Love and Beauty
Hal Box Chair in Urbanism
The University of Texas at Austin
for 2A: Architecture and Art Magazine
Michael Benedikt is ACSA Distinguished Professor of Architecture at The University of Texas at Austin, where he holds the Hal Box Chair in Urbanism and is Director of The Center for American Architecture and Design. His books include For an Architecture of Reality (1987), Deconstructing the Kimbell: An Essay on Architecture and Meaning (1991), Cyberspace: First Steps (1991), Value and Value 2 (1997, 1998) Shelter: The 2000 Raoul Wallenberg Lecture (2001), God Is the Good We Do (2007), and God, Creativity and Evolution: The Argument from Design(ers) (2008). He is also Executive Editor the book-series CENTER: Architecture and Design in America, of which there are fourteen volumes.
Published in 2A Magazine Issue #17 – Spring 2011
The nature of love, the nature of beauty, and the relationship between them has been a puzzle to philosophers and poets for thousands of years.
Here I finally clear it up.
I am being facetious, of course. But at the same time I do not wish to apologize too much for trying to say something direct and helpful about love and beauty—ideals that we are often too embarrassed discuss seriously. (For are disquisitions on “love” and “beauty” not best left to Shakespeare, to nineteenth century poets, to pulpit occupiers and soft-hearted philosophers?)
Perhaps. But if we blur the focus a little and lower our expectations, I think we can come away from a short investigation with something worthwhile in hand. Maybe we can clarify—or perhaps just disembarrass—our thinking about love and beauty, this in a field that today is almost entirely wrapped up in self-important talk of sustainability and “systems.” I mean architecture.
Blurring focus: If we set the word LOVE in the center of a slide, around it would hover “consort words”—words often used in service to, explanation of, or manifestation of love. Here are some: hope, forgiveness, goodwill, generosity, loose accounting, compassion, desire, admiration, peace, affection, protection… Rather than define LOVE alone, we can let its meaning emerge from the murmurings of the group.
Blurring focus again: If we set the word BEAUTY in the
center of a slide, around it would hover such consort words as symmetry, novelty, inevitability, complexity, unity-in-variety, significance, economy, order, objectivity, fecundity, perfection, loveliness (the last is especially interesting). Again, rather than define BEAUTY all alone, we can listen to the the collective.
Now the relationship between LOVE and BEAUTY, which is often a multiple relationship between their respective consorts, follows two traditions in the west: the Hebraic-Christian and the Greco-Roman.
In the Hebraic-Christian tradition, which came to a head in the Gospel of John, LOVE reveals/creates/justifies/inspires BEAUTY (where it was not before).
In the Greco-Roman tradition, as expressed and slyly challenged in Plato’s The Symposium, BEAUTY attracts/desires/justifies/inspires LOVE (where it was not before).1
Heirs to both traditions in the west, ordinary people today often put one view forward and then the other without thinking. Our bias, as architects, however, has been towards the Greco-Roman view. This stands to reason, given the History of Architecture. If we make a building beautiful enough, we feel, people will love it (and maybe us).
What of the other option, the Hebraic-Christian? Does it make sense to say: if people love a building (or me) enough, it will be made beautiful(ly)? One wants to say “yes and no”; one wants to apply qualifications. The proposition seems less straightforward than the Greco-Roman claim. I take this to be a sign of our unpracticedness with it as architects. And yet there are examples of it in action, as we shall see.
We can open up the discussion a little more using the device of a 2 X 2 matrix comparing the two adjectival conditions Beautiful and Ugly on the one hand, with the two conditions Lovable and Unlovable on the other. (The words ‘Beauty’ and ‘Ugliness’ with ‘Loved’ and ‘Unloved’ work just as well, bringing in other nuances.) Thus:
In Figure One, the two arrows going upward would represent the Greco-Roman impulse; the two arrows going leftward would represent the Hebraic-Christian impulse.
We notice immediately that both impulses (or both approaches, speaking more philosophically) agree that the highest state is lovable beauty, and the lowest is unlovable ugliness. The most obvious difference between the two approaches is about which route to take from the lowest state to the highest state. But there is a more subtle difference. It is about how hard to push, as it were, once one had achieved the state unlovable-beautiful, and concomitantly, how hard to push once one had achieved the state lovable-ugly. There is a tendency to think the job done in each case: the Greco-Roman resting at beautiful (lovable or not), and the Hebraic-Christian resting at lovable (beautiful or not).
Time now to turn to examples. Can we find architecture—or more broadly, can we find places and things subject to design and choice—that exemplify the four cells of Figure One, each one representing a “state”? The four transitions (the arrows in Figure One) emerge from how we see the examples’ pasts and futures.
As this is a very short paper and not the slide lecture upon which it is based (where 83 images were offered), I am restricted to showing just a few images standing in for the rest.
Let us start with the lower left cell of Figure One: lovable ugly or loved ugliness.
Perhaps the most common manifestation of lovable ugliness is the juvenile. Consider the large, wide-set eyes and the charmingly uncoordinated antics of babies and puppies; consider the freshness and awkwardness, the innocence, the unwarranted confidence and nonjudgmental affection of the very young. These together constitute an esthetic that spills over from animals to objects like buildings (especially Venturi and Scott-Brown’s early designs) and cars (like the Mini, the Scion xB, and the Nissan Cube). Cuteness is one manifestation, but not the only. Lovable ugliness is also what we see in the Zen art of raku (rough pottery) and Zen drawings of the Buddha, in the work of many naïve folk artists worldwide, and in long-established places of work that make no pretense to beauty, but are clean, cared for, and intensely lived- as well as worked in.
Lovable ugliness is also the state striven for, I think, by such architects as Sam Mockbee at the Rural Studio, and with a more cosmic view, Christopher Alexander.
Let us move rightward to the cell in Figure One that represents unlovable ugly or unloved ugliness.
What makes (some) ugly things lovable is the hope for transformation, or the knowledge that it is imminent. The duckling we know will become a swan is not really ugly. A cared for building is probably beautiful in at least someone’s eyes.
But unlovably ugly things (and places) offer little such hope. Careless, stupid, and arrogant, they have about them the air of finality, the whiff of death. The book Dictator Style by Peter York and Douglas Coupland collects many examples. With other places, such as the undersides of low freeways and the stairwells of public garages, no reasonable amount of attention, it seems, could redeem or transform them: only supreme lovingkindness—think of Jesus among the lepers—could bring them back. And massive amounts of money.
Absent that heroic lovingkindness (and money), we distance ourselves from them, ironize about them, photograph them, or frame them cynically as Art a la Marcel Duchamp or Piero Manzoni: remember “heroin chic?” or OMA’s celebration of raw parking garages: just add glass and chandeliers? Contrast that with Herzog and De Mueron’s true redemption of the garage type in Miami: going from the bottom right cell to the top left cell of Figure One in one fell swoop. (It remains to be seen what time will do to this building.)
We move now to the upper right cell of Figure One: to unlovable beautiful or unloved beauty. Here we enter the territory of much modern architecture: the world of the Ice Queen, the world represented most emblematically by Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, and then by the thousands upon thousands of buildings since that imitate that building’s posture: aloof, unforgiving, pure, demanding of admiration for its self-denials, perfect in proportion and construction, all weakness and stresses and blemishes concealed.2
We move at last to Figure Six and the top left cell of Figure One: the state of lovable beautiful or loved beauty. This is the condition desired by Greeks, Romans, Jews, Christians, Muslims, and probably atheists too…the point being that, here, the full range of cultural variability can be given expression in the confidence that all who try to see it, can. Architects who have produced work of this kind are few that we know well—I would list Plecnik, Maybeck, Wright, Kahn, Scarpa—and not all of their work qualifies. But there are multitudes of architects who did loved and beautiful work, and are doing it still, whom we know not at all. They work in anonymity, unpublished precisely for the heterogeneity and forgivingness of their designs, their disinterest in self-promotion, their allowance of “sentiment,” their passion for people placed equal to their passion for order, and their attempts, always, to reconcile intimacy and monumentality. All this is a complex and often tragic undertaking, but it represents, I think, the highest ideals of what might be called religious humanism.More broadly, early modern interest in the “machine esthetic,” and functionalism generally, might be seen as an attempt to banish the sentiment of LOVE from the task of architecture: we were to be as (unmarried) engineers, fearless and pioneering, taking “lovers” at will. One would not be wrong, I think, in detecting the male youthfulness of this view. We see it again, if with a more surreal touch, in the work of firms like MVRDV and Bjarke Ingels (BIG).
In conclusion: I remarked earlier that most architects follow the Greco-Roman impulse: first beautify. The minority of architects who place social concerns first—you know them, they’re always “working with communities” or going to Africa—are following the Hebraic-Christian impulse: first love. Both stop short of the goal.
If this short article has done nothing but make this point a bit more convincing, its task is done.•
1.You might have heard this put this way: “the ancient Hebrews worshiped the beauty of goodness, the ancient Greeks worshiped the goodness of beauty.” I have not been able to determine the provenance of this formulation. It’s worth noting that Socrates, renownedly ugly, loved physical beauty as much as the next man, but volunteered himself for having “inner beauty.” This is something of a workaround.
2. Miss Farnsworth herself, in love with Mies and rejected by him, did not live in the house for long. She left for Italy, where many years later she died as a nun.