On Beauty in Architecture

The word beauty has been one of the banned words in my architectural education, largely for its connotation of being skin deep and extremely subjective. To design solely to make something beautiful is to miss the point of architecture. However, the end result of an architectural project is typically beautiful in some way to various people, and this has become a bit of an argumentative point, not only among professors but among my classmates as well.

I have long been a subscriber to the notion of beauty coming from the various layers, constraints, needs, etc… of a project coming together harmoniously, while others simply believe that something needs to be beautiful solely on a superficial level. If we think about this superficiality, ones thoughts might lead to arguably one of the most beautiful paintings of the Renaissance era, the Mona Lisa.

But why is this so? If you break down the parts, it certainly should not be. There is a drab landscape, muted colors, an average looking woman with just a slight hint of a smile, where as we associate beauty with a large, white toothed smile. When these elements come together, they create a composition that draws you in, wondering what is causing the pensive look on her face. What is on one level superficial is in fact a direct result of multiple layers of information, and the tension between them.

Looking back at my previous academic works and works that inspire me; there are both layers of information and tension. This came up in a class that I am teaching assisting for this semester, Environmental Design, yesterday. The topic of discussion was the Kings Road House by Schindler, when Prof. Crosby mentioned that he thought that the house was so ugly that it became beautiful. I would use this as an example of tension and layers of information creating an end result that becomes beautiful and a well-designed building.

The source of tension in the design comes from its overall concept, the intersection of two types of primitive dwelling, the tree house and the cave. One is a bunker, a stereotomic mass providing shelter and protection, the other a parasite in a way attached high in a tree, providing shelter and protection by its removal from the ground. This intersection and its implications on the design of the Kings Road House is part of what makes it beautiful.

The tension between the bunker-like ground floor with its precast concrete walls and solid materiality holding all of the various living functions that are the retreat from the outside world, to the tree house-like top floor used for sleeping as an escape back into nature, creates an allusion to perhaps our primitive ideas of beauty. These primitive ideas of beauty are shaped largely by our shelter (which provided protection against animals and the elements).

It can be argued that these notions of beauty have adapted into a Darwinian notion of beauty deep seated in every one of us, where certain things speak to that notion and create the sense of beauty and wonder that we are accustomed to. I was deeply inspired by the following TED talks by Denis Dutton and Richard Seymour which deal with this notion of beauty.


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Josh Mings

Architect and painter. Columbus, IN born, New Orleans educated, Chicago living and trying to leave the world better than I found it.