Is beauty an essential consideration in architecture?

The Question

Published 14 November 2014

Ron Arad RA and Sam Jacob discuss whether considerations of beauty are valuable in architecture, or whether they detract from more important issues.

  • Yes...

    The word ‘beautiful’ isn’t old-fashioned.

    It’s a word we use every day to describe what we like, and that’s as true for architects as everyone else. You might not think so, but every architect aspires to make something beautiful, to create some type of visual delight in their work. If you don’t enjoy their buildings, it’s not because the architect is evil and doesn’t want to make something good – it’s just that they have a different appreciation of beauty from you.

    Beauty is impossible to define: don’t believe anybody who tells you they know what beauty is. Beauty is up to us as individuals. For example, our proposal for Canada’s National Holocaust Monument consisted of narrow passageways formed by concrete walls. The experience of walking through them could have been described as scary, or upsetting, or ugly, or maybe beautiful, depending on the person.

    I find stubbed-out cigarette butts beautiful, for example; I’m working on a large sculpture for the centre of Toronto in which I’m recreating the shape of them by crunching up large pillars of reflective stainless steel. I hope that other people will find the distorted reflections as beautiful as I find them. Thoughts on beauty may change – for example, I used to think that old American cars were ugly, with their superfluous fins and so on: now I can clearly see the beauty in them.

  • When an architectural problem is solved by an idea, that idea is always there to be seen in the building – the idea has a visual manifestation that is beautiful.

    Ron Arad RA

  • I don’t believe in the existence of a ‘golden section’ in architecture, or any slogans such as ‘form should follow function’ or ‘good design is good business’, or any other given prescription of what makes a building, or anything, beautiful. It is all about culture, context, personal history, acquired taste and, most importantly, ideas. When an architectural problem is solved by an idea, that idea is always there to be seen in the building – the idea has a visual manifestation that is beautiful.

    Behind every beautiful building there is a bright, intelligent, cultured client. They take the importance of beauty for granted and, if we argue with a client about a project, it is not usually about the visual side of things – arguments are instead about price per metre, or about how many cubic metres they can squeeze in here or there.

    But sometimes clients are even more insistent on what they think is beautiful than architects. A case in point is the Design Museum in Holon, which opened in 2010. In our original presentation the six ribbons of Cor-Ten steel that wrap around the building were shown with gradation in colour, which the client thought was beautiful. Later we discovered that Cor-Ten, whatever its initial colour, naturally turns a dark chocolate-brown colour once left in the Middle Eastern sun. I was willing to move the goalposts and accept it, trying to explain to the client that we should allow the Cor-Ten to do whatever it does. But the client insisted on the gradation that we had already showed them. We worked with the Polytechnic of Milan to research a method that would produce the lasting gradation of colours that the client wanted. So in a way I lost the argument, but I was pleased that I lost.

    The profession that doesn’t use the language of beauty is town planning. Some beautiful projects don’t get planning permission. Amiga House, which I designed in the 1990s for London’s Courtney Avenue, is one painful example – it was pretty degrading to discuss beauty with Haringey Council. If they abolished planning tomorrow the world would be a better place, I’m sure. Architects have to sell their ideas and reasons to planners on committees who, although less educated and qualified than them, have the last say, but I take my hat off to any enlightened, idealistic planners out there who think about beauty – I hope there will be more of them in the future.

  • No...

    “Everyone,” said Arsène Wenger in response to an Alex Ferguson jibe, “thinks they have the most beautiful wife at home.” Despite his macho sentiment the Arsenal manager pinpoints the paradox at the heart of any collective idea of beauty. What on earth is it? And who gets to decide what it is? Obviously, as Wenger suggests, it’s relative. But if beauty is relative what exactly is it relative to?

    Well, I would argue first that beauty is not relative to something natural, deep and authentic. None of that mystic individualism for me. No, there are reasons why we find things beautiful – or ugly. Or, for that matter, beautiful-ugly.

    And that reason is culture. Both our individual cultural psychology forged through our own experience and the culture of the epoch we belong to. Beauty, if it’s anything, is a psycho-cultural phenomenon. After all, it’s an idea (or a sensation) that is not inherent to a thing but a qualitative alue thrust upon the object of our gaze.

    From Rubenesque figures of the 17th century to size zero of the 21st century, what we decide is beautiful changes according to circumstance. Beauty – if it really exists – isn’t static. It took hard graft at the cultural coal face to force us to see the beauty in, say, the Lake District (thanks to Wordsworth). Or in a three-chord raucous cacophony (thanks to punk – or Stockhausen, depending on your take). The same goes for many of the other things we assume to be ‘beautiful’. All these ‘beautiful’ things were once ‘ugly’.

  • When people use the word beauty in design they are seeking refuge from the difficulties of modern life.

    Sam Jacob

  • The history of modern art is often a history of the desire to smash through the prevailing idea of beauty. In the early 20th century the aesthetic niceties of the 19th century were shattered by new kinds of aesthetic drawn from sources such as the primitive (African masks), the industrial (grain silos) and the everyday (urinals). This process of aesthetic revolution hasn’t stopped since. The beauty carousel revolves like this: first shock, then acceptance, then mainstream before it becomes the thing to rebel against.

    Beauty is, I’m arguing, an acceptable way of talking about something unacceptable in polite conversation: taste. We don’t like to talk too much about taste because it’s a word replete with political issues. It drips with associations of value, class and money. Using the word beauty allows us to frame the very same subject in a way that avoids these uncomfortable issues. It suggests higher, more authentic, objective and timeless qualities to the worldly concerns of taste. Which is, quite frankly, both disingenuous and a dereliction of duty for any creative practitioner.

    When people use the word beauty in design they are seeking refuge from all of the difficulties of modern life – all of its doubts, fears and challenges. They are attempting to place themselves outside of the machinations of taste and beyond the vagaries of fashion (which is also a no-go word, especially in architectural circles). But avoidance only serves to construct a refuge of arch-conservatism, aligning oneself with the status quo. Far better, I’d argue, to engage with ugly and awkward issues. Far better to recognise architecture and design as an aesthetic-cultural battleground of political issues. After all, it’s the struggle with the offensive, the ugly, the unseen and unappreciated that has given us much of what we find beautiful today. It is ironic that it’s the things that embody this tradition rather than the things that have pursued an accepted idea of beauty that have stood the test of time. Think of post-war Brutalist architecture, which is currently enjoying a revival after years of vilification, or the ‘grotesque’ Victoriana that was the target of 1960s wrecking balls. Driven by a desire to challenge myths of accepted beauty, these buildings have become, in time, beautiful. In other words it’s the ‘monstrous carbuncles’, not society beauties, that will inherit the earth.

    Ron Arad RA is an architect, designer and artist.
    Sam Jacob is an architect, writer and curator.

    These are just two opinions in this debate. What do you think?