The Case For Beauty In Architecture

For a building to be good, it must be beautiful. Why? Because beauty in architecture brings us joy and happiness. Merriam-Webster defines beauty as “qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit.” Or more to the point, Stendhal, the 19th century French writer, wrote, “Beauty is the promise of happiness.” And happiness is one of our fundamental human needs.

Beauty is the promise of happiness.

The Alhambra — a magnificent example of beauty in architecture, Credit: Mark Horn, Getty Images

I was delighted when I found the contemporary French philosopher Alain de Botton and his book “The Architecture of Happiness,” about the philosophical and psychological relationship between architecture and our identities.

De Botton writes: “The buildings we admire are ultimately those which, in a variety of ways, extol the values we think worthwhile — which refer, that is, whether through materials, shapes or colours, to such legendary positive qualities as friendliness, kindness, subtlety, strength and intelligence. Our sense of beauty and our understanding of the nature of a good life are intertwined.” (De Botton, Alain, The Architecture of Happiness)

Stahl House by Pierre Koenig

Beauty in architecture

Beauty is one of the most enduring themes of Western philosophy, going all the way back to Vitruvius’ three laws of architecture: firmitas, utilitas, venustas (solidity, utility, beauty). But when I was in architecture school, no one talked about beauty in architecture because it was considered too subjective. What was important back then was the concept and the idea of the building, not what it looked like.

Lebbeus Woods Model by John Hill

Actually, some architects were more interested in the ugly, in an architecture of dissonance or discomfort, like this model that looks like it will attack you. This hasn’t been good for the profession’s PR.

De Botton points to a study of German psychologist Rudolf Arnheim, where he asked students to draw a good and a bad marriage using only line drawings. “In one example, smooth curves mirror the peaceable and flowing course of a loving union, while violently gyrating spikes serve as a visual shorthand for sarcastic putdowns and slammed doors.”

Boston City Hall by Daniel Schwen – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

In the renaissance, architects were considered the arbiters of beauty. But today, the public often questions architects and designers’ notions of beauty. When I google “ugly building,” the #3 listing is the Wikipedia entry for Boston City Hall. Either Google’s algorithm has a personal beef or there is a general consensus on that one. Either way, that is not the keyword term I would like to rank for. In the article “Ugly Architecture: 15 of the World’s Most Hideous Buildings,” the author wrote, “Some buildings are so ugly, the only thing that could possibly improve them is a wrecking ball.” On the list are many famous architects and well-known firms like Gehry, MVRDV and Perkins + Will. The one that really made me chuckle was the observation tower by artist Anish Kapoor and engineer Cecil Balmond that “looks like a tangle of junk you pulled out of a drawer in your garage.”

But when, on my quest to expound beauty in architecture, I ask Google about “beautiful buildings,” there is far less agreement. Back in Plato’s day, beauty was considered objective and there were rules and orders that governed it. Even Le Corbusier spoke of a somewhat classical notion of beauty.

“The Architect, by his arrangements of forms, realizes an order which is a pure creation of his spirit; through forms and shapes, he affects our senses to an acute degree and provokes plastic emotions; by the relationships which he creates he creates profound echoes in us, he gives us the measure of an order which we feel to be in accordance with that of our world, he determines the various movements of our heart and of our understanding; it is then we experience the sense of beauty.” (Le Corbusier quoted in The Architecture of Happiness)

But now we tend to believe that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” De Botton quotes Stendahl: “There are as many styles of beauty as there are visions of happiness.”

Is beauty universal?

Certainly, different cultures have different notions of beauty. Indeed, wabi-sabi offers quite a different notion of beauty from Arabic geometric patterns.

Ryoan-ji Garden in Kyoto, Japan – Stephane D’Alu’s photo, CC BY-SA 3.0

Our tastes and definitions of beauty change in response to other cultural influences, but they also change over time in response to shifts in our own society. According to de Botton, German art historian Wilhelm Worringer suggested that over the span of human history societies have oscillated between a preference for abstract and realistic art, and that those preferences have changed based on what the societies themselves were lacking.

“Abstract art, infused as it was with harmony, stillness and rhythm, would appeal chiefly to societies yearning for calm — societies in which law and order were fraying, ideologies were shifting and a sense of physical danger was compounded by moral and spiritual confusion. Against such a turbulent background (the sort of atmosphere to be found in many of the metropolises of twentieth-century America …), inhabitants would experience what Worringer termed ‘an immense need for tranquility,’ and so would turn to the abstract, to patterned baskets or the minimalist galleries of Lower Manhattan.”

In the twenty-first century, in the age of instant communication, political turmoil and climate catastrophes, this need for tranquility, and what we would term slowness, feels to me to be even more important.

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