On Architecture

The architecture of a single-story home on a circular drive. The laughs and cries of children filled its space, earlier today. Now the house is left to watch the sun set behind the trees, to cool in the mottled shadows cast by the leaves. In the little office beside the garage, sounds of rushing traffic faintly reach the ear. The sound is indistinguishable from a light rain in winter. The house seems to enjoy the quiet. A family of six lives beneath its roof. How rare is silence for this silent witness? It has watched children avoiding homework, mothers cuddling babies, fathers tossing large balls to their young sons. And arguments and the tragedy of divorce. And the death of the old. The birth of the young. It has shielded its peoples from the wind, cold, rain, snow, and heat. True, but this house has done more than that.

It’s provided physical shelter, but also psychological comfort and spiritual sanctuary. It has been an icon of identity. People who left long ago, upon returning, remember who they were, which is to say who they are. Some remember that bare spot in the lawn where the ants toil, where the natural rules of life and death were taught in tiny relief. Some remember the cold of the window glass in winter that brought conflicting desires to play in the snow and to snuggle in the warmth inside.

This house could not solve all of its occupant’s adversities. Still, it gives evidence of happiness freely bestowed upon all who have ever entered it’s doors. This, it seems to me, is the main contribution of architecture. It has the character of the artisan rather than the artist.

The artist makes beautiful things. The artisan makes beautiful things that are also useful. Beautiful and useful. What better description could there be for good architecture?

Architecture and Beauty

What is a beautiful building? This is a difficult, and perhaps even silly, question in our times. It seems we can find no objective standard for beauty. What is attractive seems to be utterly subjective. The architect was once asked to produce beauty in useful construction. That task has now been deconstructed, its parts bound together with cords of indecision, and placed in private attics to be contemplated by the designer alone. The task of making beautiful buildings is no longer the main part of professional architectural discussion. The question of beauty is now understood as more or less a confused and private reflection.

In the past, it was thought one could really know how to build beautiful buildings. The Greeks invented a style of building that came to be known as the Classical Style. The Romans copied it, added new building materials and engineering methods to it, extended it. After the Romans, the Classical Style faded on the canvas of history for a thousand years. Renaissance builders rediscovered the style and it spread through all of Europe.

For hundreds of years, there was near universal consensus on how to build a wall, window, door. How to adjoin rooms and halls. These days, it’s hard to grasp the power of such a consensus. Whole cities, in some cases, whole regions attained a stylistic unity in building. The interesting differences being minor variations of the Classical Roman and Greek references.

Architecture and Originality

But what of originality? Creative originality was not understood the same way it is today. To be original, it was thought, one had to locate something that was fixed. It was against this fixed object, usually understood to be a tradition, that one was adjudged original. But always, perhaps especially when claiming originality, one was understood to be acting from a tradition.

The modern understands originality as an expression of one’s inner uniqueness, as something that emerges from a person’s inner subjective life rather than the objective movement of history. While the Renaissance humanists would eventually grope towards this idea of originality (see Bocaccio’s The Decameron), it was not seen for millenia in the conservative world of building construction.

But we must be careful. It’s all too easy look on the past with the categories of the present. The unity of ancient and Renaissance architecture should not be understood as adherence to a set of rules. Of course, there were various pattern books and such, prescribing to builders how to make arches and door lintels, and the like. These were not understood as rules. They were examples of excellence in the particular circumstances of one building. The task of the architect was to achieve the same excellence in other circumstances. In many cases, this required varying from the prescribed forms.

The inadequacy of rules in architecture was not obvious, even at the time. The classical texts of architecture sometimes gave exact rules. For example, in Vitruvius’ The Ten Books of Architecture, we read in the first chapter of book three:

Therefore, since nature has designed the human body so that its members are duly proportioned to the frame as a whole, it appears that the ancients had good reason for their rule, that in perfect buildings, the different members must be in exact symmetrical relations to the whole general scheme […]

But notice that this kind of rule has a different character than what we encounter now. Modern views seem to follow Hume’s idea in the essay Of the Standard of Taste,

Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others. To seek the real beauty, or real deformity, is as fruitless an enquiry, as to pretend to ascertain the real sweet or real bitter. According to the disposition of the organs, the same object may be both sweet and bitter; and the proverb has justly determined it to be fruitless to dispute concerning tastes.

Even the most eloquent philosopher of conservatism, Edmund Burke, pokes fun at the idea that proportion is a maker of beauty. From his essay, A Philosophical Inquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful,

The true opposite to beauty is not disproportion or deformity, but ugliness: and as it proceeds from causes opposite to those of positive beauty, we cannot consider it until we come to treat of that. Between beauty and ugliness there is a sort of mediocrity, in which the assigned proportions are most commonly found; but this has no effect upon the passions.

The enlightenment view seems radically against the classical. This is a consequence of how and where people located beauty. On the classical view, beauty resided in the object of contemplation, in the building. On the modern view, beauty is psychological artifact of the mind.

The classical theory of ethics also reflects this difference. On the modern account, the good or bad of an action resides either in adherence to either duties, rules, or by reference to an action’s consequences. The classical mind believed that the morality of an action resided in the character of the doer. It is clear that the ethics of the times relate very closely to aesthetics of times. How and why I cannot yet say, because I do not yet fully understand the way the spirit of an age informs a person’s will, temperament, and tastes.

I do have tantalizing signs of an answer, though. Consider this passage from the Iliad in different translations. It starts with Achilles taking two minds on whether to kill Agamemnon. Consider the different translations. The year of the translation is in parentheses.

 ὃ δ᾽ Ἀτρεΐδην ἐναρίζοι, ἦε χόλον παύσειεν ἐρητύσειέ τε θυμόν. ἧος ὃ ταῦθ᾽ ὥρμαινε κατὰ φρένα καὶ κατὰ θυμόν,

Kill the son of Atreus, or allay his wrath, and restrain his anger. While he was agitating these things in his mind and in his soul, (1896)

Let fierce Achilles, dreadful in his rage, / the God propitiate, and the pest asswage. (1700)

Griev’d much in mind; and in his heart begat / All representment of his absent sire /  How, come from far-off parts, his spirits would fire (1611)

The astonishing thing about these translations is that none of them actually translate the Greek word θυμοδ. It literally means a storm, Homer uses it to depict spiritedness. A literal translation of the passage would read something like:

Kill the son of Atreus, or end his anger, and hold back his spirit. While he was anxiously debating this down in his thoughts and down in his spirit.

In the 1611 translation, θυμοδ takes the meaning ‘heart’ which ‘begat all representement’, and later in the passage it is translated as ‘fire’. In the 1700 translations, θυμοδ becomes ‘rage’ and ‘God’ as a representation of the spirit. In the 1896 translation, θυμοδ is ‘anger’ and later ‘soul’.

The translator, in each age, tries to make known the meaning of the text in the words and images that accord with the anthropology of his time. The oldest translation understands man as a creature motivated by the ‘heart’, the origin of powerful desires. The 1700 translation understands man’s spirit as the image of God in man, capable of rage. The 1896 translation presents man as driven by emotions restrained by reason and the spirit.

Amazingly, none of that is in the text itself. In the text, anger, thoughts and spirit are presented as very distinct. Later in the text, Achilles talks to this spirit to clam it down. It’s not even clear that the ancient Greek anthropology would present man as even having an integrated personality.

Suppose Achilles and I would walk through the same building. We would have substantially identical sensory experiences, but we would not really be inside the same building. He would interpret everything he sees in radically different ways than I. I possess the modern anthropology which sees man as primarily motivated by unconscious desires. I understand a building to be a more or less complicated stationary machine. Achilles would not understand himself as motivated by unknown urges, but by real animating forces, distinct forces that relate to each other as living things in themselves. He would not understand the building to be a more or less complicates machine but as a more or less alive being. We would be in the same space, but properly speaking Achilles and I could never inhabit the same building.

Perhaps, then, objective beauty belongs to an age rather a person. What is an age of man if not a shared worldview of men. The traditional view is the more correct. Beautiful architecture is a product of an age, of a tradition, of men, not of a man.

Architecture reveals our deepest inner ways and assumptions. Like that little house on the circular drive, buildings carry with them the sense of identity and the very concept of identity from their times. Any notion of architectural originality would have to account for how one departs from such a sense, if such departures are even possible.