On Order, Beauty and Excess

Find what you need and some inner calm! shines friendly an IKEA ad in the morning sun, as if an unexpected pal clued in about my rushed raking through drawers in search for a comb and an unpaired earring.

Organize your life with our app! incites me a billboard while I struggle to cram within 2 hours 27 to-do-things, sighing that I can’t stuff more.

Prevent eating disorders with this healthy routine! promises me a title in the magazine I read over the shoulder of my fellow tram rider.

We’re surrounded by bits of advice on how to order our things and actions. Quite often: others’ things and actions. On top of that: even things and actions that have long disappeared, for what’s the use of self-reflection if not an attempt to order (under some logic) the individual or collective pasts.

When we say that something is out of order, we assume a certain order of things that has been broken or pulled away from the appropriate path. It seems that order steers our lives on the good track and keep us out of all sorts of disorders, be they mental, eating or of other kind. Now and then we rebel against the order of things and break it: street protests, furious job quitting, fugitive indulgences into buckets of ice creams, blatantly ragged jeans (Alas! This is not an option anymore since the fashion world hugged the idea so tightly that turned a sign of non-conformism into regularity).

Beauty is ordered

A beautiful carpet has something in common with a nicely set dinner table, an elegant dress and a trendy-furnished room. They all display patterns that we recognize: symmetries, contrasts, organized arrays of elements. If the dinner table looks like a pile of randomly thrown napkins, forks, tomatoes, and 40 other food items, we don’t like it. But the symmetrical arrangement of plates, the contrast of just a few colors, and line of several appetizers appeal to us. We grasp the arrangement of the table. And understanding this arrangement makes us content.

It may be written in our DNA or it may be a cultural trait. Debates are still open. But the fact is clear:

we are

               pattern seekers,

                              order addicted,

                                             structure lovers.

 

Beautiful orders of space

Symmetry, contrast, array are all ways of ordering the space.  Let’s take a look at symmetry: easy-to-grasp, elegant, at hand in all world cultures and times until…

 

 

Budapest. Perfect symmetry on a neoclassical façade. Yet, it doesn’t look monotonous or banal because it doesn’t extend over a large area.

Cappadocia. Vertical symmetry marks the entrance in the cave:  two openings framed by arches. Here the symmetry is neither boring nor monumental for it brings in the twisted  cave landscape a bit of spatial organization.  

…until modernity came in and challenged it with a more sophisticated order of space: balance.

The new space organization has been (and still is sometimes) more difficult to grasp, more intellectually demanding, at times more elitist. Symmetry, for instance, which had ordered the inside and outside of so many buildings before, was seen as a childish, too easy a path to organize a surface. Modernity removed it not only because of its banality but also because of its monumental and dogmatic spirit. The new lifestyle did not need majestic porticoes and representative dinner halls, but cozy entrances and rooms large enough to fit a large family dinner table. It did not accept any more majestic facades on which a toilet window becomes as richly decorated as a living-room window just for the sake of formal order.

Modernity’s balance means a pleasant proportion between void and solid; a true correspondence between the inside and outside of the building (that is a school should reflect its use in the outer appearance). However, balance is more challenging to reach than old-fashioned logic such as symmetry, contrast and simple arrays. And more personal, for what I consider a beautifully balanced composition may seem bizarre to you. We can argue in favor of each view. But we can’t argue about a building’s symmetry for symmetry is math: the same for all eyes. Modern architecture is therefore more prone to subjective meanings of beauty, which may be disputable. In the same time it allows free roaming of creativity. Advantage and disadvantage. Take what you need!

Excessive order

What if the order of space is so ordered that overwhelms our place, mind, and life?

Too organized a space yields fearful sensations, apprehensions, tensions. We’re on guard against breaking the rules of spatial order: no trespassing on grass, no touching the statues, no playing with water around the pond. Some playgrounds even delimit specific places to each playing activity as if the bucket-and-shovel can’t be used in any place other than the sandpool. Nevertheless, playgrounds’ rules, as excessive as can be, are minor worries compared to…

the grandiose display of symmetry 

which instantly connects to

the grandiose display of power.

casa poporului
Bucharest. Palace of Parliament. Built in 1980s under the communist regime. Source of inspiration:  North Korea’s capital.

Take a look above at the heaviest building in the world. The monotonous repetition of windows has something scary in itself. It recalls the tight order of an army. Perfect army means perfect obedience. Obedience to whose order? Deep within us lies the fear that large-scale repetition paves the way for authoritarian abuses.

Excessively ordered blocks of flats in Eastern Europe were meant to yield new people: perfectly ordered, entirely submissive masses. Excessively ordered uniforms, be they  Clone army’s or Red army’s uniforms aim the same: perfect obedience toward the Power.

 

 

 

Chaotic order

Yet, we crave for order. In small amounts. Even the most chaotic of us look for thin logical threads that connect seemingly meaningless events in our lives. The cause-effect logic is such an organizing thread. Religions, rituals, even daily routines are other threads on which we rely and which order our time and place. We uncoil these organizing threads somewhere between excessive order and chaos:

Excessive order is oppressive.

Chaos is frightening.

At times the idea of chaos inspires us to break a certain order of things (which we quickly change for some other order, not necessarily better). Yet, most times it frightens us. So much that the scientists look for hidden rules that organize it. It’s hard to imagine something in perfect disorder, although we are surrounded by the chaotic irregularities of the rugged mountainous surface, leaf edges, and traffic jams among others.  They don’t follow any pattern. But at particular thresholds of detail, researchers discovered patterns of self-similarity, repetition, feedback. For ordinary eyes, in our daily life, this order remains invisible, but hi-tech enhanced eyes discern an order within chaos. Does this make the chaos less frightening? Or, on the contrary, it makes it more threatening for we know it is structured but can’t grasp its structure?

In any case we are heavily biased toward order, for deep within us there seems to be a subconscious overlap between order and beauty. As long as we avoid the extremes — excessive order and chaos — there’s plenty of room to follow, adjust, contest and even create novel orders.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Worn-out, the Modern, and the Dangerous

Some buildings look better worn-out. Ageing yields value to violins, books, and historical buildings, among others. What about the plastic toys, the houseware and the ordinary blocks of flats? Why aging turns sometimes into an asset, while other times into a drawback?

Our taken-for-granted values slumber at the bottom of things. Unaware of our word choice, we talk about:

Stones that get patina, whereas concrete gets just cracks.

Copper domes that get verdigris (what a refined French-flavored word for a poisoning cupric salt!), while metallic handrails get so corroded that we avoid touching them.

Blatant deformations of old wrought-iron fences create atmosphere, whereas a tiny scratch on a flawless smooth new fence immediately draws our disapproving eyes.

Charm

          may come with age …

when we fill up with shared meanings, intimate dreams, and hidden desires the missing bricks, absent roofs, and plaster holes of old buildings. When weathering peels off the old facades’ plaster and exposes some bricks, our imagination starts fluttering mysterious stories and romantic love affairs. Add some ivy and a lilac tree, and ready is the novel (or a city break)!

          or may not

Now try to instill some meaning into the plaster holes of an average 1960s block of flats. You push and poke. You thrust and pierce. The holes continue to be just holes. Grey, bleak and gloomy. A slight dread may linger within your knees. Some sceptic thoughts on the actual order of things may wander in your mind. Eventually an apocalyptic future scenario may arise (and definitely no trip over there).

          may come with modernity…

when modern architecture sticks to its creed: the form follows the function. The content dominates the container. In other words, the interior space unfolds a comfortable logic of light and shadow, of open but still intimate spaces. When the interior inspires the outer appearance of the building, and even its surroundings, then yes, charm springs out!

          or may not

But there is no charm in a plainly rectangular surface dotted with windows, on which the wearing effect of wind and rain left repellent shades of rust. The shallow modern architecture ages quickly and ugly. Weathering has disastrous effects on its simple lines and surfaces. It turns minimalism into poverty. Our eyes get used to discoloration and meaninglessness. To a grim nothingness through which…

          the danger comes in

Out of this grim nothingness just an exotic sunny vacation or a radical green behavior can push us out. Both solutions are spiritually dangerous. The exoticism of glamorous architecture that scintillates on the Arabian peninsula is too far from Walter Gropius’s drivers to modern architecture to be a credible alternative. It infuses us with a shallow rush towards highly elaborated, twisted and intricate sculptural architectures. Sculptures are beautiful objects, highly visited, but not easy to dwell in. Most people just overnight in such sculptures such as the many-stars-hotels in Dubai.

At the opposite spectrum lies the radical movement toward traditional, vernacular, green, eco, bio, free, smart, sustainable, durable, community-driven architecture. Whatever the buzz word describing it, this architecture lies the dweller and the passer-by. It irritates our common-sense, our nerves and our money.

Let’s have a closer look at the idea of community for it seems to be a must in the architecture workshops, competitions and specialized books nowadays. However beautiful the concept of living together, most of us prefer the comfort of an ordinary private home where we wear whatever we want, even nothing; gulp however we want, even dragon-like; and do whatever we feel like without strangers’ gazes. 

I’ve recently seen a project happily promoting the house of the future: an apartment sharing the kitchen with other apartments. Modern people don’t have time to spend in kitchens, was argued there, so that the solution is a common kitchen where people take turns in preparing food for all. Really? Is this the crucial issue of our IT-led time: food preparation? I’m not sure how much community-aware one remains when forced to share the kitchen with incompatible people in however highly conceptualized, newly designed contemporary dwelling. 

With half of Europe still crammed into so-called modernist, so called community-shared (read communist) housing in which kitchens and bathrooms were shared (Nobel-Prize winner Svetlana Aleksievich should be a must on the required readings of theory of architecture classes), in which simple form means no form at all, and air is reduced to a standard of 8 cubic meters per person, it is intellectually doubtful and ethically irresponsible to promote it as the housing model of the future. 

Why ugly ageing?

I haven’t seen tourists wandering any street packed with decrepit 1960s block of flats. But I’ve seen many strolling the streets of old downtowns, no matter how shabby the buildings are.

Is it something in the modern architecture prone to ugly ageing? I wonder what…

The fear of ornaments?

More than 100 years ago a stormy lecture rocked the arts and architecture in Secession Vienna. Adolf Loos — 40 years old, slim, seemingly fragile, but highly seductive — incriminated, in front of a sophisticated audience, the ornament. Ornament and Crime has become a manifesto for the modern architecture (Don’t read it if you’re tattooed or love indigenous cultures. It will make your hair stand on end!)

In brief, all these ornaments that make up today’s eclectic look of many a European capitals– sculpted leaves, twisted flowers, curled heads, protruding deities — are useless and therefore harmful for progress and modernity, he claimed. He was right. But how to create beautiful objects if you don’t decorate them? It’s like a birthday cake without marzipan figurines.

Well, it is possible, argued Loos, who was actually a classicist (in the Roman sense of the word), and his fellow promoters of modern architecture. An object is beautiful through qualities such as shape, proportion, and material. It doesn’t need additional ribbons, flowers, dots and colors to show off. The dependency on additional decoration means a lack of quality. This is visible even in the contemporary trend of crafted, more natural food whose appearance is simple, closer to the original colors of the ingredients (no chemically enhanced colors).

Therefore it’s nothing wrong with the modern architecture in theory. Just in practice. The laid-back practice of modern architecture strips the ornaments but doesn’t add anything to the basic layouts to create a sense of beauty. “Ornament and Crime” refers to other qualities able to bring beauty, such as proportions, rhythm, light, which should replace the decoration. It sets a contrast between the outer qualities of an object (decoration) and its intrinsic qualities (pattern, texture, material). But in the everyday practice of building and arranging spaces it seems far more difficult to follow proportions and ratios than to stick and glue some ready-made decoration.

As a result, the ordinary modern architecture looks poor and wrinkled from birth. Only the extraordinary modern architecture resonates deeply with our search for beauty. But we don’t dwell in the extraordinary. Our daily experiences are grounded into ordinary. What should we do?

There may be the time to take a break

A break from the over-standardization of ordinary architecture cunningly legitimized by economic grounds and even by technological advancement. (Why do the intelligent buildings look like cuboids drawn by first graders?)

A break from over-revering shiny architectural sculptures that glister ephemeral into dessert landscapes stripped of basic infrastructure and human rights. These are not models for an architecture of the future.

And after the break, think again what modern architecture achieved and where it failed. Breathe and chant: beauty should remain beauty. Otherwise, the modern architecture will turn into an old hag hunting us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Street Façades

Budapest, Downtown.

Strawberries — shimmering, red with sun – spread in wooden baskets in front of the cramped grocer’s. I halt. The grocer’s shop lies at the ground floor of a 1900s six-story building whose canary yellowish, freshly painted walls set my teeth on edge. I glance up and … wow! Instantly I slide along the first floor balcony’s winding corbels into a moment of delight. Although the building is too eclectic for my taste (and too yellowish – who on earth painted it like that?), I keep gazing up. The second floor balcony seems enough robust as to bear gracefully the load of a colossal order spanning two stories. An arch pediment adorns the façade with its flower reliefs.

Adjacent to the grocer’s there is a grayish nothing, a sort of dully plastered void. Since 2 years I’ve been living across it, but my gaze hasn’t stalled upon this 1970s block of flats until I set it against its elder neighbor. The new building is neither taller nor shorter than the old one, neither richer nor poorer in terms of building materials, neither gorgeous nor hideous. Seven white horizontal stripes mark diligently seven stories. Window follows window. Balcony follows balcony. In a steady, monotonous rhythm that would go on endlessly if not for the discontinuous cracks in the balconies’ PVC parapets.

 

The two neighboring buildings that sparked my query are just average. Considering that most of us live within average architecture, why not taking a closer look at an average sense of beauty?
Budapest: The two neighboring buildings that sparked my query are just average. Considering that most of us live within average architecture, why not taking a closer look at an average sense of beauty?

Pleasant and unpleasant average architecture

Don’t take it wrong. I don’t praise Neoclassicism against International Style, nor do I compare here “old good times” with “modern corrupt times”. There is enough populist rhetoric on this issue worldwide, not mentioning that to do the laundry without a washing machine, to dress in 10-or-so tight layers and to lose a child for the lack of antibiotics cannot really be anybody’s dream life. Moreover, the Neoclassical architecture, usually associated to these “old good times”, doesn’t quite inspire the architects today.

The two neighboring buildings that sparked my query are just average. Yet, most of us live within average architecture. Just a small fraction of the world’s population enjoy daily Siena’s main square. The rest of us fancy only a vacation there. It is for this reason that I wonder why do I (and many others) like better the 1900s than the 1970s building?

To me, as to the crowds of tourists flooding the old downtown avenues of Budapest, Paris, Vienna and the like, there is something revealing about our strolling choice. Why don’t we wander the alleys lined up with modernist blocks of flats, so abundant in those cities? Why do we think they are neither worth nor enough attractive?

The truth is that these old streets’s buildings are no architectural wonders. Just imagine that you’ll have to pay a flight ticket to see only one of these buildings. You won’t probably make the effort, for it is no special building in itself. But the contiguity of these non-special buildings’ façades offers a unique experience of the street, way more enriching than the experience of the long rows of modernist façades. And here comes my wonder: WHY?

Is beauty a cultural construct or an innate propensity to some geometric patterns found in nature? In other words: Is the beauty lying in the eyes of the beholder or in the object itself (which means that our DNA recognizes it as such)? Opinions split at this point. There’s no use of taking sides for famous philosophers have already struggled to prove each in vain. But there’s far more use in clearing up each side, so that our everyday (or holiday) street experience gets richer. To cut short a long story, think at culture and geometry. They are both hidden within all objects around us.

How culture shapes our beauty models

We tend to appropriate models, even if we don’t realize. From behavior and clothes to houses, we choose what we think that uniquely fits us, overlooking the cultural load that actually has shaped our choice. Family, education, and social status configure what we consider beautiful.

Take as an example the widespread use of fake columns on 18th and 19th century European façades. It was fashionable and prestigious. Ancient like columns crowned by a sculpted pediment would tell the outer world about the houseowner’s high status. Why? Because the ancient Greek and Roman columns have been re-fashioned in the Renaissance times as markers of a valuable inheritance, then spread around Europe through aristocratic networks, and have been taken over by the bourgeoisie and national states’ institutions as models.

Now, let’s go back to the point: I and others perceive the 1900s façade above attractive because we are taught to. Not necessarily in an academic manner, but in the myriads encounters with values, people, books, images, movies, and even brands we cherish unaware that all these are culturally inherited.

But the modernist movement is also part of our cultural inheritance and — alas! — the 1970s façade doesn’t stir the same esthetic joy. That’s odd considering that buildings today follow the modernist fashion much closer than other cultural products for they would easily be disparaged as kitsch if they reproduced non-modernist models, whereas clothes and household items would be ranked as vintage.

Can it be something else than culture, something hidden in the object itself, in its lines and colors, which secretly pleases the eye?

Geometry and beauty

From Plato to Kant, philosophers have argued that: yes! There is something that models our sense of beauty. We find things beautiful when we compare them with that model. Let aside the theory of esthetics, there are some down-to-earth geometrical proportions that are more likable across cultures and times than others. If they are culturally constructed or not does not bear much relevance in architecture for the history of architecture proves them as universal.

Golden ratio, central composition, dominant and counter-dominant, and symmetry have been always important in the geometry of beautiful objects, be they buildings, drawings, or sculptures. Any photo course or visual marketing class you attend nowadays includes old hints about these geometrical rules and the product’s appeal. More about the delicate intertwine of geometry, psychology, art and architecture lies in Rudolf Arnheim’s Visual Thinking book.

Let’s have a look at the most common of all geometrical patterns: the symmetry.

Symmetrical patterns have been used worldwide and in all times, except for the present, in art and architecture. It seems that symmetry yields a deep sense of beauty, although architects try now desperately to avoid it fearing that their designs would look too common.  Anyway much of the average architecture today looks banal. And the use of symmetry is not to blame for it.

For an interesting account of how banality can rise to huge prizes take a look at Niklas Maak’s Living Complex book, which shows the suburban house of a former President of Germany (who stepped down due to financial affairs). The exterior is purely ugly. Its dullness costs millions. Are people dressing in The Emperor’s New Clothes without realizing it?

Returning to the two buildings above: none shows a clear line of symmetry, but pay attention to the patterns of windows and balconies. The new façade seems symmetrical, although it’s just an illusion given by the monotonous rows of windows and balconies. All the same. Like tiny grey people waking up at 7am, going to the office at 9am, returning home at 6 pm, eating at 7 pm, watching TV until 10 pm and going to bed. A bright new day will come!

The old façade shows a central jutting body of windows lined by 2 columns and crowned by a curved pediment, entirely symmetric. Yet, this body is not really centrally placed on the façade, probably due to the interior layout requirements. It’s not wonderful, but it offers the building a dominant element that makes the façade’s composition intelligible and easy to spot among others.

This is something that most of us look for in the surrounding objects. A hidden geometry of beauty.

Something that I and others see daily out of the corner of our eyes. Unaware that it makes streets, buildings and objects appealing or unpleasant.

A hidden geometry of lines and meanings lay dormant in things. It awaits you, the passerby, to rouse it up.