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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Literary Dose #25

"Architecture used to be about beauty. Now it's just about money. What has changed? Well, everything, really, in three revolutions: social, theoretical, cultural. The social revolution occurred when democratic capitalism took money from the hands of a cultivated aristocracy and gave it first to the mercantile classes and then to the plebs (us). This fitted architecture with an entirely new client-class, which is really two classes -- the developers who build, and the people who buy. Neither of them is especially interested in architecture, urbanism or the making of place. [...]

The second revolution was, if not theory-led, at least theory-coated. In the mid-twentieth century, design-meisters Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius jointly marched architecture towards an engineering aesthetic of bare functionalism. That they did not practice their creed made their preachings no less effective, and led, inevitably, to a wholesale burning of the books. Which was the third revolution. The people are not the only ones who know what they like but can't get there. In schools and academies across the planet, ignorance of the ancient (or indeed, modern) canons of beauty is profound. Which is not to argue that beauty as a rule thing. It's more that old tenet that knowing the rules is especially essential for those who would break them.

The problem, therefore, is not just a lack of clients-with-taste-and-money, though that is real enough. It's that the knowledge itself is no longer architecture's dilly-bag. Beauty has become an embarrassment never to be discussed outside those inner-sanctum slide-nights when architects warm their hands against the tiny flame that flickers now at the profession's core, blowing protectively on the coals lest the chill winds of commerce extinguish the flame forever."
- Elizabeth Farrelly in Blubberland (MIT Press, 2008).


  1. We need a lot more people talking about the role of Beauty in architecture and life. Schools are terrible--they yell at you for even bringing it up. DIE POST STRUCTUALISM!! And take all your word games and ugly mullions locations with you!!

  2. Coming from a school built on the Bauhaus model, I would say that the primary difficulty with discussing beauty is no different now than it ever was, which is defining what it is and where it comes from.

    The line about "wholesale book burning" seems to suggest we once had the "key" to beauty and lost it, presumably by failing to teach according to the Beaux-Arts model.

    I think there is a muddled assumption that the "peoples" nostalgic taste for historical eclecticism is somehow rooted in timeless principles of beauty.

    That buildings are now products is a change to the landscape and a sometimes insurmountable challenge to producing beautiful buildings, but many developers are well attuned to and driven by the image projected by these works, which was just as true of the Medicis. The problem is convincing your client that your vision of beauty is superior to theirs.

    The way buildings are crafted and produced is not the same as it was 150 years ago, and this fact cannot be ignored in any serious consideration of architecture, if one is intent on making a difference in the vast majority of the built environment.

  3. architecture has always been about money/wealth. maybe "commercialism" is what the author is trying to describe.

    I don't entirely agree that schools are devoid of architectural theories of beauty. The bigger problem is in the general failure (in North American schools) to value craft and function. Eisenman said at a lecture that he's always stuffed functions after having generated the massing of a building through his convoluted process, and that he "stuffed it like a Christmas turkey." Someone like that - a designer with total disregard of the end-use - should not teach others how to design, yet Eisenman continues to be celebrated in North America. That's a bigger problem than the "ignorance of the ancient...canons of beauty) least to me.

    Oh, and John, why is Spacecraft listed under "history?" It's a pretty fun book.

  4. jeff - Well put, though I would argue that even with the impossibility of defining or agreeing on beauty today, if it's something to strive for (like, say, self-sufficiency as a goal for a sustainable building or town -- impossible yes, but a goal that surely raises the bar) as opposed to something to dismiss outright, then buildings just might be better in general. At the same time, I think architects speak of beauty when they work, almost constantly considering how something looks. But when value engineering or some other constraint affects the look of a building towards the worse, it's far too easy for architects to give up in the face of such a thing when beauty isn't something shared. I grasping here. Also, aren't failed attempts at beauty better than not even trying?

    joe - Don't know if architecture has always been about money, though surely the profession has more of a foot in that money bucket. Eisenman's also a good example about the craft, taking the Cincinnati school as an example. Oh, and maybe I got the space books mixed up...

  5. In the Farrelly excerpt, she argued that architecture used to be about beauty, implying that it wasn't about money. Yet, the vast majority of the celebrated architecture (from way back when) that are written about in theory and history (text)books would have been very expensive, and commissioned by very wealthy patrons, like the Medicis as Jeff mentioned. Architecture as practiced by architects, as opposed to masons, as it matured from the latter part of the Gothic period, very much thrived on a system of patronage (I think what Farrelly meant by the "cultivated aristocracy"). It was also during the same time that various "canons of beauty" were rediscovered, reinterpreted, and reinvented. None of this would have happened without the financial support of the very wealthy. A more cynical person - not me, of course - would say that phenomenon has remained consistent through the pas few centuries, when the very rich seems to be obsessed with purchasing culture (*cough*Dubai*cough*).

    It's more about money today in the sense that unlike the Renaissance, the vast majority of architects do not exist as a sort of marginal class of aristocrats. Architects need that money in order to survive in the so-called "democratic capitalist" society, where architectural taste can be represented by supply-demand curves. That's what I meant by commercialism, which is more specific than just "money".

    Eisenman's office may be able to put together good drawings in order to produce a well-built project, but the manufacturing of a building ultimately really isn't what Eisenman cares about, and it isn't something that people are made aware of when talking about Eisenman's theories. Everyone (who's picked up an introductory modern architectural history/theory book) know about the overlapping street grids. This is not to say that I don't have a place in my heart for him. Although I totally disagree with what he has to say, his attitude towards the theories subscribed to by others and his own (in the lecture I attended, Eisenman said that he could have wasted his entire life and approached architecture in a totally invalid way) is rather entertaining.

  6. to make beauty a goal is superficial for as jeff has said beauty has been clearly undefined. if one's design manifests meaning, it will be beautiful.

  7. Having now finished the book, I can say with some surety that when Farrelly uses the word beauty she's not referring to surface beauty, but that deep beauty that is not strictly a subjective, viewer-perceived phenomenon. To complicate michelle's assertion, the author even states well after this post's quote that "Beauty or, if you prefer, the infusing of a building with some coherent meaning, is what architects do." This isn't the beauty that architects like to easily dismiss for some quasi-objective reasoning, equating it with taste, and especially the tastes of those that run counter to their own. Given the book's plethora of ideas, this and other viewpoints aren't fleshed out as much as they should be. This is one idea that might be ripe for expansion.


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