The Business of Aesthetics

Patrik Schumacher, partner at Zaha Hadid Architects, recently took to Facebook to voice his opinions on Alejandro Aravena’s Prizker award earlier this year. His formidable position in our contemporary architectural discourse, coupled with his work in the arena of parametricism as style and his collaboration with the “queen of the curve”, the late and great Dame Zaha Hadid, add a certain gravitas to his sentiments and indeed reignite the debate over architecture’s societal role:

The PC takeover of architecture is complete: Pritzker Prize mutates into a prize for humanitarian work. The role of the architect is now ‘to serve greater social and humanitarian needs’ and the new Laureate is hailed for ‘tackling the global housing crisis’ and for his concern for the underprivileged. Architecture loses its specific societal task and responsibility, architectural innovation is replaced by the demonstration of noble intentions and the discipline’s criteria of success and excellence dissolve in the vague do-good-feel-good pursuit of ‘social justice’.

– Patrik Schumacher, ZHA

Architecture as a practice has long sought to root itself within a societal discourse. And rightly so, for the artefacts it produces stand as anchors in time, reflections of the zeitgeist, and responses to various social flows – the flows of people, of money, of technology and of power.

Yet at its core, I believe, architecture holds firmly to the business of producing artefacts. For, once stripped of all the intellectual mist that surrounds a piece of architecture, the thing that remains, the concrete and brick and mortar that form the geometries so intricately laboured over by the practitioner, lies firmly within the realm of aesthetics. It is an artefact, an object that was created to appeal, at its very base level, to certain rules of beauty that have been argued over for millenia.

In pop culture, the way something looks is paramount to its success. Let’s not kid ourselves about this. The aesthetic conception is something that pervades contemporary society; it’s the veil that draws one in to whatever intellectual (or “abstract beauty”) lies behind.

Perhaps there is another debate lurking here – what is it that defines beauty? Ideas of cultural bias, of historic prejudiced views, mathematical proof and geometric arguments all play pivotal roles in discussing this. But that’s not the point of today’s post.

My argument is that, in a world that has become susceptible to politically correct language, it is very easy for discourse around architecture to become dramatically defensive and deny the unavoidable (if perhaps harsh) truth: that aesthetics is the name of our game. We should rather embrace this discourse, and begin to tamper with it: to engage in the idea of aesthetics being a crucial part of architecture, and to interrogate its various virtues and disadvantages.

Architects are not politicians. We’re not activists, nor are we philosophers. Yes, we may harbour sentiments that are shared with these other groups, but at the heart of our profession is a desire to shape worlds, through imagination and the pursuit of the creative spirit. We are ever aware of the gravitas that underscores our duty to society, yet that doesn’t mean we can’t also have a little fun too.

Why we do what we do

This notion of questioning why we – as people who create things, imagine things, build things and dream things – do what we do, has been playing around in my mind for a while now. Why is it that we push ourselves in this way, warp our minds into the worlds we dream up, stay up late into the early hours of the cold morning still toiling away at our keyboards, drawing boards, tablets and canvases?

Indeed, there is a fire that burns within the creator, the maker of art and literature and poetry and those things that make life worth living for. A burning desire to shape reality to the whims of our imaginations, to concretise the wisps of thought. We’re compelled to see our ideas through to their ends; we’re driven by passion, I guess you could say.

This quote from one of my favourite movies, Dead Poets Society, is perhaps the best way to capture the essence of why some of us prefer to stay up in the solitude of the night, not dreaming but gently luring those dreams into the cool air of this world.

… the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

– John Keating (Robin Williams), Dead Poets Society (1989)