‘Beauty’ is one of the rarest words used by professionals when talking about architecture, yet it is one of the most used by laypeople. I admit to not using the ‘B’ word a whole lot myself, and so I will hereby try to write a post that ruminates on beauty in the built environment. Just for the hell of it.
We all know the clichés: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Everything has beauty but not everyone sees it. Love of beauty is taste; the creation of beauty is art. Beauty is only skin-deep. Beautiful British Columbia. Ontario: keep it beautiful. And then there are all those well-known expressions about the beauty of women and the beauty of nature; not necessarily in that order. Is there any way to talk about beauty that avoids clichés? Perhaps, but it’s evident I haven’t been able to come up with one myself so far into this post.
The only thing I can say for sure is that even though we architects don’t like using the word ‘beauty’, we sure as hell try to incorporate beauty in our work. At least most architects do (Oriol Bohigas being possibly the only exception to this rule). Despite its rare mention in the academy or in the daily business of practice, beauty remains the highest aim of architecture. Few, if any, will admit this, but it’s true. In fact, architectural bla bla bla works as a sort of deliberate foil to beauty: the more you hear archispeak being spoken, the more you wish whoever is talking would just shut up and not spoil the moment. It’s a technique known to work beautifully every time.
Beauty always needs a foil. Everyone knows that one of the best ways to meet someone in a bar (you know, someone you’d like to spend the night with, nudge nudge wink wink) is to go to the bar with a friend who is either much better looking or much worse looking. There is always likely to be another similar duo, and since people who lack good looks generally make up for it by being funny, silly and flirtatious conversation between the two duos is more likely to be initiated. Each needs the other, alas.
The difficulty with buildings, however, is that they generally tend to outlast humans (Las Vegas being possibly the only exception to this rule), and since notions of beauty and ugliness vary on a generational basis –ever noticed that the furniture our parents bought around the time we were born is beautiful but that which they bought when we were university students is horrendous?– buildings often tend to go in and out of beauty. Thus, recently completed buildings that are generally agreed upon (in silence, of course!) to be ‘beautiful’ are generally guaranteed to become ugly after two or three decades, while ugly buildings of two or three decades ago are often miraculously resuscitated, suddenly re-appearing in a new, much more favorable light. When all the hype over a recent building fades, and when it starts to show the first signs of lacking basic maintenance, you can be sure the consensus will soon be ‘eyesore’. Only a few architectural geeks will seek such buildings out for their ‘hidden beauty’, like the legion of fans of Minoru Yamasaki’s work, the Brutalism Appreciation Society, or the Postmodernism Appreciation Society. Eventually, one of these societies will gain traction and influence, and a revival will be born. Indeed, a postmodernism revival seems to be happening in some vanguard architecture schools at the moment. How’s that for ironic?
Beauty is complicated. Maybe that’s why its best practiced without being talked about. OK I’ll shut up now.