On the Question
of Beauty in Architecture
Published on the 29th of April, 2017
“Once you learn to look at architecture not merely as an art more or less well or more or less badly done, but as a social manifestation, the critical eye becomes clairvoyant.” – Louis Sullivan
On the 25th of April, 2017, we asked a question to our followers on our Social Media Pages page (Facebook page link here) – here is our response:
I realize that this is a loaded and heavy question and extremely subjective – when one starts talking about “preferences”, all arguments for or against start to become irrelevant, which is why interior design for private dwellings is a rather subjective art. On the other hand, we have always felt that architecture exists in the public domain (regardless of who the client is), so a certain level of objectivity towards the design aesthetics is required … a rather difficult take that many would believe is an oxymoron. For many, the question of art and aesthetics is highly subjective, and any attempt to create an objective rational or analysis over it defeats the purpose of “Art”. We at RiadArchitecture don’t subscribe to that notion, and believe that it is imperative; especially with Architecture – where scholars are still arguing over why, how and if it truly is “art”.
Having spent many years of my life involved in the design arts (starting with painting, moving into musical composition – which I do regards as a “designed” art, and then into architecture), I’ve come to realize that we need to differentiate between what can be considered “good” art and how our preferences and tastes form our biases (I often try to stay away from using simplistic subjective adjectives like “good” or “bad”, but for purposes of this article which attempts to describe my own outlook towards this subject topic I will eliminate my vocabulary inhibitions in order to better get my point across). For example, I am personally not a fan of “blues music”, I find it repetitive and boring … I prefer Jazz because I find that the musical form and structure is much more liberating for the musicians and the possibilities are endless. The 12bar blues form, in my opinion, is too limiting and I feel that I am listening to the same version of the song between each track and the other. That, is my opinion, and it is not fact … and could very much mean that I am an idiot and a musical novice that I could not understand the sonic subtleties between each song and the other and between each artist and the other. For me to denounce the entire genre of Blues just because I don’t prefer it would be rather immature. I have a lot of respect for the genre and the musicians who perform in it, and I realize the musical genius behind the fingers of BB King, Buddy Guy, and Stevie Ray Vaughn, it is just that I don’t listen to it. I cannot claim it to be “bad” music, or “unmusical”.
On the other hand, there are certain songs that I believe that I can discuss in an objective manner as to why it truly is “bad” music. There are those who claim that we should refrain from judgment from all music and art because it is all entirely subjective, I believe that this is not true. In my opinion, there is a criteria on which we can distinguish between “good” and “bad” art provided that we are mindful enough to understand the difference between this criterion and our own preferences. For example, we need to know that there is a lot of “good” music that we won’t particularly like, and there is a lot of “bad” music that we may actually enjoy. In this definition, “good” music or art is one that either engages, bends or even breaks the rules and guidelines for creating art, as well as adding an intangible quality of pouring into a bit of their soul in the artwork (which may seem unquantifiable and immeasurable, but the mere fact that one is emotionally touched by the music or artwork is evidence enough that such a soul outpouring has occurred) – the artist goes through a process of critical thinking (even if just on a subconscious level) upon inception and creation of said artwork. On the other hand, “bad” music or art is one that recycles old ideas without any type of awareness to the process (the element of critical thinking and soul outpouring is missing from the creative process) … this artwork is processed and manufactured, and not created.
I believe that if we are able to agree to this definition then we can separate our own biases when judging artwork and take into account people’s different tastes and cultural inclinations and inflections. This leaves us with two aspects of the design process: the self awareness and critical thought process that deals with the engagement of the rules, and the intangible quality of soul outpouring. When engaging in design, both aspects of the process are always present, whether the designer is conscious of both, one and not the other, or neither. We could understand it as the Yin & Yang of design, or my preferred analogy would be the “Yung” & “Qi”; the Yung being loosely translated to the “mastery” or the mastery of creating the artwork, and the Qi being loosely translated to “energy flow”. The former is objective and theories of which can be taught at school, the latter would differ from one designer to the other as it is how we choose to put our own personal touch to whatever it is we do. I will discuss how I, and by extension RiadArchitecture, have been engaging and rationalized both aspects so far.
When it comes to mastering the rules of architectural aesthetics, there many guidelines we can go by. Most architecture schools in the states adopt the vocabulary adopted by Francis I Ching in his book “Architecture: Form, Space & Order” – required textbook reading for all young aspiring architects. He uses phrases and concepts like proportion, rhythm, order, harmony, hierarchy, and datum (including many more) to understand and analyze the built environment, abstracting complex forms and geometries into simple basic ideas which young & designers architects can then delve into and create layers thereof. Ching, and many other architectural scholars like him, have developed an objective approach to how we can discuss, analyze and critique aesthetics.Designers can chose to follow these rules, bend them or break them in a conscious effort to create visually engaging experiences. Whether or not we as the general public “like” what these designers is irrelevant in some respect, as it does nothing but show our own biases and preferences, and are therefore highly subjective. In this regard, we cannot take away from what the designer is attempting to do (but perhaps only critique how successful each designer’s approach is while catering to our collective needs and preferences). I believe that the problem arises from the MANY designers that do not truly understand these principles are and somehow winging it. The lucky ones have an implicit eye towards what they feel “looks good”, but can then only argue in a subjective matter. The unlucky ones get to build the many pieces of the built environments that many of us agree are “eye sores”; there is no integration between elements, no attitude towards proportion or harmony, no understanding about creating datum, rhythm and variation … which then results in poor quality architecture.
In RiadArchitecture, we have added another layer of understanding when it comes to these principles, which we have simplified as creating a blend between “constants” and “variables”. We believe that what we as humans connect with in terms of designs are the elements which our brain can figure out a pattern or organizational concept behind. We might not understand what said organizational pattern is, but our brain has recognized that there is one. A creative pattern is that which employs a balance between constants and variables. A constant is an element where the brain can easily distinguish, a variable is a variation of said constant (be it a variation in size, geometry, color, material…etc). A pattern filled with variables and not enough constants would seem chaotic and cacophonic, as the brain will see and understand it as a pile of garbage or an un-designed mess. A pattern that does not include enough variables will be seen as rather dull (if we follow the definitions set forth in the beginning of this article, it would then be slapped with the “bad art” label). We believe the most engaging pieces of art is that that includes enough variables that would get the observer intrigued, move, and perhaps somewhat uncomfortable. A good mix between both take the observer to the edge and pushes them to their comfort zone limits and perhaps a little bit outside of it. It encourages them to step outside what they feel is the norm but also gives them a guideline to be able to find their bearings with the overarching organizing principle when needed.
To give you a simple example, let’s consider two surfaces: a curvy free flowing surface and a flat surface. Each of these surfaces need to be divided into a series of panels. The curvy surface is free flowing and is a constant blur of variables, so we add a regular grid pattern to it as a constant. This pattern will then morph and evolve as it follows the free flowing surface (expand when the surface is being pulled in tension and contract when the surface is being condensed). There is a way the brain can identify the motion of the surface by following how the grid responds to it, and thus this surface becomes more intelligible to us.
On the other hand, a simple flat surface would need some level of dynamism to animate it. The flat surface is our constant, so we are now free to layout whichever variable grid (different size or shaped patterns) onto it. Whatever pattern we create here may be convoluted if we overlay on the freeform surface, which would make both the pattern and the surface more difficult to comprehend. We at RiadArchitecture believe that art exists in this exploration and constant game playing while bending the rules.
Which comes to the second aspect or quality of the design, the intangible “Qi”. In the 1960s, there were many architectural anthropologist scholars, among them to be one of my favorite authors, Amos Rapoport of “House Form + Culture”. Rapoport has stated that architects need not strive for any conscious aesthetic inclination and that architecture that responds to its surrounds, in terms of responding to the physical, material and climatic constraints of the site and taking the local cultural aspects that influence the design, the finished product will inherently be “beautiful” just by default. He believed that by putting all these conditions first the designer would then tap into “the spirit of place” as opposed to his or her own aesthetic biases. Even though I love this poetic notion that designers can live and breathe the local cultural nuances of any given site, I do understand that this notion of designing with the advent of globalization and digital technology may be outdated. However, I do believe that we as designers need to find different methods in order to personalize what Rapoport has suggested in order to not directly impose our own design language (a little bit of ourselves will be imposed on our creations whether we like it or not, but we need to find a method in order to allow ourselves to be influenced by something much larger and much more important than ourselves). I believe the best description of such can be found in a poem I heard Moshe Safdie recite a few years ago at Grad School which I would like to share with you:
“He who seeks truth shall find beauty
He who seeks beauty shall find vanity
He who seeks order shall find gratification
He who seeks gratification shall be disappointed
He who considers himself a servant of his fellow beings shall find the joy of self expression
He who seeks self expression shall fall into the pit of arrogance
Arrogance is incompatible with nature
Through nature the nature of the universe and the nature of man we shall seek truth
If we seek truth we shall find beauty”
It is our quest at RiadArchitecture to find and define “truth”. We do this by trying to unravel the non-architectonic layers that make up whichever project we undertake, devoted to understanding the intangible and hidden dimensions that make spaces and places unique. The aim is to create unique environment that don’t originate from the over the top design (designing for the sake of designing) but strive to find a deeper meaning to every line, curve of form that is being built. Our design ideas are usually taken out of the context of cultural traditions, critically analyzed and deconstructed, and then put together again to fit the needs and spirit of the time and place. We apply this by encouraging and interdisciplinary approach to design, where ideas from music, music theory, philosophy, psychology, emotional well being, education, and ecology are often found to be driving forces behind the ideas. This is our attitude towards what many have called “critical regionalism”, not accepting the status quo of tradition but feeling free to chose what works and build upon it both aesthetically and programmatically.
Whether or not we are successful in our approach is a totally different story and not up to us to decide. However, I do encourage that each designer try to find their own niche in how they define their “Qi” and their “Truth”. What are we trying to uncover, explore and give back to the world? What is the vision we are trying to create and recreate on Earth, and how can we effectively improve until such a vision is achieved? How do we evolve as designers and allow the built environment to evolve on its own with our creations long after we are gone? These are the type of questions that I believe that we, as architects and designers, need to preoccupy ourselves with, and the result, as Moshe Safdie has so eloquently stated, will be inherently beautiful.
See you next week 😀
Mahmoud M M Riad
Director of RiadArchitecture