Yael Reinser. Pleasure of Beauty

Interviewed by Siim Tuksam

YAEL REISNER is an architect, academic, researcher and writer (PhD in architecture from RMIT in Melbourne). She is the director of London-based Yael Reisner Studio and she has taught at the Bartlett in London, Sci Arc, LA, Lund University, Sweden, and at AA in London. Her book with Fleur Watson Architecture and Beauty, Conversations with Architects about A Troubled Relationship was published in 2010. Yael Reisner was also chosen to be the head curator of Tallinn Architecture biennale in 2019 with her chosen title Beauty Matters, The Resurgence of (the temporarily dormant) Beauty 

The interview is based on Yael Reisner’s lecture Why Beauty Matters in Architecture; the cultural bias, the enigma, and the Timely pursuit of New Beauties given at the Estonian Academy of Arts in February 2018.

The lecture was divided into four chapters:

1. Reisner’s brief portrait as an architect.

2. The cultural bias in architecture against beauty since the 1930s, its paradox, and meaning.

3. The enigma of beauty and what could be learned from other disciplines that never stop believing in the power of beauty.

4. Post-digital architecture – the context today. The timely pursuit of new beauties – as beauty matters! 

Siim Tuksam: Aesthetics is subjective. It is embedded in architecture though, as you claimed, it is not discussed. Is it mainly because we don’t know how to discuss it? The discussion itself kind of runs haywire as soon as we bring this topic up. The way you built up your lecture was very clear, including the cultural bias. Perhaps the part I would like to get to know more is about learning from the other fields you mentioned, how to actually talk about aesthetics. How do we start thinking about aesthetics and discussing aesthetics in the field of architecture? As the architectural discourse contradicts almost anything in relation to that topic. 

Yael Reisner: I think there are at least three good key questions here. Why don’t architects discuss aesthetics? What do we learn from other disciplines on how to handle aesthetics/beauty or any subjective subject, and what are the ways to discuss aesthetics in architecture or to re-introduce it to our discourse? 

It is a cultural issue why architects don’t discuss aesthetics or anything subjective (yet they are happy to talk about ethics). Many architects have dismissed discussing aesthetics since the 1940s, and still so today. It was Reyner Banham, the British architectural historian, who pointed out the shifting moment. As he wrote, the architectural world nearly forgot how Early Modernism was based on aesthetic and with symbolism in mind. It came out as early as the 1920s, with a very clear and new aesthetic. Mondrian’s abstract art was adopted by De Stijl, and that ‘winning image’ of the 20th century was fresh and appealing to Gropius who was directing the Bauhaus at that time. That image reflected on the ‘depersonalisation of art’ and symbolized universal beauty. It was built in reinforced concrete, which at the time was considered as mechanical and impersonal too.1 YET, as Banham continued, by the early 1940s, three historians Sigfried Giedion, Alberto Sartoris, and Lewis Mumford, through their texts, had eliminated any aesthetic tendencies unless based on logical and economic grounds, and thus led to the change of the modernist scene to ‘Form Follows Function’ for many years to come. They interpreted the Modernist’s ethics dramatically differently from their intended highly symbolized aesthetical approach and explained it as architecture driven by functionality. 

Since the 1940s, architects felt that their most important role is servicing society, which had to be delivered objectively, hence the pursuit of anything subjective turned irrelevant, including the pursuit of the experience of beauty. Functionality became known as the first rational consideration, which took over the design process, and for quite a while.

My observation is that, in time, objectivity and rational thinking in architecture were augmented by the critique on the ‘hegemony of the eye’2 (the eye seemed too passive) and by the long-term intellectualization of the design process, due to the influence of the scientific revolutions (during the last five hundred years), as the successful researches and findings were associated by many with rational thinking.3 Thus, what was understood as rational and objective in architectural design process was endorsed, whereas intuitive and lateral thinking were both counted – for too long – as not needed for a rigorous thought process in design.

These strong beliefs and tendencies led to focus on the derivatives of rational process, not understanding the relevance of subjective pursuits and their potential to lead to what people like, thus we ended with an environment that is often alienating, not focusing on what makes architecture pleasurable, including losing the aspiration for introducing to architecture the experience of beauty. For years it didn’t matter that architects, who mostly design for people and their wellbeing, knew that these people are touched by the experience of beauty, and desire for it. The same phenomenon could be traced in other disciplines, such as in psychiatry where medicines were developed and given to fight depression, while knowing that some depression cases could be relieved by staying in a beautiful environment.

It is true that forming a judgment about any project’s aesthetics is, in fact, discussing a subjective experience. Yet a cultural bias is involved too, as for example, most architects feel that the word beauty became empty of meaning by these days, and perhaps the very fact that its use in an architectural conversation is perceived shallow, and not progressive (an actual reflection on how people generally are driven by the intellectualization of thought), makes architects uncomfortable using the word. 

We can witness this through your question, Siim, as you haven’t used the word beauty even once, though I used it often in my lecture. I did so because I vehemently believe that beauty does hugely matter in architecture.

The objective–subjective conflict in most architects’ mind is the core of a troubled relationship between architects and beauty and the vexed relationships between “form” and “content” is part of it.

For a long time, architects talked mostly about contents they consider while designing and not about the forms they design. Often the contents involved are fascinating and rather important to be engaged with, but that engagement emphasizes, yet again, the preoccupation with rational thinking, and if in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s considering functionality was the domineering content, in time, architects saw themselves also as problem solvers, including when they turned to focus at sustainable issues or became experts in ecological design or socially oriented design, in place making, in space organizing, program generating, or raising the importance of open-source design, you name it, it was all categorized under problem solvers. 

Many architects claim that great design is the result of absorbing many unrelated contents, fusing them together into one great building where they were all integrated successfully into one functional whole.

While working with computers and new software during the 1990s, the more digital the architects became – in their design process – the more they turned to talk about form making, yet reasoning it by the authorial voice of philosophy (Deleuze) and math (Leibniz), both perceived objective, deserting the focus on the various contents (as Greg Lynn in the early 1990s) most architects were driven by. The young leading digital architects continued to pursue the 20th century urge to passionately and objectively serve the society by keeping the anti-subjectivist attitude, renamed through keywords we are familiar with already from non- deterministic design to indeterminate one, reflecting the insistence on objective characteristics, and still at a genuine war with human judgment and intuitive drives (Bernard Cache).

However, it is clear to a lot of us, architects, that our good eye (an old-fashioned term that is still used by Europeans) – or design intelligence (the equivalent term used by Americans) – plays a constant role, though more as a secret weapon, in sifting and tweaking during the design process in order to arrive at a better-looking version of our design, and not just solving the listed problems, along the introduction of the different contents the design is focused on. That’s the mechanism of how we progress through the design process, though most architects take the visual improvement for granted, as they do when a few challenging problems that have nothing in common are solved. 

That takes us to your second question  what do we learn from other disciplines?

Besides the cultural bias, and the fact that the aesthetic experience of beauty is subjective, there is a third factor here, as neuroscientists have claimed for quite a while, which is that any subjective experience is mostly objective too. For example, a majority of people will agree on something very beautiful they look at that it is beautiful – a claim that most readers here will jump at and say ‘not true’, which is the result of another cultural bias, and those are the hardest to shed off. Nevertheless, this third claim is by the neurobiologist Prof. Semir Zeki4, who discovered in 1978, already forty years ago, the exact mechanism of how we see colour (which had been debated and misunderstood for 300 years), and that mechanism is indeed taking place within each one of us, subjectively, in our brain. We actually construct colour subjectively, though most people when they construct the colour of an object they see as blue, for example, they agree it is blue. Each one of us is constructing the colour we see as we see it – cannot be more subjective than that – yet, we mostly agree with the people around us on what colour we see, hence it is objective too. 

We cannot define beauty in simple terms, yet, neuroscientists proved that our civilization couldn’t exist without the recurrence of experiencing pleasures – while the experience of beauty is one of them – a characteristic that reflects on our neurobiological structure. The experience of beauty rewards people neurobiologically with an immediate reaction of an aesthetic pleasure, which leads to actual physical health and a feeling of wellbeing. Zeki found that when we look at things we consider to be beautiful, there is an increased activity in the pleasure reward centers of the brain. There is a great deal of dopamine in this area, also known as the ‘feel-good’ transmitter. “The reaction is immediate.”5 We know immediately when we experience beauty and the intensity of that emotional experience can be quantified digitally. 

Until late 1970s, neuroscientists erroneously understood the humans’ seeing mechanism as a passive one. Nevertheless, even when the opposite was proven more than thirty years ago6, its dissemination into culture, as we can witness, is still hardly there, due to the culturally loaded negative attitude towards the ‘eye regime’, which is still shared by many architects. The scientific facts about the seeing mechanism and its role are still completely missed by most people, architects, curators, and so on.

Apparently, seeing is the key active element in gathering knowledge, claims Zeki, and visual thinking is crucial in creative thinking. Architecture wouldn’t develop well through history, if visual thinking was ‘retinal’ only – passive – and not processed in the brain. Dissemination is slow indeed, especially when scientific findings are in contradiction to prevalent cultural beliefs.

Moreover, between 2011 and 2014 it was Zeki who proved that when we experience different types of beauty – visual, musical, mathematical and moral – each aesthetic pleasure immediately leads to an increased activity in the pleasure reward centres of the emotional brain, and the intensity of that experience of beauty can be quantified digitally7, (an important measure in science). 

These findings made me interested in the subject of mathematical beauty, and I found out that in mathematical studies of the universe, the aesthetic pleasure of mathematical beauty is particularly of interest, since unlike architects, or amongst other fields in the Humanities, mathematicians never lost interest in beauty, particularly mathematical physicists, as Robbert Dijkgraaf8 confirms that beauty plays an important role, and he adds9 that these days are the golden days of the trust in beauty as a pointer of truth about the universe. The already classic example is Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which when submitted in 1915 was described by every mathematician as sheer beauty. “A hundred years on, no discussion of the role of aesthetics in scientific theory seems complete without its inclusion.”10

As the English mathematician G. H. Hardy wrote,11 “…The beauty of a mathematical theorem depends a great deal on its seriousness, even in poetry the beauty of a line may depend to some extent on the significance of the ideas which it contains…”12

Mathematicians are confident in listing the characteristics of beauty; a quality that is unexpected, fresh, significant, and economical. When we design, we are familiar with the moment, like mathematicians, when all fall into place. We are pleased, as that moment is when the beauty was noted. As the mathematician Ron Aharoni wrote, “The sensation of beauty arises when order is suddenly revealed in disorder,”13 and what comes across as order for us as architects today might be different than the sense of order in the Renaissance.

Which leads us to your third good question – What are the ways to discuss aesthetics in architecture or to re-introduce it to our discourse?

I wish to start and say that in architectural digital design, by 2010-11, the ‘return to the author’ became a reality with the CAD-CAM systems, as the architects became the craftsmen, where the craft making is in their ability to, digitally, and skillfully, draw the drawings that turn directly to physical objects. Yet, since files could easily be shared and content added or deleted, authorship turned quickly to ownership. Open-source design or robots deployment as the manufacturers, made the situation more complicated. Nevertheless, even when a script is written and open for numerous new interpretations, there is a growing wish to recognize whose imagination is involved, and whose only technical skills were coming from. 

The architectural shifts of value systems between the early years of the 20th century and our days reminds me of the 18th century battles, “The Romantics with the plea for the liberation of the human emotions, and the free expression of personality and imagination [who] blamed the Philosophers [Enlightenment] for separating people from their feelings, and crushing their spontaneity and individuality in order to fit all life into mechanical framework, soulless thinking machines…15

Yet perhaps more importantly, today, the very use of the term ‘post digital architecture’ is a remarkable evidence of a change into admitting – again – and recognizing the human role in digital design. We can identify already the first buds of a cultural shift, as there is fresh interest in new architectural range of beauties, along the growing acknowledgment in human judgment and intuition, as well as in its significance for a creative output16, but also the ambition to search on how to make sure one arrives at what people like. 

That helps to bring aesthetics back into the architectural discourse. Subjectivity is elevated again, though with a lot more knowledge about why it comes to the fore through different disciplines.

There is a need for a personal call so as to arrive at new beauties. 

Therefore, in architectural education we need to encourage individuality and to empower students to genuinely aspire for beauty. Poetic architectural imagery is perhaps a suitable starting point, and as in poetry, it evolves from a private psyche, though as Gaston Bachelard wrote, “The poet does not confer the past of his image upon me, and yet his image immediately takes root in me”.

In our time, beauty is not a singular idea; beauty is many, and the important search is for profound new beauties in architecture.

PUBLISHED in Maja’s 2018 summer/autumn edition (No 94).

HEADER photo by Heidrun Hertel.

1  Reyner Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, Architectural Press, Butterworth-Heinman, Oxford, 1960

2  Martin Jay, The Denigration of Vision in 20th C. French Thought, University of California Press, 1994.

3  Marvin Perry, An Intellectual History of Modern Europe, Houghton Miffin Company, 1992

4  Prof. Zeki is a British neurobiologist at University College London, a world expert of the visual brain and the neural correlates of affective states, desire and beauty that are generated by sensory inputs. He is active in the fields of neurobiology and neuroaesthetics.

5  Semir Zeki, https://neuroaesthetics.net/2011/08/21/toward-a-brain-based-theory-of-beauty-ishizu-zeki-2011/

6  Semir Zeki, Splendors and Miseries of the Brain, Love, Creativity, and the quest for Human Happiness. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

7  Toward A Brain-Based Theory of Beauty, Tomohiro Ishizu, Semir Zeki  see http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0021852, and added by Prof. Semir Zeki in a recorded conversation with Yael Reisner, in 2015.

Experience of mathematical beauty and its neural correlates, Front. Hum. Neuroscience, 13 February 2014, http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00068

8  Robbert Dijkgraaf is a mathematical physicist who has made significant contributions to string theory. The Director of the Institute for Advanced Study and Leon Levy Professor since July 2012. 

9  As he did in his inaugural lecture at MIT when he became the director of the Institute for Advanced Study.

10  The Economist, weekly magazine, November 2015.

11  G. H. Hardy, A Mathematician’s Apology, Stellar Editions, 1940.

12  Ibid, p.88

13  Ron Aharoni, Mathematics, Poetry and Beauty, World Scientific, 2014. p.30.

14  Maurice Conti, TED Talk, Portland, 2016, https://www.ted.com/talks/maurice_conti_the_incredible_inventions_of_intuitive_ai

Conti is currently Director of Applied Research & Innovation at Autodesk. He also leads Autodesk’s Applied Research Lab, which he built from the ground up. Conti and his team are responsible for exploring the trends and technologies that will shape our future.

15  Marvin Perry, An Intellectual History of Modern Europe, Houghton Mifflin, 1992.

16  Gerd Gigerenzer, Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious, Taschenbuch, 2008.