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At an outdoor temporary pavilion in the main parking lot at the Southern California Institute of Architecture are fellow architects Peter Cook, Hernan Diaz Alonso, Eric Owen Moss and Greg Lynn, where Moss is director. (Rafael Sampaio Rocha / September 26, 2010)

Frank Gehry was on the panel. So was Thom Mayne. And fellow architects Eric Owen Moss, Peter Cook, Hernan Diaz Alonso and Greg Lynn. The subject was the “troubled relationship” between architecture and beauty. The setting, on a warm recent evening, was an outdoor pavilion in the main parking lot at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, where Moss is director. The impresario, moderator and ego-wrangler was architect Yael Reisner, Cook’s wife and the author of a new book of interviews with architects on beauty.

In the end, if the panelists didn’t exactly embrace the topic at hand — and if the uneven discussion that resulted was, itself, far from a thing of beauty — that could hardly be counted as a surprise. The group of architects Reisner asked to take part, representative of the larger group she features in the book, have always eyed beauty with wariness, if not outright hostility. There were times during the panel when it seemed the huge, standing-room-only crowd had gathered to listen to a bunch of Hatfields discuss the McCoys.

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Christopher Hawthorne
Los Angeles Times

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In Britain, the state, in the form either of local or central government, will tell you whether you can or cannot build on land that you own. And if it permits you to build, it will stipulate not only the purposes for which you may use the building, but also how it should look, and what materials should be used to construct it. Americans are used to building regulations that enforce utilitarian standards: insulation, smoke alarms, electrical safety, the size and situation of bathrooms, and so on. But they are not used to being told what aesthetic principles to follow, or what the neighborhood requires of materials and architectural details. I suspect that many Americans would regard such stipulations as a radical violation of property rights, and further evidence of the state’s illegitimate expansion.

This American attitude has something healthy about it, but it tends to go with two quite erroneous assumptions about beauty and the aesthetic. The first assumption is that beauty is an entirely subjective matter, about which there can be no reasoned argument and concerning which it is futile to search for a consensus. The second assumption, congenial to those who adopt the first, is that beauty doesn’t matter, that it is a value without economic reality, which cannot be allowed to place any independent constraint on the workings of the market.

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Roger Scruton
The American


(Photo: BBC)

In Britain, the state, in the form either of local or central government, will tell you whether you can or cannot build on land that you own. And if it permits you to build, it will stipulate not only the purposes for which you may use the building, but also how it should look, and what materials should be used to construct it. Americans are used to building regulations that enforce utilitarian standards: insulation, smoke alarms, electrical safety, the size and situation of bathrooms, and so on. But they are not used to being told what aesthetic principles to follow, or what the neighborhood requires of materials and architectural details. I suspect that many Americans would regard such stipulations as a radical violation of property rights, and further evidence of the state’s illegitimate expansion.

This American attitude has something healthy about it, but it tends to go with two quite erroneous assumptions about beauty and the aesthetic. The first assumption is that beauty is an entirely subjective matter, about which there can be no reasoned argument and concerning which it is futile to search for a consensus. The second assumption, congenial to those who adopt the first, is that beauty doesn’t matter, that it is a value without economic reality, which cannot be allowed to place any independent constraint on the workings of the market.

The first assumption, that beauty is subjective, owes much of its appeal to the fact that it is functional in a democratic culture. By making this assumption you avoid giving offense to the one whose taste differs from yours. He likes garden gnomes, illuminated Christmas displays, Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas,” and a thousand other things that send shudders down the educated spine. But that’s his taste, and he is entitled to it. Leave him to enjoy it and he will leave you to get on with listening to Beethoven quartets, collecting antiques, and designing your house in the style of Palladio. But sometimes the assumption becomes dysfunctional. Each year his illuminated Christmas display increases in size, gets more bright and obtrusive, and lasts longer. Eventually his house has an all-year round Christmas tree, with Santa protruding from the chimney and brightly shining reindeer on the lawn. To be honest, the sight is insufferable, and entirely spoils the view from your window. You retaliate by playing Wagner late at night, only to receive blasts of Bing Crosby in the early hours. Here is the democratic culture at work—on its way to mutual destruction.

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Roger Scruton
The American

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Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Kate Moss modelling for Topshop were cited as contrasting ideals of beauty by Roger Scruton in a debate on whether or Britain has become indifferent to beauty. Photograph: Corbis/AFP

The great thing about the present economic calamity is that it is forcing a thoughtful re-examination of values, rather than the coarse pursuit of acquiring more stuff we don’t need with money we don’t have.

So, right on cue, the National Trust, guardian of collective memory, has held its first public “Quality of Life” debate, organised by Intelligence Squared, the business that makes brainy argument into an extreme sport for urban intellectuals. During last Thursday’s cocktail hour at the Royal Geographical Society, 700 guests paid to hear a debate on whether “Britain has become indifferent to beauty”.

For the motion was David Starkey, the rebarbative, reactionary telly-don who has turned history into a queenly costume drama. With him, the amiable Roger Scruton: a foxhunting High Tory philosopher in corduroy who is everyone’s idea of a dotty professor. Starkey and Scruton see culture as a serial that has been recorded in episodes and canned in perpetuity for posterity. The task, in their view, is not to augment architectural history with up-to-date improvements, but regularly to revisit the past for edification and instruction.

Bereft of optimism or enthusiasm, bloated with sly and knowing cynicism, they see no value in contemporary life. Nothing to them is so howlingly funny as poor people going shopping in Tesco. In their panelled common rooms they slap their thighs and shriek with laughter at the crude appetites of people who drive cars or go on holidays.

John Betjeman was the same. He found dual-carriageways and council houses signs of perdition. Betjeman called Nikolaus Pevsner, our greatest architectural historian and unblinking champion of Modernism, “plebsveneer”.

Against the motion, Germaine Greer and myself. Greer is, after Clive James, our Greatest Living Australian National Treasure, although – to be honest – being told that she recently appeared on television in pop socks had made me a bit alarmed about the integrity of our argument. Greer is, her strident feminist years now gone the way of Starkey’s codpieces as a fashion accessory, an ocean-going intellect of, pop socks notwithstanding, some grandeur.

For me, the debate was a chance to go rhetorical about the single cultural principle I hold most dear: that history and tradition are things you build on with pride and conviction, not resorts you scurry back to when you can think of nothing better to do. I believe that to deny the present is to shortchange the future. These things I learnt from Nikolaus Pevsner.

The debate was chaired, with steely aplomb, by the Guardian columnist and National Trust chairman, Sir Simon Jenkins.

My argument was that, while Britain is most certainly in radical need of wholesale top-to-tail improvements to its fabric and its manners and attitudes, it is insulting and ignorant to say that this entire civilisation is “indifferent to beauty”. Beauty is fugitive and takes different forms at different historical moments. No one, Dr Starkey, writes madrigals any more.

On the other hand, Scruton and Starkey argued that no one discusses beauty any more. What they mean is that in their arid, isolated and increasingly irrelevant academic circles, beauty is a taboo. They need to get out more. Where I travel, in architectural offices and design consultancies and advertising agencies, beauty is discussed all the time.

And the public, consciously or not, is always in pursuit. I don’t know when Starkey or Scruton last visited TopShop on Oxford Street, but here they would find a huge, inspired and energetic audience in pursuit of … beauty, or, at least a version of it. The clothes in TopShop fall straight out of the British art school system, the oldest and best in the world, one that gets Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Matthew Williamson to be in charge of international fashion houses whose ideas feed beautiful clothes to the high street.

This same art and design education system stimulates the liveliest architectural culture on the planet. Most car designers are educated in Britain. And this same art education system produces Jonathan Ive, designer of the iPod. Last year millions of British consumers bought one because they are passionate about its beauty. They paid a premium price for a machine which, technologically, is no different to its MP3 rivals.

Britain, the country that Starkey and Scruton believe is indifferent to beauty, has by far the world’s most active design culture. Italy (the traditional home of bella figura) is pitiably backward in comparison. Scruton showed a picture of Botticelli’s Venus shoulder-to-shoulder with Kate Moss and told the audience how cruddy our culture is. I had to explain to him that Botticelli’s model was a common Florentine hooker called Simonetta Vespucci, painted nude to titillate his client.

Whether in fashion, products, packaging or buildings, design is by definition mass-market and to satisfy that mass market, you have to design beautiful, attractive objects. As pioneer design consultant Raymond Loewy knew, “ugliness sells badly”. But Starkey feels that selling is a transaction between pimps and whores, a view which may reveal more of his personal experience than it does of national life.

The motion wobbled as the audience saw the prejudice inherent in it: greater interest in beauty existed in the past. Yet people have a selective view of the past and its benefits: Starkey did not, I think, travel to London on an Elizabethan train. And he is corrupted by “survival bias”, the fact that only the best of the past survives and influences us disproportionately. Anyone who has read the accounts by Daniel Defoe or Celia Fiennes of travelling around Ye Olde Britaine know the squalor and ugliness of the past. Engels’s Condition of the Working Class (1844) describes a culture contemptuous of beauty. And let’s not forget George Orwell during his down-and-out period. I personally would not swap Wigan Pier for the London Eye or Liverpool Seaman’s Orphanage of 1885 for the impressive new Westminster Academy.

Design is about the popularisation of beauty. So, far from being “visually illiterate”, we enjoy popular advertising whose visual sophistication and coded language would have baffled a Sorbonne professor 25 years ago. It is readily de-coded by millions of adepts every night. Scruton called this sophisticated act of interpretation “pollution”.

Then there are our art galleries and museums. Seven out of 40 of the world’s most popular galleries are in London. Tate Modern gets 5.23m visitors a year and they are not all tourists: 67% are from the UK and are repeat customers. And what of the National Trust itself? Scruton and Starkey had problems arguing that its 3.5 million members belonged to an aesthetically indifferent culture.

But beauty can be abstract as well as visual. London is the cultural and gastronomic capital of the world. Better now to eat here than in Paris. Same goes for music and theatre. We spend more time in and more money on gardens than any other culture.

Britain is not indifferent to beauty. Anybody who has been on a diet, gone to a gym, dreamed about a holiday or wondered about a new car, watched Dan Pearson on television, enjoyed the London Eye or admired Tate Modern or felt Swiss Re makes an interesting contribution to the London skyline is in dedicated pursuit of … beauty.

Greer and I won the debate overwhelmingly, by a margin that made chairman Jenkins blink. This was not because we were so very clever, but because Starkey and Scruton were so very wrong. And what was the turning point? One, Greer said what a beautiful spring day it was. Whose mood was not enhanced by sunshine and flowers and blue skies? No dissenters, there. Two, in despair at their negativism, cynicism and defeatism, I asked Starkey and Scruton: “Why is it I like what you like (which is to say: medieval, renaissance and Victorian), but why you are so limited and snitty and crabby you see no value in what I like?” No dissenters here, either.

Wonderful to prove that the British are not, indeed, indifferent to beauty.

Stephen Bayley
Guardian

Beauty is famously in the eye of the beholder; but it’s also in the beholder’s brain, and may work differently in the brains of men and women.

In men, images they consider to be beautiful appear to activate brain regions responsible for locating objects in absolute terms — x- and y-coordinates on a grid. Images considered beautiful by women do the same, but they also activate regions associated with relative location: above and behind, over and under. The difference could be the result of evolutionary pressures on our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

The findings, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are preliminary and based on a small number of people, but intriguing nonetheless.

“This the first study about neural activation in aesthetic tasks to include sex as a variable,” said study co-author Camilo Cela-Conde, an evolutionary anthropologist at Spain’s Universitat de les Illes Balears.

Earlier studies on sex-based cognitive differences have found that men seem to have a heightened sense of absolute location. Women, by contrast, are quicker to process relative values.

How these brain systems became tied to the perception of beauty, widely considered a defining human trait, is an evolutionary mystery. According to Cela-Conde, aesthetics may simply be a byproduct of other cognitive tasks.

Differences in cognitive tasks, however, may be less mysterious: For much of human history, men and women had different jobs. Their brains may thus have developed in subtly different ways.

“In current hunter-gatherer groups, men are in charge of hunting; meanwhile women collect,” said Cela-Conde. “If this is a scheme that can be extended to ancestors’ behavior, then we can think about a selective pressure to increase the capacity of spatial orientation in men, and the capacity to identify edible plants and tubers in women.”

In the study, 10 men and 10 women looked at images of modern and classic paintings, as well as photographs of landscapes, artifacts and urban scenes. The researchers recorded their reactions with a magnetoencephalograph, which monitors real-time neural activity by measuring magnetic fields generated by electrical currents in the brain.

The subjects varied as to what they considered beautiful, but brain patterns were consistent: coordinate-processing activation in both men and women, and category-processing in only women.

These differences do not seem to translate into differences in the actual experience of beauty. In earlier research, said Cela-Conde, both men and women describe beauty as being “original, interesting and pleasant.”

However, as the differences were expressed only in response to images the subjects found to be beautiful, they do not seem to reflect a general sex-based difference in perception.

As the brain regions involved are far more developed in humans than chimpanzees — our closest living relative — Cela-Conde’s team suspects that the differences are rooted in early hominid divisions between men and women.

Another possible explanation is language-based: Coordinate-reading brain systems are less activated by linguistic communication than categorical systems.

The differences observed in the study would then originate in another sex-based difference, albeit an arguable one: Women are especially talkative.

Brandon Keim
Wired

Olafur Eliasson, the Danish-Icelandic inventor and engineer of minimalist spectacle, is so much better than anyone else in today’s ranks of crowd-pleasing installational artists that there should be a nice, clean, special word other than “art” for what he does, to set him apart. There won’t be. “Art” has become the promiscuous catchall for anything artificial that meets no practical need but which we like, or are presumed or supposed to like. Still, play with the thought at “Take Your Time,” the Eliasson retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and at MOMA’s affiliate, P.S. 1. By the way, please make the P.S. 1 trek—three stops on the No. 7 train from Grand Central. That part of the show details and deepens a sense of Eliasson’s creative integrity, which may remain slightly in question amid his stunts on West Fifty-third Street: an electric fan swaying on a cord from the ceiling of the atrium, rooms awash in different kinds of peculiarly colored light, a wall of exotic (and odorous) moss, a curtain of falling water optically immobilized by stroboscopic flashes. I had a little epiphany in Queens while looking at Eliasson’s contemplative suites of photographs of Icelandic landscapes, seascapes, glaciers, icebergs, and caves: here’s someone for whom beauty is normal. His character suggests both the mental discipline of a scientist and the emotional responsibility of a poet. If leadership in public-spirited art extravaganzas were a political office—and it sometimes feels as if it were—he’d have my vote.

Peter Schjeldahl
New Yorker

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