Architecture and beauty: some thoughts

Parliament House - Melbourne by Dean-Melbourne.

A few weeks ago I spent an afternoon in the Victorian Parliament building discussing regulation and, though I think I’ve looked in it quickly before, I was completely blown away by how magnificent the Legislative Council is.  I mean just take a look at those pictures.  And it reawakened some pondering I’ve been doing for a long time.  

I wonder why I really love great architecture.  And I wonder about a question that I heard the architect and social philosopher of sorts Christoper Alexander ask. Why is it that virtually every building – well so many buildings anyway – built before 1940 is beautiful and virtually every building built after – say – 1950 is ugly?

This is a pretty interesting question I think.  

One clue that I got was when I was at a roundtable put on by the Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission on liveability.  After lots of discussion about ‘metrics’ for capturing livability, I mucked up a little and said that I hadn’t heard anyone mention the idea of beauty.  This was not regarded as a very helpful comment and it nonplussed several people at the roundtable. They said that people disagreed about what was beautiful, and after a little perseverence from me and some face saving gestures from one of the hosts, including the offer to mention the word in the report, the issue was politely dropped.

On thinking about this at least for me this seems to encapsulate some real failure of the elites that run our society. This was an elite gathering.  Full of economists, social planners of various descriptions, a writer and an academic or two.  The group was chosen for its breadth. All of the rest there would have had tertiary education and most of them were relatively senior.

But building a city to be beautiful, well that was pretty esoteric stuff.  My sexuality wasn’t questioned.  Indeed, everyone was very polite.  But it was a little as if I had said that it is impossible to have a great city without a giant statue of a camel.  

So what is going on?  I think what is going on is that the things that a government might plan or impose on its citizenry require some kind of ‘objectivity’.  So they emerge from accepted processes which meet various objective standards of integrity, due process including the introduction of appropriate expertise.  An architect might be involved, and that might give you at best a bit of bolt on beauty. But an architect is mostly there as a building and design expert.  You might get a lovely building out of it, but the chances of that are slim indeed.  What will be got is someone’s credentials on a certificate saying that this structure was designed by a 100 percent muesli eating architect.

So this is my first take out. Well it’s my first assertion. A healthy society has an elite (well we haven’t yet found any society without an elite so I haven’t said anything so far).  And one of the social functions of the elite is to be the carrier, the guardian and steward of some conception of beauty.  I’m not talking of anything metaphysical here. I’m talking of the fact that it’s very very hard to find a Parliament House or Congress building, an art gallery or even a railway station built over 70 years ago that isn’t lovely.  And most people who were not in the elite bought into this beauty also. 

You may think I’m overdoing the ‘elite’ bit here. Perhaps I am.  I’m certainly not trying to idolise the elites of the past who spent most of their time protecting the power they had, coining the cash and tossing a few pennies at charities.  Even so, there are no large scale civilisations that I can think of that did not place beautiful and exquisite objects at the centre of their symbolic and ceremonial life.

Except ours that is.

Parliament House - Melbourne by Dean-Melbourne.

To be continued  . . .

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25 Responses to Architecture and beauty: some thoughts

  1. NPOV says:

    …and yet the elites of today generally recognise the importance of maintaining beautiful buildings of the past.

    I’ve said it before that surely one reason that much architecture of the 20th century lacks much beauty is because of improvements in building technology that mean plain but functional buildings can be put up quickly and cheaply with minimal risk, so beautiful buildings are almost always at a huge economic disadvantage, to a far greater degree than had been the case 100+ years ago.

    But I also feel it’s not a phenomenon limited to architecture – the average level of beauty in the music and visual arts produced in the last 100 years doesn’t really come close to that of the music and visual arts produced in the 200 years prior either.

    Perhaps it is also partly a price we pay for better democracy and rising living standards – the “masses” have more and more say over how art and architecture is created, and the decisions of the masses are not generally weighted towards the type of beauty that you and I admire. But even that theory is problematic, because we can admire the beauty in the basic “worker’s cottages” and terrace housing that was built essentially for the masses of the pre-war era: it has to be asked why did housing developers of the time bother with the many purely decorative features that now attract much better-educated and salaried house-hunters of today?

  2. Rafe Champion says:

    Don’t write off the contemporary until you have checked out the Anzac Bridge in Sydney. Actually these images don’t really do it for me the way the real thing does.

    I suppose you have to go to places like Vienna to see the best examples of old public architecture (well, older than 200 years) but there are great examples in Australia – add the Melbourne Public Library, the old sandstone administrative buildings in Sydney and the plan of the city of Adelaide.

    There are some breathtakingly beautiful bridges in Tasmania,a some of them very old (Richmond) and there used to be a site with a whole lot of them but I think the link is dead. The Batman bridge on the Tamar is stunning and so is the Tasman bridge in Hobart.

  3. NPOV says:

    Rafe I don’t think anyone is denying that there are examples of great beauty in modern architecture – but it’s probably fair to say nearly *all* surviving architecture that’s over about 80 years old is notable for its beauty, whereas to be generous at best a quarter of modern architecture would qualify similarly. Perhaps in another 100 years time it will only be such buildings that will still be standing, but photos from 100 years ago don’t appear to reveal that such a large percentage of buildings of that era were lacking in notable aesthetic appeal.

    Here’s another question – to what degree is the phenomenon a Anglo one? How noticeable is it in continental Europe? In Asia?

  4. chester von jacques says:

    There’s plent of good and beautiful modern buildings – the trouble is they’re the exception not the rule. Before corporate modernism the reverse was the case.

    Why? Several reasons

    1 – modernism, or Bauhaus/van der Rohe modernism – defined itself as anti-ornament, pro-machine architecture. It simply ignored the fact that ornament or detail may be a human need, a response to our desire for sensuous detail. Strip it away and the beauty has to be found in austerity.

    2 – in the period of high capitalism, corporate culture was still set within an ethic of civic pride, community expression, or even sheer celebration of bourgeois power – it hadn’t yet managed to overturn inherited ideas of quality or ends-in-themselves. It was constrained by a wider set of values, which gave things meaning. It wouldn’t have occurred to someone to put up an office building which was just units of commercial space – it would have to contribute to the city of which it was a part.

    Post-war, capitalism triumphed over that and simply crowded all other value systems out. The cheapest ‘style’ was minimal, replicated slab-tilt. People growing up among it, by and large, have become used to the nihilistic idea that a city should just be a collection of boxes with the occasional superstar building for ‘branding’.

    3 – so really, it’s the nihilism of the market. It just eats away at any intangible, unquantifiable conception of the good, like acid.

  5. Rafe Champion says:

    Good questions NPOV.

    On the beauty of older buildings, it is helpful to bear in mind the mechanics of compression and tension in building. Stone is strong in compression so you can build tall structures if you just put one brick or stone top of another but the problem is tension – how to handle arches, roofs and joints. Buildings that depended on compression to stand up had to have a high degree of symmetry like the arches of bridges and old buildings. The advent of steel permitted quite different structure and they could violate laws of balance and symmetry to some extent and still stand up. Not sure where that takes us, just thinkingn aloud.

    Actually I think Ernst Gombrich and others have noted the great debate that broke out over the aesthetic way to use iron, like was the Eiffel tower a thing of beauty or a monstrosity?

  6. Rafe Champion says:

    Should have said that steel is strong in tension.

    See a brilliant pair of books by J E Gordon on structures and engineering principles. Structures or why things don’t fall down and The New Science of Strong Materials or why you don’t fall through the floor. These are just great, with examples drawn from his three hobbies, Greek history, skiing and sailing.

    His account of the evolution of sea-going vessels is rivetting and will especially interest devotees of the Master and Commander series.

  7. NPOV says:

    I think “chester von jacques” might have something of a point – that whereby in the past those with the power and wealth to determine the creation of architecture and art generally also had extensive classical educations that helped instill appreciation for culture and beauty, in the 20th century there have been far more people with such wealth and power but without the same type of education.

  8. Rafe Champion says:

    I like his point about the acidic effect of the market. I wonder what he thinks about the architecture of 20th century Russia and the the USSR?

  9. NPOV says:

    Well you don’t even need to go to that extreme – some of the ugliest buildings in most Western capitalist nations are public housing units.

  10. And many of those bear a family resemblance to the work of a celebrated pioneer of modern architecture – Le Corbusier.

  11. NPOV says:

    Family resemblance, perhaps, but I’m not sure I’d classify any of Corbusier’s own work as obviously without beauty.

    I will say that beauty isn’t a prerequisite for “greatness” either. I think the Rite of Spring is a great piece of music – among the top 10 compositions of all time – but I don’t think it’s beautiful.

  12. Yes, I’m not anti-Corbusier – though I do think he’s overrated. But I am anti what’s been made of some of his ideas. But not blaming him for them – just like I don’t blame Nietzsche for Hitler’s ideas.

  13. derrida derider says:

    I think you’re quite wrong saying that old buildings were generally beautiful. There’s a very strong selection effect operating – old buildings built cheaply tend to have been torn down (or even fell down) at some stage. The old buildings we get to see are the minority that were designed to impress.

    And of course there are some absolutely awful Stalinesque buildings around from the 30s and 40s – you have to start your cutoff point earlier, Nic.

    Even then, some existing old structures are indeed ugly. Look at most railway bridges, for example. And the Eiffel tower really is a rotten piece of junk, destroying the vista up the Champs de Mars and the Paris skyline.

  14. NPOV says:

    Derrida, I’m not entirely convinced the selection effect is that strong: many inner suburbs of Melbourne, for instance, seem to be largely made up of terrace housing that was built at the time as a relatively inexpensive form of housing, generally for poorer inhabitants. But they still possess considerably more decorative “beauty” than the houses built in the 60s and 70s for relatively wealthier inhabitants.

  15. TimT says:

    Even so, there are no large scale civilisations that I can think of that did not place beautiful and exquisite objects at the centre of their symbolic and ceremonial life.

    Sure we have. The whole of inner-city Canberra was intended to function in this way, for starters. In Victoria, we also have our state library, state parliament on Spring Street, our gardens, the Victorian museum of the arts, and the exhibition centres.

    But there is a lot of room for interpretation here. You could equally argue that local, state and federal politics, while they carry out important managerial functions for Australian civilisation, aren’t at the ‘centre’ of our civilisation anyway. The churches or, taking a broader, more multicultural perspective, the mainstream religion, might lay some claim to being at the ‘centre’ of our ceremonial life; they certainly have been as enduring an institution as politics. And the churches have even more distinctive examples of elegant and beautiful architecture, in both urban and rural Australia. Perhaps they’re inconspicious because they’re so ubiquitous, but at any rate, you usually don’t have to walk far to find an example of church architecture.

    Perhaps the arts in general could carry out this role? Well, again, we have many fine theatres and galleries, that reflect both the contributions of public bodies/political departments and those of private bodies/commercial institutions. The Sydney Opera House, Melbourne’s art deco theatres and even cinemas, etc…

  16. DD,

    I think the Eiffel Tower is lovely, though it may be an eyesore where it is compared to what the place might look like without it.

    More generally I think you’re nit picking. Yes, you have to move the date around if you want to include the totalitarian architecture.

    There are lots of buildings that are built to impress today, and most of them are pretty FAQ at best. New Parliament House for instance is an inspired idea, but the building itself? Well there are not great angles to look at, no lovely spaces particularly that I can think of. They got the idea and thought ‘let’s go’. But they couldn’t execute anything exquisite. The best they could do was to spend as much as they possibly could on sumptuous materials, and lovely trinkets like the beautiful marquetry.

    Take a look at any of the old universities. (And for this example I’m happy to take your advice and take it back to Edwardian times – lets say 1925). Virtually all the buildings built before that date are pretty nice (Oddly I don’t find the sandstone university buildings nearly as exquisite as many old post offices, town halls and railway stations, but they’re all nice enough. Not too many eyesores there. Then consider how many uni buildings built since 1960 are nice. Thinking of ANU and Melbourne, the ones I know the best, there are very very few buildings built after 1960 that one wouldn’t say were missed opportunities.

    *PS – I’ve just gone and had a look at pictures of the Eiffel tower with the intention of including one to prove you wrong. I love the lacework at the bottom. But on looking at the larger structure, I’ve got to agree with you. It’s necessarily very simple geometry saves it from being ugly, but I agree, it doesn’t look all that flash.

  17. NPOV says:

    TimT, how many beautiful churches in Australia built post 1940 can you name?

    About the worst you can say for the Eiffel Tower is that, no, it doesn’t make Paris more beautiful than it would be otherwise – but it still remains an “attraction” for the vast majority of the world’s tourists, so to call it ugly puts you in a distinct minority position. And yes, there are theme parks etc. that are attractions despite their ugliness, but people don’t come just to look at those.

  18. jrbarch says:

    NG: “I wonder why I really love great architecture.”

    I think it is called the power of appreciation. And the fact that we are all ‘feeling machines’. Place beauty in front of the feeling machine and it will feel the beauty; place ugliness in front of the feeling machine and it will feel the ugliness. Place hatred in front of the feeling machine and it will feel the hate; place love in front of the feeling machine and it will feel the love.

    Point is, is that the power of appreciation is inside of you; and you are in essence the feeling machine. The beautiful in you sees the beauty without; the ugliness in you sees the ugliness without; the hatred in you sees the hatred without; the love in you sees the love without.

    And – ugliness is not an entity but merely the absence of beauty; hatred is not an entity but merely the absence of love: just as darkness is not an entity but merely the absence of light.

    Perhaps the building is beautiful, but far more beautiful is the beauty inside of the human being that created it; expressing just a tiny part of that beauty in the built form and design.

    This message is uniquely expressed by Prem Rawat if you would like to explore it more.

    Cheers ….

  19. TimT says:

    NPOV, I suspect you’re indulging in false dichotomies here. I could equally ask you, how many beautiful churches in Australia built pre-1940 can you name? Perhaps we would both be ignorant on those points.

    Churches are still being built according to the traditional style. Around Melbourne there are a number of churches recently built that nevertheless conform to traditional styles; the most recent would be a Catholic church on Normanby Avenue, on the border of Thornbury – I’ve actually seen this being built. It is not the best example, perhaps – there are no stain-glass windows, and the grounds are still fairly bare, and it is largely absent of ornament – but all the essential elements have come together, and I think it could become in its own way a significant part of the Melbourne landscape.

  20. NPOV says:

    TimT, I’d say virtually every surviving church built pre-1940 in Inner Melbourne would classify as “beautiful”, though obviously some are more impressively so than others. If I had to name two, the most obvious candidates would be St. Pat’s and St. Paul’s.

    I don’t know what you mean by the “traditional” style – there are churches built pre-1940 of all different styles that are all beautiful. But of the churches built since then, I’ve not noticed one that made me think “now that’s a beautiful building”, and plenty that have made me think “now that’s one ugly building”.

    The only modern church of any beauty I think I’ve seen was an LDS church in San Diego (I think this one). But even then its beauty was somewhat eclipsed by its “showiness” – it’s massive, bright white, in a relatively sparsely built-up area, and sticks out like a sore thumb. Of course, churches have been historically built to stick out something like sort thumbs, but are usually of a size and colour that allows them to better merge into the surrounding landscape.

  21. NPOV says:

    (Sorry that link has an extra http in it)

  22. NPOV says:

    I have to say though, the “Chiesa Dives in Misericordia” in Rome, built 1998, is quite strikingly beautiful, when photographed well:

  23. Jim Belshaw says:

    Good conversation all. I have wondered the same thing as Nicholas. I think that it is a by-blow of the modern measurement age. How do you attach a KPI to beauty, how do you justify extra cost?

  24. AJ says:

    Only vaguely related, but this site is great:
    Not really sure whose point it proves though.

  25. Pingback: Liveability II | Club Troppo

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