Eye of the Beholder

For today’s students, the idea of urban beauty proves both elusive and downright confusing.

Have you read any good essays on beauty? That was the question I kept asking in advance of a workshop I taught this summer at Otis College of Art and Design, in Los Angeles. I had planned to use the idea of beauty as a lens through which to view a famously unbeautiful city. Part of my curriculum involved dispatching students to handpicked locations across Los Angeles to seek out that elusive quality. I was hoping to turn up an essay about beauty as it pertains to the postwar American city, one that might inspire the students to look at the urban fabric in new ways.

Such an essay may well exist, but I couldn’t find it. Not in the New York Public Library, not on Google, not on the shelves of St. Mark’s Books. Friends and colleagues suggested Reyner Banham, Elaine Scarry, Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin, Alexander Nehamas, Kant … I found essays about beauty and essays about cities, but nothing really wed the two. Sadly, the closest I came was an old screed titled “Must Our Cities Be So Ugly?” by the architectural historian John E. Burchard, reprinted from a 1961 edition of the Saturday Evening Post. He argued that American cities lack the quality that makes European cities so glorious: aesthetic harmony. “We must face the fact that all the world’s greatest urban unities have been achieved under some form of autocracy,” he wrote. “Our quandary is how to achieve unity by democratic procedures.” The essay smelled like a preamble to urban renewal. And the unity Burchard described was pretty much the opposite of the kind of beauty I had in mind.

The only other piece I could find about beauty and American cities concerned the City Beautiful movement, circa 1890, whose proponents, most famously the Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, believed that stocking our cities with grand Beaux Arts–style monuments would tip the balance away from squalor and toward virtue. Granted, much of what we still consider beautiful—the New York Public Library, the pre-Renzo Art Institute of Chicago—is a product of that movement. But the City Beautiful, backward looking and aesthetically rigid, was not what I had in mind, either. I wanted an essay that talked about the extent to which beauty has made a comeback in American cities in the past decade without any coordinated effort, without any consensus on what the word even means. Just look around. Our newly landscaped waterfronts, from New York’s Hudson River Park to Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park, are surely beautiful. From an affordable housing complex in Harlem planted with a lush green roof to the rolling artificial hills atop Renzo Piano’s California Academy of Sciences, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, natural and man-made beauty are intermingling in ever more sophisticated ways.

A few days before my trip to L.A., I stopped in Chicago, home of the City Beautiful movement’s most influential—and short-lived—monument: the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, better known as the White City. It was my first trip to Chicago in almost seven years, and I was amazed at the transformation. Millennium Park—with Frank Gehry’s band shell, Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain (the one with the giant, pixelated faces), and Anish Kapoor’s hypnotizing, reflective, stainless-steel Cloud Gate (a.k.a. the Bean)—did not disappoint. That whole suite of civic monuments struck me as a powerful 21st-century evocation of the same kind of symbolic virtue that the 1890s reformers advocated, but with a different aesthetic vocabulary. Even smaller gestures, like the wind turbines on a supposedly green parking garage on Kinzie Street, or the little cafés that have popped up along the edge of the Chicago River, wowed me. Whether drinking my morning coffee on a strip of riverfront esplanade outside an office-building cafeteria or gazing down at the waterway from the 16th-floor terrace bar of the Trump International Hotel, I kept on asking myself, Has Chicago always been this beautiful?

A week later, in L.A., I spent days driving around, looking for intriguing spots to send my students to: the new State Historic Park on the outskirts of downtown, the towering freeway interchange where the 110 meets the 105, the random parade of architecture along Wilshire Boulevard. Urban beauty in L.A. is notable for its abundance and its total unpredictability. Beauty appears out of nowhere and recedes almost as quickly.

What startled me were not the sudden bursts of aesthetic pleasure—the Santa Monica Pier’s Ferris wheel by night, the crazy iridescent sheathing on a downtown parking garage—but the disdain with which many of my students regarded the very concept of beauty. “If someone says my work is beautiful, I’m insulted,” a smart young Dutch graphic designer told me. The student consensus was that the term wasn’t relevant because it doesn’t mean anything. There were no longer universal standards for beauty—they’d been thrown away long ago—so why even bother?

I had assumed that the wholesale rejection of beauty was something we’d worked our way through in the 1990s, when the great art critic Dave Hickey wrote The Invisible Dragon: Essays on Beauty, in which he tried—valiantly—to reinsert the notion of beauty into art discourse. I guess if I’d thought about it, if I’d taken into account much of what is happening in museums and galleries, where artworks are often didactic to a fault and intentionally ugly, or in the design world, where, as I’ve recently noted, virtue has triumphed over style, I would have realized that beauty is still suspect.

“John Ashbery once remarked that, after we discover that life cannot possibly be one long orgasm, the best we can expect is a pleasant surprise,” Hickey wrote in an essay called “American Beauty.” “I think of encounters with beauty in just this sense, as pleasant surprises, positive moments in the history of our free responses to the world.” I read Hickey to the students. I read them Emerson: “There is no object so foul that intense light will not make it beautiful.” And some Umberto Eco: “The beauty of colour [in the Middle Ages] was everywhere felt to be beauty pure and simple, something immediately perceptible and indivisible.”

Armed with inspirational thoughts about light, color, and pleasant surprises, I sent my beauty-phobic students out into the city. Some of them came back having located beauty roughly where I was hoping they would: at the Santa Monica Civic Center’s colorful, LEED-certified parking garage, or in the lush Garrett Eckbo–designed landscape surrounding Gregory Ain’s Mar Vista Tract homes. My strident Dutch student was part of a team dispatched to the intersection of First and Main in downtown L.A., where architectural marvels such as Morphosis’s Caltrans District 7 Headquarters and AECOM’s new police headquarters sit. She came back with photos that expressed her view of beauty: circular marks in the black pavement and a strip of crime-scene tape casually looped around an orange plastic stanchion. She would not be seduced by architecture.

Eventually, the students asked me why I thought beauty was important. It hadn’t occurred to me that I would need to explain, so I didn’t have a well-prepared answer. I talked about how a desire for beauty might make every component of our urban environment—whether affordable housing, a waste-treatment plant, or a new museum—better than it had to be. And I argued that it’s a stronger word, a more inter-esting word, when there’s no consensus about what it means. Beauty without standards invites formal risk-taking.

I didn’t have the presence of mind to say this, but I think it’s miraculous that we’ve come back around to a City Beautiful way of thinking, that once again we see the value of expansive, public-spirited urban gestures but manage to do so without a single governing aesthetic. Our much maligned cities still lack the old sort of beauty, that harmonious European quality, but they’re getting better at serving up the more democratic kind: the beauty of the pleasant surprise.

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