Originally prepared for the Whole Building Design Guide
5 19 2009

The only completely extant guide to the art of building from classical antiquity is “The Ten Books of Architecture”, completed about 25 BC. In it, Vitruvius, a Roman writer and possibly architect, proposes that a building should embody commodity, firmness and delight. Commodity refers to the fitness or appropriateness of a building, how well it supports the activities for which it was created. Firmness refers to its safety and stability, its ability to
stand up over time to the forces of destruction and decay. Delight refers to the aesthetic aspect. The aesthetic aspect of a building is how it makes you feel. This can range from awe to joy to fear to love to peace. It can be beauty but it can also be majesty, domination or simply order. It’s not just about appearances. Delight in built space (again, whether it is positive or negative) can be auditory, tactile, olfactory, thermal, visual, and even kinesthetic.

The aesthetics of a building may also be understood as all of those aspects of that are not specifically devoted to firmness or commodity. The awe felt when standing under the dome of the U.S. Capitol, the sadness unavoidable at the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial and the majestic quiet of the courtyard at Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute are all magnificent examples of architecture’s ability to create an aesthetic experience.

Broadly, aesthetics is the study of why certain sensory experiences elicit certain feelings. In this context, aesthetics refers to the sensory experiences created by the built environment; both how to control the effects of those experiences and also how to come to some shared understanding of how to judge those experiences. Judgments about aesthetics are often considered questions of taste. Taste is based solely on an individual’s opinions, though there is plenty of evidence that opinions about taste are often very important in creating a sense of community. Sharing taste is a very important method of separating them from us.

For members of the building professions, a more measurable approach to aesthetics is helpful. Ever since Vitruvius, architects and writers have attempted to come up with objective definitions of “good aesthetics”. It has been suggested that the golden mean is the most pleasing of proportions. Others have sought to develop a system of proportion based on a typical human body, on the theory that we most like to look at ourselves. Architects and engineers often don’t follow the rules of taste or any specific set of aesthetic rules, but they must be aware of them. To be oblivious to the aesthetic implications of your work is to be unprofessional. In many cases the aesthetics are central to the purpose of the building. Gothic cathedrals must be built with an eye toward commodity and firmness, but clearly they are most importantly aesthetic constructs. The desire of the Gothic master builders to push their vaulting technologies further and further up into the heavens complemented perfectly the goal of the church to represent its majesty in a very direct and powerful way here on earth.

Often, in the art of building, aesthetics is understood as a debate about styles. This is an unfortunately narrow, and nowadays, irrelevant reduction. It is the result of history.

The Egyptians (stacking stones), Greeks (posts and beams), Romans (masonry vaults), and Catholics (lighter and lighter masonry vaults with flying buttresses) each developed unique technologies for creating enclosed space. Those technologies resulted in the structures left to us today. Aesthetic strategies varied. The Greeks were masters of proportion and repose. The Romans and Catholics were structural wizards. The important thing to note, though, is that, to this point in history aesthetics was not a separate concern. Aesthetic concerns were a necessary and essential aspect of building well. One followed, as best one could, the aesthetic conventions of one’s age because everybody knew that they were essential to good building.

Around 1500 BC, at least in Italy, the Catholic (or what is more commonly called the Gothic) tradition ran out of steam. They had cut the stones as thin as possible and pushed them as close to heaven as they dared. During this time of relative peace and prosperity, travel resulted in the “rediscovery” of Rome and Greece. At the same time, truly modern cities were born and the predominant charge to architects moved from churches to various civic buildings. Artists, who found it impossible to create anything new or appropriate within the Gothic tradition, began to look for guidance from the pre-gothic remnants, ruins and texts.

Stylism was born. Aesthetics stepped out the shadows to become a separate and independent goal. Architects since the renaissance have never suggested that we should use the ancient technologies. Instead, the visual aspects of those technologies were stripped of all commodity and firmness and reintroduced as systems of decoration. Instead of being about making the best use of available building technology in terms of commodity, firmness and delight, architecture came to be an academic debate about whether it was better to decorate in the style of the Romans or the Greeks, and then, as the artists tired of copying those, even a system of decoration based on Gothic technology was developed.

In the last 19th and early 20th centuries, some architects attempted to return to the original process. The new technologies of steel, glass, elevators, and prefabrication all generated the possibility of a new architecture in which aesthetics went back to being something you just did in the course of making the best uses of the technologies at hand. But it did not happen. Instead, modernism became just another of the available decorative styles. The contest of style reached its apogee, this author hopes, in the work of Robert Venturi. In his book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture and in much of his work, he turned the old argument against applied decoration on its head by suggesting that at least it was cheaper to decorate a straightforward building than it was to devote the whole building to the purpose of decoration. Some will remember this as the contest between the decorated shed and the architectural duck. The duck pays as little respect as possible to commodity and firmness while the shed completely isolates commodity and firmness from delight.

Historically, the styles were based on a cultural technology. They had some legitimacy because of the number of people who had previously agreed upon their appropriateness. Today, instead we end up with styles based on the vision of one individual. Would you like your building to be a Meier, a Graves or a Gehry? It’s hard to take all of this very seriously.

In the meantime, though, in spite of the style wars, buildings of great delight, delight that is integrated into the building continue to be created. Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal at JFK in New York and St Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco (a collaboration between Pietro Belluschi and Pier Luigi Nervi) are examples where style was not and is not the question. Ludwig van Mies van der Rohe is also an old fashioned architect. Mies is misused when he is claimed as a representative of a certain style. Saarinen, Belluschi and Mies were all architects who carefully balanced and integrated the requirements of commodity, firmness and delight.

Needless to say, aesthetics is a field full of great dispute. Despite endless attempts over thousands of years, we have not yet been able to avoid the maxim that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Thus, there is no easy way to “learn aesthetics” as it applies to the built environment.