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Subject: Beauty- Not in the Eye of the Beholder

Nikolaus H. Philipsen FAIA
Original Post

1.  Beauty- Not in the Eye of the Beholder

Posted 03-31-2016 17:46

Beauty- Not in the Eye of the Beholder

This article expands on the theme of this years AIA Baltimore lecture series
For millennia architects, artists and poets have tried to find beauty. Deep down they knew that beauty was more than an arbitrary judgment entirely dependent on the view of the observer. But time and again somebody comes up with that old chestnut about beauty being in the eye of the beholder. This can drive one crazy when one makes a living from wrestling beauty from things. The assumption that beauty is random and accidental belittles that effort of designers all over the world since the time of prehistoric cave paintings. Then there are the larger philosophical questions of the subject and object relations in principal (epistemology).

Finally, science comes to the rescue by proving that beauty is, at least in part, not random. That it is also not only cultural or social but universal. Experiments show that people across gender, race and cultural divides agree on certain visual preferences, spatial cognition and a few other things that look like plausible proxies for beauty, which otherwise remains an elusive concept. 
The science which comes to the rescue is neuroscience, currently everybody's darling.  This may have to do with the pendulum having swung heavily from nurture back to nature in recent decades. The implications are not without depressing aspects, one would think that a world where everything is determined by genes leaves little hope, after all.
But humanity yearns for eternal truth, for laws that are not .....for full article click below

Community Architect: Beauty- Not in the Eye of the Beholder

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Nikolaus Philipsen FAIA
Archplan Inc. Philipsen Architects
Baltimore MD

2.  RE: Beauty- Not in the Eye of the Beholder

Posted 04-20-2017 09:50
Thanks for this contribution! I read the full article that was linked to it, and found it useful. For me, this has been an issue since school: as a naïve student I asked myself: are we merely serving the powerful and wealthy, giving them luxury objects? Are we producing formulaic real estate properties based on what focus groups like or what mags say is fashionable? Does the built environment matter in more fundamental human ways? Like you, I suspect, I have spent a lot of my career considering our value, and why architects and architecture might be important.

I learned about JJ Gibson and The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception; about Roger Barker and Behavior Settings; about Husserl and Phenomenology. Later came Wilson and Biophilia, Dewey and Art as Experience. John Eberhard at CMU led an inquiry around neuroscience that started in the last century. Norman's Emotional Design said that beautiful things work better. Lakoff and Johnson's Philosophy in the Flesh discussed embodied cognition. Recently, I've read Chemero's Radical Embodied Cognitive Science. But most of all, it was doing actual work and getting feedback from actual clients that their new facility made them feel better, work more productively, get sick less, be happier, etc. which convinced me that beautiful design matters. All this points to the idea that cognition does not occur in a brain alone, nor an embodied mind alone, but that human cognition is actually a brain-body-environment system. This means the built environment is more important to the quality of human experience than nearly anybody thinks!

Finding good ways to explain WHY design matters is difficult. I'm reading Sarah Williams Goldhagen's Welcome to Your World [excerpt in recent AR]. This is a pretty good message so far [only half way]; written for a general audience. I would love to see others read this too and get their thoughts.

F. Jeffrey Murray FAIA
Design Director
Pittsburgh PA

3.  RE: Beauty- Not in the Eye of the Beholder

Posted 04-21-2017 17:50
I am impressed by the range of the investigation and I am convinced that body-mind response to the built and  the natural environment is far more complex than
so many of my teachers and colleagues considered. 
I would modestly suggest that the research work behind the Japanese notion of forest-bathing is at least as important as anything current and that Eva Selhub and Alan Logan's wonderful book "Your Brain on Nature" is worth reading by anyone who has anything to do with the design of the built environment.
For me "built environment" has to do with every aspect of our interventions in the physical world around us. Only in the context of such a purview does the idea of 
architecture make sense, because architecture, which is our treasury of possibilities, is nevertheless only a fraction of the "built environment".

Patrick J. Quinn. FAIA,FRSA,FAAR
Institute Professor Emeritus
School of Architecture
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

4.  RE: Beauty- Not in the Eye of the Beholder

Posted 05-03-2017 21:29
Mr Philipsen
I hope we meet one day.  As a member of the AIA, I am indebted to you for your many contributions. Thank you, sir.
In an effort to merge, in some sense, our two discussions, I would like to make two comments about beauty.

I agree that beauty is not in the eye of the beholder.  Beauty is a term of art with specific definitions.  Beauty is not synonymous with any kind of popularity contest.  Beauty is, if we are to be careful about our terms, an esoteric subject.
As such, to the extent that it attracts the attention of architects, it separates from the general public.

Beauty is not the goal of architecture.  If we can agree on anything, it is commodity, firmness and delight.  Though we can attempt to fudge beauty into delight, the are indeed not synonymous.  Delight is the result of a popularity contest (for it to be anything but, it becomes again a fence between architects and the general public).  Beauty is conformance with established norms of excellence (norms established within a proscribed society of experts or academics).

As architects, beauty has never been our central concern.  And today, more than ever before, our clients ask us primarily for fitness.  Fitness comes in many forms, including appropriate budget, support of the specific human activities, even long term maintenance expenses.  As architects, wouldn't it be useful to listen to current artists' disdain for beauty?

Mike Mense FAIA
New York NY

5.  RE: Beauty- Not in the Eye of the Beholder

Posted 05-08-2017 17:45
I'm sure it is risky getting into a discussion on the meaning of 'beauty'. What we know is that many words, and certainly words like 'beauty', 'truth', and 'love' are nuanced, and multivalent [having various meanings and values].

I took Mr. Philipsen's use of the term in a pragmatic and broad sense as he seems to be addressing the problem of [industry/public] perceptions that 'beauty' as in 'delightful design' is completely subjective, and therefore really of no value. [He was not using the technical art historical meaning of 'beauty'.] I find this an important issue, because there are a lot of owners, engineers and builders who think they don't really need our contribution to make buildings.

One response is to point out that architects do much more than provide delight [which I think is your point]; but the other response is to say that beauty and delight are more important and less subjective than commonly assumed. I think we need both responses.

In the broad sense, as I understood Mr. Philipsen's usage, 'beauty' is synonymous with 'delight'. I'm only splitting hairs because I agree strongly with Mr. Philipsen's point, which is that creating delightful/beautiful built environments that enable delightful/beautiful occupant experiences are important to human wellbeing, and much more than a matter of taste or preference.

I was reminded of the quote 'nobody ever died of an ugly building' at A17 during candidate caucuses, then had a chance to talk at length with a neuroscientist. The gist of his message was that people do die from occupying ugly buildings, but in subtler ways than a structural collapse. I think this is good news for architects.

F. Jeffrey Murray FAIA
Design Director/Practice Leader
Pittsburgh PA

6.  RE: Beauty- Not in the Eye of the Beholder

Posted 05-09-2017 21:02
"As architects, beauty has never been our central concern."

Beauty had always been the central concern of architects because it is the aspect that the public most responds to, and if countless surveys are any measure, it should still be.  Only with the advent of modernism did this change, along with the discrediting of terms such as style and ornament.  Both the historical record and modern science bears this out.  Beauty as defined by the harmonious arrangement of parts has been a guiding principle of architecture since Vitruvius.   

Daniel Morales AIA 

7.  RE: Beauty- Not in the Eye of the Beholder

Posted 05-10-2017 09:48
Daniel, and others
I would like to rebut in two ways.
One. My intent was to explore the term "beauty". As architects, it is a term about which we should have exceptional clarity. If Vitruvius thought it was commodity, firmness and beauty, he would have said so. There are many interesting ways to further consider that statement. Is it a problem of translation? Is beauty one of the sources of delight? If so, what are the others?
Two. Having built around 1500 projects, my experience is that, while beauty (whatever it means) is almost always nice to have, my clients were much more concerned with cost, function and maintenance. It certainly would have been more fun to practice in a world where beauty was most valued. We marginalize our profession when we claim beauty as our primary contribution.
Finally, let it be known that I will put my work up against anyone's in terms of delight. I am not an apologist for mediocre environments. In my office, one of our rules was "everything for a reason, artfully done".
Daniel and others, thanks for keeping this going.
Mike Mense

Sent from my iPad

8.  RE: Beauty- Not in the Eye of the Beholder

Posted 05-10-2017 10:50
For  a greater appreciation of the word beauty and how it penetrates all of creation, I would encourage everyone to read Thomas Dubay's book "The Evidential Power of Beauty" science and theology meet. It is not a book that will necessarily answer the day to day struggles of Architects wanting to go beyond meeting the pragmatic needs of the client with a design that achieves an inner radiance of its own. Instead, it covers areas of science such as how "physicists today are much taken with the conviction that objective beauty is a powerful aid to then in their work of discovering and explaining" Along side the scientific view of beauty is the theological understanding that interacts with the scientific view. Then there is the more classical philosophical understanding that the beautiful is that which has unity, harmony, proportion, wholeness, and radiance.
If nothing more, I think it will verify for readers that beauty is objective.

C. Michael Shaughnessy AIA
SFS Architecture
Kansas City MO

9.  RE: Beauty- Not in the Eye of the Beholder

Posted 05-10-2017 17:45

All: I agree with Daniel. My love of beauty was the dominant reason for my decision to  become an architect and it is still an over-arching drive and motivation in my work, regardless of the type of project.  I am greatly disappointed that the word "beauty" and the discussion of aesthetics has virtually disappeared from our architectural education and practice. Equally disturbing is the fact so many new buildings are designed without beauty as an essential goal, resulting in another generation of mostly sterile, austere, unattractive, unappealing, and sometimes even inhumane architecture. Architects mostly deserve the criticism they receive that they are creating ugly, uninviting architecture-buildings that people do not want to occupy. We need a return to the preeminence of beauty in architecture.  


Allen Roberts, FAIA

Salt Lake City, Utah


10.  RE: Beauty- Not in the Eye of the Beholder

Posted 05-10-2017 18:10
Modernism as a way of thinking asks that we suspend visualization and search for deeper structures, order and relationships than appearance.  Beauty emerges commensurate with the commitment of the architect, and is authentic and more inclusive than an add-on.

Nostalgia for beauty is misplaced, it can be and has been an expression of power and control, the aspects that have meaning being particular to a dominant culture.

With scarcity of resources and their waste untenable, new ideas of beauty and authenticity must evolve.  It's no longer a question of stagnation but of survival.

Benjamin Caffey AIA
Harley Ellis Devereaux
San Francisco, CA

11.  RE: Beauty- Not in the Eye of the Beholder

Posted 05-11-2017 00:07
I find it interesting (and encouraging) to see that the majority of posts to this thread state some enduring value or need for beauty or aesthetics in architecture and for our profession as architects.  Yet how often do we hear many even the very top 'star' architects when lecturing with Powerpoint slideshows of their work, if they use the word beauty at all, do so as if either it was unimportant or somehow a side effect of good functional programming and problem solving.

Caffey responds above, "Modernism as a way of thinking asks that we suspend visualization and search for deeper structures, order and relationships than appearance."  We need to define our terms.  What modernism are you referring to?  There is a misunderstanding of what the early modernism actually was proposing. The modernism of the International Style, for example, was not the simple elimination of 'style' in favor of pure functionalism (i.e. form following function).  Even Hitchcock in the classic book with Johnson, The International Style since 1922 was not proposing this. Yes, there were those such as Hannes Meyer back then who went so far as to propose that there was no need for proportion and aesthetics in modern architecture.  But even Hitchcock states that this view is unbalanced and that there is no one-to-one correspondence between form and function so that it allows some free play that lies in the domain of style in which to allow for both creativity and functionalism. Yes he believed the 'style' that arose from this was grounded in a functionalism which severed ties to traditional and eclectic forms. But that there was a style from this was not denied.  And the idea of not being concerned with "appearance" is also not true of the early modernists, certainly not for Le Corbusier, for instance, who was a painter and used painting and cubism as a means to architectural design. In fact, Corbu was noted for being a "visual" architect.  The architectural historian, Michael McMordie has pointed out that Wright, Mies, Gropius and Corbu, while rejecting previous styles, yet did their modernism "within a tradition that still demanded style. Gropius' definition of beauty was less than precise, but he was still clear that architecture must be governed by aesthetic aims."

It does seem the profession now is lost in a confusion of self-identity on this topic.  This really goes to the heart of the question, "What is architecture?" The common answer to this is that it is the "art/science of building." OK, so not all buildings are architecture then, right? Most agree to that. Those that are architecture somehow have this idea of 'art' added to them, has been typically how it was understood.  This may be a somewhat crude/limited definition, but it does have some explanatory power.  While architecture is a big field with many sub-disciplines, didn't most of us want to be architects because we loved to draw, loved the art side of it but we also had a scientific or engineering bent also?

As has been pointed out by some in the field of architectural aesthetics, the problem may not that we can't define beauty (yes, that is still a problem) but that the problem is that we can't define function, the very thing we think we have a handle on.  And it seems our greater reliance on technological progress may have blinded us from the fact that design is not a deterministic exercise where if we just input enough data into the front end we can generate the proper solution and the back end. And so we go on with parametric systems and algorithms, etc, all trying to take the designer out of the picture and hence arrive at a more 'authentic', less kitschy, design.  There are two (at least) problems with this. One is that we can't even define function at the front end to provide the inputs completely. Is function just the physical criteria? What about behavioral criteria? What about functions that change throughout time like change of owner and use? Does the building then lose meaning? Or is there a residue of meaning that doesn't reside in its functional aspects? The other problem is that there is no way to define how a given function should be translated into a particular form; theoretically speaking, all we can do is to evaluate given forms as to how they perform functionally (of course based on our biased determination of the functional criteria we have  prioritized. Hence the need for intuition/creativity.

Kant and Hegel give us some clues as they struggled with issues of aesthetics philosophically, but this posting has already gotten too long for now....

Kenneth Dahlin AIA
Genesis Architecture, LLC
Mount Pleasant WI

12.  RE: Beauty- Not in the Eye of the Beholder

Posted 05-13-2017 16:04
The quest for Beauty is inherent in the process of making Architecture.  It may or may not be a difficult task for the designer, but it is definitely an elusive quality to convey.  This is because it is personal, or at best, between client and architect. The Beauty content is certainly not one to which consensus comes easily, nor need it be so. I agree with the side of the debate who say it is meaningless, or to put it another way, I could care less if I get Beauty points or not from my piers. Artistic points are quite another thing, and here is something that we can all recognize in a given project. Again, its a broad subject and hard to define in words (we are architects, not poets), but it has to do with how decisions about the arrangement are made. Is there clarity, intention, spatial definition, invention, play of light or color, references both internal and external, logic, etc and/or the synthesis of a number of qualities on the "list". These are just a few qualities from an infinite list.  We all will disagree on our "lists"  but at least we can recognize these kinds of qualities, which do not guarantee Beauty.

Stephen Altherr AIA
Architect, Manager,
MS Consultants
Coraopolis PA

13.  RE: Beauty- Not in the Eye of the Beholder

Posted 05-12-2017 14:28
  |   view attached
Science shows that beauty is an emotional expression, which is why it can be uncomfortable to talk about.  It's not that there aren't types, shades, or even relative qualities of beauty, but there's a cross cultural aspect deeply rooted in our shared humanity, regardless of temperament. When one actively strives to please the public with an elegant composition, most people know what this means.  Just like I can admire a country tune and then some Spanish Guitar.  If they are well composed, I can appreciate both, even if I prefer rhythm and blues. And if we disagree on the particulars, the public will still be better served if only because it's something many feel strongly about, especially in their neighborhoods.  I'm not saying it must be the primary concern for every architect or job, but when we build in the public realm, a beautiful building is 'a gift to the street'.

I've attached a paper on this subject I recently gave at the Congress for New Urbanism, and this week, the Office of Planning in Washington DC held an open conference on how we should grow for next 20 years where the overriding concern was "how do we create a more beautiful and equitable city.  Seems to be in the air.

Daniel Morales AIA


14.  RE: Beauty- Not in the Eye of the Beholder

Posted 05-18-2017 10:57
We should not be surprised that there are different opinions in science just as there are in architecture.As for science showing that "beauty is an emotional response", I wanted to provide a different understanding of beauty in science taken from the book "The Evidential Power of Beauty".

For science beauty is objective, "out there". 

In their fascinating book The New Story of Science, Robert Augros and George Stanciu develop the growing conviction that in the sciences, and perhaps most of all in physics, beauty is considered to be a powerful pointer to the truth of a theory. The elegance of an equation is often better evidence of its truth than an experiment would be. Given the enormous importance of experiment in physics, chemistry, biology, and medicine, this is an extraordinary observation. Some might think it outlandish. In a lapidary sentence Augros and Stanciu lay down one of the basic theses of this volume: "All of the most eminent physicists of the twentieth century agree that beauty is the primary standard for scientific truth." Richard Feynman, another Nobel Prize winner, for his work on quantum electrodynamics, and one of the most noted of twentieth-century physicists, formulated the conviction in even stronger terms when he remarked that "you can recognize truth by its beauty and simplicity." Equally well known and respected as a founder of quantum mechanics, Werner Heisenberg has written that the truth of his theory "was immediately found convincing by virtue of its completeness and abstract beauty". It makes sense to find Heisenberg generalizing his conviction in the remark that beauty "in exact science, no less than in the arts . . . is the most important source of illumination and clarity".

Notable in the field of mathematical physics, Henri Poincaré commented that "it is because simplicity and vastness are both beautiful that we seek by preference simple facts and vast facts." We notice in this requirement for valid scientific discoveries, namely, that they be elegantly simple and yet vast, the classical philosophical traits of the beautiful: unity and wholeness.

C.Michael Shaughnessy AIA
SFS Architecture
Kansas City MO

15.  RE: Beauty- Not in the Eye of the Beholder

Posted 05-20-2017 11:44
Don’t forget that the majority of the public sees beauty in off-shite vinyl siding, white vinyl windows, SUV’s and Pick-up Trucks, and looking like their neighbors. They want no maintenance houses and no government.

16.  RE: Beauty- Not in the Eye of the Beholder

Posted 05-22-2017 22:11
Hi Michael,

I agree about the differing opinions or at least conclusions from empirically derived science.  In my research I found the same view of beauty's role in science, but I don't find it incongruous with the classic definition of beauty.  When scientists speak about the elegance of an equation it's usually because there's a harmony of parts that make the whole clearly apparent regardless of its complexity.  In other words, one can deconstruct it into the various parts but it comes together seamlessly and can also appear simply elegant.  Recognizing the elegant interplay between complexity and simplicity is something we experience emotionally, meaning we don't rationally understand why it can enchant us.  As Einstein said, "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.  It isthe source of all true art and science."

Dan Morales AIA

17.  RE: Beauty- Not in the Eye of the Beholder

Posted 05-13-2017 16:57
It is very gratifying to see a very substantial and nuanced discussion evolve which adds many aspects of history, philosophy, sociology and even physics to my original post. I learned a lot from this discussion about a topic that permeates architecture every day. I am, in The Vitruvian sense delighted, thank you!

Klaus Philipsen FAIA
Archplan Inc. Philipsen Architects
Baltimore MD

18.  RE: Beauty- Not in the Eye of the Beholder

Posted 06-13-2017 17:57
It seems we've lost some momentum here, but I was looking at the recent edition of Architecture Boston, whose cover is 'Taste' but seems to be a lot about 'beauty', which caused me to revisit this thread. I was particularly struck by the interview between Elaine Scarry and Mark Pasnik called 'Beauty is a Beast'. It references her book of around 1999 called 'On Beauty and Being Just'. She suggests that the experience of beauty is a certain specific kind of pleasure that 'decenters' or 'un-self's' us, because it shifts our attention away from ourselves [unlike other forms of pleasure that do the opposite].

To quote from the interview: "...when we come into the presence of something beautiful, we undergo an unselfing, or what Weil calls a 'radical decentering'. That's crucial because there are a lot of things that bring about an opiated state, and there are lots of things that make you feel marginal or secondary. But there's almost nothing else [but the experience of beauty] that does both of those things at once, that makes you feel marginal at the very moment that you feel acute pleasure."

This quote rings true to me, accurately describing the feeling of being in Chartres, or the Pantheon, or Kahn's Kimbell  [as distinct from Piano's].

She goes on to say this experience heightens awareness, alters perception in a positive way, and suggests that 'beauty presses us to justice'. Instead of 'ugly', she sees the opposite of beauty as 'injury'; so argues that 'beauty' has a social equity role.

For me, 'taste' is associated with privilege [or lack of it], and was anchored in social class, regional cultural preferences and time period, whereas 'beauty' can transcend those 'boxes'.

F. Jeffrey Murray FAIA
Design Principal | Practice Leader
Pittsburgh PA

19.  RE: Beauty- Not in the Eye of the Beholder

Posted 06-14-2017 18:50
I think you are absolutely right Mr. Murray.  Being exposed to beauty does elevate us the way experiencing a good deed.  Of course there are exceptions where bitter feelings might be provoked, but cynicism and jealousy are as much a part of our makeup as positive feelings. Shaftesbury spoke a lot about this congruity as many other philosophers have since Ancient Greece.  Recent science has also born this out. I wrote a paper on the subject for a conference on architecture and philosophy that I would be happy to share if anyone is interested.


Daniel Morales

Daniel Morales AIA
Company Architect
Parkwood Homes
Silver Spring MD

20.  RE: Beauty- Not in the Eye of the Beholder

Posted 06-15-2017 14:14
"For me, 'taste' is associated with privilege [or lack of it], and was anchored in social class, regional cultural preferences and time period, whereas 'beauty' can transcend those 'boxes'."

I think this is a fair conclusion.  There are two lines one could follow on this idea then.  Is 'taste,' being a matter of privilege and social class, arbitrary? Hume and Kant didn't think so but thought that there is a standard of judgment where one opinion could be wrong and another right. On the other hand, beauty seems intuitively to go beyond the conclusions of a jury of experts (Hume). Kant said that there is a "disinterested pleasure" in beauty, that the beautiful object pleases not due to some functional value it has for us (and thus prejudice in us) but pleases immediately and for its own sake. It is the one thing which doesn't satisfy us upon taking it in (such as water quenching our thirst) and is an end in itself.

What intrigues me most, however, is what exactly is it about beauty which, as Murray states above, makes Kahn's Kimbell Art Museum beautiful, but not its recent addition? (of course many would debate this) Or Chartres cathedral beautiful and not perhaps some contemporary strip mall church? Not that we can expect one to list the attributes of beauty, but is it even possible to frame the problem?  Yet, in architecture school design crits (as one example), we are making these value judgments on design quality all the time.  Notice, how the subject of beauty is avoided, however.  No one says to a student that their design is bad because it isn't beautiful. Rather, it is that it doesn't function for the programmatic needs, or that the architectonic resolution of materials/details, doesn't work out, etc. So, I would like to ask the question, should we actually be critiquing a project because it is not "beautiful?" The follow up question, of course, is by what standard, or what process should this be done?

Kenneth Dahlin AIA
Genesis Architecture, LLC
Mount Pleasant WI

21.  RE: Beauty- Not in the Eye of the Beholder

Posted 06-17-2017 06:00
I don't think you can grade a student's work on whether it's beautiful, only on whether or not they tried to make it beautiful because are no rules to beauty, only guides that make it so for most people.  The oldest and most universal is harmonious beauty, whether or not the design 'holds together' and builds on its context, assuming it's worth harmonizing with.  

Other considerations should be at play of course, how the composition is integrated into the structure, the function of the building, and the craftsmanship, but most people know how their neighbor might react to a design if they've been open to such commentary.  The truth is that our modernist education has devalued beauty as commonly understood.  

Ever since Alberti, we have been worried about being seen as mere decorators, even though we know that most people will respond viscerally and not intellectually to our work.  I think it's possible to satisfy the public's desire for beauty and to be able to make one's conceptual or theoretical point.  Where architecture went wrong was when it thought it could neglect our innate desire for harmony, be it in a beautiful melody, a well written book, or a building's composition.  If there isn't a pleasing or at least coherent relationship between the parts of a building to the whole, or the building to its context, any concept one would like to convey has a worse chance at being perceived by the public we serve. 

The idea that technology or politics should be the determining factor in a building's aesthetic is to not understand how humans evolved to perceive their environment.  there's a whole body of science that confirms what two thousand years of history tells us, that man is not a thinking being who feels, but a feeling being who thinks.  If we don't strive to make something beautiful, regardless of wether we'll all agree, people can sense It, like how you would treat a guest at your home.  Architects are the public's advocates.  If we don't try to make our buildings attractive, this will be felt by the public, regardless of one's culture or income level.  

22.  RE: Beauty- Not in the Eye of the Beholder

Posted 06-20-2017 14:11

I agree with Stephen Altherr that taste and beauty is quite different. Although, I think taste has more to do with education than social class although that is where it is marketed and becomes a public lifestyle. I think taste can be acquired through study and experience as there are some basic standards or guidelines to base some judgment on within the discipline or culture one is operating in.


On the other hand beauty has been described in Kenneth Dahlin's response; quoting from Kant.   there is a "disinterested pleasure" in beauty, that the beautiful object pleases not due to some functional value it has for us (and thus prejudice in us) but pleases immediately and for its own sake. It is the one thing which doesn't satisfy us upon taking it in (such as water quenching our thirst) and is an end in itself. 

F. Jeffrey Murray's response included a observation from Elaine Scarry's book  'On Beauty and Being Just'. She suggests that the experience of beauty is a certain specific kind of pleasure that 'decenters' or 'un-self's' us, because it shifts our attention away from ourselves [unlike other forms of pleasure that do the opposite]. 


I think beauty  is that something that is outside of ourselves and we don't control it by our willing it. From this understanding, I think one can judge the difference between the original Kahn's Kimball and Piano's. Walking into the original building elicits an overall sense of beauty that is not experienced in the addition. In the addition, one can appreciate the elegance and beauty of the architectural details but there is not that overall feeling of something above and beyond the physical environment as one experiences in Kahn's building.


Whenever we experience the beautiful, there is also an incompleteness; a sense of something lacking. There exists that unsatisfied longing for the perfect beauty. I think all architects have experienced the following in our effort to create something.  


 All artists experience the unbridgeable gap which lies between the work of their hands, however successful it may be, and the dazzling perfection of the beauty glimpsed in the ardour of the creative moment: what they manage to express in their painting, their sculpting, their creating is no more than a glimmer of the splendour which flared for a moment before the eyes of their spirit."  Letter to Artists" Pope John Paul II 1999



I thought David Morales'  answer on grading students was very well thought out and I think it is important to emphasize to students the importance of working towards making our buildings have a sense of beauty that current and future generations can enjoy. 

mike shaughnessy AIA 


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23.  RE: Beauty- Not in the Eye of the Beholder

Posted 06-17-2017 13:26
​I don't think the argument has yet to be successfully made in this thread, that beauty and taste are not the same, or, that the difference is tangible enough to be important.  The Kimball is beautiful only to those of a specific taste culture,  and even within that taste culture there is going to be disagreement.  Gehry's later works are the poster children for this position. They are to some architects very beautiful and to other equally educated architects very ugly. Why? I think its because we all carry our own encyclopedias full of pleasurable architectural precedents. These encyclopedias are as unique to us as our fingerprints. Some are heavy in intellectual content, others heavier in the emotional ( one could at this point mention Bach vs Beethoven). This is why many academics cringe when student critiques tread into the beauty vs non- beauty arena (or cool vs non-cool).  In addition that discussion will ultimately relate to class and privilege (high culture vs low culture) which is sure to distract teachers and students alike from the task at hand. 'Rather speak of a process, space, relationships, and logic.

Stephen Altherr AIA
Architect, Manager
MS Consultants
Coraopolis PA

24.  RE: Beauty- Not in the Eye of the Beholder

Posted 06-17-2017 13:52
RE:  Stephen Altherr, I'll grant that beauty and taste are often inappropriately substituted for each other and it rarely matters.  But are you also intending to minimize the importance of both?  If so, would you like to radically revise AIA design awards programs?  Or maybe leave the "design" awards alone and establish a separate architecture awards program?  One that privileges process, space, relationships and logic?

Mike Mense FAIA
New York NY

25.  RE: Beauty- Not in the Eye of the Beholder

Posted 06-19-2017 16:45
Beauty in Architecture is all about experience. If the user experience in a built environment is good, architecture is beautiful. If a building
from a distance appeals people and creates an urge to go inside, architecture is beauty.

Ghazala Miftah Assoc. AIA
Owner / Principal Designer
Dexign 3D
Irvine CA

26.  RE: Beauty- Not in the Eye of the Beholder

Posted 06-21-2017 07:54
Ghazal Miftah offers refreshingly succinct and appealing definitions of architecture as beauty. The one qualification I would offer is that both of these criteria—a good user experience and appeal from a distance—ought in some measure to be quantifiable on the basis of evidence-based design. There always will be room for artistic talent, but architects do users no favors by continuing to disdain these methods of improving the efficacy of their work.

Kenneth M. Moffett, AIA