The Future of Beauty

(Though distracted by Hand Craftsmanship in the Digital Age and my Handmade Purpose book project, purposeful whining about contemporary architecture and design is still close to my heart... so...)

Beauty is not appreciated through reason—it is enjoyed through feelings. There is no objective beauty; it goes directly to the heart—a glowing rainbow over a field of ripe wheat needs no explanation. The program of the modern movement made it impossible to express feelings. Following its principles, the designs of the last century have lost emotional appeal.

-Eva ZeiseL, 2004

Man’s capacity for aesthetic enjoyment may have been his most practical characteristic, for nearly all the industrially useful properties of matter and ways of shaping materials had their origins in the playful search for beauty. Beauty is at the root of man’s discovery of the world around him, and makes him want to live.

-Cyril Smith (of MIT), via Zeisel

I can feel the way the conversation begins. The young architect/designer, awed by the heights of glass and steel design in the 20th century, and having studied the aesthetics to the point of being conversant in their language and logic, will be eager to offer counterarguments to Smith and Zeisel. The older architect/designer, however, having heard such accusations before, will likely smile in the knowledge that they are paper arrows. If Tom Wolfe's critique could be dismissed out of hand, and with no more than a ripple in the industry, then Zeisel can be tolerated, a gadfly. An acknowledging nod to Smith is also enough to move on... for, in the end, the smaller, nostalgic minds that cling to the naive concept of beauty and don't "get" modernism are not worth engaging. Perhaps, in a good mood we might get a patronizing acceptance that yes, people do like beauty, and there are some unsuccessful modernist buildings, but no more.

Leaving us where...? a world of built environments that are far uglier than we realize, as we have been sold on playful, intellectual, clever artistry in steel, glass and concrete. While some of our sharper minds may be stimulated by the triumphs of modernism, our bodies(with their confusing, even feminine, emotions, their disgusting needs, their low appeal), have been left behind. And with our bodies goes beauty, a concept that strongly resists being intellectualized.


A case in point is the James R. Thompson Center in downtown Chicago. Built in 1985, it was never well-adapted to hosting human beings (unless you enjoy 90 degree interior temps in summer and interior ice on your windows in winter). The original bright red and blue panels faded from UV long ago. Rust and corrosion appear everywhere. The exterior is always filthy with uncleaned (uncleanable?) walls and windows. To me, the building says Dystopian Japanese Cityscape from Akira. As a work of art, I think it is fascinating. But not a place I want to live or work. One visit of an hour or two is enough for a lifetime.


I wonder what kind of mind I'd have after years of working in the Thompson Center? A mind of metal and wheels?


What happens if we respect Zeisel's assessment, and explore it? Asking our built environments to have an emotional appeal and place beauty among important values does not end with shag carpeting everywhere. Instead I think we would end with the pursuit that Smith describes -- the pursuit of the utility found in beauty.

This is an idea worth considering beyond merely acknowledgement. If beauty drives understanding, and understanding drives invention and creation, then we lose everything that makes us human when we decide beauty is not worth pursuing. We will no longer have a reason to engage and understand the material world. We will be left with the despair of purposelessness (which frankly, is what spaces such as the Thompson Center leave me feeling as neither my flesh-and-blood body, nor my squishy feelings have a place or role in a world of mathematical interactions of glass, metal, and steel).

If we've decided that the rates of depression and anxiety in in the developed world are an issue, then maybe we can build our ways out of them by acknowledging beauty as a worthwhile goal.


I wonder how Smith and Zeisel came to their understanding of the importance of beauty. Experience? or Argument? In The Descent of Man, Darwin argues for a second evolutionary pressure, that of beauty, as natural selection in itself had trouble explaining the peacock's tail. The idea is that it's the peahen's aesthetic preference for, and pleasure in, male mates with more and more beautiful displays that drives the creation of the tail display. Aesthetic pleasure is thus universal among animals that choose mates, and the driving force for natural beauty across the animal world. Of course, this concept of beauty is relative-- only a male star-nosed mole would find a female star-nosed mole beautiful.... but perhaps there is some fundamental and universal concept of beauty and pleasure that can be found in all animals, and maybe plants too. (I came across the idea in Richard Prum's book The Evolution of Beauty, and have not read all of Darwin to see how far into living things he extends the pursuit of aesthetic pleasure--do algae share a primitive version of this drive?).  

If beauty is an evolutionary and biological force driving us to pursue aesthetic pleasure in our mates, how does this drive translate to everything else? Would we want/need/crave beauty in everything else? Does the peahen want an equally beautiful house to live in with her beautiful man? I wonder if any given woman's concept of beauty in a man drives her concept of general beauty. Do heterosexual men and women have, by definition, a different concept of beauty? Or is the nature of beauty more fundamental than the specifics of curving hips or strong shoulders?

Smith's idea of the utility of beauty is simple--that it makes us want to get out of bed and find it (or make it), because it makes us feel good. Thus, beauty gives us purpose in life. This feels as elegant and simple an answer to the meaning of life as E=MC2 is to mathematics and physics.


But then... if beauty is in our evolutionary heritage, and woven into our instincts, how is it that modern designers convinced to live and work in manifestly threatening, intellectually challenging, clean, plain and angular design? One can say many things about the Thompson Center, but "it's beautiful" is not one of them, except perhaps in the way Apocalypse Now's Colonel Kilgore says he loves the smell of napalm in the morning.

Why do any of us like the smell of napalm? I think the answer lies, in part, in another part of our biological evolution--Dawkin's selfish gene. If given a choice, we prefer more over better. Thus it is better to have as many children as possible than raise fewer to be more successful (why we have 7+ billion on the planet now), even though the quality of life for us, and for our children, will likely be lower than if we had chosen fewer. As they say, No Pain, No Gain, and the Gain is in having More of Less.

The other reason lies in our cultural evolution. Ugly, intellectual architecture is a step child of industrialization. As we painted factory smoke across out skies, so we built bridges from bare iron beams. Making metal and wheels in turn shaped our minds to metal and wheels.

The First and Second World Wars added fuel to this fire. We simply don't deserve beauty any more because there can be no laughter after Auschwitz. Beauty became naive in light of the evil that progressive minds thought we had grown out of.


An approach to architecture that includes beauty as a primary value would have to shake off the social mind of metal and wheels that we grew through centuries of industrialization. We would need to embrace who we are as humans to once again include it in our built environments. The complexities and contradictions in how we understand ourselves culturally, socially, and individually would have to be unwound and reassembled. The peacock does not wear jeans and a t-shirt to cover his naturally-evolved beauty, but we humans do. We make our clothes to be beautiful, as well as functional. Why not our houses too? The future of beauty could include every aspect of our lives.



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