The Tuesday Topic: Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Architects and designers struggle with this concept daily. We are hired for our keen sense of style/taste/content, but also for instinct on what makes something beautiful in the right context. Can beauty be justified as a legitimate focus for decision making in design (i.e. can it be defensible)? Is it considered superficial and untrusted by 'serious' designers? And really…does beauty matter and, if so, how can it be defined?
In the summer of 2006, my grandfather died at the age of 94. It was a sudden death. Grandma had died one month earlier, and he had proclaimed that he “didn’t want to be here anymore.” He had contracted pneumonia on a Friday and by Sunday he had died. My mother was devasted that she could not be by his side when he passed. When we arrived at the retirement home, his nurse saw my mother, gave her a big hug and started to cry. When my mother asked how and when he had died, the nurse welled up again. Apparently, that Sunday morning, my grandfather had asked that the nurse stay with him, put on Beethoven’s “Egmont Op. 84” as loud as possible, and died seven minutes later. He had a good death. A beautiful death. He was neither afraid nor anxious with it. He knew what he wanted and accepted reality on its terms.
I bring this memory up as a moment of realization for me. This level of contentment drove me towards a new appreciation for beauty within its terms. We all live in a world of fear and anxiety which drives all of our decisions on a daily basis. Edmund Burke wrote in Section II “Terror” of his philosophies of beauty and the sublime, “No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its power of acting and reasoning as fear.”  This raw emotional drive is a basic animalistic reaction, yet it should not stop us from abandoning what it exposes. At the moment of real terror, we are subjected to the ultimate truth, both physically and emotionally. What we know from that point on propels a natural fight or flight instinct. Beauty in design, like all emotions, is driven by real experiences and, while the eye of the beholder may have their opinion on aesthetic decisions, designers must recognize real beauty through intention and motivation. From Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial to the new African American Museum experience in Washington D.C., these builds are driven by an understanding of their meaning. They provide spaces that are uncomfortable, memorable, and heuristic. These examples are also poignant reminders of moments in history, defining a generation or generations and how we have learned from them. Burke’s text continues, “beauty should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and gloomy: beauty should be light and delicate; the great ought to be solid, and even massive.” We have the opportunity to make statements with our designs and provide raw emotion to validate intention.
“We saw that the fact that something is perceived as beautiful is bound up with an urge to protect it, or act on its behalf, in a way that appears to be tied up with the perception of its lifelikeness.”  Elaine Scarry seeks to define in her text what beauty is and why it has been criticized as a distraction. This, in design, is also seen from a raw emotion. Beauty is so contentious a factor in design that we often choose to mimic other successful designs rather than create something new, challenging, and unproven. These factors are what make architecture so intriguing. It’s a massive form of social experimentation and some would rather avoid confrontation than drive innovation. Mitrovic even compares Architects to mathematicians, “Works of architecture are, then, not created but discovered, like mathematical theorems.”  Scarry continues in her text, “Gods of many traditions are held to be beautiful, but gods do not come into existence to be beautiful; their beauty simply follows from, or is part of, their perfection and cannot be decoupled or held independent from it.” This text is referring to the unattainable, or as Aristotle explained it, “the Unmoved Mover in the purest form”. Design strives for perfection and beauty, similar to how we feel about God being the perfect specimen. We fear its failure or doubt its success when we should be pushing creative movement through purpose and objectives. Achieving these goals is true beauty, raw and exposed and readily open to scrutiny with the confidence to be seen as original.
Grandpa Buschmeyer was a cold man. He was not sensitive or compassionate. Yet, his indifference to my childhood was from a purely moral decision. He was a sergeant in World War II, working on B-17’s in England and never once told me a story about the war. I never knew he was in the war or what he had seen. He knew true fear and never wanted it for his family or to even to have his family endure the experiences of what he had seen. He, in his own way knew how to protect us all from true terror and for that we all loved him for it. He was a complicated man, yet, at the moment of death, he put fear aside and faced it in the most beautiful way possible.
Burke, E. (1756) “A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful”
Scarry, E. (2001) “On Beauty and Being Just” Princeton University Press
Mitrovic, B. (2011) “Philosophy for Architects”. Princeton Architectural Press