Beauty in Architecture

‘Conceptual Art’ that dominates the world is locked substantially into the realm of thinking which is why we are required to learn about the individual particularity of the artist and her ideas. Conceptual art by its own definition has moved substantially into the cerebral realm, and minimised the experiential dimensions of the works. In 1941, the architectural historian Sigfried Giedion, discussed a split which he perceived to have opened up between society’s thinking and feeling; a split which he described as being one of the illnesses of our age. It was a schism that he felt society we were leaving behind with the onset of modernism, but as we are seeing, that was a premature conclusion. That split has not yet been resolved; indeed it seems to be wider than ever and the fragmentation of the artistic disciplines and their respective audiences seems to be for ever increasing within the context of our post-modern world. The relativity and inclusiveness of Post-modernism is to be welcomed and celebrated but the fact that everything should be tolerated does not mean that everything should be equally valued. The post-modern condition does not suggest a way out of this situation. In the post-modern world everything is different but equal; to introduce value into such a relative world we need to transcend the relative, engage the qualitative, and thus enter the world of excellence, the theme of this conference.

The reason I feel that excellence is a way out of the post-modern maelstrom is because it requires us to transcend the relativity of variety, difference and interpretation. ‘Excellence’ we find defined as “pre-eminent in quality”, and ‘quality’ defined as “Degree of excellence”. It is one of those words whose definition seems to be cyclical. Its meaning appears to turn in on itself, it becomes difficult to pin it down, it is elusive rather like the phenomenon itself. It seems to me to belong to another realm, another dimension. If the relative world operates in the two dimensional plane of everyday life, the life of variety, change and difference, the qualitative world of excellence potentially cuts vertically through that dimension at every point. We could perhaps also imagine it as a series of qualitative planes stacked one above the other with the pre-eminent plane suggesting excellence. But the pre-eminent plane is never wholly grasped because the vertical transcendent dimension is infinite. Although this qualitative axis cuts through the relative world and is experienced in terms of the relative world, its characteristics are wholly different.

If the relative world is understood in terms of the relationships between objects, forms, colours, textures and ideas the qualitative dimension is distinguished by the nature of those relationships. If the relative world is described by ‘what’, the qualitative dimension is described by ‘how’. We could almost say that in the qualitative realm it matters less what objects, forms, colours, ideas are related in a work, but more importantly how they are related. When we talk about ‘what we relate’, we talk about the type, the size, the number, the cost; when we talk about ‘how we relate’, we talk about taking time, about taking care and even about loving what we are doing. When we are in the qualitative realm we focus on the way that things are brought together. The precision with which colours, forms, textures and ideas are balanced and composed becomes all important to the artist and architect. It is because these creative individuals are concerned about the way things are brought into relationships that the work as a ‘wholly integrated ensemble’ becomes more important than the individual parts. Beyond that, the way that that ensemble is stitched into the greater whole of the discipline or more generally the culture, is also of equal importance. Wholeness and balance are therefore central phenomena in a consideration of the qualitative dimension of architecture and the arts.