Eye of the beholder?

Aesthetics always used to focus on the question of beauty. Indeed, as an undergraduate it seemed to me to be almost entirely about two questions: What is beauty? What is art?

We’ve got more sceptical about beauty since then, in philosophy and outside of it, in part, I think, because we seem to have become persuaded by the idea that beauty is too subjective for anything meaningful to be said about it. But the concept has been making a bit of a comeback in aesthetics, I understand, and even if philosophers used to wrong to focus so much on it, it’s surely of great interest.

Anyway, I’m trying to write something on this, in relation to buildings. But I thought before I did so it might be useful to actually get some idea of what people find beautiful, rather than make assumptions. I read Roger Scruton’s latest book recently, for example, and it seems astonishing to me how confident he is that people don’t like the kind of buildings he doesn’t like.

So, if you’ve got five minutes, could you complete this short survey about what you think is beautiful? Having done so, perhaps we could have an open discussion in the comments about matters and questions arising. (I know I’m not always the best at replying quickly to comments but give me time and I will read them and join in, honest!) Oh, and please share the survey link with family and friends, especially those not that interested in philosophy!

UPDATE: This Der Speigel gallery of ugly German buildings is interesting. How much is ugliness in the eye of the beholder too?

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  1. In the survey, I found that for some of the pictures, my initial reaction was “Oh, that is very beautiful!” Then, I realized that most of what I thought was beautiful was actually the surrounding landscape… but still I think this counts for the “building”. It’s not part of the architecture, I know, but it’s part of the building, I think.

    Also, I do think that people will confuse “beautiful” with “cool” or “nice” or “interesting”, all of which (speaking in terms of aesthetic philosophy) are the same in terms of beauty, as they are held in a positive light rather than a negative one.

  2. I took the survey, and I found that historical and socio-cultural associations play a huge part in determining which buildings I find are beautiful or not, that actually, I don’t have reasonably independent aesthetic criteria for deciding which buildings I consider to be beautiful, while I do have aesthetic criteria for determining which music is beautiful.

  3. Tess the Tyrant – very true. Whether a building looks beautiful surely does (often at least) depend in part on its context. I think the Guggenheim ion Bilbao, for instance, really suits where it sits. I’m not sure I’d want it in the middle of Florence! That’s a limitation in judging from photographs.

    Amos – It’s interesting that you don’t sound as though you feel you are qualified in some way to make a judgment of beauty for buildings. That’s a kind of opposite of “eye of the beholder” response in that it suggests fair judgments require some sort of expertise? Or am I way off your meaning?

  4. Julian: Right, I lack expertise about arquitecture. I’ve never paid much attention to whether buildings are ugly or not, while I’ve listened to classical music as well as rock and jazz all my life.

    Critical sense demands a certain education, which may come from
    the experience of judging, of discussing one’s judgments with others as well as from formal education.

  5. Interesting survey – I felt like I needed a ‘somewhat’ option as the space between ‘quite beautiful/ugly’ and ‘neither beautiful or ugly’ seems reasonably large. That’s prob where a few of my answers would have gone.

  6. One concept that might be relevant to several of the buildings from 19th C aesthetics is the concept of the picturesque. This has been described as the effect of indefinite repetition of a pattern (as in a garden full of fallen leaves). I think that is a feature of several of the buildings – for example the Cathedral in Barcelona (if I’m not mistaken). Beauty was thought of as more a matter of harmony of an individual form.

  7. The problem with judging a building on its beauty is, as other commenters have mentioned, that there are many other qualities that make a building appeal to us. It isn’t easy to dislike a building while acknowledging its beauty. It isn’t easy to like a building yet accept that it’s ugly. The buildings in the survey do not just differ in their beauty, but in their surroundings, their quality of construction, their age, their use etc.

    Christopher Alexander has attempted to analyse what gives a building what he calls “life”. It seems to me this is a better quality than “beauty” because it is broader than the purely visual, and incorporates every aspect of what makes a building good to look at, to walk around, to live in etc. A building is more complex that a painting or a pot which might be said to be “beautiful”, and needs a more complex analysis.

    Alexander started by defining the patterns (in his book, “A Pattern Language”) that give a building “life”. These are independent of style or construction or era. A simple example of a pattern is “light on two sides of a room”. i.e. A room with windows on two sides feels a better room that one with only one window. This is something most people would appreciate and agree on, although of course there are other factors that might outweigh that one for any particular room.

    Alexander condensed his scores of patterns into fifteen more general properties in his later “Nature of Order” books. They may not be the last word on the subject but they are a huge analytical step beyond the question “what is beauty?”.

    One example of Alexander’s properties is “levels of scale”. e.g. The building in the survey that most people would presumably call ugly (Trellick Tower http://www.artofthestate.co.uk/photos/pglondonLADBROKEtrellick.jpg) has about two levels of scale: the building itself and its uniform windows. The building that most people would perhaps call beautiful (Leeds Castle http://www.visitheartofkent.com/imageresizer/?image=%2Fdmsimgs%2Fleedscastle.jpg&action=ProductMain) has many: the building, the bridge, the towers, the small windows, the large windows, the battlements, the flagpole.

    Alexander would say that those buildings which express the fifteen properties most strongly are the ones people find most pleasing. I would encourage anyone to read what he has to say. Even if you disagree with him (which I understand many do), his analysis is specific and reasonably objective. It seems to me anyone who has a different theory will need to show why it is different from Alexander’s.

  8. I took the survey and failed.
    But one I’m sure I got right is the prickly looking cathedral. Is that in Barcelona? Anyway, it’s obviously ugly.

  9. It’s not a test, Ralph – you can’t fail it!

    Thanks for the Alexander tip, Julian.

  10. I just want to say that one of them didn’t work as a building but would have been very nice as porcelain piece on a shelf (which I accounted for in the second to last question).

  11. Many of the buildings in the survey disgusted me. I think an appropriate way to explain my reaction would be that I perceived the buildings as a manifestation of hubris.

  12. There are always issues surrounding innovation in art. To break new ground and risk being spat upon, one needs courage, hubris, stupidity, or some combination thereof, as that is what takes to initiate meaningful change. Since most of us don’t thrive upon stagnation, we all end up suffering a bit of random innovation.

    Dare to be naive.

    R. Buckminster Fuller

  13. Julian,
    Of course I knew it wasn’t a test; just a bit of attempted humor. Though I admit to feeling at odds with the survey, not so much the buildings themselves, but trying to rate them in any way. I think my appreciation for architecture is no where near keen. Instead of “I know what I like,” with buildings and such it seems “I know what I don’t like” is more appropriate.
    While I have your attention. You put me in a moral dilemma viz, whether to quietly accept your thanks of fess up that I don’t know what you’re referring to with Alexander. My good side won out.

  14. Ralph: I’m equally confused about my tastes in architecture, if I have any.

    Since this thread started, I’ve been paying attention to my reactions to different buildings, and in general, it has to do with the human context.

    A street with boarded-up stores appears ugly, but a similar street with flourishing stores appeals to my tastes.

    Old, lived-in houses, houses which compose a neighborhood, suit my tastes, but tearing down a row of houses, even a row of houses with no special style, to construct a carefully designed, expensive high rise apartment building, seems an aesthetic and ethical crime to me.

    In fact, I have difficulties separating ethical from aesthetic factors when it comes to architectures because buildings form a city, where people live and work.

  15. The architect Christopher Alexander has long held interesting views on (objective) beauty, architecture and the HUMAN experience of living in and using our buildings and other constructions. [Alexander also came up with the concept of patterns and pattern languages, which proved very influential in software development over the past twenty years or so.] See http://www.patternlanguage.com/ for more information.

  16. For what it is worth I found it very easy to decide what was for me ugly. So far as beauty was concerned this was quite a problem. In fact ‘ugly’ or ‘neither ugly nor beautiful’ was my reply to all of the questions except one. That one got a somewhat reluctant ‘quite beautiful’. Several of the buildings aroused great interest for me and the desire to know more about them.

  17. they say architecture, for it to be meaningful, needs to fit its environment. i agree with tess: there were buildings which i found not too attractive, but the surrounding provides harmony to their existence; while other surroundings only make their presence incongruous. perhaps, if the survey were only and totally about buildings, could there be changes in perceptions if only these buildings were backgrounded against empty space?

  18. Yes, Roberto, the context is an essential part of the architecture of a building. No man is an island, and no building stands alone, in isolation.

  19. I had the problem that some of the pictures were iconic or that they were regarded as works of art, and that i “should” like them.

    And some of the buildings I knew and they had a personal resonance because of something that happened in them – I’m not sure they were beautiful, but their meaning was too significant to denigrate them in any way!

    I remember going on an art appreciation tour – we were shown various art across 500 years of history, with all their backstory – the archivist was saying how when you knew more about the picture the appreciation of it changed, which I think in general is true, but the problem I have with that is that art is intrinsically a visual medium (duh!) and you should decide how you feel about it without the backstory – if you need a backstory to appreciate it, isn’t the art failing?

    Plus, some of the most beautiful things I’ve seen are intrinsically tragic. Apart from the general brutality of nature (again I guess context here is overwhelmingly influential on my take on the beauty of the horror!), man made calamities can be equally as beautiful – the mushroom cloud is a classic. One of the images that is burned into my mind both because of its beauty and tragedy is Pablo Bartholomew’s photo of the burial of a child (killed by poison gas after the explosion at the Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal) – so many were killed they ran out of wood for coffins and the child is just laid in the ground and slowly covered, the father brushing away dirt from the child’s face…

  20. Emily,

    While I’ve never formally studied aesthetics, I’ve spent many years trying to identify aspects of music (and art) that can be characterized objectively. And yet, I don’t think I could feel complete without the aspects that are most difficult to objectively quantify–the part that moves me most deeply.

    Your point about the “intrinsically tragic” caught my eye, and I had no trouble imagining how I would feel about the works that you described–how I would be moved. As I pondered how I might respond to your notion of the “intrinsically tragic”, what came to mind was Mark Twain’s quote “The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow; there is no humor in Heaven.” So, if Twain was right, perhaps there is no art in Heaven.

    But, I do wonder how it is that certain flowing forms seem to have meaning for me even when I can’t tie them to a particular cultural context. And, with your point, I wonder what might lead me to be emotionally invested in a piece of architecture that is far outside of a familiar cultural context. I must admit that some of the examples in the survey seemed to be just that, and it seems that I had been asking myself how I might see such works through the eyes of some other culture. So, I guess I have difficulty believing that anyone can experience beauty without being influenced by some knowledge of culture.

    Oddly enough, my attempts at gaining an objective understanding of music and art came from a motivation to expand my cultural repertoire.

  21. As I took the survey, I realized that as I answered “quite beautiful” for two questions what I was really thinking was “it is attractive to my eyes”. So I would conclude as the saying goes “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder”.

    Now I have read that the beautiful face is very symmetrical and that tests have been done to correlate that conclusion. I know I see some faces of the opposite gender to be beautiful or very beautiful but have no clue on symmetrical features. I suppose it would be an interesting test to correlate my assessment of face beauty (likewise extended generally to overall body shape) with symmetrical features but I see no simple practical way to do this.

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