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Book Review: "Architecture and Beauty: Conversations with Architects about a Troubled Relationship": Yael Reisner exuberantly interviews architects about beauty

Any of you architects seen Mr. Keats Lately?

By Norman Weinstein
October 12, 2010


The English Romantic poet John Keats has suffered several demises since his literal death at 25 in 1821, the most recent being last year’s bilious biopic Bright Star. But this book of 16 interviews with starchitects by Yael Reisner should keep the ghost of Keats in good health, if indeed ghosts are concerned about such matters. It was Keats who famously wrote in his “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” “Beauty is truth, truth beauty . . .,” and if any single line of poetry could serve as a better burr in the saddle of architects of the past century, I’d love to see it. Reisner might have had that line of Keats in mind when she titled her just published Architecture and Beauty: Conversations with Architects about a Troubled Relationship (Wiley, 2010).

 

Troubled relationship with beauty? What understatement! Christopher Hawthorne brilliantly covered the panel discussion marking the book’s publication for the L.A. Times, and noted among the book’s contributors, “[Eric Owen] Moss, who literally held his head in his hands for much of the discussion, said he didn’t think a conversation about beauty was ‘useful’ any more.” Many of the other panelists, Hawthorne observed, had always viewed beauty with distrust or hostility. This should come as no surprise to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the history of modern architecture. But it is very much a tribute to Reisner’s skill as a kind of trickster-interviewer that she manages to tease out the contradictory thinking about beauty in Moss, Frank Gehry, and Gaetano Pesce. She even tricks Greg Lynn into sounding like a romantic, proto-Victorian connoisseur of beauty, a 21st-century Ruskin. This is Lynn talking to Reisner:

 

I could also take a more systematic approach and outline the 10 things you need for beauty and, in my opinion, they are pretty consistent: voluptuous curvature and surface, modulation of detail and components across the surface, a scale shift of a large interior out of components, or a large scheme out of components or gradient color.

 

A moment before this extraordinarily lucid catalogue of his aesthetics, Lynn comments, “Aesthetics are not an overarching preoccupation in my work. . .” Only an extraordinary interviewer could have drawn Lynn’s subterranean aesthetics out of him so directly and forcefully. She’s equally clever in pushing Zaha Hadid into a sly confession about her romance with color. And prefaces each interview with something akin to X-ray vision. Here is Reisner seeing through Pesce’s anti-aesthetic stance:

 

However, while he adamantly rejects the role of ‘eye judgment’ or the notion of a formal aesthetic within his design process, he does reluctantly concede that without natural intuition or a ‘good eye’ there is little chance for a designer to develop a valuable project.

 

The design writer Fleur Watson took the raw material of Reisner’s interviews and fashioned them into thrilling vignettes. This might be the most gripping and readable assortment of revealing interviews with starchitects ever published, even as its subjects doth protest too much about beauty, and stray occasionally from the book’s thematic focus. Honeycombed with exquisite photography of projects and published with old-fashioned panache, this book is itself a thing of beauty. Alas, as Keats knew, beauty comes at a steep price: $120 in this case. This is a damned tragedy because I can’t imagine a more provocative recent publication architecture students would profit from and can’t afford. Cross fingers that Wiley will do a sanely priced paperback version soon.

 

By the way, that line from the poet Keats about the identity of truth and beauty wasn’t referencing romantic mists over the moors. Keats was using an ancient urn as a symbol through which he meditated on the fluid commerce between art and daily life, culminating with the assertion that the identity of beauty and truth is all one ever needs to know. A dubious assertion, surely. Architects must know so much more. But maybe the ghost of Keats is roaming about, troubling our sleep lately, in order to push architects into reconciling technology and sustainability with that eternally contested word that sticks in every modern throat . . .beauty.

 

Featured architects: Will Alsop, Hernan Diaz Alonso, Peter Cook, Odile Decq, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Zvi Hecker, Mark Goulthorpe, Kolatan/MacDonald Studio, Greg Lynn, Tom Mayne, Juhani Pallasmaa, Gaetano Pesce, Eric Owen Moss, Wolf Prix and Lebbeus Woods.

 

Norman Weinstein writes about architecture and design for Architectural Record, and is the author of “Words That Build” – an exclusive 21-part series published by ArchNewsNow.com – that focuses on the overlooked foundations of architecture: oral and written communication. He consults with architects and engineers interested in communicating more profitably; his webinars are available from ExecSense. You can reach him at nweinstein@q.com.

 

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