People keen to explain architectural beauty usually take some building already thought beautiful and go on to describe how its various parts create qualities such as harmony, proportion, rhythm, scale and so on. These terms are all borrowed from painting and music and imply that architecture is an art to which similar rules apply. Even if they don’t, choosing something you like and trying to work out what you like about it is not a bad place to start.
Problems begin when we try to convince others. It’s one thing to claim, “I think this is beautiful” and quite another to claim, “This is beautiful!” Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was making a personal claim on behalf of everyone in 1964 when he famously defined pornography as “I know it when I see it.” Over in Europe around the same time, though, post-structuralist thinkers were saying it was fine for anyone to have an opinion on Beauty (or anything else) and what’s more, it didn’t matter how much that opinion was shared with others. This is more or less where we are now but we’re still uncomfortable with total subjectivity. We’re too quick to say, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” at first sign of disagreement. We tiptoe around the concept of Beauty without questioning why we even need such a concept.
We have our cultural history to blame. Ever since those ancient Greeks, Beauty has been thought of as the only aesthetic quality worth worrying about. People strove to create it. They defined ugliness as its absence and blandness as its insufficiency. Buildings that didn’t go far enough were deemed unsuccessful and those that went too far were deemed pretentious. Even so, it was important to try because buildings were either Architecture if they tried, or vernacular or industrial buildings if they didn’t.
This meant that low-cost, utilitarian or mass-produced buildings could never be beautiful no matter how much they might be praised for their economies, efficiencies, simplicities or charm. This was extremely limiting. Until the late 19th century, it wasn’t possible for something to be beautiful if it wasn’t also virtuous. American architect Edward Tuckerman Potter (1831–1904) had a successful and prolific career designing beautiful architecture, such as Mark Twain’s house and the churches that represent 66 of his 79 known buildings. I’m sure he thought they reconciled Beauty and Virtue in architecture. I’m also sure he thought it wasn’t enough because he stopped in 1877 (at the age of 46!) and then went on to design tenement housing and high-rise buildings with the virtues of improved ventilation and daylighting. Only after he stopped designing gorgeous houses and churches did he shed his perceived obligations to architectural beauty and design buildings that, while still virtuous in the spirit of helping one’s fellow man, were also virtuous in more sensible ways. […]