Recently, we have been able to watch the upcoming documentary Built Beautiful, directed by Mariel Rodriguez-McGill. Screened at the Denver Film Festival 2020, it tells a story of a paradigm change, brought to architecture by recent developments in science.
However, as the audience soon learns, neuroscience is not the first field to look into the relationship between humans and their built environment. During the 20th century, psychologists have also been researching this important topic. Architecture, though, seemed largely unmoved by the previous developments.
In the recent years, there has been a lot of discussion about public space. We often hear how important is the right size of a square, the appropriate choice of greenery, comfortable sidewalks for pedestrians or ergonomic design of benches. We hear a little less, however, that one of the most important elements of public space is the buildings that surround and shape it.
There are several reasons for this. First of them might be a practical one. Under today’s conditions and with the current form of the zoning plan in many European cities, the city simply does not have much impact on the appearance of buildings. In some countries, we encounter so-called “form-based” zoning plans. Meaning those that determine the formal appearance rather than the function of buildings in a certain zone, so that the whole neighborhood looks pleasing and unified.
The second reason is the orientation of today’s architecture on individual buildings and their authors, rather than the creation of harmonious neighborhoods. And the third one is the strong legal protection of private property, which results in weak powers of the city in regulating the appearance of buildings.
In urban planning, we often focus mainly on the built structures: offices, houses, retail, “formal spaces” and infrastructure. What is not addressable on Google Maps is either not existing in people’s minds or seen as a potential development opportunity by real estate companies. A special kind of space, so-called in-between spaces, elude a structured planning process.
However, I think this is a profound planning error. The “in-between” bears potential for hosting the new and creating opportunities not existing in formally defined places. More important, “in-between” not only refers to a physical location, a site, but more generally to our intentions, awareness and understanding.
Before 2020, how many of you have been thinking about the importance of space and freedom? Not many, probably. We are inclined to constantly attend all the space we have available, without special constraints, except in rare cases.
Most of us have never had any coercion problems before. On the contrary. We have used new technologies and globalization to broaden our experiences beyond our family, friends and home town. We never really had the need to ask ourselves: “What if this space was denied to me? How would I react? What would happen to my mind if the body was confined to a small and limiting space?”
As we have discussed in the first part of this article, fashion and beauty ideals have shifted and often turned into their opposites over the centuries. However, the idea that beauty is only subjective is still troublesome. There are many iconic works of art such as the music of Beethoven or the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo, which are experienced as beautiful by those who belong to very different cultures, backgrounds and ethnic groups.
Indeed, Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgment speculated on the existence of a “sensus communis” – aesthetic judgments shared by nearly all people. From a neuroscientific perspective, the existence of such a sense would imply a similar brain organization across individuals and cultures, stimulated by such art works.
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.