What Makes Beautiful Buildings

Every building's architecture affects human beings differently, but what is at the heart of that affection for beautiful buildings and the disdain for ugly ones is a universal language.


| November 2014


Do you ever find yourself wondering why some buildings and houses seem so welcoming while others don’t? In The Language of Houses: How Buildings Speak to Us (Delphinium Books, 2014), author Alison Lurie explains what it is about great, beautiful buildings that bring about happiness and why ugly buildings don’t. This excerpt, which explains the effects buildings can have on people, is from Chapter 2, “Architectural Languages.”

Beautiful and Ugly Buildings

Like language, architecture can be beautiful or ugly. There are buildings that are the equivalent of a great poem or speech: we are moved and even transported when we look at them. But just as we may like one famous writer more than another, many great buildings do not appeal to everyone. Some may admire the Parthenon or Jefferson’s Monticello; others will prefer the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York or Gaudí’s Sagrada Família in Barcelona. Most of us also have favorite historical periods. We may like to imagine ourselves as inhabitants of a French eighteenth-century villa or an English country village. There are also those who praise currently despised styles, sometimes so eloquently that others are convinced, as when John Betjeman commended the imitation-Gothic buildings of late Victorian England, or when Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown extolled the extravagant architecture of Las Vegas.

Our taste in private homes also varies widely. We may value Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater or Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye as aesthetic objects, but not want to live in them. Instead, we apparently prefer more modest and conventional structures that seem to us the best of their kind: the perfect Victorian Italianate house, Arts & Crafts cottage, or contemporary split level. Such modest but attractive vernacular architecture may be compared to light verse or popular song, especially when the building has strong personal associations—if we have grown up or been happy there. As a result, a run-down old farmhouse may seem more beautiful to us than a great mansion.

According to Alain de Botton, we call a building beautiful if it reflects our values. “The buildings we admire are ultimately those which . . . refer, whether through their materials, shapes or colors, to such legendarily positive qualities as friendliness, kindness, subtlety, strength and intelligence.” But ideas about what buildings have these qualities change over time. In Europe, from the Renaissance on, an ideal structure was often classical Greek or Roman in inspiration: usually adapted to the local landscape and climate, but featuring classical columns, pediments, arches, and statuary. In the late eighteenth century, Gothic revival architecture gradually became a fashionable alternative, and by the mid-1800s you could order up a house in many exotic international and historical styles: Swiss, Indian, Chinese, Egyptian, Jacobean, etc.

For several hundred years, elaboration, variety, and decoration in architecture were almost universally admired. Eventually, however, there was a reaction, led at first by scientists and engineers. Iron framing and poured concrete gradually revolutionized construction and design. Architects abandoned older forms in favor of newer and less complex ones that also reduced construction costs. Eventually, for committed early-twentieth-century modernists, only unadorned simplicity was beautiful; all decoration was ugly and superfluous.

One of de Botton’s most interesting assertions is that people have always found buildings beautiful not so much when they embody current values, as when they embody values that society lacks. Today, in a world of material abundance and elaborate rules, we may long for a more simple, natural, and casual life. This might account for the popularity, in cities like New York and London, of apartments with minimal (but obviously expensive) furniture, and walls stripped down to raw brick or rough weathered planking.

JohnCoffman
7/30/2016 12:56:35 AM

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