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.
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.