Architecture and Beauty
An RA Forum event was held on 24 May 2010 to coincide with the publication by Wiley & Sons of Architecture & Beauty: Conversations about A Troubled Relationship by Yael Reisner with Fleur Watson. The event comprised a panel discussion with Yael Reisner along with four of the book’s interviewees – the eminent architects Gaetano Pesce, Hernan Diaz Alonso, Sir Peter Cook RA and Will Alsop RA. Chaired by Wiley’s Commissioning Editor, Helen Castle, the debate revealed the great diversity of positions about the role of ‘beauty’ within the architectural process and gave an insight into the richness of the book’s content.
Reisner set the context for the project’s genesis describing her growing frustration with a profession seemingly in denial of any value of aesthetics and drawing on her Israeli-heritage as being embedded in a rejection of visual language over ‘content’. Opening the discussion up to the panel, Castle asked each architect to recall personal moments of recognising beauty in built form. Cook suggested that rather than conventional notions – such as proportion or symmetry or scale – beauty lay in the oddity of an unusual detail or something surprising about a building while Alsop recalled his boyhood understanding of anything ‘his mother didn’t approve of’ – a kind of rebelling against the status quo. The youngest of the four – Diaz Alonso – revealed his cinematic interest and declared his belief that any kind of imagery could be perceived as beautiful – from the horrific or grotesque to the pornographic. It was a position that the most senior of the four – 71-year-old Gaetano Pesce – reacted strongly against, suggesting that to accept any notion of beauty was to reject individuality and artistic expression – a political position he simply could not accept.
Contributors: Hernan Diaz Alonso © Monica Nouvens; Gaetano Pesce © Gaetano Pesce; Sir Peter Cook © Alexander Cook; Will Alsop © Antonio Olmos
In a short address to make the official launch of the book, co-author Fleur Watson described that in crafting the essays for the books – based on Yael Reisner’s comprehensive interviews – it became clear that the great opportunity of the material lay in the frankness, and in many cases tension, within which the interviewee engaged with the theme. This uncompromising honesty in the face of often uncomfortable territory, provided a richness and depth of material with which to work. As the panel discussion highlighted, the book’s theme connects with a critical moment in our architectural history – that is, when faced with the ability to build almost anything, the resonant question shifts from “What can we build?“ to “What should we build?” As such, this publication marks a key moment for architects to reflect on their output and its place within culture and society – what is the role of beauty within that discussion? The discussion provided valuable insight into these issues and through a revealing examination of diverse architectural positions provoked questions rather than providing resounding answers.
Report by Fleur Watson