This article by Myrto Kostaropoulou explores the implication of beauty in architectural discourse through the examination of various examples.
BAAD examines the idea of architecture through the notion of beauty, which we argue that in architecture should be inseparable from ethics. Therefore, it is in our belief, that if we manage to define the advancing notion of beauty, i.e. beauty that entails ethics, then we will also be able to define good and its opposite, bad architecture. We intend to build the aforementioned argument through an examination of two aspects of architecture: “architecture and reason” and “architecture and art”. Respectively, we examine scenographic, unsustainable, stereotypical, unreferential, rigid, ignorant, disrespectful, kitsch and unoriginal architecture. At the end of the article and after the precedent analysis, we reveal the definition of BAAD.
One way to speak of bad architecture is by defining what constitutes good architecture first and foremost. The difficulty that arises in attempting to define good architecture is due to the fact that it entails primarily an ethical dimension in things, rather than just high aesthetics and beauty. ”Architects have ethical as well as professional responsibilities to protect the health, safety and welfare of others” Tom Fisher professes. In other words, architects are bound in a moral sense to society. There out, ethics in design might as well mean the inscription of the idea of beauty into a socially and environmentally sensitive context.
Furthermore, if the notion of good is comprised by a certain analogy between beauty and ethics, the questions of ”what is the approximation of bad architecture?” and ”to what extent can bad be characterized as unethical?”, remain to be answered. Therefore, it can be claimed that the difficulty that arises, is traced down in the very key notion of ‘beauty’, which should in its turn be examined within a developing system of thought, rather than be trapped in fixed images and superficialities.
It is in our belief, that if we manage to define the advancing notion of beauty, i.e. beauty that entails ethics, then we will also be able to define good and its opposite, bad architecture. We intend to build the aforementioned argument through an examination of two aspects of architecture: “architecture and reason” and “architecture and art”.
2. Architecture And Reason
Reasonable architecture makes sense. For example, scientifically seen, what makes the Parthenon be included among the architectural masterpieces of the world is that behind each one of its elements there is specific reasoning, which supports their form, whether technical, aesthetic or symbolic. On the other hand, unreasonable architecture lacks necessity and becomes arbitrary. For instance, much of postmodern architecture is accused of deviating reason and objectivity in favor of subjectivity and form per se.
a. Scenographic architecture
A postmodern example of such architecture is Michael Graves’ Portland Building in Oregon (1982). In this building, Kenneth Frampton mentions that the motive is mostly ornamental instead of structural, as form denies its structural origin. Proclaiming further that the main views have been dyed arbitrary. The building is “not telling the truth” and this “lie” makes this building stand “unethical”, in architectural terms. In such case the question that arises is: ‘‘Does good architecture entail scenographic architecture?’’
Maybe an answer to that question lies in the argument of Eric Newton, according to whom a form-experience is different to a color-experience, for our feeling of beauty in color is more sensuous, whereas our feeling of beauty in form is mostly intellectual . Consequently, a building, of which the views are irrelevant to the inside, in a way hands in priority to scenography than rather to consistency. Hence reducing the intellective role of architecture. As opposed to formalism, “architecture lives in a building’s DNA, in a deep-rooted sensitivity that permeates the whole structure”.
b. Unsustainable architecture
Speaking of sustainability, a good example sets the case of institutional buildings. This leads us to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon (late 18th century), which was designed as a central “eye” that controls the behavior of the inmates in a perimetrical arrangement. The semiotics of the idea of the Panopticon’s watchman is based on a transcription of power and authority on architecture. It encourages the development of relationships between strong and weak, victims and victimizers, controllers and controlled, in other words of peremptory structures. This however, no matter how proper idea seems for a prison, is it proper one for a school or hospital?
For instance, Thomas Fisher professes that the architectural equivalent of a dominant metaphor of a medicine is that the human body is a machine. Successively, that a hospital should be “mechanical, electrical and structural”. If so, to what extent would then a hospital be hospitable? Fisher proposes that instead of focusing on the functional systems, we should focus on healing environments.
In this case, it can be inferred that ethics in architecture denote sustainability. In its turn, a sustainable environment is beautiful in parallel. For instance, a bad school complex is one that discourages students to participate to the educative process and broaden horizons to knowledge. Therefore, it is more than safe to argue that unsustainable architecture signifies unaffordable architectural environments.
c. Stereotypical architecture
From another standpoint, architecture can be said to be the experimental area between imagination and know-how, hardly a mere constructive practice. Therefore, we can reach the safe conclusion that it constitutes a rather wrong practice for an architect to follow only the criteria of the market and the experimentations of the contractors; once the market designates fashion and fashion is ephemeral and unreliable in its turn as Elias Zenghelis strongly claims. Indeed often, when one architect complies with the contractors’ experimentations, he/she might be led to stereotypical architecture, one that we often meet in institutional buildings or multistory houses, such as the ones of ‘70’s in Athens, Greece, whose “uniformity” is partially responsible for the “ugliness” of the capital.
The extent of how stereotypical architecture can be was mentioned at the 8th Architectural Biennale di Venezia in 2002. In this exhibition the Greek participation was entitled Athens 2002: Absolute Realism. Its theme treated the city Athens from an absolute realistic point of view: the defeat of architecture. Among other parameters, stereotypical architecture can become bad, primarily when it is only due to cover basic everyday needs, and secondly, when it remains restricted to such course of action.
d. Unreferential architecture
If we further propose a combination of beauty and ethics in terms of content and context rather than in parallelization, this may lead us to new entities that function inclusively: Beauty that includes ethics; Beauty that signifies ethics and vice versa. An example of such contrapuntal relationship is the New Acropolis Museum, designed by Bernard Tschumi. The upper floor of the museum, i.e. the hall for the Parthenon’s marbles, is rotated accordingly to the coordinating axes of the Parthenon and stands in a dialectic relation to the monument. Beauty that includes ethics and ethics that includes beauty is therefore incarnated in a living dialogue between the present and the past; a present that intellectually tries to dialectically ‘undertake’ such a meaningful… past.
Nevertheless, Dimitris Sevastakis argues that in contrast to the ancient absolute incorporation of the temple to the attic landscape, the totality of the new museum’s building has been overlaid aggressively in its environmental context. According to the above, it can be argued that the new Acropolis museum has partially failed to aesthetically respond to the beauty and ethics standards of the monument, which constitute its referential power and adjustment to the contemporary urban environment.
e. Rigid architecture
In some cases however, bipolar combinations between beauty and ethics can form quite inflexible entities. An extreme example that denotes such rigidness is Hitler’s architecture. A proof that consistent neoclassic architecture is combined with and conformed by order and law can lead to extravagance and lack of humbleness. From an idealistic point of view, it is not ethical to characterize such kind of architectural practice as ‘’good’’, once it was made to not serve humanity good. It utterly reflects the intentions and megalomania of its inspirator, reminding us a dark period of history and symbolizing the malicious sides of human nature.
f. Ignorant architecture
Ethical and good architecture can also be approached through the provision for social housing. In the 1960s and 1970s, Brutalism was partially thought as the natural architectural expression of the welfare state. For Brutalists, ethics meant “honesty” of materials. Brutalist buildings are brutal but sincere, fair and positive about themselves.
Ignorant architecture on the other hand, stands as one totally irrelevant to its social context. It can be said, that a fine example of ignorant architecture is the 50-year old Brasilia, for the question that lies is whether it is a polis (a city) or not.” The problem is that it’s not a city,’’ Ricky Burdett told the BBC World Service in 2010. “It’s that simple. The issue is not whether it’s a good city or a bad city. It’s just not a city. It doesn’t have the ingredients of a city: messy streets, people living above shops, and offices nearby” .
From the aforementioned, it can be argued that the quintessence of the essence of a city is political. Hence its absence certifies the problem of a city not being a proper one, i.e. polis. “It just doesn’t have the complexity of a normal city. It’s a sort of office campus for a government”, says Burdett. “The apartment building complexes that communist-sympathizing Niemeyer designed to house the rich and the poor, are now home to the rich and the rich”.
Certainly, we are not in the position to claim that Brasilia is a bad architectural paradigm, since the briefing was to build a totally new city without slums, but we can argue that it points out the failures of urban architectures to fulfill their role as political bridging of social controversies. Sterilized Brasilia is therefore a questionable urban paradigm and a place where architecture meets utopia rather than reality.
3. Architecture and Art
In this part we will attempt to introduce art as grace. A notion of utmost fundamental importance, since none of good reasonable architecture is possible if it lacks in grace. Grace is the idea of “touch” that gives life to the rigid and is not supposed to surpass reason; rather it nestles inside, like the fire of Hestia that keeps the house warm. Grace “fires”, triggers, sets in motion creativity. In contrast to Hermes (hermeneutics) who travels around the world exploring the new, revitalizing the existed and transmitting information, the fireplace of Hestia symbolizes unity and concentration, a living moment: home. Beauty here is detected in both “ways”.
These two ways are mere techniques (techniques), where art (techne) is a continuous struggle lingering between the two worlds of Hestia and Hermes, a dangerous path through a schism. Thereby, art is a cognitive trial and a risky exposure of the creator to all forces of creation. For an artist, beauty is only one side of the story. It is relative. Through the artist’s point of view, the grotesque is equally claiming a position in creation. This can be accounted for as the ethical contribution of art to reason.
a. Disrespectful architecture
In art, ethics and by extension the notion of good, are questionable. Everything can be allowed in art. Art can be shocking. But how is ethics determined from an artist’s point of view? The artist’s ethos is the measurement of things. An example: The OUTLOOK art exhibition that took place in Athens (2003) will remain indelible for the Greek audience and society. The work of art of the Belgian artist Thierry de Cordier was removed after the instruction of the 2003 socialist Culture Minister, Evangelos Venizelos, because it was considered as blasphemous. This triggered a large chain reaction of conversations around the idea of freedom in art, and censorship…
In architecture though, the difference lies in that it is both science and art. An architectural work is destined to be dwelled by groups or individuals. A piece of art is not being dwelled. It is amongst other things experienced. Dwelling means to inhabit a place and experience the physical and symbolic environment. However, this does not prevent an architect to make insulting architecture, i.e. “disrespectful architecture”.
This can be understood under the argument that architectural design should comply with certain morphological rules. For instance, in Greece, disrespectful architecture is mostly met in traditional settlements, where new buildings “violate” tradition with their indecorum or weakness of adjusting to the existed cultural context.
Against the disastrous practice and contrary to the skepticism of those who disapprove of a new establishment of morphological rules, SADAS-PEA [Panhellenic Union of Architects] fought in Naupactus (2014) for enacting new building rules that will play a catalytic role in supplying the need for consistency, respect, and ‘sustainability’ in contemporary architectural creation . This move was made in order to establish respect in architecture and conformity to the existed.
b. Kitsch architecture
From the aforementioned analyses, claims, reasoning, examples and outcomes, it can be fairly deduced and orthologically set forth that architecture is not a mere science of just recording, analyzing, classifying and evaluating. Architecture is simultaneously art, i.e. expression and manifestation. Basic harmonization rules are important in order to satisfy the golden section rule and the eye, in an architectural whole that has relative balance. Also, it is important for an architect to be able to translate his intellectual intentions into architectural language and aesthetic quality.
Bad architecture is the failure of the architect to architecturally and aesthetically express oneself. Such action means that he/she has not managed to transcribe the idea of a building into spatial terms. An extreme manifestation of such architecture can easily be characterized as kitsch architecture, i.e. an overall dissonance.
c. Unoriginal architecture
Moreover, mimesis can be stated to be the quintessence of art. By mimesis we don’t mean sterile imitation. A work of mimesis, like in ancient tragedy, can cause high emotional experience. In contrast, an architectural work of sterile imitation i.e. replication, deviates from such direction.
Such example is the replica of the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee, in the USA. The copy of an original, only cut off its original environment and cultural context (topos), is a rather parody of an architectural act, rather than a serious one. And although it might be a good replica of the original masterpiece, it is without a doubt, acceptably ranged among bad architectural paradigms.
The work of architecture is a product of conscience and there out it can be evaluated more or less as beautiful, ethical, graceful, good, bad, kitsch and so forth. Either like Hermes’ constant travelling and networking or like Hestia’s care, architecture is the in-formation, i.e. the giving of form, to aesthetic experiences that explore the interweaving of the outer with the inner. Whether good or bad, architecture is a work in progress, because it is basically the search for architecture, as B.v.Reeth puts it.
Conclusively, we can say that good architecture is comprised of spatial and aesthetic experiences that directly or indirectly activate our sensors for beauty and ethics, irrespective of all kinds of bipolarity between beauty and ethics. In contrast, bad architecture fails to unbind from the level of rigid paradigms to leading sources of imagination and to examples for mimesis, which basically fails to satisfy the initial approach of beauty as being parallel to ethics. Therefore, bad architectures in total, can be called BAAD = Beauty Abortive Architectural Designs.
Dr. Myrto Kostaropoulou
Dipl. Architect Ing. NTUA
MSc in Design and Digital Media Edinburgh University
DrPhil University of Athens
I would like to thank A. Efraimidi for her assistance in editing in English.
1 Frampton Kenneth, Modern Architecture: a critical history, Themelio, Athens, 2009, p.272
2 Newton Eric, The Meaning of Beauty, Penguin Books, 1962, p.58
3 Raffaelli Baires, The fast guide to architectural form, BIS Publishers, 2016, p.7
4 Kaklidaki Evangelia interviews professor of architecture Elias Zenghelis
5 Sevastakis Dimitris, “A voyage”-The New Acropolis Museum, Issue 6, November 2015
7 Christea Lena, Report to the 1st academic co-Operation meeting, held at Nafpaktos on 24-26/1/2014 on the
introduction of morphological building rules and the role of the Association of Graduate Architects [Greek initials:
SADAS], “This Is A Co-op”: Official Catalogue for Greek Pavilion Biennale Architettura 2016 (La Biennale di
8 Bob van Reeth, Good architecture? in: What is good architecture?, OASE #90, p.39