Emancipating Architecture: Toward a More Serious Aesthetic

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If theory is a set of rational principles or a speculative hypothesis derived from factual analysis it must be based on a model of inquiry by which it establishes facts and their relationship to observation and response. The two dominant methods of inquiry are the humanities and scientific models. Science accepts, as truth, verifiable, predictable, and repeatable data. It requires objectivity, reproducibility, logic, and consistency. The liberal arts, on the other hand, are limited in their inquiry to evaluating and recording observation. To a scientific observer these methods appear unsystematic and erratic, and often they are. Yet, it has been said that, “Einstein’s space is no closer to reality than van Gogh’s sky. The glory of science is not in a truth more absolute than the truth of Bach or Tolstoy” (Koestler 1970). Architecture, the corpus callosum of art and science, should use rigorous quantitative analysis as far as it can go in addition to deep personal sense perceptions as demonstrated by this example:

An apple…may be exhaustively described in a scientific treatise with respect to form and structure, conditions for growth, chemical composition, nutritional values, and so on. Yet, what it can mean to a person is by no means altogether contained in the scientific description. The appearance of a rosy apple with light reflecting from it in a certain way is a theme for a painter or photographer rather than botanist. Its joyful taste after a hot, dry walk or the sight of a laden apple orchard on an autumn afternoon can be elements that add a bit to a poem or story. (Schlegel 1972)

While modern thought and analytical philosophy have tended to overemphasize the logical, scientific responses to life, architecture has sided with the arts and largely disregarded quantifiable properties. In so doing it has often left the realm of verifiable certainty and ventured into speculative, philosophical space. While unequivocal objectivity is a naïve notion (because every observer wears distorted spectacles), a measure of objectivity can be achieved that is higher than what has been tolerated in architecture circles.

Science too has not been spared its follies. After having had considerable success in the physical sciences, where natural laws follow consistent, predictable patterns, scientific investigation attempted to condense complex phenomena with multiple unknown variables into a predictable system, such as in the theory of evolution. It ventured into philosophical space, leaving the realm of verifiable certainty, and in the end was responsible for establishing a philosophy-religion with unyielding dogma. Part of the Modern Dilemma (i.e. a pronounced sense of meaninglessness), may have its root in science’s inadequacies for this role. “Truth is an absolute notion that science, which is not cornered with any such permanency, had better leave alone” (Levy 1932).

How do we then establish truth? Deprived of a metaphysical reference point, uncertainty intrinsically challenges any notion of truth. Uncertainty and truth are mutually exclusive. However, truth is distinct from error and the two are not interchangeable. Truth is neither absolute nor static, but it is not relative either. Water is a liquid, air is a gas. Even though there is gas in water and water in air; and even though gas may turn into liquid or liquid into gas, water remains a liquid and air a gas. Absolute truth, while it might exist, is not attainable. “The intellect is incapable of knowing the supreme Truth; it can only range about seeking Truth, and catching fragmentary representations of it, not the thing itself, and trying to piece them together” (Aurobindo). Yet this should not discourage us from seeking truth since

Human association is dependent on agreement, and the essence of agreement, be it concerned with…rational action, or scientific investigation, is the idea of truth. If this idea is denounced as ideological, we are left, in Nietzsche’s language, with individual quanta of will which, according to the measure of their power, arbitrarily determine what truth is. (Barth 1945)


Beauty has been an out-of-vogue virtue in intellectual architectural circles. According to Bill Beckley, we might blame Wittgenstein’s lecture at Cambridge in the summer of 1938 for beauty’s fall (Beckley 2001). “Dave Hickey attributes beauty’s disappearance to the progressive flattening of picture space” (Beckley 2001). Yet, according to Roger Kimball, a Wall Street Journal critic, “Beauty—not mysticism, not revolution—remains the fundamental touchstone of art…. Nothing, except beauty remains of art, when viewed after its time of novelty has expired” (1990). And the physicist Dirac announced early in this century, before experiments had tested the “highly controversial quantum theory,” that he had “completely accepted the basic equation of the theory” because “he found the equations to be ‘beautiful’ and ‘aesthetically elegant.’” He had “deduced that they were appropriate descriptions of a Nature which was beautiful and (dare I say it?) optimal” (Gale 1979). Also, de Chardin was convinced that “more primordial than any idea, beauty will be manifest as the herald and generator of ideas” (Schlegel 1972).


An architectural theory needs to respond affirmatively on the side of goodness. Art and architecture have been guilty of exacerbating the horrible by magnifying and reflecting it. In acknowledging the power of visualization and imagery to reinforce its focus, we need to direct our attention towards goodness. If we see only horror, we see only one part. But if we see hate and love, horror and courage, death and life, monotony and excitement, alienation and reconciliation, uncertainty and assurance, we experience all in all.

Meister Eckhardt, the medieval mystic asked rhetorically:

When is a man in mere understanding? I answer, “When he sees one thing separate from another.” And when is a man above mere understanding? That I can tell you: “When a man sees All in all, then a man stands beyond mere understanding.” (Leshan 1966)


Goodness, truth, and beauty cannot be defined in today’s relativism. But could we agree that architecture is a social art and science, and as such should seek truth through both, the scientific and humanities models of inquiry; and based on this knowledge establish its own rational set of principles that will advance a more serious aesthetic?

“Architecture now has to make do with left-over spaces that haven’t been snapped up by developers, planners, and financiers, so woe betide us if we fail to make the most of these meager opportunities to show the world what we’re capable of.” (Mario Botta 1997)

This paper was presented at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s triennial Summer Institute, Oxbridge, in the summer of 2005.