Thoughts about Touch

“For it seems to me that my hands could better inform me about what’s happening on the Moon than your eyes or your telescopes” - Denis Diderot 1749

“of all the senses, the eye (is) the most superficial…. (and) touch the most profound and most philosophical.” - Denis Diderot 1751

“Malcom Quantrill has described the sensory aspects of the environment as the genius loci, or ‘sense of place’.”… E.V. “Walter defines place as a location of experience: ‘It evokes and organizes memories, images, sentiments, meanings, and the work of imagination. The feelings of a place are indeed the mental projections of individuals, but they come from a collective experience and they do no happen anywhere else.’” - Joy Monice Malnar and Frank Vodvarka

“Modernist design has housed the intellect and the eye, but it has left the body and the other senses, as well as our memories and dreams, homeless.” - Juhani Pallasmaa

Phenomenological Beauty

To me, architecture is a romantic and visionary discipline in constant pursuit of creating beauty. This pursuit of beauty is not new. Julio Bermudez explained, “Philosophers as far back as Plato have pointed at the central role that beauty plays in human life. Architectural delight – or venustas as Vitruvius called it 2000 years ago”. Beauty is elusive and fleeting. The desire to create beauty is evidence of a relationship with the divine. James Hillman explained, “Beauty cannot enter art unless the mind in the work is anchored beyond itself so that in some way the finished work reflects the sacred and the doing of the work, ritual”. This idea of having the mind anchored “beyond itself” is what Hillman was laying the groundwork for when he said, “beauty is not merely a cultural accessory, a philosophical category, a province of the arts, or even a prerogative of the human spirit. It has always remained indefinable because it bears sensate witness to what is fundamentally beyond human comprehension”. It is the inability to define and measure beauty that makes it difficult to defend in “today’s rational and utilitarian civilization where little or no value is assigned to phenomena that can’t be measured, explained, or materially consumed”. Beauty always matters and is celebrated when emulated by architects, artists, writers, and poets. Beauty sometimes lays waiting undiscovered and uncelebrated, but is always potentially powerful by its nature.

Tacit beauty like mountain vistas and sunsets are examples of a safe common ground from which timid conversations about beauty may begin and shallow accolades may be acquired. However, the power and potential of beauty require emotional investment and a willingness and courage to expose intimate embodied experience. The experience of beauty is often described in reference to the body, mind and heart. Peter Schjeldahl describes, In my experience, an onset of beauty combines extremes of stimulation and relaxation. My mind is hyperalert. My body is at ease. Often I am aware of my shoulders coming down as unconscious muscular tension lets go. My mood soars. I have a conviction of goodness in all things. I feel that everything is going to be all right. Later I am pleasantly a little tired all over, as if after swimming. Mind and body become indivisible in beauty. Beauty teaches me that my brain is a physical organ and that ‘intelligence’ is not limited to thought, but entails feeling and sensation, the whole organism in concert.
The potential to create an embodied experience is what makes beauty always important.

BEAUTY ALWAYS COUNTS It may be that a starving man may not see the beauty in a meal or the beauty in the resolution between starvation and contentment. It may take time and retrospect to discover that beauty in combining the “extremes”. In the short term, he may only see food, not beauty. However, the idea of food keeps him hoping and therefore moving toward a resolution to his hunger. The power of this hope is the power of beauty even when it is not perceived as such.

Beauty will always count no matter where it is or by whom it is experienced. It may not be understood as beauty by those closest to it and it may not ever be observed by anyone who would understand it as such, but it matters anyway. Heidegger might say that beauty not seen as such, is in “standing reserve” and waiting to be harnessed or celebrated. Part of the allure of beauty is that it has not all been discovered, created, or recognized.

FRAMING BEAUTY When framed as art, literature, film or architecture, beauty is placed in a context on display to be experienced. Bringing the relationship of the body, the mind and the heart to the surface is a reminder that beauty has a transcending importance in our lives. Burdened by the everyday pressures of life as we may become, the bricks of all the events that make up our lives are held together by the mortar of beauty that strengthens us and makes experience real and meaningful in a way that nothing else can. Agnes Martin says that “we respond to beauty with emotion… All artwork is about beauty; all positive work represents and celebrates it”.

READY FOR BEAUTY There is no doubt that beauty can be best perceived by one who is ready to experience it. In his studies related to “Profound Experiences in Architecture”, Bermudez concludes, “…while the power of a building by ‘itself’ may provoke the ‘miracle’ of the sublime moment, it is important (generally essential) to consider the state of mind that individuals bring to the experience”. It is as though a person must be in tune in order for a place of beauty to resonate to its fullest.

It is interesting to note, that Bermudez said, “the state of mind that individuals bring” and that he did not say “the state of mind that the general public brings” or “other architects”. It is also interesting to note that this same study reported a related comment about the designer from one of the surveys. This particular comment was selected as it described an “Extraordinary Architectural Experience” at the Taj Mahal by one of the respondents to the survey. It says, “The experience keeps reinforcing my belief that to achieve such level of beauty the designer needs to be emotionally immersed in the project and have a soulful relationship with it. Personalization is imperative”. Certainly a logical conclusion here is that the real dance is between the designer and the individual observer. The music is the building.

The three legs of this stool of beauty are all important and depend on each other. Beauty must “stand in reserve” so when it is sensitively framed by an artist, film maker, poet, or architect, and it resonates with one to experience it, then it fulfills its symphonic purpose with inspiration and power.

ARCHITECTURE FRAMED BY ARCHITECTURE All too often, architects become pre-occupied with architecture. They work endless hours to make sure their buildings meet regulatory requirements and the expectations of the current trends in architectural style. Architects tend to look at their work and the work of other architects through the framework of their understanding of normative standards instead of the intimate individual characteristics and aspirations of clients. The physical, intellectual and emotional needs of the clients are sometimes simplified and compromised to meet measurable requirements such as construction budgets, square footages, kinds and sizes of rooms and architectural style. That is compounded by other factors competing for resources of money, time and attention. Development standards, requirements of financial institutions, the propensity toward compromise by lay committees and other factors are typically insensitive to the needs of the end user. An architect cannot know what is in the mind and heart of the clients of other architects. It is the architects’ responsibility to understand his or her own clients. Empathy by the architect is required to design a sense of place that addresses the physical, intellectual and spiritual needs and aspirations of the client.

ARCHITECTURAL PHENOMENOLOGY AND ARCHITECTURAL CRITICISM A phenomenological approach to architecture is one where architectural phenomena related to realness and beauty as experienced by the individual are studied and analyzed. A critical view of architecture is more likely to look at a building from a public point of view and embrace a more objective analysis of whether or not the building meets normative criteria including the expectations of the public and budgets and energy efficiency.

REMODEL OF A MINER’S HOME This building was built by local miners in the mining town of Frisco Colorado in the mid-1800s and remodeled by the current owners in 2003. Frisco sits at 9100 ft above sea level in the Rocky Mountains about 60 miles west of Denver. The building stands in its original location which is currently one block off of Main Street. A railroad once ran down the alley between this house and Main Street and has been abandoned and removed for some time.

(a) (b) Figure 1 (a) back door, (b) fireplace (c) (c) loft A “critique” of this building might look like this:

CRITIQUE This remodel of this house was an effort to restore existing infrastructure and buildings in the historic part of the Town of Frisco per the plan of the municipality. About half of the second floor was removed and the remaining portion is now an open loft which looks across an open rail to the living area below. The sagging ridgeline was restored and a fireplace was added using local stone. The fireplace appears to be out of scale with the rest of the house and burns wood which contributes to the declining air quality in the valley. In its remodeled condition, the house does not meet the county’s “green building” requirements. The project was exempt from the “green building” requirements because it is a historic building and the changes were not determined to be significant enough to trigger that requirement. Window and door trim was either repaired or replaced with vintage detailing and materials for remodel were milled and purchased locally. The charm of this building is in keeping with the master plan of the Community, but the energy efficiency should be studied so that regulations can be developed to insure that future efforts like this are not detrimental to the environment.

A “phenomenological” review of this house might look like this:

PHENOMENOLOGY The approach to this house captivates the senses. The natural materials and textures combine with the aroma of the flowering plants to create a unique address of the senses for this house. The experience becomes more real with the grasp of the hundred and sixty year old door knob. The sound of the opening door is complemented by the creaking of the wood floor and the smell of food cooking once the house is entered. With care and sensitivity, one can feel the ever so slight unevenness of the floor and the vibration of the creaking floor through the soles of shoes. The fireplace is built with true masonry construction by the hand of a local craftsman out of stone from a nearby scree field so it is imperfect, contextual and full of texture. The warm fires in that fireplace heat the entire house. All the work done on this house was specified to be done by hand by local craftsmen with local materials in keeping with the desires of the owners. The sagging roofline and bulging side walls were pulled true with tie rods and hardware reminiscent of the railroad that historically ran only yards from the back of the house. Unlike the new speculative development down the street, there is a character in this house that enhances the embodied experience.

In architecture schools, the Critique method is used for review of design projects which conditions young architects to judge their work compared to the work of their peers and other architectural standards from a critical perspective rather than a phenomenological view. The client is seldom if ever invited to sit on a review panel or design jury. The focus on the architect seems to be the way architecture is seen from within an architectural framework and not from the frame of the embodied experience of the client or end user.

Beauty as an embodied experience, deeper and more meaningful than tacit beauty is conspicuous by its absence in architectural dialogue. Scientific evidence and empirical data seem to even out the playing field and reduce exposure to subjective risk. It is much easier to explain to a jury or developer that a particular design solution is the logical result of a mathematical formula and collected data than it is to go out on a limb and explain why it is beautiful. Beauty has power and along with the power comes fear. James Hillman explains that there are many roads to take to lift the “repression of beauty”. One of those roads “is the courage to be afraid”. Hillman goes on to explain that “defenses against beauty are often defenses against the fear of its power”. It takes courage and emotional equity to design real beauty because of the emotional risk involved. If you make a mistake or find yourself in a hostile crowd defending beauty, the only one you have to look to is yourself because there are no universal formulas. It is as though one must sacrifice himself for beauty. Peter Schjeldahl says that “the self you lose to beauty is not gone. It returns refreshed. It does not make you less intelligent. It gives you something to be intelligent about.”

We have engineers to help us create structure. We have politicians to help us understand the needs of the public. We have banks and developers to help us understand the economics of a project. We have environmentalists to help us understand how to balance our work with the environment. We have technology to help us communicate and analyze. And we have clients to help us create beauty. It is important for architects to have a fluent understanding of each of these aspects of design in order to communicate and to lead a project. If we are not careful, we may do so at the expense of our client, and one by one, eventually at the expense of our communities and our world. As architects we are stewards over beauty in our built environment which requires an empathetic stewardship to our clients.

Image Credits Figure 1 (a), (b) and (c) – Kreamelmeyer Residence – photos by Darrick Wade

Julio Bermudez, “Profound experiences of Architecture – the Role of ‘Distancing’ in the Ineffable”, in 2A Architecture and Art – Architecture, Culture & Spirituality Part II, Spring 2011 Quarterly, ISSUE No. 17. Pg 22

James Hillman, “The Practice of Beauty,” in Uncontrollable beauty : toward a new aesthetics, Beckley, Bill, and David Shapiro. New York: Allworth Press : School of Visual Arts, 1998. Pg 274

James Hillman, “The Practice of Beauty,” in Uncontrollable beauty : toward a new aesthetics, Beckley, Bill, and David Shapiro. New York: Allworth Press : School of Visual Arts, 1998. Pg 270

Julio Bermudez, “Profound experiences of Architecture – the Role of ‘Distancing’ in the Ineffable”, in 2A Architecture and Art – Architecture, Culture & Spirituality Part II, Spring 2011 Quarterly, ISSUE No. 17. Pg 22

Peter Schjeldahl, “Notes on Beauty,” in Uncontrollable beauty : toward a new aesthetics, Beckley, Bill, and David Shapiro. New York: Allworth Press : School of Visual Arts, 1998. Pg 53

Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology” in, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, pp. 3-35.

Agnes Martin, “Beauty Is the Mystery of Life,” in Uncontrollable beauty : toward a new aesthetics, Beckley, Bill, and David Shapiro. New York: Allworth Press : School of Visual Arts, 1998. Pg 399

Julio Bermudez, “Profound experiences of Architecture – the Role of ‘Distancing’ in the Ineffable”, in 2A Architecture and Art – Architecture, Culture & Spirituality Part II, Spring 2011 Quarterly, ISSUE No. 17. Pg 25

Julio Bermudez, “Profound experiences of Architecture – the Role of ‘Distancing’ in the Ineffable”, in 2A Architecture and Art – Architecture, Culture & Spirituality Part II, Spring 2011 Quarterly, ISSUE No. 17. Pg 25

James Hillman, “The Practice of Beauty,” in Uncontrollable beauty : toward a new aesthetics, Beckley, Bill, and David Shapiro. New York: Allworth Press : School of Visual Arts, 1998. Pg 274

James Hillman, “The Practice of Beauty,” in Uncontrollable beauty : toward a new aesthetics, Beckley, Bill, and David Shapiro. New York: Allworth Press : School of Visual Arts, 1998. Pg 273

A Visit to Taliesin West

I recently returned from a brief trip to Taliesin West just outside of Scottsdale Arizona. Taliesin continues to function as a school as much like Frank Lloyd Wright ran it as possible. The scholar (architect) in residence this winter is Juhani Pallasmaa. After being introduced by email to him by Larry Doll at the University of Texas, I scheduled a trip to visit him.

I listened to a seminar given by Mr Pallasmaa in the board room in the studio building at Taliesin. The seminar was everything I would have hoped for. The topic was "Material Imagination".

Afterward I had dinner with him and the students and faculty in the dining hall. Then I spent the rest of the evening with Juhani and his beautiful wife Hanneli at their residence on the campus of Taliesin. While they are in residence, they are living in a home built by one of Frank Lloyd Wrights understudies. It is small and the architecture is very much in keeping with that of Taliesin West.

I learned so much and there is so much to say. I will probably refer to things I learned in future blogs, and certainly in my masters of design study at the University of Texas.