By continuing to use the site you agree to our Privacy & Cookies policy

Defining a concept of beauty has us scrabbling for words

WILL ALSOP

Implicit in the word beauty is a notion of the ideal. We have within us an undefined idea of what beauty is and yet, if we are asked to describe it, we are at a loss as we fumble for a description of something half-remembered, half-imagined and eternally ephemeral.

This is no wonder as there would appear to be no general consensus on what beauty is and, furthermore, whatever agreement there is changes from generation to generation and, equally, changes in ourselves as we age.

This befuddled concept, however, is always compelling. I do not want to discuss why it is difficult today to imagine Rubens'generous ladies as erotic, sexy or particularly beautiful:

sexual attraction is a thorny subject and does not concern the more specific values in architecture. Many people have tried to set universal values for beauty.Philosophers have shied away from the word 'beauty'as they find it difficult to pigeonhole into a concept that would allow it to slot into an idea of aesthetics.

The confusion comes from trying to make a distinction between that which can be visually perceived and that which cannot. A beautiful time is very different from a beautiful painting. Aquinas attempted a definition as 'that which pleases in the very apprehension of it', which I believe is a good general starting point.

Beauty is often confused with style. Style is always challenged by fashion. In architecture, we can see that the 'idea'of beauty has always struggled to maintain a place within any current architectural debate. There is an assumption that architecture gets progressively better as time proceeds. This is true for both the individual architect as well as a group of contemporaries. Somehow it is perceived that the thoughts and concepts of a 65 year old are better that of a 21 year old, and that the older person is, in themself, cognisant of this - and, indeed, is steering toward it.

Progress is not an architectural requirement.

This would not invalidate the conception of a piece of equipment that could facilitate the needs and desires of a variety of people who wish to stage events.

Equally, the total theatre concept of Piscator would not be the same. All is valid providing someone is thinking. The beauty lies in the concept and the way in which it juxtaposes itself with current practice. The realisation is less important as this is subject to change in technology, social values and, it has to be said, fashion.Brunelleschi would have done a different dome today, but it would still finish the cathedral.

Very often artefacts attain beauty after a period of time. I am not sure if the Ribbledale Viaduct in Yorkshire would have been appreciated at the time of its construction, but today it gives scale to the valley and resides as a beautiful structure within an extraordinary landscape.

I wanted to write a beautiful essay, but the fact remains it is difficult to construct arguments or any logic to the word. It is a word that has been used too loosely for too long a time. All I know is that it has something to do with the sensation at a particular time and beauty has something to do with memory and recollection. Time turns the recalled mediocre day into something extraordinary that continues to be embellished on each recollection.Could it be that beauty always belongs to the past? Or is it something more universal? I tend to think of the former definition as more accurate and welcome it, providing it does not prove to be the fodder for nostalgia. Elements and objects from the past, however beautiful they might appear now, are often images that conceal a deep ugliness and unhappiness for the people who were their contemporaries.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment.

The searchable digital buildings archive with drawings from more than 1,500 projects

AJ newsletters