Few would argue that one of the prerequisites for architecture is that it should be beautiful or attractive. Since Vitruvius first defined architecture—the “mother of the arts”—we are obliged to identify how a building or space provides delight to those who experience it. The branch of philosophy known as aesthetics, which was well-established by Vitruvius’ time, is a system of thought focused on how beauty is revealed to us and it is pleasurable to all of our senses. But what troubles me is how often the aesthetics of architecture are dismissed. Too often we hear that this or that particular feature of an architectural design does not matter because, after all, it is just there for “aesthetic effect.” In fact, aesthetics is more than skin deep, and in its full meaning is about how a building is perceived in its entirety—and how that perception makes us more sensitive and more aware in general.
It is critical for our profession to rebut this dismissal of design features as just—or simply—aesthetics. As architects struggle to demonstrate their relevance to clients, it is important to explain the importance of making architecture pleasurable to the senses in all respects. Clearly, our culture values excellent design and its inherent beauty today, as evidenced by all of the choices we make as consumers. We routinely select an elegant smartphone design, a sleek new electric car, and well-tailored suits for their aesthetic qualities. We also willingly pay more for them.
Earlier this year, I was privileged to be able to spend some time with 2016 AIA Gold Medalist Denise Scott Brown, Hon. FAIA. Both Denise and Robert Venturi, FAIA, remind us that beauty or delight are not simply the byproducts of Vitruvius’ concepts of “firmness” and “commodity” alone, but also of symbolism and ornament.
I also traveled to the Venice Biennale and saw a range of exhibits curated by the 2016 Pritzker Architecture Prize–winning architect Alejandro Aravena. “We should not forget beauty in our battles,” he says, reminding us of the struggle to provide everyday solutions to our neediest communities. While there will be a robust discussion about what constitutes beauty, this is not a reason to dismiss it as critical to the overall value of architecture. We all know that beauty supersedes function in many respects, as we will covet the objects and experiences that delight us long after they cease to work.
The architect’s ability to provide delight in design is what differentiates us, in fact, from those who produce minimally engineered structures. We need to improve the way we talk about aesthetics and beauty, not only to demonstrate our own relevance but mostly to inspire our clients and communities to build and rebuild in a way that is pleasurable to all our senses. The analysis of how best to accomplish this is not an issue of function or technology, but is the purview of only one pursuit—aesthetics itself, and just aesthetics.