as a primary function stripped out of contemporary design -- This might be an overstatement. There is still quite a bit of beautiful architecture out there. Have we as architects maybe gotten lazy or lax? Definitely. Is it across the board? No. There are still those out there trying to meld beauty and functionality.

Bill Randall, Architect, LEED AP, cSBA
thesimpleHOUSE
living a simple, sustainable lifestyle

March 18, 2011 - 2:49 am

Beauty certainly need not be left to the end. However a building must function to exist. A good Architect can consider both, and knows when each one should be prioritized.

March 21, 2011 - 10:34 am

Thank you all for your insightful and thought-provoking comments.

Bill, perhaps Modernism has been used as an excuse in some cases for making cheap, ugly buildings. But it does seem to me that the more iconic Modernist buildings have an appealing aesthetic, even though they do not normally follow natural forms or incorporate biophilia. I guess part of the question is whether the word "beauty" can be used in this limited way.

The questions discussed in the talk were at a pretty abstract level, not really making claims about particular buildings or design choices—more about the philosophical assumptions that underlie design choices, and how those assumptions affect the spaces we build and the occupants of those spaces. Do you think contemporary design has moved away from the stricter Modernist philosophical assumptions? If so, where has it gone, and why? What are the new assumptions being made?

March 16, 2011 - 5:45 pm

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March 16, 2011 - 4:28 am

In my home, I certainly want to foster a feeling of comfort and safety, and offer respite and shelter for my family. I am certain that most people do not need to be challenged or reminded of our struggles with our environment when the day is almost over, at least within the context of their home's design. As a study, such a home may validity; but as a residence, what could be less sustainable than constructing a home that no one will enjoy living in? Public spaces, outdoors or in, would be a different discussion, I think.

March 18, 2011 - 5:54 am

Paula, I think you bring up a great point with St. Mary's photo: "Does it look alive?" It certainly doesn't. It doesn't even look cohesive. I think the majority of us appreciate spaces that feel alive/mimic the natural world in some way - patterns, textures, proportions, and shapes, to name a few.

As a feng shui consultant, I have learned how ancient philosophies and practices still resonate in today's world, perhaps even more so. Research proves that our environments impact our behavior and well-being. Inhabiting spaces that are built WITH nature creates a much more fulfilling experience.