September 16, 2013
A New Humanism: Part 31
Aesthetic experience and the spontaneous feelings of recognition, enlightenment, reward, and fulfillment
The potential for aesthetic experience is latent in the languages of any built environment, and in essentially all human interactions are the extraordinary pleasures we tend to call excellence, art, beauty, truth or greatness. Rather than try to trace out definitions of those words, though, through all their shifting contexts – others have done that well – or distinguish between “art” and “not-art,” I’m trying to understand the personal experience “in-here” – the spontaneous feelings of recognition, enlightenment, reward and fulfillment – that causes us to say them. In a sense, I’m exploring “the eye of the beholder” – what the translators of Vitruvius call “delight.” And in this perspective, a study of aesthetics is a study of how a human mind and body respond when we catch sight of ideals perfected and realized – of enhanced survival, prosperity, and mastery – and how we put that perception to work in practice.
The actual range, details and intensity of a person’s aesthetic experience – the breathtaking, spellbinding lucidity or surging warmth – necessarily depends on levels of both an innate sensitivity and cultivated personal skills and memory. Multiple parts of a brain and whole body systems are involved, and each individual’s back-story of experience necessarily varies in breadth and passion. Trained professionals and educated elites enjoy the pleasures of reading more languages in more depth and dimensions, but they are not alone. Fluency itself is not required to speak or read a language; we all share, in some measure, a parallel awareness. As a result, the artistry we cultivate and the arts we invent to trigger an aesthetic response pervade built environments; the feeling we call beauty is not something outside daily life. Instead, our species assembles and dedicates immense human resources – in terms of time, wealth, and committed lifetimes – to create, experience and honor aesthetic pleasures.
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The sacred precinct of Wat Phra Si Sanphet in Thailand – stories of the Buddha, beliefs and transcendence, expressed in a timeless beauty-for-its-own sake.
Courtesy Albrecht Pichler
The full potential tends to be realized when we’re free from anxiety or bitterness, feeling informed and oriented, nourished and safe – an underlying sense of security – even if only for an instant. Then with a receptive body state and a mind cleared, opened, and attentive, a sequence of sensations – a new context – can set the stage. It may be a sense of arrival and awe when intentions and expectations are realized climbing the Athenian acropolis in the blinding Aegean sun, or flow of spaces, light and air, like the natural setting of Denmark’s Louisiana Museum, or the choreographed, colorful promenade into a box at a Grand Opera house, or the change in sounds from a hush into music in a performance hall. And often most important, is being comfortable with the mix and “distance” away of other people around us. In this sense, aesthetic experience typically has an underlying social component.
Naturally, any number of distractions or puzzling ambiguities can enter the mind, divert mental resources, and subvert the mood as well. But when a sequence of first-impression perceptions prepare a mind to be focused, expectant, and unconfined, then a blend of body chemistry can intensify the instant of response. And it seems to happen spontaneously in the kinds of interactions and places explored here.
To start, we take great pleasure in simply recognizing excellence in performance – a “winner” –a place where we participate in its exceptional fitness-to-purpose, primarily our purpose at that moment. In a sense, it’s a pleasure parallel to recognizing people – who are not fundamentally different from ourselves – exercising refined human skills at their best. We become aware of living well.
The point here is that we are valuing what works for us – essentially what we can process quickly and move on. It may be in practical operations that are smooth, efficient, logical, timesaving, forgiving, energysaving or predictable, or the inventive technical mastery of structures, climate control, organized movement – the engineering arts that make the difficult look easy. Or it may be the conservation of scarce resources, durability or the graceful aging of historic places surviving over time. We value the stewardship of the healthy hard-earned landscapes or simple, clean, domestic, family street scenes in Holland or Norway. Or we take pleasure in an innovative solution to a puzzling problem or a clever management’s apparently effortless delivery of luxury – or the well-thought-out livability of a home and neighborhood. The aura of care and competence spreads a positive light over the whole experience of being there – and it “grows on you.”
In other words, in this perspective, the continuum of experience – the mix of sensations, intellect, memory, and body state – up to the heightened level – and depth — that we call “aesthetic” is, as Gombrich has pointed out, not necessarily confined to the “fine” arts. It depends, too, upon your location and immediate circumstances. In architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design the threads of pleasure are woven into their often gritty, practical role in daily life. For a traveler the feelings that cause some to say “beautiful” may be stirred by the details of convenience, comfort, prospects, and crowd flows or the technological grandeur of a transportation terminal when it turns uncertainties into relief and anxiety into a sense of adventure. Or for a family it may be the “let’s-never-go-home” pleasure of a day in a park.
In a similar way the response to a successful building project may be felt most intensely by the investors who find a thrilling artistry in the “deal” and the “beauty” of the bottom line. For a factory or military base it may be fitness for the mission. For a project’s engineers and their admirers, it may be the clear, simple, tangible expression of the performance, in practice, of materials, mathematics, experiments that work or the cost effectiveness that they have spent their lives exploring and learning. In the words of innovative engineer Buckminster Fuller: “If a solution is not beautiful I know it is wrong.” “In-here,” their pleasure is virtually indistinguishable from, and just as stoutly defended as, the architect’s aesthetic judgment written into the AIA contracts.
In this connection, New Yorkers may, and do say words to the effect that “not getting too hung up on beauty is what makes life possible and exciting here.” But in both the global and local eyes-of-the-beholder the city is filled with excellence – extraordinary design and engineering, the steep canyons and swarming crowds of raw financial success – effective, applied human performance, competence, and energy – “enhanced survival, prosperity, and mastery.” And tens of millions of people travel across oceans and continents simply to experience this physical city first-hand through their own senses.
In all these cases we are experiencing the “functioning” of the places we build along with their “form,” and that can feel intensely personal. As we engage in any task, the boundaries between ourselves and our tools tend to blur. We feel we’re working as a single entity; they become extensions of ourselves like space suits or skis. And that happens when we use built environments as “tools” to navigate, educate, entertain, find spiritual refreshment or simply to dwell. What they promise, they deliver. Then as we project – or transcribe – our presence into a place and encounter successful, pragmatic ingenuity and originality beyond our expectations, or discover “ideal” conditions we might have only imagined, we are likely to see “excellence,” think “handsome-is-as-handsome-does,” and say “beautiful.”
Living the story
Another layer of experience is added when we can read ourselves into the “story” of a place we encounter – when we see our own history, beliefs, style or motivations in its language. That happens when we discover the refuge we’ve been searching for, or when a place provides a sense of enhanced status, or opportunities to exercise power, or simply companionship and shared emotions. Then, when we find our “role,” the sense of belonging to or possession of a place can trigger a feeling of a realized bonding and wholeness, and we tend to think “beautiful.”
In this way, there is the “beauty” of familiar places when messages from the senses easily follow well-traveled pathways in the brain, and recognition triggers a body chemistry that says “relax” – we’re returning to a predictable environment, a home-place, a native land where we fit into a hierarchy of kinship and allies, share cultural judgments and, above all, the secure feeling that this is where we can survive and prosper – often because we can, or think we once did. Or, in a parallel way, we see “beauty” in places where the stories of successive generations of ancestors who mastered their environment and applied their arts over time, can be read in the enduring ruins or ancient trees that have survived them.
Even more broadly, embedded in every place and in the objects we value is the story of their creation – the labor-of-love, the skill and energy involved, a rarity of materials, unexpected wit – in other words their meaning for the people in the time and place of their origin. When it’s filtered through the lens of our own romantic imagination, it can feel like an inherent aesthetic quality.
Perceived levels of aesthetic sensibility are an everyday field of competition, too. In the public “stages” we’ve built to act out our ventures – in a home or the places we collectively work, trade, celebrate and worship – we display our “taste.” Using collected trophies we’ve “won,” or our native skill or sense of high fashion, for better or worse, the places we build, or display our past, tell the story of our family’s, city’s or nation’s sophistication – our judgments of beauty that bind us together and “exceed” our rivals’.
The feelings – body states – stirred by the settings of these kinds of story-telling about homelands or taste may be disparaged as merely sentimental or smug – and the “successes” judged by outsiders to be at inferior levels of artistry – in other words, not a true deep aesthetic experience. And for many people they would simply be called social data. Yet for millions in the audiences we design for – in all their differences – both coming “home” and staging narratives of superiority can trigger the feelings of winning, the thrill of an enhanced life, the “beauty” of achievement and one of the highest peaks of pleasure a built environment can offer them.
The beauty of ideas
We intend the places we build to express ideas, and our publics expect to discover them. Experienced audiences especially find satisfaction in the persuasive “presence” of religious beliefs or social ideologies; trained professionals look for aesthetic theories; and everyone who’s been persuaded by Plato and his followers see visions of some essences behind appearances. And for every serious “student” of design there is the “beauty” of clear, living, practical evidence – discovered in an instant or growing over time – of a rational, cohesive set of ideas found in the perfect embodiment of a style like Palladio’s, or landscaping concepts like Olmstead’s or, even better, insight into a new liberating intellectual paradigm.
The important point here: the fact of discovery evokes the pleasure of a mastery of knowledge and a sense of intellectual ownership of both the perfected ideas and the place that seems to embody them. This response is, of course, common to essentially all the creative arts and to the work of mathematicians and experimental scientists – people who talk routinely about the critical role of aesthetic pleasures found in their explorations when they see puzzling pieces finally fall neatly into place.
In another parallel, when our own overarching life or death ideologies – religious, political or humanitarian – are linked to a place, their symbols tend to frame perception. Little else matters; we experience the fulfillment of belonging and loyalty, and in those gusts of feeling we say “beautiful.” But here, as always, beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder, and the symbols may be violently defaced – like ancient Jerusalem or medieval abbeys – regardless of any “aesthetic” qualities in excellence of execution or spell-binding story-telling.
That power-of-ideas extends, of course, to our own person-to-person moral judgments, derived from the primal predilections that underlie the magnetism of families and social trust. Many tend to attribute directly to built environments human moral qualities like honesty, integrity, empathy – the “virtues” that bind us into communities – and because they are clearly survival-based values, our positive, often pre-emptive response to those virtues, wherever we find them, can be quick and decisive. An educated observer, like Ruskin, may detect and reject a corrupt “moral nature” in Renaissance architecture, or admire “sincerity” in the hand of a gothic craftsman, or find it in more primitive arts. But all of us are primed to think “good” and say “beautiful” when a place – a memorial, a humanitarian jungle clinic, our own places of worship – or attentive stewardship, of the earth, or evidence of social justice – reflects back to us our own moral vision, realized.
The Taj Mahal – held up as a standard of beauty – for its own sake – by generations who have little or no personal connection or understanding of its driving ideas and symbols.
Courtesy Albrecht Pichler
Underlying essentially all aesthetic experience is direct visceral perception – an immediate pre-verbal communication. As sensory systems search out new information, we enjoy the rewards that follow when we spontaneously “transcribe architecture into terms of ourselves” and perceive qualities that we admire – that we value – in ourselves and each other.
I believe that these kinds of body-centered pleasures are likely to be the basis of the global, cross-cultural aesthetic experiences of places where even the ruins have been seen as ultimate standards of beauty by generations who have little or no understanding of their driving religious ideas, rituals, functions, and symbols – or the human costs of building them – and no personal connection to their history.
They’re places where, in Scott’s words, we “recreate in ourselves, imaginatively, the physical conditions suggested by the form we see.” In the contours, proportions, rhythms or sense of movement, we feel our own strength, the upright resistance to gravity, our own balance, centers and hierarchies, the unity, linking and fitness of the working parts, and our own sense of order, repose or exultation.
At the Parthenon we detect, too, in our mind and, in a sense, our gut, the refined human intent and skill creating the clarity, nuance, and harmony of a stable, coherent “whole.” At the Alhambra it’s the otherworldly dazzle of living light reflected on sensuous, intricate carvings, colored tiles, and fountains, with the sound of the moving water that adds a unifying baseline of a reassuring nature.
And at the Katsura Palace and Gardens, the experience of “being there” is an immersion in graceful flows of purposeful movement through the spaces, materials, and seasons of the natural world – with their inherent mysteries and surprises – and a contentment in a harmony of culture-and nature. Or at the Taj Mahal we feel our own potential for a dignity and serenity in an idealized human form built in glowing, “eternal” stone.
We respond in a similar way to the great bridges of the world. And the Sydney Opera House, in spite of the outrage over its costs, operating problems and the popular, demeaning analogies, has – with its bold soaring shelter, rhythms, and energy – become a potent national symbol admired worldwide for its physical “beauty” – in part a beauty of daring. In those kinds of places, it is our body finding aesthetic pleasure in the sensory engagement and the smooth flow of perceptions – the fluency of the language of a built environment.
Fundamental to this response, and woven through virtually all visceral experience, is what the Greeks called Eros, innate instincts to pursue gratifications that create, enhance, and continue life – reproduction and the erotic, of course, and a tactile awareness of virility and femininity, but also the glowing energy and warmth of passionate attraction, connection, and possessing. They add a level of power to sensory responses and overtones of reaching toward excellence, bonding, returning to “wholeness” and, ultimately immortality through reproduction. They’re the fire in the driving impulses of survival. And like animus and anima in the thought systems of Jung and others – each its own mix of predilections and body chemistry – “Eros” awakened by the settings we design – underlies the vitality we experience in all of the arts and the sense of a living presence – from intimacy to glamour to aggression.
The Sydney Opera House alongside Sydney Bridge – a visceral beauty of strength, balance and rhythmic soaring forms.
Courtesy Albrecht Pichler
We call cities beautiful, too – like San Francisco or Venice where we see all of the complexity of their built environments “composed” by a natural setting into coherent forms and colors, legible across the water and full of life. And in the boulevards, parks and monuments of imperial capitals or in America’s “City Beautiful” compositions, it is the visceral sense of order and orientation, hierarchies, and rhythms that underlie the pleasure of simply being there, immersed in, belonging to that power – regardless of – or at times identifying with – the ruthless exploitation of power they may represent.
In a parallel way, we respond viscerally to the pleasures of sensing the innate life of natural settings – the fertility, cyclical growth and rebirth, the lure of its purposeful flows or the vivid sensations aroused by the colors of changing seasons and sounds and scents in the air. Or the pleasure may be in the spaces – from the sense of enclosure and protection on a forest trail to the transcendent scale and light of mountains, deserts, shores, and sky. And there’s another level of pleasure when we encounter these forms and forces in gardens or farmland that are artfully guided and framed into geometric or naturalistic or sacred patterns by human stewardship, yet feel true-to-nature. Then we sense a collaborative mastery of the natural world – in other words places where our belonging and kinship – our own “boundaries” – are extended over the face of the earth. Whether or not connected to practical excellence, stories, theory or ideology, we feel aroused and thrilled or restored or contented, and we experience within a built environment, each in our own way, a “beauty of nature.”
And just as in the other arts, it’s these kinds of rewards that we tend to call “beauty-for-beauty’s-sake.”
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The next post continues the exploration of aesthetic experience starting with the “role of ornament” and concluding with what it is that makes “great places.”
Robert Lamb Hart is a practicing architect and planner educated at Harvard GSD and the University of Pennsylvania. He is a founder and a principal in Hart Howerton, a planning, architecture, and landscape design firm with an international practice out of offices in New York, San Francisco, London, Shanghai, Park City, and Boston. He believes that the design professions have been falling behind in their understanding of one of the defining enterprises of the Modern revolution, the application of the maturing, fast-moving sciences of ecology and human behavior — and the compromised results are showing.
Albrecht Pichler, who drew the sketches, is a practicing architect and a principal in Hart Howerton’s New York office.
Read more posts from Robert Lamb Hart here.