Architectural Aesthetics, Where To?

Coincidentally, we are finalizing this volume just as the 2020 Human Development Report is being released, calling for global awareness and discussion around the new reality that “for the first time in a relationship spanning 300,000 years, instead of the planet shaping humans, humans are shaping the planet.” The report shows that the mass of the human built environment has equaled the mass of natural formations, and argues that a deep change is needed in the way that we conceptualize ourselves as a society, but also our relation to the rest of the planet and its species. In this context, bringing aesthetics to the fore might seem imprudent and superfluous, if not downright against the culture of responsibility required of the profession of architecture as part of the network of knowledge and competences that shape our global future. However, aisthēsis has been embedded in the humankind’s building and overthrow of political and aesthetic orders since the classical period of Ancient Greece, and scattered research in various disciplines today converge in the idea that the sensible appearance is the vessel of all cognitive and affective comprehensions of, and interactions with, the others and our environment. So, it was the scope of this volume to explore the possibilities of aesthetic theories and histories to contribute to the current professional debate and the much-required shift of paradigm.

The eighteen articles selected for publication are placed between two interviews which delineate the spectrum of standpoints regarding the relevance of aesthetic deliberations among the fundamentals of rebuilding architecture as a profession for the new millennium. Thus, the volume opens with an interview with Jeremy Till, a vivid advocate for a fundamental change in the value system embedded in architectural practices and education, and for the need to shift our profession beyond the picture. Till refuses to talk about aesthetics, considering it one of the “sterile professional conversations” that distract from the obligation to engage deeply with the enormous threats on our planet and existence that a large part of our society, and of our politicians, are still disregarding. Stemming from the consideration that “aesthetics comes along as secondary partners rather than foregrounded preoccupations,” his position represents a growing professional culture of submission to the economic, social, and environmental forces that shape our environment, rooted in the belief that architecture does not possess the instruments to fix them, but rather will follow suit. In this frame of thought, architecture is in fact “spatial agency,” and architects are the agents who curate to how social relations and realities play out in space, while aesthetics are a consequence of the values and discussions within our society, and of the architect’s curatorial capabilities.

On a less radical position lies the belief that the sensible dimension of architecture, and its material expression, can and should be part of the core conversation on how to fix global problems, precisely because the very structuring and processes of social life are spatially based, and the ability to interact with others is underpinned by cultural and historical characteristics of environments. We see this attitude expressed by Vlad Gaivoronschi in the interview closing the dossier. A significant part of his work in the UIA Professional Practice Commission is reflected in the definition of a guide for the value of architecture as an essential factor to the quality of life, thus measurable through tangible and non-tangible factors. Following his question of the connections among the sustainable, the resilient, the socially serving architecture, and aesthetics, we draw the issue of sustainable architecture as the one that respects measurable parameters such as carbon emission or energy save, but also engages the social, spatial, and environmental sensibility of its users, triggering a positive affective reaction to its sensible attributes.

The flows of ideas in these interviews open a generous space for reflection on several things. First, that the fight for survival leaves very little room for abstract or symbolic concerns, but as long as we will remain humans and mortals, architecture and other arts will have to do with spiritual aspirations. Second, that space is not the cause for social relations, but it is their context and their expression, which makes architecture bound to negotiate the complexity of the circular relation between social, cultural, political and economic relationships, and their crystallization in a spatial form. Third, that being together and being in the world are built on aesthetic foundations, whether we talk about the rituals of encountering the other or about the patterns of human response to the environment; that these aesthetic foundations and their perception have strong cultural and historical dimensions and determinations, and that “the present pandemic has all the chances to change everything in our existence, including how we understand what beauty is – in our lives, in our homes and our cities and landscapes,” similarly to how the Spanish Fever influenced the CIAM principles of sanitation (Gaivoronschi). Fourth, that architecture can age beautifully or can result quickly in wasted land and materials; that a beautiful building or space is more likely to be recycled once it has fallen out of its original use, while “ugly” ones are rather left behind in abandonment. This is especially problematic in the case of concrete structures and their debris. Hence, the question is not whether we should discuss aesthetics or not, but rather how we discuss it, and how we can make it serve the wider social and environmental purposes to which architecture can contribute. Can it draw its legitimate place within the “spatial intelligence” invoked by Till?

A common thread which bounds the volume is that architecture and its aesthetics are not independent matters, but rather expressions of deeper phenomena and alterations in our existence. First, Oliver Sack builds the case for the aesthetic of Raumbuildung (space formation) as inherently “socio-spatial aesthetics” in a text which looks especially at German theories to substantiate the necessity to introduce the perceptual experience, the use-related meanings, and social and socio-psychological appropriation into the structure of “space formation” – a concept that, he argues, has replaced the notion of composition in the classical academic tradition, and has become central to architecture as art of space, thus asking to be included as a fundamental teaching in architectural education. Finally, Sack argues that the social and cultural determinations of architectural aesthetics and its experience are inherent to what he calls “the specific socio-spatial relativity of architecture’s autonomy.” This idea is also developed in the following four articles, each using specific cases to show the dependency of architecture and its expression on various factors from outside its specific discipline.

Alessandro Porotto contributes to this discussion on the relationship between architecture, society, and aesthetics by looking at social housing as consequence of crises and embodiment of the specific “conflicts of security and spatial justice within the city” that a certain crisis has brought about. Rooted in the writings and projects of Tessenow after the Great War, the article puts forward the notion of “discrete aesthetics” as a form of spatial intelligence that fosters morally discerning, prudent, wise or judicious acts to codify an equal and just mode of living based on “objectivity, unity, and modesty of the architectural language.” Since changes in the collective housing reflect changes in the values within the social sphere, especially discernible through changes in the negotiations between the individual and the collective, Porotto proposes a careful look at Tessenow as an inspiration for “a committed architecture, in which the collective is not only a spatial aspect but also an objective for identity,” and which might bring more substance to the appearance (Erscheinungsbild) of collective housing sprawling in and around our cities today.

Departing from a similar observation of the “monotonous aesthetic disorder […] taking the diversity of the architectural language that characterizes the city to cacophonous extremes” today (Porotto), Franziska Kramer delves into the intricate relationship between the “land issue” and the design process, a relationship of prime importance in all strategies regarding social or affordable housing. The “land issue” – which encompasses matters of cost, property, or division – has a direct and objective impact on the embodiment of housing policies and their resulting physiognomies, from the general layout and forms, to the materialization of limits and thresholds between the public, or the collective, and the private, or the intimate. By focusing on the importance of the plot for architecture, as a building instrument and generator of form, and by discussing the search for aesthetic ideals in the housing experiments in the 1920s Germany, Kramer actually highlights the relationship between social responsibility and aesthetic thinking as a key competence that should be followed up in the context of current developments, either publicly generated, or privately funded.

The correlations between the expression of architecture and the realities of a society at a given time are multilayered and multifaceted, and the following two articles illustrate how a project is actually a manifestation of how the architect sees the world and understands to participate to its elaboration. Nana Palinić looks at the economic and hygienic aspects embedded in Paolo Grassi’s 1904 regulatory plan for Rijeka (Fiume), alongside issues of urban identity, and the will to build a “New Rijeka” that affirms the belief in the security and prosperity that the new century seemed to promise. The article draws us into the universe of the plan for this corpus separatum within the Dual Monarchy, a distinctive case that bridges the Mediterranean aesthetic ideal and the one cultivated in the Austrian-Hungarian space, to unify the port, the industry, and the inhabited lands in one harmonized silhouette towards the sea, carefully arranged on the topographic irregularities, and “artistically designed […] for the mental health of the citizens and the prosperity of the city as a whole.” While Palinić shows how a planner blends politics, geography, industrialization with its social and economic implications, and the urban aestheticizing principles of the second half of the nineteenth century, Bettina Siegele offers a refined analysis of the links between the philosophy of aesthetics and architectural aesthetics, through the intellectual interaction between the architect Karola Bloch and her husband, philosopher Ernst Bloch. Their cultural and ideologic involvement in the postwar definition of East Germany, their “belief in socialism and the wish to actively participate in the construction of this new emerging state and society within their own profession,” nourished their search for “an architecture that is completely detached from the past and created from the context of a new society.”

The detachment from the past is then explored by Kasper Lægring, who argues that “modern architecture did operate aesthetically in a very different manner than past periods, by relying exclusively on denotation” and thus producing a radically different kind of “total artwork” (Gesamtkunstwerk) than the unified work found in (monumental) edifices throughout the centuries. By looking at how ornament lost its catalytic role since the Enlightenment and was progressively rendered culturally irrelevant, and at how art became an “afterthought” in already accomplished environments, the text traces the progressive loss of the integrated collaborative processes of artists and artisans in their workmanship, despite some avant-garde groups’ attempts to revive and appropriate this unified approach. While Lægring looks at the exemplification of ornament as a “formalist strategy” which allows him to explain the impossibility of an aesthetic synthesis in modern architecture, Flavia Zaffora focuses on the question of the “necessary ornament” for contemporary architecture. Stating that “nudity, as a value of perfect beauty, is at the center of the 20th century revolution of the Modern Movement,” she retraces the legitimacy of ornament for “good architecture,” related to the morality or the sincerity of architecture. These two articles work very well together in challenging (industrial) presuppositions about form, structure, and utility of a building, thus recalling Wittgenstein’s proposition that “ethics and aesthetics are one and the same.”1

This unity of ethics and aesthetics is further explored by Ştefan Vianu, a philosopher who makes the case for redeeming architectural aesthetics on the foundations given by the phenomenology of the body as “embodied self,” thus encompassing the entirety of ethos in its original meaning, of “a certain way of being within ourselves and in the world, a way of making friends with ourselves and with the world that surrounds us.” The article proposes a “new alliance between man and the world” around the idea that man is not the dominating and transformative force of the world, but rather thrown-into it and absorbed by it; and an understanding of architectural aesthetics as “ultimately, a theory of dwelling,” where dwelling is conceived as the creation of the Self. The formulations put forward by Vianu, underpinnings of the architects’ struggle to translate this ultimate aim of dwelling into professional tactics for contemporary practices, are followed in the volume by Gertrud Olsson’s theoretical application, through a case study based on the phenomenology of the senses, on the concept of touch, and on the notion of ageing. By probing into an interesting example of Italian modernist export to the Eritrean city of Asmara, and into the haptics of these interventions within the historic context and local culture, the text highlights a fertile intersection between the global and the local that draws the best from both the local vernacular and the aesthetic colonization through functionalist / rationalist architecture. Beyond issues of cultural collisions or historic-minded interventions, the article shows the power of materiality to foster the co-existence and the dignified ageing of buildings, still embedded within the social fabric of the nowadays city, almost a century later.

The story of Asmara is one example for the perennial nature of the aesthetic criterion in architecture, which is the argument presented by Jason Dibbs through a parallel analysis of two century-distanced aesthetic theories that similarly valorize the formal and affective properties of architecture, to the detriment of “relational” or abstract qualities promoted both by the modern and the late/post-modern architectural thinking. The article moves circularly between the present theories of Mark Foster Gage – who argues the importance of a non-relational, nonconceptual understanding of architecture – and the century-old writings of Geoffrey Scott on “the architecture of humanism” and the dismantling of “the four fallacies which he argues characterize the criteria by which architecture is valued: the romantic, the mechanical, the ethical, and the biological.” Both Gage and Scott draw the attention on the confusion of ethics and aesthetics in evaluating architecture, and a possible reconciliation is suggested in the end of the article, through “Nick Zangwill’s proposal for a moderate formalism [that] can be seen to both ameliorate and accommodate the tensions between formal and nonformal aesthetic properties, and even aesthetic and nonaesthetic ones.”

The perennial nature of aesthetic evaluation is also rendered by Bilge Ar’s insight into the perceptions of sacred spaces in the Byzantine cultural context through Hagia Sophia, paralleling the results of a recent project by contemporary second year students in architecture – not necessarily familiar with historical and theoretical research of sixth century churches – with the impressions captured by the Byzantine officials, and their interpretation in scholarship later on. Looking for what determines these similarities across centuries, beyond questions of knowledge and taste, the historian suggest that the answer resides in the tectonics behind the dominant visual expression of Byzantine churches, where the transcendental becomes discernible through the complexity engendered by structure, decoration, and light, in a way that makes us go back to Lægring’ observations about the premodern total artwork, or Zaffora’s notes on a time when decoration was not conceived as an “add-on,” but intrinsic to the rationale of the building. Thomais Kordonouri contributes further to the idea that, beyond objective determinations from the social, economic or political realms, there is a dimension of architecture which belongs to the art of creating that melting pot of fundamental ideas and ideals of a community, reflected in how forms, objects, spaces, and openings blend to create meaningful experiences which pass the test of time. The example of Soane’s Museum works as a didactic model for design strategies that move away from the order of the plan, and rely on perceptual effects and subtle approach to how narratives can be transcribed into a tangible dimension.

If Soane’s use of ruins, fragments and objects from Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Pompeiian and Gothic environments speak of the European eighteenth century culture of travelling, and of the beginnings of the modern museum practices in the early nineteenth century, Niloofar Amini’s article taps into twentieth century Iranian architects and artists who use their specific knowledge, interpretation, and creative instruments to produce artefacts that “mediate between the macro-level of politics and the micro-level or everyday life, and thereby reflect the repressed tensions in a changing society” of the postmodern movement fostered by the Pahlavi regime. The author combines the recent history of art and architecture with the socio-political space of Tehran to explain and describe the image-building process of modernization of the Iranian society as culturally specific and formally modern, at the same time; and as reactionary against the royal patronage of the arts, by celebrating the material culture of the everyday life of citizens. This raises the highly complex issue of the political instrumentalizations of aesthetics, and of the importance of architect’s abilities to create a subtle and nuanced synthesis that is meaningful beyond, or against, politics.

Khaoula Hannachi, Mustapha Cheikh Zouaoui, Amina Abdessemed Foufa bring another case of imported modernism over an extra-European tradition, within the post-independence reinterpretation (or construction) the Algerian identity. The article focuses on the technique of reinforced concrete as it was explored and used in architectural experiments, looking at “postures and latent techno-aesthetic choices, […] to identify three major paradigms, which all reflect, despite the nuances and differences between them, an interesting spectral shift between aesthetics and technique,” from the gestural to the “technique of cultural aesthetics,” and finally to the mediating strategy of the “situated and plural expression.” At the same time, the article puts forward the ethical concerns of the environmental impact of concrete, and argues the need to revisit and “better understand the machines, systems and technical artefacts among which we live.” This cautionary invitation is followed by the one extended by Deniz Balık Lökçe, to ponder the Chinese culture of replica as “shaped by multi-layered dynamics of social life, cultural traditions, customs, political ideologies, cosmological practices, and philosophies.” The article relativizes Western pre- or mis-conceptions regarding what might easily be called cultural, or aesthetic, misappropriation, or oversimplified stamps like “copy, fake, faux, facsimile, forgery, fraud, counterfeit, and imitation,” and grounds the replica as an aesthetic device that works together with the authentic to fabricate an atmosphere, and “reproduce reality, illusion, authenticity, and hyperreality.” An important merit of this article is that it prompts new perspectives and considerations on superfluous assumptions, and forces an even wider-ranging questioning of our relations with the environments and artefacts among which we live.

The last three articles in the volume bring us back to the European space and discuss alternative practices developed between the 1950s and the 1970s, in the margins of our profession and exploring new considerations of old matters or resources. First, Christos Papastergiou delivers a discourse on the possibilities of “recovery from an environmental trauma and the reconstruction of a more sustainable future for our cities” by weaving together an intellectual history of the concept of play, theories and histories of urban space, postwar recovery tactics through local actions and experiments mindful of the human body, and artistic strategies directed at political criticism and deconstruction of established aesthetic values. Qualified through informality, incompleteness, abstraction, and looseness, and made of materials like junk, garbage, rabble, debris, dirt, and soil, the anti-aesthetics of the playground brings to the fore the intricate correlations between sensory knowledge and formal reasoning. These correlations are also explored by Manuel Rodrigo de la O Cabrera in the case of the 1970s environmental art, “spatial devices of mediation between the subject’s body and the outer world, in which the subject becomes immersed and consequently develops an ecological consciousness […] of his/her being in and with the world.” Thus, the aesthetic emotion is redefined as a kinaesthetic experience, and an act of knowledge meant to incite participation to the ethical, environmental, and social challenges of the Anthropocene. As Esen Gökçe Özdamar points out, art and architectural installations became fertile grounds for engaging the audience with new ideas and interrogations, while fostering new sensibilities to the wider and more complex issues like the climate or the civil rights movements. Situated at a bending time of artistic and architectural production and reflection, this article incites us to indulge in retrospection on the speed and extent of changes over the past few decades, and also to pay closer attention to the triad proposed by the author – architectural installations, paper architecture, and architectural competitions – as testing grounds for installing, deinstalling, verifying or deconstructing architectural thoughts.

Vacillating between overwhelming realities and the difficult task of defining a professional stance able to help tackle them, the volume is ultimately a testimony to what Cicero wrote over two millennia ago, that the sensible attributes are outer manifestations of inner culture; and that culture is, in turn, governed by the sensible attributes of the environment in which it was acquired. Perhaps holding in mind this circularity will offer a way forward.

Daniela Calciu

1 First published in English as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (London: Kegan Paul, 1922).

studies in History and Theory of Architecture • vol. 8/2020
Architectural Aesthetics.
An Old Matter Revisited
OAR LogoPublished with the support of the
Chamber of Architects of Romania (OAR)
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