Architecture is said to be an “aesthetic discipline”. But what does the term ‘aesthetic’ actually mean? Is it a neutral concept, unfettered by ideology, or does it actually limit the development of an architectural debate that is becoming more and more pressing, namely the value of ethics in architecture?

‘Aesthetics’ has long been a mantra in Norwegian public debate. We encounter the word in newspaper columns and government reports, in political speeches promising more ‘aesthetic quality’ and in the common dirge of journalists and architects over the ‘aesthetic decline’ of the public sphere. Architecture is said to be an ‘aesthetic discipline’, and should as such be grouped together with the other ‘aesthetic subjects’ in school curricula. What the term ‘aesthetics’ actually means is less clear. As used in everyday language, the word seems to apply mainly to visual quality: to whether things are ugly or beautiful. Is ‘aesthetics’ synonymous with visual quality? And if so, is it visual quality that is the criterion for good architecture? A closer examination of the term aesthetics may prompt a discussion of the means and aims of architecture today – a discussion worth keeping alive.

Roadsigns for Twenty Mule Team Parkway. From _Learning from Las Vegas_, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour, 1972.

If the concept of aesthetics is unclear in Norwegian public debate, the matter is certainly made no clearer by the academic literature. ‘Aesthetics’ has been assigned a number of meanings. Philosophers define it as “the study of aesthetic objects and [...] subjective aesthetic experience”, while artists and art theorists speak about ‘aesthetic value’ in the sense of artistic quality.1 Whether one defines aesthetics as art theory or as a criterion for artistic quality, however, it is mostly taken for granted that aesthetics in itself is a neutral, non-ideological concept, and that one can safely discuss ‘Plato’s aesthetics’ or the ‘aesthetic qualities’ of Snøhetta’s Opera building in Oslo, without getting tangled in a terminological mess.

"Aesthetics, then, is perhaps not such an innocent designation of either art theory or artistic value, but a concept that, in itself, expresses a specific view of art."

Bearing this apparently harmless concept in mind, it may come as a surprise that the term aesthetics has itself in recent times been subjected to considerable criticism. The German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer refers to aesthetics as a “dubious” concept, and views the emergence of modern aesthetics as symptomatic of a deep cultural crisis.2 Martin Heidegger presents the even more radical view that great art came to an end at the moment in history when aesthetics achieved its greatest possible height.3 Aesthetics, then, is perhaps not such an innocent designation of either art theory or artistic value, but a concept that, in itself, expresses a specific view of art. What does this view entail and how can it be said to have bearing upon architecture?

What does ‘aesthetics’ mean?

The word ‘aesthetics’ is derived from the Greek ‘aisthesis’, and pertains to ‘things perceptible by the senses’. For the Greeks, however, the word had little to do with art. Art was primarily a religious concern; a representation of a higher order. Not until the early part of the 18th century did aesthetics in the modern sense come into being, named by the German philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten.4 Baumgarten’s undertaking was simple. In an intellectual climate dominated by Descartes’ rationalism, sensate experience was under threat. Baumgarten’s project, then, was a rescue operation aimed to render sensate experience legitimate as an independant domain of knowledge. This domain was given the name aesthetics; an autonomous science with sensate experience – including the experience of art – as its subject matter. Aesthetics, however, was not on a level with reason; it was a ‘gnosologia inferior’, exhorted Baumgarten – an inferior branch of knowledge, humbly subordinated to pure reason. Aesthetics is reason’s ‘younger sister’, explained Baumgarten, and, like all women, she is pleasant to have around the house although she mainly occupies herself with trivialities. Baumgarten’s understanding of sense perception as an inferior form of knowledge involved a radical breach with a premodern tradition, where perception was always seen to be a medium for representation of truth, and as such not categorically separate from reason. Baumgarten and modern aesthetics put an end to this. Sense and sensibility were for the first time regarded as incompatible faculties, alternative and competing conceptions of reality. Baumgarten’s aesthetics was further pursued by both rationalist and romantic thinkers during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, by Kant, and by Hegel, who was the first to view aesthetics as simply a philosophy of art. In Hegel’s view, art does not attain perfection until its content is totally absorbed by its form, that is to say when it can be appraised on the basis of stringent formal criteria, as an autonomous work, without regard to utility value or other contextual considerations.5

Wallpaper. From _Der Tapetenfabrikant Johann Christian Arnold, 1758-1842_, Sabine Trümmler, 1998.

The insistence on autonomy, art for art’s sake, has been one of the most important characteristics of modern aesthetics. The position opens up two seemingly contradictory avenues for art. Isolated from its original social and epistemological context, art could on the one hand be elevated to an alternative reality or, on the other hand be banished as irrelevant decoration. The former view was favoured in the Romantic period, when art was viewed as an ‘aesthetic world’ (Schiller), an escape from the ‘deadly’ rationalism of the Enlightenment. The latter view prevailed in Positivist thinking of the 19th and 20th centuries, asserting the need for the absolute subjection of art to reason. These apparently contradictory trends are however two sides of the same coin. Whether elevated or banished, the modern insistence on autonomy entails a fundamental separation of art from other areas of society. Modern aesthetics reduces art to an isolated work which, disconnected from the world, can be interpreted on the basis of its own formal criteria.

"The insistence on autonomy, art for art’s sake, has been one of the most important characteristics of modern aesthetics."

Gadamer has called this isolation ‘aesthetic differentiation’ [ästhetische Unterscheidung], and views it as one of the most problematic aspects of modern thinking. As he writes:
_“Aesthetic experience is directed towards what is supposed to be the work proper – what it ignores are the extra-aesthetic elements that cling to it, such as purpose, function, the significance of its content [...] By disregarding everything in which a work is rooted (its original context of life, and the religious or secular function that gave it significance), it becomes visible as the ‘pure work of art’. [...] Thus through “aesthetic differentiation” the work loses its place and the world to which it belongs insofar as it belongs instead to aesthetic consciousness”_6
This is the paradox of the modern aesthetics. Conceived as a defence of sensate experience, aesthetics contributed instead to the isolation and decontextualisation of art and sensation alike. Even when the aesthetic experience is elevated as an alternative reality and cultivated as an aesthetic refuge, as did the Romantics, this fragmentation is confirmed rather than disproved. Modern aesthetics divests art of its ancient role as embodied meaning and banishes it to the splendid isolation of the museum.

Aesthetics, architecture, and human action

‘Aesthetics’, then, is far from a neutral designation of either art theory or artistic value. The term expresses a very specific view of art, a view whereby art is reduced to ‘works’, and whereby its social, historical and ideological context is ignored. Such a narrowing of the interpretation of the art-work is particularly problematic for architecture whose multiple entanglements with context, use, function and meaning are so profound. An aesthetic understanding of architecture will inevitably be one that renders architecture into a matter of visual effect – a kind of Venturi’an “decorated shed”. The philosopher Karsten Harries warns against such an aesthetic understanding of architecture in the book The Ethical Function of Architecture. “It is […] hardly surprising,” writes Harries, “that with the rise of the aesthetic approach in the eighteenth century, architecture should have entered a period of uncertainty and crisis from which it has still not emerged.”7 By viewing architecture as a primarily aesthetic phenomenon, we are in danger of ignoring its ethical dimension. We forget, in other words, the complex interpretation of human actions and history which are embodied in any building and any town. To be sure, the visual appearance of towns and buildings are part of this hermeneutic work. But only a part. And as long as ‘aesthetic quality’ remains the undisputed ideal for architecture, it will be difficult to discover the rest.

"We undoubtedly need terms that grasp the beauty and quality of our environment and enable us to defend such values in political debates as well as in everyday discussions. The question, however, is whether ‘aesthetics’ is such a term."

We undoubtedly need terms that grasp the beauty and quality of our environment and enable us to defend such values in political debates as well as in everyday discussions. The question, however, is whether ‘aesthetics’ is such a term. Language is not innocent. By using the apparently positively charged concept of aesthetics as an undebatable ideal for architecture, we are in danger of reducing both the meaning and the significance of the built environment, ultimately turning architectural debate into a quarrel about ugly vs nice. By unanimously focusing on the ‘aesthetic aspect’ of architecture, we are in danger of assuming that this is what architecture is all about. I maintain that this is not the case. Architecture is not primarily a visual art, but an art whose objective is to accommodate and facilitate human action. Architecture is engaged in a complex organisational interpretation of our lives in form and space. This is a task beyond aesthetics. It is a task that is more closely associated with ethics, as a question of how one accommodates that which at any given time is perceived as the good life. Perhaps well-meaning government reports should concern themselves more with what architecture does, and less with the way it looks.

  1. Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz, History of Aesthetics, vol.1. Den Haag: Mouton 1970–74. Introduction. 

  2. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, London: Sheed & Ward 1989, Part I, chp 3 (A). 

  3. Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche vol.1, translated by D. Farrell Krell, New York: Routledge & Kegan, 1979, chapter 13. 

  4. From Meditationes philosophicae de nonnullis ad poema pertinentibus. English translation: Reflections on Poetry. K. Aschenbrenner & W. B. Holther. University of California Press 1954 

  5. From Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik (1818-29)

  6. Gadamer op.cit. pp. 85-87. 

  7. Karsten Harries, The Ethical Function of Architecture, Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press 1997, p. 26. 

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