Why Has Beauty Disappeared? #1

Modernist mass housing
Beauty became rare in the cities of the 20th century. Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

You would probably agree that most of our built environment is not particularly beautiful today. One of the reasons behind it could be that in the last hundred years, ‘beauty’ has become a highly disputed value. Especially when it comes to contemporary architecture. Today, it’s easy to silence any discussion about this topic with one argument: “Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder.” 

One of the groups which certainly benefit from this lack of agreement on what might appeal to a majority of people, are property developers. This way, they are offered a mandate to build almost anything, anywhere. It’s far more convenient to operate in a society where there is no confidence in people’s ability to make judgments about whether things are beautiful or ugly.

According to Alain de Botton, there are a few reasons for why we have ceased constructing beautiful buildings. The first reason is that when the architecture reached modern times, the very word ‘beauty’ became a taboo and therefore architects began to avoid any ‘beautifying moves’. The 19th century has produced some over-decorated buildings. As a result the early modernists felt the urge to liberate their works from ornaments. In an essay called ‘Ornament and crime’ the Austrian modernist Adolf Loos argued that to decorate a building with anything pretty was a sin against the profession of an architect.

One of the most acclaimed statements of modernism was ‘form must follow function’. Even though many early modernist buildings, especially the ones for wealthy clients, were extremely elegant, brutal boxes abounded during the modern age as a result of prevailing functionalism. 

Gradually, we have lost the ability to articulate beauty, as well as the understanding that beauty is as much needed as other functional features of building . Over time tastes were democratized and it was agreed a variety of tastes deserve hearing. Attractiveness in architecture has become a subjective phenomenon.

Brutalist building
Modernist buildings didn’t prioritize emotional appeal. Photo by Natalia Serebryakova on Unsplash

The architectural profession has also gradually evolved. Initially, an architect (from the compound of the Latin arcus (arch) and tectum (roof), was a specialist in the making and maintenance of roofs. In the Renaissance the status of the architect changed. Italian polymath, Leon Battista Alberti, in his opus ‘On the Art of Building in Ten Books’, defined an architect as someone who “prescribes only the formal outlines of the building, leaving its actual construction in the skilled and capable hands of workmen”.

The responsibility for the formal outlines of buildings implied that architects strived to give buildings a maximally pleasing appearance even if it was a functional structure, such as a bridge, or a factory. The Victorians understood that even the factory could have some aesthetic properties of an elegant country house and the Milanese knew that a shopping arcade could carry some of the ambitions of a cathedral. 

Nowadays the often prevailing values among architects are originality and creativity. An architect has gained a status of a distinctive individual, with a unique vision, which needs to be expressed. Although a liberation to architects, this change made a society pay an enormous collective price. In the last century, architects started to compete to create the most shocking, at times absurd forms, often losing any sense of responsibility towards end-users, including their psychological and physical comfort.

traditional stone house
It’s difficult to make a stone building look ugly. Photo by Alex Baber on Unsplash

The rapidly accelerating process of urbanization only multiplied to loss of beauty. Cities started to lose their human scale. For most of history humans lived in tightly organized and neatly aligned streets and squares because it paid to keep thighs close together. The dawn of the automobile and subsequent spread of cars in the 1920s made it possible for urban sprawl to emerge. As a result, thousands of kilometers of highways would start to meander between cities.

Moreover, in the past, architects had no choice but to build using natural and local materials. But modernity introduced glass, steel and concrete out of which large and imposing structures could quickly be formed. You may try very hard to make an ugly stone or wood building. It is difficult to build them too high, and the inherent organic beauty of timber, limestone, granite or marble, attenuates any errors of form. Yet glass and steel buildings impose almost no such limits on architects and constructors. At the same time, their perfect structure immediately makes errors visible and any aging undesirable.

What is beauty?

We don’t know anymore what attractiveness is about, repeating only that it is subjective. In the pre-modern world, it was widely assumed that there were precise rules about what made buildings pleasing, and in the west these rules were codified in the doctrine known as ‘classicism’. Created by the Greeks and developed by the Romans, classicism defined what an elegant building should look like for more than 1500 years. Gradually, however, this set of ideas was abandoned.

A lot of things can be beautiful: landscape, face, fine art, architecture or natural phenomena. Beauty is nothing tangible; it’s defined as the quality of being pleasing, especially visually. Beauty is also defined as an aggregate of qualities in an object that gives pleasure to the senses and mind.

Something can be beautiful because of its color, form, shape or proportion. Beauty is a very human experience and has been with us for millions of years. Even our first tools were trimmed to symmetrical shape. Researchers trying to find practical reasons for why our ancestors invested time to make their tools look nice, couldn’t really identify why. It seems that early humans shaped their tools into teardrops, simply because they appealed to them more.

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Throughout history, fashion, changed a lot. Ideals have shifted or turned into their opposites. But beyond individual and contemporary tastes, some things have never gone out of fashion: the golden ratio, symmetry or fractal patterns, can be found in the art and architecture of cultures from our beginnings until today. There seems to be an inherent agreement about the beauty of certain things among humans. And this where the idea that beauty is subjective becomes troublesome – many patterns which we find aesthetically pleasing derive from nature. They have become a part of our biology because they helped our ancestors survive. 

Why does beauty make us happy?

Fractal patterns, for example, occur all over nature – in snail shells, flower heads, waves or clouds. Another pervasive element is symmetry. Simply said, symmetry in nature means that everything is as it should be. Stems, leaves, and trees all grow symmetrically. Any kind of deformation to plants could have been a signal it was not safe to eat them. It is also likely that humans inferred that a symmetrical face was more likely to belong to a healthy and fertile partner. 

symmetrical leaf detail
Symmetry signals health in nature. Photo by Ira E on Unsplash

Because symmetry has been so common in our fauna and flora, it has become extremely familiar to our brain. It helped our ancestors evaluate our environment more easily and react quickly to danger, aiding survival. Things that helped us survive activated the reward center in our brain. Recognizing signals of safety and nutrition triggers pleasant feelings. 

Therefore, our sense of beauty probably evolved from pattern recognition, however, it goes way beyond that now. Humans seem to have evolved an instinct for beauty that is deeply hardwired into us. 

Research shows that there is a kind of the lowest common denominator when it comes to beauty in humans. In some experiments, people with no art experience were asked to distinguish real from fake abstract paintings. Pieces of art from famous painters, for example Mondrian, were based on principles, like the golden ratio, while the imitations were not. The majority of participants successfully picked the original artworks, and this observation was for paintings of different styles.

In another experiment abstract artworks were presented, and the researchers asked the participants to choose between ones made by an artist and those made by a child or an animal. Again, the paintings which were usually chosen were the ones which were carefully planned by the artist. These findings indicate that while we are having a hard time pinning what beauty is or what it’s based on, we somehow recognize order or harmony, intrinsic to beauty, when we see it.

Why is beauty important?

Humans don’t navigate nature trying to survive day by day anymore and we largely left the natural world behind. Instead, we have created a man made world – we have built rows and rows of concrete housing blocks that nobody really wants to live in. 

traditional ornaments
People are drawn to ornaments in their surroundings, as they copy the geometry of nature. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Eye tracking studies demonstrate that people focus mainly on details and ornaments when appraising their environments. Experiments with skin conductance sensors have shown that looking at dull, vast facades makes us feel bored and uncomfortable. This kind of boredom has been linked to raised heart rate and increased stress levels.

Over the last few decades more and more studies confirm that the surroundings which are aesthetically pleasing to us can improve our well-being, behavior, cognitive function and mood. 

Beauty has such a strong impact on our well-being that making useful things beautiful can actually make them seem better. In 2017, a hospital examined the recovery factors through observation and interviews with patients and found that visual art in their lounge areas made them more comfortable and happier about their stay in general.

Another study has looked at how well patients recovered in a hospital that had two wards. A very old and rather ugly one and a newly renovated one. The patients who stayed in the new renovated environment, needed less pain medication and were released on average two days earlier than patients recovering in the old ward. More beautiful surroundings made them even feel better physically. There is also literature suggesting that awe-inspiring architecture, next to beauty, should be present in healthcare environments as it has a potential to disrupt pain perception.

Beauty can make us happier. A study which looked at the main factors influencing happiness of adults, revealed an unexpected result. Besides things like good health, and harmonious family life, individual happiness is affected by how beautiful you find the city you live in. 

We now know that human brains have been fine-tuned through millions of years of evolution to take clues from the visual appearance of our surroundings. It’s just something we are programmed to do. 

Thanks to advances in modern neuroscience we have started to understand how strongly beauty influences us. Research shows there is a pathway at the base of the brain that leads from the visual cortex to the parahippocampal place area, that is the brain region which responds strongly to visual scenes such as landscapes, cityscapes, and buildings. The nerve cells located along this pathway show an increased density of receptors for endorphins, which are the brain’s own pleasure molecules.

tree-lined road and a big rock
A beautiful scene can give you a high. Photo by Cam DiCecca on Unsplash

Professor Irving Biederman at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles has found that when people look at scenery, like beautiful vista, a sunset, a tree-lined drive, the nerve cells in this opiate-rich pathway fire. It means that when you’re looking at a beautiful scene, your brain actually gives you a morphine high. As color, depth and movement are added to the scene, more and more waves of nerve cells become active further along this opiate-rich gradient. A gradient of beauty.

In the second part of our piece on beauty, we will take a look at the emerging field of neuroaesthetics, as well as at the practical, evidence-based principles for designing beautiful architecture, for all to enjoy.

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