Discussing Different Aesthetic Experiences

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractScientificpeer-review


The city is a complicated unity, a network of functions and experiences of different subjects. To experience place or space, art, architecture or beauty etc., we need senses. The aesthetics can be taken back in the etymological origins by emphasizing the priority of sense perception. Sense experience and perception itself are reconfigured to recognize the mutual participation of all the sensory modalities, including kinaesthetic and somatic sensibility. Thus the aesthetic experience is involvement in the environment, which is inviting us to be active operators.

There are multiple types of users of the urban environment and consequently immeasurable different experiences. We may talk about the atmosphere of the city, or the identity of place and even try to define them, but nonetheless the narratives and also the sentiments ring different bells. In public discussions “the men in the street” often condemn today’s urban environment and architecture to be ugly, and yearn for the older times, though enough old. The architecture of today (and a couple last decades) is even in some Facebook groups seen only as “ugly boxes”. The modernism seems to be admired only by architects, but professionals are not so eager to use the word “beautiful” as the others use the opposite.

The author believes on the power of words. To find out how and when the architects are able to use “beauty” in their argumentation, the author has interviewed ten architects during 2017-2018. The interviewees were mostly sceptical with the subject: better to talk about tranquillity, harmony and peace. Architecture was explained through all senses, not only sight, and the need of good experiences was recognized, too.

The content analysis on the transcribed material is done, and a deeper, discourse analysis is going on to find out what kind of discourses or perhaps power relations lay back in the architects’ speaking. One of the interviewees concluded: “Architects don’t want to talk about aesthetics, they have decided to argument in a different way, and that is connected to rational culture which was rising after modernism: as politicians should validate their decisions with inquiries, architects have to give reasons with functional benefits.”

Keywords: architecture, discussions, discourse, beauty, photographs

Introduction and background
The aim of the research (and the paper) has been to promote the meaning of beauty for good living environment and to demonstrate how we need more speech about the aesthetics in the built environment, and also designing architects should take part into discussions.

The author who has a diverse track record in architecture has long been wrestling with the slender
and almost non-existing discussions in architecture, especially struggling between the so-called
laymen and professional views. Today the building process resonates with many crucial factors – aesthetic experiences may seem irrelevant with sustainability and climate change against the economic arguments, and architects have learned to use the language developers understand.

This study has two starting points: Some years ago a photo exhibition “A Spatial Gaze”
introduced architectural features of Seinäjoki, a Finnish town mostly known of a rich legacy of Alvar Aalto’s architecture. The exhibition reflected the author’s experiences of architecture and of beauty. The discussions with visitors unveiled how totally different people can see buildings and pictures, too. The photographer’s (and the architect’s) beauty was mostly disagreed by visitors, but all discussions were interesting. It seemed to be clear that more words were needed.

In the next phase the author has been interviewing 10 architects who have either designed buildings in the area or have been monitoring it, writing or giving instructions in the branch of architecture. The interviews were transcribed (ca. 45 000 words).

in the content analysis of the interviews raised various explanations for “why architects are NOT talking about beauty”. Some of them claimed it makes people think “the absolutely most beautiful” – it embodies “high” or “sublime”, which doesn’t belong to present-day, because Everyday Aesthetics don’t include the beauty any more. Architects cannot talk about aesthetics, because they have to connect their arguments in rational culture which rose after modernism, when politicians should validate their decisions and speeches with inquiries, architects have to give reasons with functional benefits. The material is under a deeper analysis – perhaps revealing other discourses or power relations.

The other starting point for this paper (and research) was the internationally and academic interest on the topic during 2010’s (among others Reisner 2010). The author has been talking about the subject in conferences (xxxxx 2013, 2018) and written journal articles (xxxxxxx 2018). In newspapers and social media the discussion is sometimes very rough, and reviews in the architectural journal are as far away from the public discussions as the scientific articles seem to be from practicing professionals. How do the architects talk about the beauty in architecture, or do they bring up the subject at all?

The photo exhibition of Seinäjoki region’s architecture 2012 (A Gaze in the Space) was constructing the background for this study. The author is aiming this year to set up another exhibition, which includes photographs also more recent buildings. A selection of the pictures and some main points from the interviews are planned to be published in a book later this year. The outcome of this research may not be exactly the same as the message of the book, and the more precise analysis will be done for this presentation and paper.

Experience, Architecture and Beauty

Experiences are essential when we are discussing architecture, as a matter of fact any kind of art. To experience art, beauty, architecture, place or space etc., one needs senses.
Arnold Berleant took aesthetics back in its etymological origins by emphasizing
the priority of sense perception. Sense experience and perception itself are
reconfigured to recognize the mutual participation of all the sensory modalities,
including kinaesthetic and somatic sensibility. The aesthetic experience is
involvement and engagement in the environment, one’s active and constructive
operations, in which the environment is inviting him. (Berleant 1991; 1992.)
The aesthetic experience can be approached also from the viewpoint of
perceiving. The aesthetic experience and perception stand so close to each other
that cognitive premises like words, knowledge, and perception are closely
connected. There is “a traditional or general” understanding about the specific
form of the aesthetic perception, which enables one to observe the object by
taking mental distance or an aesthetic attitude towards it (Rantala 2002;
xxxxxx 2018).

In the architectural discourse and teaching at architectural schools in Finland,
education greatly appreciates experience and reflection, in the way John Dewey
presents it in Art as Experience (1934). We speak of “the architectural
experience”, an aesthetic, whole and full-bodily experience involving all senses.
Dewey explained perception and enjoyment of art to have a lot in common with
the creative act. He aimed to find the combining link between the act of production
and the act of appreciation of art and how to understand the connection between
the productive and appreciative aspects of art one has to see the conscious
experience as “doing and undergoing”. Thus, “aesthetic” is seen to refer to
experience as both appreciative and perceptive. In aesthetics, there is the side
of the consumer and yet, production and consumption are not to be seen as
separate actions. According to Dewey the product can be aesthetic only if the
doing and undergoing are related to form a perceptual whole, and this can
happen in imagination as well as in observation. The artist needs to build up a
coherent experience continuously through constant change. Everything is made
for public consumption: an author’s text is public as well as the architect’s work
is in the medium, while doings and perceptions interact and mutually affect each
other in imagination. The experience of the perceiver is comparable to that of the
creator – both experiences are important and are parts of the mutual process.
(xxxxx 2018; Dewey1934, 35-57; Dewey 1950)

Following Dewey we can see the structure of “an experience” that is special. The
subject undergoes some properties, which determine her doing something, and
the process continues until the self and the object are ending with a sensation of
harmony, and this, I assume, enables the beauty to be perceived. When the doing
and undergoing are joined in perception they gain meaning and this in turn, is
given depth through incorporating past experience. An excess of doing or
undergoing can interfere with experience and, for example, desire for action may
lead to treating resistance as a mere obstacle and not as a moment for reflection.
A balance is required between doing and undergoing to achieve an experience

Often Beauty is dismissed by a notion “There's no accounting for tastes”.
In the eighteenth century the philosophers David Hume and Immanuel Kant  were
convinced something very important would be lost if beauty were treated merely
as a subjective state. When controversies arise about the beauty of works of art
and literature, it is possible to give convincing reasons. If beauty would be
completely relative to individual experiencers, it ceases to be an important value,
or even recognizable as a value at all. Nevertheless, people do frequently discuss
matters of taste and some persons are held up as exemplars of good taste or of
tastelessness. Hume and Kant end up treating judgments of beauty neither
precisely as purely subjective nor precisely as something objective, but as
something inter-subjective, or as having a social and cultural aspect, or as
conceptually entailing an inter-subjective claim to validity.

The Western conception of beauty is classical: beauty consists of an
arrangement of integral parts into a coherent whole, according to proportion,
harmony, symmetry, and similar notions, and this has been embodied at least in
classical and neo-classical architecture. Like Aristotle says in Metaphysics: “ The
chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness, which the
mathematical sciences demonstrate in a special degree”  (Aristotle Metaphysics ,
here according Sartwell 2014). The gaze of an educated architect can easily
distinguish for example a mathematical formula such as the golden section, but
classical beauty was not seen in such strict terms in Antiquity and neither is it
today. (Sartwell 2014, xxxxx 2018)

In Antiquity, in the first century BCE Vitruvius defines in his book On Architecture ,
three epithets for architecture: Venustas (beauty), Firmitas (strength) and Utilitas
(functionality). For beauty, he gives a wide characterization of the classical
conception,10  both in its complexities and in its unity. He writes how architecture
consists of order and arrangement, and of proportion and symmetry as well as of
decor and distribution. Order is needed for the balanced adjustment of the details,
and, as to the whole, the arrangement of the proportions is done with a view to a
Beauty needs somebody to perceive it, while also important are the history and
condition of the observer who makes the judgment of taste, which imply that taste
and beauty can be seen as culturally constructed concepts, and can be

Research and methods

There are actually two kinds of data for this research:
1)Architecture in photographs 2012-2019
The architectural photos which compose the basis later for the book and now for this presentation were first displayed in an exhibition called “Katse tilassa” (A Spatial Gaze) and that was introducing old and new architecture in Seinäjoki and around. The exhibition was curated by a group of architects working in municipalities at the time and funded by Arts Promotion Centre in Finland. The exhibition was first opened in Museum of South Ostrobothnia 2012 and then circulating many places in the next two years. New buildings have been photographed 2018 for the collection. Many discussions around the exhibition have demonstrated how easy the laymen declared some buildings to be ugly – and how difficult it seems to be for architects to argue for the beauty, or even say anything about it.

2) There are 10 Interviews with architects who have either designed buildings in South Ostrobothnia or have been monitoring or writing of them. or. The interviews were made and transcribed 2017-2019 and consist of 100 pages, or 45000 words. Among the architects were two former chief editors of the Finnish Journal of Architecture. Two interviewees are university professors – one in history of architecture and the other in architectural design. One of the interviewees had almost 40 years career as a municipal architect, and another one also 10 years. One of them is very eager writer and also active in politics, but not in Southern Ostrobothnia. Four of the interviewed architects have an office, two in Seinäjoki and two elsewhere in Finland, and they are representatives of male architects in different ages.

The content analysis on the transcribed material proved, how difficult it is for architects to use the word “beauty”, various explanations are showing up, if the concept is used at all. The deeper discourse analysis is still going on (Summer 2019). That will certainly reveal more closely, why Vitruvius’ classical three epithets for Architecture Utilitas, Firmitas, and Venustas, the last one is so difficult to even mention, or no question to describe the experience of Beauty.

Some of the interviewees said it makes people think “the absolutely most beautiful” – which nobody cannot (or doesn’t want to) define. Talking about “beauty” embodies more or less “high” or “sublime”, and that doesn’t belong to present-day. In aesthetics there rose already a couple decades ago the idea of Everyday aesthetics, and the beauty doesn’t belong there.

Some of my informants told that using “Beauty” definitely puts the actor in a difficult, light position: there soft matters for women (even though this was a male architect) and the real things (money) are elsewhere. With the other professors (history of architecture) the discussion ended up from relative beauty to experiences, which include many eras in the city scape, sensitivity to see and sense things, and the co-work between brain and hand in architectural training.

Considering public discussions about beautiful and ugly architecture also different styles were elaborated: people seem to long for old times and buildings aged enough – sometimes those are the only relics from earlier decades. But buildings from nearby past are not top-rated in the discussions: Enso-Gutzeit is admired by architects (also those generations who already have gone through the patricide of Alvar Aalto) but some people still see it ugly (for the style) and dream of the former Norrmén House on the same spot.

The other professor (actively working with museum buildings in different countries) was very sceptical with the subject: he explained the talk about tranquillity, harmony and peace be more fruitful, but also that people many ways mix up “the beauty” with other things like “feeling good”.
- and that might belong to primitive instincts or perhaps it could be something learned. And he went on speaking architecture to be more than the things we see; we also sense architecture with other senses, and people need good experiences. He explained the beauty to be something learned with tranquillity, when time has stagnated: no sharp critics, no straining. “The beauty is a tool, but I do not use the word- I rather talk about harmony, balance - , reducible – in all art as well in music and poetry as architecture “- and the he repeated again how “harmony” and simplicity are the concepts he finds better than “beauty”. Also together with beauty comes always purity – and simplicity of materials, and then he gave an example of an old square in a small Sicilian town. He argued buildings not to be objects, like for example Tapio Wirkkala’s artefacts, which can be beautiful. The buildings belong and must be seen in their environment, and then an unity is composed, which then is experienced beautiful.
One of the professional writer architects had an answer to my first question ”Why do architects not talk about beauty” - concluding: “Architects don’t want to talk about aesthetics, they think to argument in a different way and that is connected to rational culture which was rising after modernism: politicians should validate their decisions and speeches with inquiries, architects have to give reasons with functional benefits.”

I’m still working with the material and doing a deeper, discourse analysis – trying to find out what kind of discourses or perhaps power relations lay back in the architects’ speaking.

Even though architects are not talking about the Beauty- in the interviews were risen many topics or discourses around the subject. So the right question in this paper would better be “What do the architects discuss about around the word “beauty” – avoiding to mention aesthetics...”
Types to avoid the word “Beauty” are depending on the position of the architect in question. Teaching architects are using different concepts are also seeing the world otherwise than those, who have to think about not only the ongoing project but also the next one and all the employees in his/her office. The artist like architects – who also of course have to speak clients’ and property developers’ language – can be more many-sided: in some interviews it was in the beginning very difficult get anything out – but discussing further they could all of a sudden describe their experience on very beautiful architecture – but mostly done by somebody else.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusSubmitted - 21 May 2019
MoE publication typeNot Eligible
EventPotC Summer Colloquium
: Urban Aesthetics
- Lahti , Finland
Duration: 17 Jun 201919 Jun 2019
Conference number: 2


ConferencePotC Summer Colloquium
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