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At an outdoor temporary pavilion in the main parking lot at the Southern California Institute of Architecture are fellow architects Peter Cook, Hernan Diaz Alonso, Eric Owen Moss and Greg Lynn, where Moss is director. (Rafael Sampaio Rocha / September 26, 2010)

I have had Architecture and Beauty: Conversations with Architects about a Troubled Relationship (Yael Reisner and Fleur Watson) on my desk for weeks now but have not been able to give it my full attention just yet. The distractions have not been minimal, from four weddings in five weeks—these have been those full immersion, all weekend long destination nuptials—to a full allocation of my reading quotient spent finishing Franzen’s Freedom (And a worthy distraction it was. A few previous posts about the book can be read here and here.)

But Reisner (married to architect Peter Cook) is keeping the topic in the ideasphere. A recent panel discussion staged in Los Angeles featured Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, Eric Owen Moss, Peter Cook, Hernan Diaz Alonso and Greg Lynn.

From a review of the evening written by Christopher Hawthorne in the Los Angeles Times:

In the end, if the panelists didn’t exactly embrace the topic at hand — and if the uneven discussion that resulted was, itself, far from a thing of beauty — that could hardly be counted as a surprise. The group of architects Reisner asked to take part, representative of the larger group she features in the book, have always eyed beauty with wariness, if not outright hostility. There were times during the panel when it seemed the huge, standing-room-only crowd had gathered to listen to a bunch of Hatfields discuss the McCoys.

Gehry, after all, found his early breakthroughs in the 1980s by mining the less-than-gorgeous urban landscape of Los Angeles, incorporating chain link and corrugated metal into off-kilter, deceptively ad-hoc buildings. Mayne’s most powerful work is similarly interested in subverting and breaking apart conventional ideas about symmetry and prettiness. Moss once told me that the worst insult one L.A. architect could give another, when he was starting out three decades ago, was to call his or her work “beautiful.” Something closer to ugliness or toughness was the goal, or at least architecture unconventional enough to reliably rattle bourgeois sensibilities.

That attitude still holds sway, despite the fact that the architecture world — not to mention the world at large — has changed radically since the emergence of Mayne, Moss, Gehry and other members of the L.A. School in the 1970s and ’80s. Nearly two decades after the art world went through a difficult but cathartic debate on beauty, architects — or at least these architects — continue to find the subject remarkably nervous-making.

Hawthorne goes on to get a few digs in about what was probably a bit of an awkward gathering. He reports that Moss held his head in his hands for most the discussion and then offered his view that he didn’t think talking about beauty was “useful” any more. Gehry is reported to have advised not to consider outside judgments regarding which buildings qualify as beautiful or which architects were important. “You do your work and you shut up and you take your lumps. And if you keep doing that, maybe you find your own sort of Zen self. And that’s probably a great place to be as human beings.” Mayne is quoted as saying that issues of globalization, the Internet and instantly changing fashions have made it was impossible to determine a single standard for beauty. “Whose beauty are we talking about?” he asked.

A new generation of artists ARE interested in beauty, and Hawthorne points to the recently opened Architecture Biennale in Venice. Curated by Kazuyo Sejima, beauty is brought back, front and center. the exhibit features unabashedly beautiful projects by Madrid’s Andres Jaque, the Indian firm Studio Mumbai and the young Tokyo architect Junya Ishigami, among others.

I particularly liked Hawthorne’s closing point:

The panel wrapped up before the group had a chance to explore in any depth what ought to have been the focus from the start: Why certain architects continue to see pursuing, confronting or embracing beauty as something to be embarrassed or even ashamed about, or something that diminishes the seriousness of their work, all these years after that notion emerged. When I spoke with Gehry by phone this week, though, he offered a pretty good explanation.

“When you go directly after beauty, it’s like you’re competing with God,” he told me. “If you go after other things, you’re only competing with Borromini and Bernini. That’s still tough, but it’s not impossible.”


Another book that sounds like it is right in my sweet spot: Architecture and Beauty: Conversations with Architects about a Troubled Relationship, by Yael Reisner. Ah, beauty… It continues to be an issue of dispute in every contemporary métier—visual art, music, literature. This topic continues to engage, divide, provoke, perplex.

I know a bit about the constituencies on this topic within fine arts, but I appreciated finding an article by Jay Merrick in The Independent that drew the architectural battle lines. Given my current interest in the writings of Juhani Pallasmaa, I was not surprised to see his name show up in Merrick’s lay of the land:

The troubled relationship between architecture and beauty is being re-exposed at just the right moment. For at least a decade, the life has been squeezed out of potentially fine architecture by developers or clients who talk the enlightened talk, but walk the value-engineered walk. But are buildings like Will Alsop’s the Public in West Bromwich beautiful or ugly? Is there anything about the architecture of Thom Mayne or Hernan Alonso Diaz that even triggers the idea of beauty? And what about Wolf Prix’s extraordinary BMW Welt building – is it a nightmare, or pure heaven?

Let’s set the scene. In the blue corner, the visionary American architect, Lebbeus Woods, who says that aesthetics is rarely discussed in schools of architecture because “it’s still a legacy of the Jewish-Protestant ethic. You can take Calvinism as an extreme example, but generally all Protestant religions are very anti-visual and very anti-aesthetic”. Hence, Modernism’s purified, quasi-socialist Detroit production-line mantra, form-is-function. “Before Modernism,” adds Woods, “architects were just decorators.”

In the red corner, one of architecture’s most important historian-philosophers, Juhani Pallasmaa. He deplores current architectural cravings for “novelty based on a shallow understanding of artistic phenomena”, and delivers a crisp left uppercut to doubters by quoting the poet Joseph Brodsky: “The purpose of evolution is beauty.”

And somewhere in the middle – let’s call it the royal purple corner, though not necessarily By Appointment – are architects such as the classicist Francis Terry, who started a recent essay in The Architects’ Journal with this miserablist sentence: “Given all the terrible things about life, it is sometimes easy to hate the world.” How about: “Given all the beautiful things about life, it’s very easy to love the world”?

What a palaver. Faced with the threat of beauty, architects tend to default to particular design trenches, or utter that duplicitously exclusive word, taste. Rather than looking through cracks in their avoidance of beauty as a creative motive or perception, architects Polyfilla them with blurring obstructions; they’re shadow-boxing in a Plato’s Cave where beauty can never quite be experienced as real. Just as super-articulate philosophers are often regarded with suspicion by colleagues embalmed in infinite chains of hair-splitting, so too do most architects prefer the safety of a bunker of clichés rather than risk exposure to the languages of cultural exploration.

More on this once I’ve actually read the book (which is on its way from the UK where it costs half as much as it does in the US for some reason…)