TALKS

BEAUTY

Angela Deuber, Adrien Verschuere, Andrea Zanderigo with Rowan Mackinnon-Pryde
Friday 26 August 2016, Venice Biennale 2016, British Pavilion, Viale Giardini Pubblici

RM-P
I’d like to begin by asking each of you in turn why beauty is important to you?

AZ
When we work it’s the most important aspect or goal in our practice. When you produce architecture you have to answer so many questions and desires, but in the end the fundamental question is still if it is beautiful. We have the feeling that if a building is beautiful, then the building will of course be sustainable, democratic, will last longer and so on. So in a way, as difficult as it is to define this quality we still feel that it is the main goal of our way of producing architecture.

AV
I would say that beauty is not only a goal, but it’s also a process, because I think beauty is closely linked with knowledge, with perception, and also understanding. I can appreciate something because I can perceive it, but I could also appreciate it because I understand it. This way of thinking is closely linked with how we work on projects. It’s clearly something we all aim to achieve in a very sincere way, but I see beauty as something more active. If I think about things that I find beautiful it’s not only because I have these deep feelings, but it’s also something that can transform our perception, our understanding of us and the world. So this is how I would see this idea of beauty.

AD
This discussion, or talking about beauty, is one of the most difficult discussions. This is why we don’t talk about it very often. In my whole education no one talked about it, except Peter Zumthor once as a guest lecturer. For me personally in the office beauty is the main force driving me to survive in architecture. If I see a beautiful building like Hagia Sophia it gives me so much energy to go on, because we all know it’s a tough metier to work as an architect. There are two points: one, it’s the most important thing, and I’m also happy to hear it’s the goal Andrea is aiming for, and two, at the same time it’s the most difficult. I mean, it’s not possible to define. Beauty is the name for something that doesn’t exist, the name that I give to the things that give me pleasure. So, it’s something we cannot talk about but we have to talk about. It’s not something we can demand from students but they have to try and go for it. It’s totally paradoxical, and this is maybe one of the most beautiful things about it, that it’s such a powerful thing to drive us. In this word there are of course also many expectations, that a building has rules, that it’s well made.

RM-P
Why do you think it’s shied away from?

AZ
Historically it’s quite clear that the Enlightenment and later Modernism made it impossible to talk about beauty, it was immoral to talk about it. And in a way even what came after functionalism still avoided the topic, putting the social or the programme, or a certain scientific objectivity before beauty in architecture. So historically, up to a certain moment, the experts of the discipline were talking about beauty, and had the tools to talk about it, but nowadays we have to learn again. If a culture is not used to talking about it for a couple of centuries then you don’t really know where to begin, despite the fact that philosophy and other disciplines still discussed it, it never re-entered architecture again with a certain weight. In Edinburgh, and this is what we wrote for this call for papers in San Rocco, we mentioned that with Kant and Hannah Arendt you really got an attempt to define the power of beauty and to understand the core of this difficulty which Angela mentioned. Because when Kant says that beauty is subjective, it is at the same time always aiming to the universal, and in a way that’s why beauty is so human. You might argue that it’s the most human thing, at the same time you realise the difficulty of trying to grasp it, because what does it mean in the end? It means when you seesomething and you think it’s beautiful, or when you try to produce something beautiful, you really sincerely have to try to forget yourself, and to channel a certain wider idea of what human beings might appreciate, what human beings might think beauty is. And practically, when a student is doing a project, what can you tell him?

AD
I think it’s not so difficult. It’s interesting, when you tell a student, do the most beautiful space you can imagine, eighty percent of us in the discipline know for themselves because it’s subjective and because it’s the deepest longing they have. Then the difficulty is not to fall into a cliché, which can be avoided for instance by using a material and working within the rules of the material. I think everyone knows what it is, but there’s no consensus, people have different ideas about what it is, so different things appear, but in the end they are beautiful in their way because the logic used is deep and rich and correct.

RM-P
But should the personal not take a back seat because we create things for society?

AD
I think the ‘personal’ shouldn’t be a personal problem, or a personal feeling that we want to express. It should be a thought which is general, a thought you express with space and a thought that can be interpreted by someone else, so it should be something objective in the end. But I think you have to begin from the personal feeling, make it in to a general thought, and then you can reach society where it’s not personal anymore.

AV
For me it’s quite obvious that we work for others. So when we make something that we think is beautiful we hope that it would be shared. This also comes back to what I was trying to say about understanding and that beauty is linked to understanding and also non-understanding. So yes the idea of collective beauty is important to us.

RM-P
Then we should talk about judgement. In Edinburgh Andrea talked about how we have moved from the census communis to the census privatus, and that a lot of work is generated in the isolation of the individual project, which doesn’t have to relate to the whole, or anything else. So I suppose the question is how you evaluate or judge something that is beautiful in your own work and in the work of others? How are these judgements made, because yesterday Adrien you talked about architecture lying between ideas and making, the rational and the subjective? Somewhere between the two we should be able to define how we judge what is beautiful?

AV
I guess that’s the project.

RM-P
But do we not need a language to be able to discuss it. Or is the language the work itself?

AZ
I guess it’s a very complex set of questions that you’re posing. In a way I think it’s dependent on who your client is, and what the market is. On one level I think that beauty simply happens. I understand what you mean when you talk about understanding beauty, but at the same time we have to agree on the fact that when it’s in front of you, you simply get it, even before you begin to try to understand it. That’s the immediacy and quality of it.

AV
I’m not focused on the understanding, but that it’s somewhere in-between. If you don’t understand at all, then you’re not moved. If you don’t have personal feelings toward it, it would be the same. If you understand or analyse it too much then it’s also gone. I would say it’s really in-between. Otherwise you would have no interest. You become interested in something that you feel is beautiful somehow.

AZ
On that level it’s unavoidable that this kind of beauty, let’s say the beauty that is produced for the public sphere, is even related to pop, not pop culture in the sense of the overexposure of your private life, but that the aim of beauty is to be popular, and maybe not immediately, maybe in a hundred years, because sometimes it takes longer to realise that a work of beauty is widespread and popular. But I think the elephant in the room is the relationship between beauty and the classic. I’m not talking about canons, but that it’s unavoidable that true beauty is immediately related to the idea of classic. Let’s say, to make things a bit easier, I was talking the other day about two architects who where working in Milan in the ‘60s and ‘70s and who shared the same milieu, two guys from the Left, working for small municipalities around Milan. One is Aldo Rossi, who everybody knows, and one is a guy who nobody knows, Guido Canella, who was also a very talented architect, and who worked for the same clients. Rossi tried to grasp a certain idea of beauty through the classic, and Canella in a fantastic way used a post Corbusien brutalist language, almost sci-fi. And now you go and see these buildings by Canella and they’ve aged badly, very badly, and the critics at the time were highly appraising of these buildings, and when you look at them you think, oh fuck, they are really from that era. They didn’t survive, you know. And that’s why, and it sounds a bit of a fascist thing to say, but beauty is unavoidably related to the classic whatever it is.

AD
I don’t like the idea of classic because then we already have to know what the idea of classic is and it’s a bit abstract. Can you not say that the basis that something can be beautiful over time in architecture, which is the art of permanence, that it has to be done well—finito. This is the one main task we have to fulfil as an architect, just to build in a way that a building can get old in a good way, that it’s done very well, and then we already have one problem in our time, that we are building much too fast, that our industrial products are not good enough to build a beautiful building, then we have a real big problem to make beautiful architecture. I mean for me, I’m living in a very rural region where craft still has a high value, which is good, and we can build beautiful houses because we have craftsmen, but we also have to look for them and fight for them. For me this is one of the main questions. Is it still a key of beauty that a building should be able to get old well?

AZ
I agree, but not completely. For example you mentioned Hagia Sophia. Hagia Sophia was crappily built; it failed and fell so many times. I think there are so many buildings that are in the end crappy buildings that nonetheless certainly aim for beauty. Then when you talk about contemporary conditions of production I totally agree, the fact that we are now producing buildings that have a clear expiration date is a shame and completely unsustainable. But I think it’s only partly related to the discourse on beauty in the end. I think there are plenty buildings which are crappy in which you still see a certain beauty shining through. Hagia Sophia is one of them. I mean they had to remake it so many times for us to appreciate it now!

AD
I don’t agree. It was destroyed by war, by religious conflict, by earthquake, I mean compared to our buildings it’s really good, you can’t compare and call it a crappy building. It has patina, yes—laughs.

RM-P
Does the idea of things lasting relate to working in a continuum, that you don’t necessarily ignore what went before, or not that you copy or make a pastiche of it. Adrien, you talk about the problem of newness?

AV
Yes, maybe to come back to the last point. I think it’s not only about the making. You said that Hagia Sophia was not really well built. I don’t know, but it’s also that some aspects of beauty are about the thought, or that you understand some of the choices that were made. Sometimes we are touched by what is behind, by what is behind the scene, the constitution of choice. This is also another way to move away from the debate about the product. Maybe this relates to your question about newness or permanence. I would say that permanence is not only about the making; it’s also that you have thoughts that are still available for you to think new thoughts about. I could describe beauty like this, that you are stimulated by an idea, sometimes the building, but rather the idea behind the building. So it’s multiple.

RM-P
But beyond just producing your own work is there a mechanism by which you can make beauty more central to the discussion in architecture? Is there a way to come to a consensus?

AV
I hope not. Otherwise we just quit.

AZ
It’s true. Let’s say beauty is so powerful because it never achieves a universal consensus. Thinking of these Buddhist statues that were destroyed by the Taliban. I think this is a parallel to the Hagia Sophia story. Hagia Sophia was so beautiful that its beauty was able to transcend power, or at least it was appropriated by those powers to transfer and to use it again. I’m thinking of the Muslims conquering the city and then beginning to use the same architecture as Hagia Sophia in a way to compete with it, and suddenly appropriating that language. But on the other hand you see what happened to these Buddhist statues, they were certainly beautiful, this cannot be denied, but they were destroyed because of their beauty and their importance. So this idea of struggle is not only in personal terms but again in a wider sphere. Another interesting aspect of this issue is the relationship between beauty and power, which is again very complex, very ambiguous, because they mutually use each other in order to perpetuate their existence.

RM-P
I suppose the question of consensus, whether a consensus can be reached on a language of beauty in architecture, is less about promoting a world where everything is the same, but about having some idea about what shared qualities we want to pursue.

AD
Just from my perspective of an architect struggling; many colleagues and friends in my generation do beautiful projects, but we cannot build them. For instance in a competition, why is it not the most beautiful project that’s chosen. This is a big problem. Because the interest of the jury is not to choose the most beautiful project, because their interests are to choose the project where they can get a personal advantage for economical reasons, not even to build an economical project that is part of beauty, but because of other relationships. And I think we will not find a conclusion, and I wish for our discipline, for architecture, that we as architects, as individuals can get back the licence to build beautiful buildings, that the client relies and trusts, and that we can continue as experts to explore this thing we call beauty. I mean there are so many things packed into it: is a building economical, is it the best solution, is it functional, is the organisation good, is the material right and it’s well made, that it’s sustainable, it’s democratic. I mean, we are the experts, and we are losing the power to deliver a good building. This is my conclusion of thinking over this hour. In the end I think we can build beautiful buildings but most of us are not able to do it for a lot of reasons and for different circumstances. When I see students in the first year, they make such beautiful spaces, just because they believe in themselves and their decisions.

AV
I would say also that I have the feeling that we are hiding behind complexity. We see the world as very complex, and it is very rich and complex, but somehow in order to make clear choices, not just in architecture but also in policy, we have to stop hiding behind it.

AZ
I think beauty is not about political correctness. Beauty is brutal and it asks a lot from those who are approving or supporting it, because in a way it’s impossible not to judge. In an era in which everything has to be nuanced, it’s difficult for beauty to re-emerge, not only to be understood or refined but indeed for it to happen.