Aesthetics and Architecture

We are endowed with aesthetic sensibilities that are often difficult to articulate. Webster’s’ defines aesthetics as “the study of the mind and emotions in relation to a sense of beauty”. Our neurobiological processes relating to aesthetic assessments frequently cause us to provide inadequate explanations as to why we find something beautiful. Our tenuous grasp of aesthetics has caused many to work towards a better understanding of the subject. In 1795 Friedrich Schiller completed his essay “On the Aesthetic Education of Man”. In this work he elaborates on the meaning of aesthetics and its significance in society with respect to artistic endeavors. What follows is a brief exploration of the meaning of aesthetics and its implications for art and architecture.

A salient feature of aesthetics is its intractability with respect to language. It is often difficult to put into words one’s appreciation of a thing’s aesthetic qualities. In his book “Inner Vision”, neurobiologist, Semir Zeki suggests that our incapacity to use language in order to describe a thing’s aesthetic qualities is perhaps due to the fact that the portion of the human brain that deals with aesthetics evolved millions of years prior to the development of language. This seems to indicate that from an evolutionary perspective it was less crucial for our prehistoric ancestors to be able to explain why they liked something, than it was for them to take action in order to attain that which stimulated them. On occasion we become intensely attracted to someone, yet we are unable to clearly explain why. We are being compelled by subconscious cues, and the odds are that if these feelings exist then they probably provide or at the very least provided us with a survival advantage. In other words, if you are drawn towards someone or something, but you can’t provide an explanation for these sentiments; it does not automatically follow that there isn’t a good reason for your feelings. There might be a very good reason why you feel the way that you do, even if you don’t know the reason.

According to Schiller a thing can be evaluated based on four parameters, which include: physical, logical, moral and aesthetic. Schiller held that something can be aesthetically pleasing independent of the other three criteria. Aesthetic assessments differ from the first three criteria in that an aesthetic judgment usually pertains to a thing as a whole as opposed to individual aspects of that thing. This can be illustrated in evaluating the work of the composer Richard Wagner. A term often used in relation to Wagner’s work is gesamtkunstwerk, which means “artwork in its entirety”. In experiencing an opera, such as “The Ring”, one might enjoy the sound of the music, be dissatisfied with the logic and or moral tone of the work, and yet find the gesamtkunstwerk deeply moving. This is precisely the emotion that a great work of art elicits; it should be deeply moving.

The previously mentioned biological and philosophical aspects of aesthetics provide us with a basis for understanding our process for evaluating the buildings that we use. In assessing the quality of a building we can separate the buildings features into two basic categories: the tractable and intractable. The tractable consists of variables such as; the size and adjacencies of rooms, the integrity of the structure, and the comfort of the interior environment with respect to lighting and temperature. These are things that can be objectively evaluated. Accordingly, we can say with confidence whether the building has succeeded in meeting the requirements associated with these variables. However, there are other variables that can’t be evaluated as objectively, such as a building’s form, color and texture. The aesthetic impact that the composition of these elements has on the users of the building is intractable. All that can be said is that if a building user is pleased by the gesamtkunstwerk, then the building has succeeded within the context of that person’s aesthetic sensibility.

A building user might be unable to put into words why they find a building aesthetically pleasing. Contemporary society often regards those that are unable to convey their sentiments via language as unintelligent, but in some domains language itself is primitive in comparison to the information contained within our sentiments. If you find a building to be beautiful, but can’t say why, that’s ok. Trust your gut, because sometimes, liking something is reason enough.