In the first in a new series of short meditations on art, music and literature, John Idris Jones reflects upon the meaning and necessity of beauty in art and every day life.
‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ is a remark heard when the speaker wants to deny universality in favour of particularity; identifying it in iteration rather than existence. And yet, there is something out there in experience which denies this. The remark is palpably untrue. Beauty is not only in human perception. It exists in reality, in music, in architecture, in art-work, and outside this field, in sporting activity, garden design, written creative work, advertising and so on. The Greeks knew this and lived by it. The Romans used and abused it. Ever since, civilisation has moved away from the Greek ideal, but at the core of where we are now, it exists as a perpetual idiom, challenging us to observe it and live by its ideals.
But what is it? It is more than a word. It is an amalgam of principles, and to a certain extent relies on mechanisms which are a set of rules. Architecture is where beauty is most clearly seen; the architect, unique among makers and artisan, is unique in that he/she has the greatest ability and power, out of all those persons engaged in making and planning, to give birth to beauty and bring it in to the world.
Brunelleschi’s Florence did not leap in to the world unprepared and at random, without tradition. His cathedral dome is a work of mathematical structure. His churches – especially Spirito Santo and San Lorenzo – are structures of such power that when you walk in to them you are silenced, awe-struck. His designs for public spaces are carefully made according to human scale; not only are they beautiful, they are also functional. They are spaces where people are happy to be in. Simply, beauty pleases people and makes them feel better when they are in its presence.
We can talk about the golden number. It is the ratio of approximately one to one point six. In a pentagon, it is the length of the even sides in relation to the lines internally joining the corners. This is a mathematical reality and is found in countless public spaces, building, works of art and so on. In the Pantheon the ratio of width to height accords closely to the golden mean: it can be found in medieval cathedrals. Le Corbusier based his modular on it. In art, it is found in Vermeer and Mondrian. George Seurat used it in constructing his paintings.
This ration is an essential part of beauty-in-reality. It embodies harmony, balance, symmetry, which are essential qualities of beauty. Keats’s great Ode is concerned with this, presenting a dialogue between the absolutism of Greek art and the messy realities of human existence. Without beauty and truth, the poem argues, human life would have no higher existence, nothing to stop it rushing towards barbarism and chaos.
When I walked, in the 1960s, in to the TWA building at Idlewild Airport, New York City, designed by Saarinen, I knew I was in the presence of genius. The soaring concrete vaults, the enquiry desks on platforms, the huge shell-like roof, were one huge essay in refinement, unity and elegance of shape. Being inside it made me feel better.
Of course I explored the buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright, visiting Wisconsin and failing to observe Taliesin East, which was deftly folded (organically) to the contours of a hill. The Unitarian Church had a long sloping roof, coming so close to the ground that one entered by bowing one’s head, in symbolism. The Robie House in Chicago had a square-set permanence and the house in DeKalb, Illinois, where I was working, had a living-room defined by an invisible internal line running over the tops of windows and doors, a large fireplace and solid wooden doors. And in New York City, the Guggenheim is startlingly original, its concrete swirls creating ramps which bring the down-walker face-to-face with paintings.
In sport, beauty exists. The best golfers, in driving, define a perfect circle in their swing. The forward drive in cricket, one of the most beautiful moves in sport, allows the bat to move through a perfect half-circle. In running, Usain Bolt’s action when in full pelt has balance, rhythm and power; all the pieces working together in harmony. In soccer, David Beckham’s striking of the dead ball creates a long, swerving, symmetrical, arc.
Architects, please be bold. Realise that you have an unique opportunity to create beauty. This (unlike literature or painting which are two-dimensional) can be seen by the common man day-to-day; and he/she can be actually inside it – so beauty is all around them. No other creative activity can do this. This process and outcome figures in the hermaneutics of being. The balance of life, rationality and irrationality, depends on symmetry, harmony and unity, and architects are in a situation – which belongs to no other profession in such purity – of creating a beauty which enhances our lives.