To really connect with people, architecture needs to get back in touch with its emotions
Those outside the architecture profession often perceive a building to be brilliant for the aesthetic experience it offers. And yet bizarrely, from the advent of modernism, architects have invented a multitude of strategies to absolve themselves from making visual judgments.
For example, the mid 20th century witnessed Peter and Alison Smithson attacking aesthetic concerns with new brutalism, while Aldo van Eyck sought higher meaning in the values of humanism. In the 1970s, American academic Christopher Alexander authored A Pattern Language (reducing architecture to a set of templates) as the AA’s John Frazer penned An Evolutionary Architecture (in which the logic of the genetic code was borrowed to generate form).
From this point, aesthetic responsibilities have been increasingly delegated to computational processes. If architecture’s cultural and artistic facets are undermined by the rational and pragmatic, it is perhaps through the discipline’s sheer complexity.
‘Architecture is a muddle of irreconcilable things,’ said Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa in an interview for my book Architecture and Beauty, Conversations with Architects About a Troubled Relationship (Wiley, 2010), written with Fleur Watson. Pallasmaa views his role as a struggle between ‘utility and poetics, function and image, rationality and metaphysics, technology and art, economy and symbolisation’.
The prevailing architecture of the 20th century ignored the nature of these dialectics. With its logical and impersonal nature, it deprived people of an emotional environment because, if there is no emotional input, there is no architecture that touches people’s emotions.
If the 21st century’s architecture is to resolve this and reconnect with people, today’s architects must confront the ‘troubled relationship’ inherent in the profession and fully reclaim their visual authorship.
In the 18th century, German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten created the modern usage of ‘aesthetics’. It comes from the Greek aisthese-aisthanomai and originally spoke of perceiving or sensing, but now it means the taste or ‘sense’ of beauty. This tied the term to a personal attitude, and today we see that it is our personal passions that take us towards our most original, creative acts.
Personal expression is a reflection of our culture and, eventually, a visual discrimination commenting on a broader, collective cultural spectrum. It is culture, not algorithms and applications of technologies, from which architectural poetics evolve. The aesthetic capacity of architecture is charged by poetic visual qualities that might evoke emotions in the observer.
Many architects still downplay the direct relationship between personal judgment and visual discrimination (the ‘I’ and the ‘eye’). The lack of confidence in how much intellectual depth can be captured by intuitive imagery is mirrored in the lack of respect for the image unless it carries a strong social, political or rational message. But architects must move beyond a thirst for cerebral authority and embrace an emotional, authorial voice to lead their architecture.
Today the added pressure of sustainability criteria creates a real danger of repeating the historical-political cop-out of the 1930s, when the apologists of early modernism (Sigfried Giedion, Alberto Sartoris and Lewis Mumford) changed the aesthetic discourse into a utilitarian/technical pursuit.
And yet despite today’s pull towards the technological, our attitude to nature must be a cultural approach too. We must not forget that any reduced version of our complex profession will fail us. Now more than ever before, our creative role is to bring beauty to cities and to substitute alienation with a widening palette of emotions.
Yael Reisner will be chairing a debate on this subject at the Dark Side Club at the Venice Biennale on 26 August. The panel includes: Peter Cook, Wolf Prix, Thom Mayne, Eric Moss, Mark Goulthorpe, Marjan Colletti and Ricardo de Ostos www.darksideclub.org