Up to the midnineteenth century aesthetics was a theory of beauty. It might also have been called a theory of the fine arts, since up to about that time the essential demand placed on the work of art was that what it represented had to appear beautiful. A hint of this view still persists in our everyday notions, as when we say of a thing or a situation that it is aesthetically pleasing, by which we mean that it is beautiful; or when we speak of the aestheticising of the real, referring to attempts to beautify reality. It was only after Hegel that something like an aesthetic of ugliness3 could emerge, and, as we know,since then art has moved very far from having to be beautiful as such. And yet it is precisely this aspect, this way of gaining access to the beautiful, by way of art, design or architecture, which is a further reason for attempting to determine what beauty is. For although the experience of beauty may be, for the recipient, so subjective, indeed so intimate that one cannot hope to elucidate it verbally in its ultimate nature, the matter looks quite different from another direction, when viewed from the standpoint of production aesthetics. It is, of course, the aim of the artist, the designer, the architect, to create by means of the object the conditions in which people are able to experience beauty – by establishing vistas, by shaping objects, by arranging scenes. This implies two things. Firstly, that the experience of beauty cannot be as subjective as it first appears to the person affected by it. If the productive effort to create beauty is to have any meaning at all, then it must be supposed that our experiences of beauty are, at least to a certain extent, shared. The paradigm here is once again – as in the aesthetics of atmospheres generally – the art of the stage set. That art would be pointless if it could not be assumed that a given audience would experience in the same way an arrangement with which an atmosphere is created on the stage. It is the same with beauty: the artist, the designer, the architect will want to know what he or she has to do to ensure that a public will experience his or her objects or arrangements as beautiful. And to say what the artist has to do would be the task of aesthetics. And yet, has it been said? Have we got a definition of beauty?
Plato, for good reasons, brought together beauty and Eros. Eros, love, he thought, was the desire to possess the beautiful, and then, still more trenchantly, the desire always to possess the beautiful. Although we can still empathise with this idea, its weaknesses are undeniable: for if love is the desire to possess the beautiful, it will only remain alive for as long as one does not possess beauty, or for as long as its possession is at risk. What is more important, however, is the assumption contained in this relating of desire to the beautiful –that beauty as such is something lasting. And for Plato beauty is indeed ultimately an eternal Form, and is present in the sensuous world only in a highly fractured way. A corresponding assumption underlies the traditional striving of artists to create works, that is, something permanent. We, by contrast, have become more modest or, better, more sensuous. We are able to experience beauty in the ephemeral, the transient, in the light glinting on a pewter vessel24 or in the play of shadow on a white wall. Because we ourselves are transient beings, we encounter beauty in the lighting-up of appearances which assure us of our existence. Beauty is that which mediates to us the joy of being here
– Gernot Böhme
Friday is free day at the Architecture Museum.
It’s all photography in the first exhibition…oh, and four tatty models plus a smattering of text with historical data. That is how you share architecture with the world. Why do architects always talk about cinema?
Second expo. Struck by the beauty and skill of Jorma Järvi ‘s draughts. Examples like this make it seem that architects are designers on paper at heart and not creators of places. Why is no one using Photoshop to make images look like old draughts and watercolors? I was also struck by the poor quality of the photography. How can it be that this guy gets all the work in this country?
Last night I went to a talk given by Paul Righini, author of Thinking Architecturally. In it he lamented the lack of conviction and forward thinking in contemporary architecture whilst repeatedly condemning the failed project of modernism. Like all bold statements, this one needs unpacking.
Firstly, wasn’t it the desire to change the world through architecture that drove modernism, at least in the beginning? So if modernism was a failure, why should architects take up the mantle again and strive to re-engineer the world through their practice?
Secondly, modernism, like photography, is not dead despite all of the people writing eulogies out there. In a design sense, modernism has finally come into it’s own: look at posh houses in any magazine–they could easily have been designed by Loos in the 20s.
Lastly, he spoke again and again of the need to create human places that people can feel good in, and I heartily agree, but it became clear during the course of his talk that architects like him will never be capable of doing so as they are in a sense victims of their culture. They are trained to think about functionalist mores and minimalist tropes, the subject matter of which is irrelevant to anyone outside the clan and spoken in a foreign language. Righini spoke of language repeatedly, in what was in fairness an enjoyable talk, but never once did the word beauty escape his mouth. In architecture as in art, beauty has become at best irrelevant and at other times an enemy to be engaged head on. As long as that remains the case, architects have no hope of reaching a large number of people to create a sense of place, much less improve the world. Making public space less ugly, oppressive or bland would be enough of an improvement to start with. Making beauty a goal, however hard to define, would be a step in that direction.