Beauty and value in the modern age

“Quality … you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. Some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes

– Robert Pirsig, Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance

There is no room for feelings in engineering design. Questions of whether something is beautiful are not taken into account. That is the realm of artists and architects. They ‘know’ such things. They are the agents of creativity. Engineers are meant to make things work.

But the earliest engineers like Leonardo da Vinci were artists professionally. Leonardo saw himself first and foremost as an engineer. In his famous letter to the duke of milan he claims that he can design bridges, divert rivers, build military weaponry and only mentions in the last note that he can also paint. Up to that point he hadn’t done any of the engineering feats he talks about, that was just what he saw himself as.

Engineering and art was one.

Now, Leonardo’s time (1452-1519) was the beginning of the renaissance, before the scientific method, before Galileo Galilei. Leonardo learned his skill from his incredible curiosity and intense observational skills. He learned from looking intently at nature. Through this observation and his vivid imagination he came up with flying machines, tanks, submarines and deciphered the inner workings of the valves in the heart 500 years before anyone else (he never published these findings, we only know of them through his notebooks).

Leonardo wasn’t a big church-goer, but he believed in the order of nature and a connection between humans and the universe. He was guided by spirituality and the belief that there are certain laws that connect us with the world. The most famous evidence of this is the Vitruvian Man, which he used to design churches later (they weren’t built, he wasn’t a guy to finish projects).

Science and value

With the rise of science and the withdrawal of spirituality in our attempts to understand the world it became harder to find value. Value is a metaphysical thing that you can feel but not measure. We are at the extreme end of this development nowadays, where nothing has value if you can’t measure it. We temporarily discarded the notion that humans and nature are connected, thought that everything is a little machine and we can break it down into its component parts, in order to analyse it.

This brought us great advances in knowledge, but it also left us devoid of meaning and an understanding of what value or quality is. This gap is excellently analysed in a great debate between Christopher Alexander and the (post-) modernist Peter Eisenman.

Eisenman is responsible for some insanely, uncomfortable, buildings (among them the holocaust memorial in Berlin). He thinks these arcades at the townhall in Logrono here are great, because they make people uncomfortable. And because we feel alienated from the universe, we need that expressed in our built environment.

Logrono town hall in Spain, spindly columns on the back right.

Feeble attempts

If we want to explain the phenomenons of comfort, beauty and feelings without giving up our world-view of everything being a machine, (also see the great documentary “All watched over by machines of loving grace”) we try to invent values we can measure to help us make decisions.

This is what is going on in environmental science right now, where many of the smartest people of the world are trying to find a monetary value (they are numbers, and you can calculate with them, which is good for machines) for ecosystem services. It’s called “Natural Capital”

Because things like a forest or the ocean can’t just be valuable because we relish them in a deep meaningful way. They need to have a monetary value, so we can appreciate them with our mechanistic world view. We can make them fit into our narrow and spiritually deserted mindset.

Then we can use this assessment to develop tools that can provide offsets. If a forest provides x$ of value, we can cut it down and invest the same amount of money into a forest, away from where we want to build a shopping mall (this is a simplistic explanation of course).

What is Value with capital V

Using offsets and our newly discovered machinistic theory of the ecosystem (again, watch the documentary, part 2 “The use and abuse of vegetational concepts” ) we can feel better about destroying biodiversity in the name of jobs and progress.

All because we haven’t come around to the notion of something having an inherent quality because of the uniqueness of its context, the spiritual connection of generations and because it’s the place of another species (we are one of many species on this planet).

So we define and monetise many small values that are economically measurable (or which we make measurable) without seeing that something can have an overall, non-measurable value to people (and other species). A quality which cannot be described. You have to be there to feel it.

Life and wholeness

In architecture, there are circumstances which make us feel whole, places that appease us in inexplicable ways. Christopher Alexander and his colleagues tried to determine, which rules can be applied to create environments that exhibit these feelings of value. He thinks, that our mental health is influenced by the degree of harmony in our built and natural environment and it is the job of the architect to increase the amount of harmony and value in the world.

They came up with the pattern language and the nature of order to try and enable everyone to create places of harmony. I wrote previously about one of the patterns a year ago in “Why are bedrooms still a thing?”
Some examples of patterns are: Dancing in the street (63), Courtyards which live (115), Sleeping in public (94) or Private terrace in the street (140). Applying these patterns to construction in the shape of a language is meant to result in a harmonious place, in which one can feel wholesome and alive.

A residential building designed by Christopher Alexander and Hajo Neis in Tokyo. See how it uses traditional japanese window styles, similar to the ones in the first picture in this letter. I love how the balcony and little roofs above the windows shield them from the sun.

Modern japanese residential building on a similar corner location in the same suburb. No relationship to the context of the place or culture. This could be anywhere.

Becoming alive

Designing a place with the value of being full of life doesn’t work with the established methodology. In the current system the expert architect, creative mind, using his knowledge and the tools of engineering, conceives a plan of a building. The construction then follows from the plan with minor changes to smooth the inevitable problems between fiction and reality.

But building something that is alive works incrementally. It grows like nature grows. An embryo follows certain rules (set down in the DNA) but it grows slowly and adjustments are made along the way. Every part grows out of a part that was there before.

A production process for wholesome buildings evolves slowly and with consulting our feelings for each element. This thorough process is described in the book Battle for the life and beauty of the Earth by Alexander.
It is a chronicle of the building of the beautiful Eishin campus (which I tried to visit in Japan, but wasn’t allowed to … it’s a working high school).

In order to make something that is alive, we need to first be able to see it and feel it. Making things is central to Alexander’s approach. Through the process of creation and constant reflection on what makes something feel “right”, we can develop a feeling for beauty, as a pre-requesite for actually creating it.

Nature is full of wonder and beauty, we just need to stop and see it. And then make stuff that invokes these same feelings.

1 thought on “Beauty and value in the modern age”

Leave a comment