What good is beauty?
“We are here to revitalize your community. Make it beautiful again. Restore its energy.” Who could say no to that? Meeting the community is important for developers and architects. It’s a gesture of good faith to those our projects will impact. It is also humbling. Our best laid plans are often met with concern, or outright disdain. And too often, we turn away from these challenges to stay busy, keep it moving, and expand our practice. We ally with capital interests in a battle against public resistance. Owners against stakeholders, who “don’t know what’s best for them”.
Towers were the cheapest solution for housing the urban poor. Their builders were defended by Architects who, grateful for the work, rationalized their extreme efficiencies as “the way of the future.” (drawings by the author)
We each see the world’s problems through our own lens. For designers, the question is aesthetic. I became an architect so that I could use my creative gifts to heal our society. Finally, after years of volunteering while spending my days designing luxury houses, I can integrate this mission into my career. I’m contributing to some projects that will bring investment to economically depressed places.
But do these projects serve their community, or merely exist there? Architects try to distill the highest quality from a limited budget. Some nobly strive to make beautiful spaces available to all. Meanwhile, people with low incomes must focus on rent prices, property taxes, and the stability of community ties and services. Our creative, perhaps moral, ambitions can pose a real threat. No amount of good intent can compensate people displaced by gentrification. When we set out to “improve” a neighborhood, we enter the cycle of conquest and re-conquest in our adopted homeland.
Our nation worships competition. I can reason that a few talented individuals will be motivated to succeed by the ennobling spaces I design. But for the uneducated, elderly, disabled, and weary, an influx of energetic young residents pursuing their dreams may be a crushing blow. And as human beings, we protect those who may not be able to support us, our society, or even themselves. I’m not strict with religion, but I haven’t heard a Utilitarian explain our innate mercy. My understanding is that life is a gift; anything given the chance to exist is sacred. And our success is immeasurably owed to forces outside our control.
We all can make a difference. I think anything done with care and compassion, even a small act, has value. We can’t predict how wide it will resonate. What was built for the Rockefellers, Hearsts, and corrupt Popes have endured to benefit the entire public, because of their objective beauty and quality. But it’s still worth talking about the big plans; ideals that we can never fully achieve, but should measure ourselves against.
More important than making beautiful cities, is ensuring that residents of every culture and economic class benefit from them. Is the central problem capitalism? Is it the weight of our history, the legacy of systemic oppression and scarce opportunity? Is it a problem for government, private citizens, teachers, or designers to solve? How can we build progress like a tide, that lifts every boat?
Cities are animals.
Daily, we are shot through their tunnels and avenues, blood cells of a greater being. We exchange our mental and bodily energy for…wealth, power, CO₂, heat, garbage, human progress? The diasystolic beat of urban procession was perceived by the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, who described his design process for New Gourna:
“When planning a city one has to consider the man who is being planned for…using all the forms of planning that create strong impressions and changes of mood as well as a feeling of expansion; an increasing generalization that begins when he goes from his house to the side street, and then to the main street, the square and finally to the centre of town in a graduation of scales that is something like a crescendo in music.
The opposite should happen when this man comes back home from the centre of town – decrescendo.”
From “Hassan Fathy” by James Steele, Academy Editions, London 1988, excerpt from a previously unpublished manuscript
I would add that this scale continues into our dwellings, from public entertaining rooms to domestic spaces – the veins and capillaries of our communal existence.
If we consider our cities as higher-order beings, why design them on life support? Before coal, solar, and nuclear power, we relied on our own energy. We spent millennia studying the wind and sun, optimizing our structures to thrive on them. This habit will not die quickly. As technology advances beyond our intuitive grasp, unease rises deep in our psyche. We throw the windows open, escape to the garden, and reject the nightless, dayless, floodlit and conditioned spaces that are the inheritance of our progress. Modern standards of comfort should build upon natural systems, not against them.
What is good for the body is good for its cells. Urban planners must consider the human scale of their plans. From a God’s-eye view above their drawings, designers often privilege a beautiful diagram and traffic flow over the experience of each resident. Scale is a critical issue. We need interruptions. We need nuance. We need destinations to draw our interest, and collective investment. In this era of unprecedented mobility, cities must be functional and interesting in order to survive.
Working site plan for Hill Town Resort project (drawing by the author)
Cities can be improved at their greatest scale. A modern grid looks a bit like a hurricane, or galaxy. Lazy, sweeping arms of suburbia spiral denser and hotter towards the center, at its peak giving way to a void – the central plaza. This pattern is the universal result of unregulated urban growth. Everybody jostles into one center, then retreat to the periphery, day after day. Traffic, infrastructure, pollution, and stress come with the single-centered commute.
This can be alleviated by looking to the past. When people walked to work, our world was smaller. The size of a sustainable urban district, containing its own ecosystem of businesses, residences, and retail, was limited to a half mile radius – a ten to fifteen-minute leisurely walk. A certain density and street pattern naturally took form in thriving neighborhoods. We could develop cities like Atlanta and Houston by increasing density and diversity of uses around popular destination points. Targeted infill, within the present boundaries. These sprawling cities could become clusters of semi-autonomous quarters, rather than suburbs feeding a Central Business District. Scale will refocus on the pedestrian, rather than the vehicle. Traffic will subside and leafy, brick-paved streets will become public spaces again. And we can all return to our ancestral roots as Paleo-hipsters on bikeshares.
Lincoln Square, Chicago – a neighborhood for people, not cars (drawing by the author)
Grand Canal, Venice (drawing by the author)
As a student, I hoped to develop a “style”. Something neat and easy to grasp; the sort of trademark that gave Picasso a high margin for his napkin sketches (allegedly). Experience has quieted this angst. Our creative power grows with the diversity of our sources; a true artist embraces contradiction.
So what kind of architecture do I like?
It is beautiful. Beauty cannot be rationalized, it must be recognized. I think beauty can be appreciated by everyone regardless of sophistication. Deconstructing and creating it is the realm of the artist. Designers should carefully study the intent of their work and who it serves.
Beauty is deeper than “style”. Any architectural mode, when meaningfully chosen, can enhance our civic life. The question is not what style, but why and how.
Integral vs. ornamental elements (drawings by the author)
Here are two superficially identical elements: doorways through a brick wall. What sets them apart are details, which either harmonize or work against the nature of masonry construction. The first doorway has a slight arch, which could be self-supporting. It is lined with denser, stronger bricks from the batch. The wall changes to a less porous stone, like granite, where it meets the damp ground. It’s built to last, with the practical wisdom of a craftsman. Its counterpart lacks such nuance, and must have support from other hidden materials. I’ll call this difference “authenticity”.
Authenticity is beautiful. Good design is not willful, but natural. I believe that a deep knowledge of material is imperative. We should educate designers like craftspeople, and builders like artists. When inspiration flows easily from mind to hand, and concept sketch to finished work, beauty will result.
Beauty is far more than visual. I remember the cool respite of a stone church in Siena’s afternoon heat. The scent of the still air. The resonance of lowered voices from its high vaults and marble floor. As I paused to study the chisel marks on a column base, I could sense the structure’s mass. Great architecture attracts and rewards all our senses. Great design, falsely wrought, will always disappoint.
Considering this, I believe good architecture ages gracefully.
John Singer Sargent celebrated Venice through oil and watercolor. His sketches capture the spirit of that city at the end of the 19th century, with simple brilliance. He expressed the materials of its ancient, waterlogged, elegant buildings, taking on a ruined grandeur before his eyes. Just like his portraits, he drew out the character of architecture, in the texture of each stone.
Watercolors of Venice by John Singer Sargent SOURCE
My goal is to make a place for the artist in shaping our society. Not just on paper, but in the field. We need the inspired work of a builder’s hand to make our designs complete. I want to create buildings with integrity.
“Do architects have to think about color?” I was recently asked. “Or is that just for interior designers?” The short answer is, “Yeah.” Here’s a much longer one…
Most people live in places with awful weather.
By “awful” I mean temperate, stable climates with seasons. One season in particular gets a bad rap. To those living far from the tropics, winter is a beautiful yet somber stretch of time. Daylight is muted and short. Plants wither to brown. Everything takes on a cast of grey.
I’ve found that just a little color will lift my mood during these months. People treasure the time around Christmas, in no small part for the warm lights and bold red decorations. The first green of spring is a blissful relief. October’s blazing leaves are tinged with melancholy; they mark our descent into winter again.
Some cities are more comfortable in winter, simply because of their architectural palette. Chicago’s tan brick and cold Modernist facades do nothing to ease its harsh climate. Without greenery or clear skies, which is guaranteed several months each year, it becomes pretty desolate. The city would benefit from a bolder use of color. My favorite neighborhoods, such as Lincoln Park on the north side, are lined with red sandstone and warm brick facades. These solid yet cozy buildings harmonize with any season. Stockholm, Sweden, where the sun hardly rises between December and February, relies on its architecture for color and light. There is an obvious preference for bold color in the vernacular buildings of far-northern settlements.
I was once told by a professor, “never make a building the same color as the sky.” It makes sense that a house should have presence, weight, and harmonious contrast with its setting. But for an imposing skyscraper, it may be best to dematerialize. If not for the dark cut-out near its peak, Philadelphia’s Comcast Center would vanish into the clouds.
Architects use color as a pillar of design. Certain tones have deep, visceral effects on our mood, that are similar across cultures. Color theory is a philosophy unto itself. Color is symbolic. Babylon’s Ishtar Gate was covered in deep blue glazed brick, which simulated lapis lazuli. This precious stone is native to Afghanistan and was treasured around the ancient world – the ultimate symbol of wealth, power, and reverence for the goddess Ishtar. The pigment Ultramarine is made from crushed lapis lazuli and was treated with similar adulation among painters.
In a practical sense, color defines character, and can transform a blank wall into a feature. Dark colors are known to visually shrink a room, while lighter colors make it appear more generous. To show off a space’s complexity, white is an appropriate choice; we can better appreciate the play of shadow on form. Francesco Borromini mastered this contraposition in Chiesa San Carlino‘s interior. Any color can be right, so long as we use it with intent.
I’ll wrap this up with a nod to South Bend, Indiana: a climatically-challenged city where I first studied architecture. The “Golden Dome” of Notre Dame’s Main Building is a landmark. It’s said to gleam brightest on gloomy days. Downtown, a sculpture by Mark Di Suvero crowns the fork of St. Joseph River in brilliant red. Only my brother can cast a shadow on it. Last, my rambling design for a hotel overlooking St. Mary’s Lake, in red brick to echo South Dining Hall.
Designing with color is deeply complex, and hard to quantify in value. It’s at the soul of what we create. Choose wisely.
This one is for the introverts.
The year is 2050 (give or take); humanity’s gravitation to urban centers reaches its peak. The sheer density of cities tests our limits as “social animals”, and we starve for solitude.
A typical citizen rises at dawn in their trendy micro-apartment: 200 square feet, artfully configured to sleep three, with collapsible furniture and partitions. A crowded train delivers them to work, since the private car vanished during the global fuel crisis. However, our current “Open Collaborative Office” trend has survived. It is simply cheaper to seat colleagues shoulder-to-shoulder, and the lowered productivity of exasperated workers is balanced by easier surveillance. The process reverses each evening, as the tide of human stock eddies back into residential streets.
In these conditions, privacy is treasured. As usual, the market provides a solution. Small chambers quietly proliferate within office towers, transit stations, and residential blocks. An unassuming door leads to a soundproof, indestructible room with a single light source. For a fee, desperate citizens have space to relax, meditate, and act out whatever impulse our social brains inhibit. Most people sing, or scream, or bask in silence, tuning out the world and recovering their individuality. Some exploit the space for darker uses. Organized crime was quick to see potential and now controls access to urban tranquility.
As tech companies well know, our private thoughts have value. Marketing firms and governments crave data on our desires, needs, and seditious opinions. Will the corrupt networks monetizing our solitude cave to their pressure? Will the sovereignty of our inner life hold?
Beauty is felt, before it is understood.
While making something beautiful, we discover patterns that resonate. An artist will sometimes find common threads linking mathematics, natural forces, and our own mythology. Philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists of every field all originated from the same cloth: creative people seeking a universal order. Great artists tap into that knowledge as they master the language of aesthetics, which most of us can hear but not speak.
Beauty is important. It is not the domain of a cultured elite – any person can tell a bad tune from harmony. That rule is universal, from music to architecture to a fleeting moment in nature. The presence of beauty lifts our spirit. Once, we reserved our greatest splendor for the public realm – city squares, gateways, and places of assembly that encouraged pride and civility. Can we decode something so vague yet self-evident? How can we design the intuitive?
Symmetry is one of the most powerful aspects of beauty; a resonance of proportion that unites various scales of a composition. It creates a satisfying sense of order. When we detect symmetry, we smile knowingly – we believe the subject was created with intent and skill. It reassures us that an order defines our universe, and we may yet grasp it; a window to understanding. We find it in the branches of a tree, the forks of a river, and splintering lightning.
Symmetry is also present in good design. Consider this project for a chapel by Eugene Bourdon, a student of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in the 1890s. The floor plan has grace, order, and solidity. Looking closely, similar ratios appear at the finest scale of the plan. The rhythm of the main crossing vault and corner masses carries through the vaults and piers that nest within those corners. This “A-B-A” proportion could be applied throughout all tripartite elements of the plan – window divisions, the columns of the main façade, and more.
Carrying a dominant proportion through a design is just one step. What proportion should we choose? I believe that a building’s material suggests its form. For trabeated construction, consider the difference in span among common materials. Inevitably, the Greeks who built with marble devised a far different order than the Japanese, who mastered carpentry. The resources of a culture influences the formal language of its architecture.
Diagram of material spans and the development of the arch (drawings by the author)
And with a given material, we have choice. Stone spans the furthest as an arch, which utilizes its compressive strength. There are many forms of arches. The earliest development from post-and-lintel was the corbel: stepped blocks that form a triangular opening. This is not a true arch, since the masonry will fail in tension rather than compression. The next types are the jack arch and segmental arch. In general, the flatter the arch, the more lateral reinforcement must support it. The catenary is designed to perfectly follow the force path within any arch, doing away with the need for buttresses. Antoni Gaudi used this form whenever possible. In the cupola of his Palau Guell, the catenary appears everywhere.
A beautiful composition is not arbitrary. What seem to be mysterious, intuitive qualities often have their roots in practicality. Thus, the material of a building is fundamental to its proper design. We should emulate Nature, the greatest designer, by following the will of our medium. There is great beauty in simplicity.
“Biomimicry” is designing after nature; imitating its patterns and systems. Isn’t this a strange concept? By “mimicking” nature, we admit our deep-rooted feeling of otherness. Though technically animals, we now self-consciously regulate our behavior to minimize our impact. In a planet defined by constant change, we lament how our our industry contributes to global warming – while a volcano is a blameless part of nature. Mankind considers itself a foreign presence in the ecosystem.
When was this balance upset? How have different cultures related to nature through their history? Our buildings can provide insight.
Nature seeks the easiest path. It prefers certain forms: the circle and triangle, which optimize volume and strength. Early man used the same forms for shelter; round enclosures for building footprint, livestock pens, and defense contained the maximum area per amount of building material. Curved walls can follow the contours of the land, reducing the need for costly excavation. Triangular framing is inherently strong and simple to construct, though less optimal for headroom. Our ancestors built structures like this worldwide.
A typical prehistoric village, seen from above, has obvious resemblance to organic patterns. (Drawings by the author)
As societies around the world began to urbanize, labor was specialized and reserves of wealth – and time – grew. Building materials were collected on a greater scale, and traded. During trade, knowledge was exchanged between different cultures. We discovered that planning on a grid, while not the most efficient use of material, was otherwise superior. The rectangle neatly scales down from city streets, to our building plans, rooms, and furniture. Now that extra labor and materials could be spared, usefulness was prioritized.
For thousands of years, builders have defaulted to rectilinear planning, and today a design based on a grid is standard worldwide. A few have tried to break out of the box. Baroque architects, notably Francesco Borromini, sculpted spaces and plans based on the ellipse, triangle, and hexagon. Yet the Baroque style didn’t quite break free from Classical rules of order.
Antoni Gaudi is one of history’s most original designers. After exploring historic styles and the vernacular of his native Catalonia, he stripped away his aesthetic to a powerful statement: “Naturalisme”. “Nothing is invented, for it is written in Nature first.” Beneath the profuse ornament of his works is a daring, and rational, use of complex geometry and structural forms. In one sense, Gaudi planned buildings like machines: the leanest structure possible, with maximum natural light. His plans and engineering truly followed nature’s principles, a pure statement rare for such a prolific career.
In the 20th century, designers continued to explore the potential of organic geometry. By then, we were strangers to our roots in prehistory. Or perhaps not. The emerging science of archaeology jolted popular culture in those times. It revealed how much closer we once were to nature, and raised the question of whether our ancient tendencies had truly left us. Yet today, Naturalism is a willful act of design, no longer driven by necessity.
New architectural movements like parametric design, “Blobitecture”, and autogenerative design have explored further. The results are provocative: is Nature alien to us, or has progress walled off a deep part of ourselves?
By Samuel Gottscho, 1931 Source
The silhouette of Manhattan is unmistakable. It is symbolic of this city and its values to people worldwide: aspiration, wealth, struggle, diversity, sophistication, and a distinct feeling of ordered chaos. The Art Deco towers of the 1930s defined a new vision of urbanity. They broke boundaries and challenged people, and drew criticism as all progress will. I believe the genius of their design is a reference to the past, embedded in their futuristic profile.
A good design resolves countless variables, so neatly that it seems the only possible solution. William Lamb, architect of the Empire State Building, had to consider vertical structure, wind force, airship docking, elevators, and the commercial spaces of the building (and much more). Yet an artist knows to step back, and keep control of the composition. These buildings had to function in unprecedented ways, and have beauty. Louis Sullivan said, “I make a design simple, then complex, then simple again.” Towers like the Empire State and Chrysler have refined proportions, pleasing materials and ornament, and symbolic meaning in their form.
These structures are many things to different people. A lightning rod, a Buck Rogers rocket, masculine hubris. Yesterday, I saw church steeples. One sat in the Brooklyn foreground, Manhattan’s radio age versions loomed beyond, and the Gothic arches of the Brooklyn Bridge spanned the center. I wondered if the Art Deco designers recognized a continuum. Since the Middle Ages, European city skylines have been dominated by a Gothic church spire. Colonists brought this tradition to New England towns, and early New York once bristled with churches.
As New York raced into the future, its residents must have found the new towers somehow familiar. By then, the tall spire was an urban symbol firmly rooted in the European psyche.
The Empire State wasn’t the first peaked tower, or the last. By intent or serendipity, its design challenges our imagination while comforting our soul. It shows that to balance progress, archetypes always resurface.