In the line of beauty: Architects and the sublime

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk