Sunday, August 20, 2023

Beauty in Architecture -- and Design

 Text of the Talk presented at the


Kurula Varkey Design Forum 2023 
as part of De-Talks (panellist presentations) on 12 August 2023

To talk about beauty in architecture, we need to clarify what we mean by beauty. So I’m going to begin with a few pictures of architecture touted as the most beautiful in the world. However, the cliche that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholderis, like most cliches, true. Even the Taj Mahal has its detractors — amongst architects, most prominently Edwin Lutyens. But, leaving the personal angle aside, what does beauty mean in the cultural context we inhabit? Answering this involves some generalisation, since cultural context is not a monolith. Within this generalisation, I find Rajendra Chettiarthodi’s notes about The Concept of Beauty in Indian tradition worth quoting. He observes, ‘While western aestheticians equated beauty with symmetry and similar mathematical properties, Indian thinkers did not try to locate it in such clearly defined objective factors. Their concept of beauty had always some reference to the experience generated by the beautiful’. He goes on to quote the poet Magha: ‘That which appears anew is the nature of the beautiful,’ and Jagannath Pandita that ‘a beautiful object creates in us a form of knowledge, which gives rise to a supra-mundane form of bliss’. Supra-mundane means transcending or superior to the physical world. This meaning of beauty is thus, linked with experience of knowledge and blissful discovery. 

In architecture, such experience ought to be determined by function. But, does it? For instance, the famous engineer Ove Arup, termed the Sydney Opera House (whose function is evident in its title) ‘a millstone around our neck, since its spatial and structural planning had to be entirely reconfigured to try to make it work properly, with a final cost fourteen times the original estimate — as Malcolm Millais reveals in his book, Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture. We’d all agree, I think that however arresting the forms, if a building does not function properly, it cannot give an experience of knowledge or blissful discovery. As for the recently completed Bharat Mandapam in Delhi, praised as an architectural marvel by Anand Mahindra, its form (as shared by the project director), was driven by ‘the scale of the project’, ‘the footfall,’ and the fact that they ’wanted it to be an icon for modern India’. The meaning of icon is something regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of veneration, but many of the buildings we label iconic today do not fulfil that meaning. It is with reference to the almost exclusive association of beauty with the iconic, which we currently interpret as the ‘largest, tallest, weirdest’ — rather than as an experience worthy of reverence, that the interviewer asks: ‘If one were to pause and reflect on buildings that made one truly happy, at peace…and elevated our thoughts to give them meaning, what would those spaces be?

To explore what those spaces can be, we can turn to the Red Fort, the climax of imperial Mughal forts. Celebrated for its beauty, and a symbol of the Mughal empire and independent India, the Fort is iconic in the actual meaning of the word. Its overall design efficiently responded to site constraints and satisfied specific official, public, and private functions; its individual parts such as the Diwan-i-Am — the climax of the ceremonial axis from Shahjahanabad into the presence of the Emperor — were evolved representations of the traditional typology of the mandapam (or pavilion) set within forecourts. The Fort provided security for the emperor, and ease of use for him and for everyone else, along with a striking aesthetic quality. Similarly, the yantras of the Jantar Mantar, with their dramatic sculpturesque forms, detail, and size — some as large as seven-storey buildings — built to observe celestial objects and devised for precision of measurement by the human eye, have evoked wonder and self-discovery even in visitors unfamiliar with Indian astronomy.

Leaving the iconic aside, what about beauty in everyday architecture today? Well, the function of architecture is now generally reduced to programme-specifics. Private agencies and government organisations cite FSI, covered area, density, and facilities of shopping or gymming, as development criteria of housing colonies, rather than fundamental functions of houses as places of sanctuary; of shelter, safety and comfort. That is why we have so many concrete boxes masquerading as houses. These become ovens in the summers, ice-boxes in the winters, leak in the rains, and collapse suddenly — neither beautiful in experience nor appearance. As for schools, these are places to awaken the mind, but do they architecturally aid that function? The celebrated author, Shivani, who came to study at ShantiNiketan in Bengal from Kumaon in the Central Himalayas, recollects:

“Our classes were not closed in within walls that shut out the outer world, nor did they have ceilings to close our minds. As we sat under the canopy of the Ashram’s trees, the blue sky spread over us as far as we could see…If our fingers ached after writing, we were free to put down our pens and stroll away to hear the Santhal tribals who often passed the Ashram’s fields as they went about their work, singing or playing a haunting melody on a flute…The cooing doves and pigeons came to entertain us and helped us learn the dates of the three battles of Panipat so painlessly that they have remained etched in our minds forever. Like scores of students before and after us, we also struggled with Akbar’s religious policy and Lord Bentinck’s administrative reforms, yet what else was it but the magic of the Ashram that these never became a tiresome burden?”

I don’t know how many of you found school tiresome; but I dont remember the architecture of the nine different schools I attended, as being particularly beautiful, or giving the opportunity to gaze at trees, birds and squirrels! Such experiences, along with fresh air and natural light, help both the mind and the body; yet they are rarely integrated in architecture — even that of designated places of healing. Thus, the predominant function of hospitals today is to provide facilities for professional medical services; their design determinants are the number of beds, parking, rooms, etc. The architecture of one of the premier hospitals in India, AIIMS in Delhi, gives out a bleak rather than a reassuring vibe: while fancy hospitals with reflective glass and plush finishes, are also intimidating in their scale and impersonality. In contrast, even the process of choosing a building-site in the Indian tradition, is linked to an ideal of well-being for everybody, including the Earth we build upon, through a process of identifying site lakshana or characteristics of shape, odour, adjacencies, existing plantation, texture and taste of the soil!

Today, the rule rather than the exception, is that architecture is either directed by whimsy equated to beauty; or by market trends and commercial constraints. And the process of architectural design reduces function primarily to efficiency of plans, even though the plan is merely an abstraction and simplification; part of the industrial modernist world-view. In pre-industrial methods of building, ideas of function — and beauty — were part of the visual lexicon of a region, with little need for communicating that image through voluminous drawings. This made negotiations between client and builder, as between function and aesthetic, fluid and creative. Today, along with the reduction of function, there is also confusion about aesthetic norms, because we are trained in the modernist credo to make it new? and ‘do away with ornament! Though we may not agree with Le Corbusier — an important figure for architects worldwide — that: Decoration…is suited to simple races, peasants and savages’, most architects are wary of ornamentation. Yet, as we see in the Diwan-i-Am and other parts of the Red Fort, detailing and decoration can contribute as much to spatial experience as light and volume, while also expressing structural elements. But our architectural instruction does not involve sustained training in construction, or enough knowledge of materials like wood, mud, or stone. So, there is a reduced ability to deal with technical, spatial and material function, coupled with a reductive comprehension of function itself. Much of architecture today isun-beautifulbecause it is functional in a reductive way, or dysfunctional.

Fundamentally, thus, there is no contradiction between pragmatic needs and aesthetic concerns of creating space. Architecture needs to do both. It did so in the main, before the artificial split between function and beauty, which is the outcome of compartmentalising life into separate categories of work vs leisure, quantity vs quality, mundane vs spiritual. If we consider function in its complete sense: social, technical, ecological; and empathetic and satisfying all the senses, we would automatically provide for aesthetic qualities of light, texture, proportion, detail and spatial comfort. In conclusion, I’d like to end with an image which shows clearly how embodied beauty of functional values and manifested beauty of ornament, structure, and material, cannot be separated — and can be achieved in any domain of design.

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