In the line of beauty: Architects and the sublime

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Why don't today's architects embrace the sublime? That's the thesis of a provocative new book. Jay Merrick couldn't agree more

If you want to make nine out of 10 architects squirm, ask them if they think about beauty when they're designing, or whether beauty in architecture is profoundly important to them.

It's much easier to ask if they like ugly or physically "difficult" buildings. Many, for example, would leap to the defence of even that most extreme of Brutalist objects, the so-called Get Carter car park in Gateshead, designed by Owen Luder and Rodney Gordon in the early 1960s.

Visiting the Peter Zumthor-designed Kolumba Museum in Cologne two years ago, I found almost everything about it beautiful: the subtle roughness of the facades, the numinous gradations of light and space in the galleries – even the way the edges of the metal lift-door casings had been textured to match the surface of the plaster around them. The Kolumba, and its simultaneous sense of the present and the past, seemed to murmur just one adjective: beautiful.

We use the word freely enough in the other arts – and even sport. Is it trivial or simplistic to say that Grace Kelly's bottom lip was exquisitely beautiful; ditto the light on the feathers of the wide-brimmed beret worn by Vermeer's Girl with the Red Hat; double ditto the sublimely tender cadences of the final paragraph of James Joyce's short story "The Dead"; and triple ditto the gliding, almost metaphysical, runs of Lionel Messi.

Mies van der Rohe's 1929 Barcelona Pavilion is Modernism stripped to the marbled bone, but why can't architects just admit that its most immediate quality is its beauty? The extraordinarily lairy lattice structure of the 160m-high Moscow radio tower built by Shukhov in 1922 still seems impossibly delicate, and eternally on the edge of chaotically tangled collapse. But that's the beauty of it. And yet here's what the legendary designer Gaetano Pesce said at a highly revealing debate at London's Royal Academy: "It's not true that architects like beauty! Say it! Say it!"

The 71-year-old Pesce was speaking at the launch of a book that will ignite a long overdue debate on the not so beauteous truths of contemporary architecture. It's called Architecture and Beauty, and three words in its subtitle say it all: A Troubled Relationship. What is it about architects that prevents them from confessing wholeheartedly at the altar rail of beauty? Why are they such willing penitents, still fingering the crumbling rosary beads of Modernism and postmodernism?

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.

At the Royal Academy, four stellar debaters – Gaetano Pesce, Sir Peter Cook, Will Alsop and Hernan Diaz Alonso, who are all featured in Architecture and Beauty – offered very different justifications for skirting around what has become the original sin of beauty in architecture. The ever-blithe Cook, whose 1970s Archigram collective brought techno-cartooning and textual cut-ups into architecture, admitted that it was the small, surprising detail of a building or form that he might almost think of as beautiful; the Argentine designer Hernan Diaz Alonso, very nearly a stand-up satirist, was obsessed with "the possibility of something horrific and grotesque revealing a different kind of beauty".

Will Alsop, like Cook a Royal Academician, is a charming tease ("My father was a sheet-metal worker!") and suggested that the only thing that might be deemed beautiful was the quality of being cosy. What about the beauty of cathedrals? "People who go to churches or cathedrals aren't going for religion, they're going just to experience the pure space."

And then, of course, there was the implacable Gaetano Pesce, for whom the critical ingredients of architecture and design are the protection of difference and the individual, and the "disturbances" caused by design innovation. "In Germany, they were very close to defining beauty in the 1920s and 1930s," he said. "We were very close to the dark moment."

But this is smoke and mirrors. There is no ideal, dictatorial beauty in architecture, nor a precise definition of beauty – our experience of it is often momentary, unexpected, and contradictory. What threat is there to democracy or architectural innovation if an individual suddenly decides that a building is, or could be, beautiful?

Beauty in any form always causes some form of emotional or intellectual chaos. And chaos, in turn, has the power to generate forms of beauty. What's the difference between those transformations and Pesce's disturbances of innovation, or Diaz Alonso's description of his teenaged encounter with Francis Bacon's paintings as "pretty much gorgeous"?

Not all architects evade questions about the relationship between beauty and architecture. Classicists take beauty seriously, yet would prefer it to be transplanted, like a cybernetically frozen body-part designed by Palladio or Alberti, into the 21st century. As for the so-called blobmeisters, aka the Lack of Joy Division, theirs is a computer-generated lushness whose geometric investigations carry the eerie shadow of the vastly detailed, but essentially mindless profiling and reshaping of our identities by organisations such as the US National Security Agency and Cyber Command, soon to be capable of processing a septillion pages – think 24 zeros – of personal data at any single moment.

Is that the future – architectural beauty defined by self-generating binary and algorithmic codes, and mouse-click? Not yet. But if the avoidance of debate about architectural beauty and the parallel question of humane design continues, the ability of architects to absorb cultural evidence and react to it in fertile ways will be lobotomised.

'Architecture and Beauty: Conversations with Architects about a Troubled Relationship' by Yael Reisner with Fleur Watson (Wiley, £50). Order for £45 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

For further reading:

'New Palladians' by Alireza Sagharchi and Lucien Steil (Artmedia Press, £25). Order for £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

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