Thursday, March 13, 2014

Aesthetically Pleasing

This building is boarded up because nobody has a use for it. Nobody has a use for it because nobody wants to be in it. Nobody wants to be in it because the thing is so damned ugly. - Roger Scruton

The above comes from philosopher Roger Scruton's BBC special Why Beauty Matters. Elsewhere, Scruton has argued for "a more comprehensive view of the city as an aesthetic creation. Cities degenerate when they are seen as mere instruments, temporary structures that are abandoned when their purpose is fulfilled."[1] While recognizing architecture as a "useful art"--i.e. possessing a function beyond aesthetics--Scruton points out that "a functional building" that fulfills its function "is not, for that reason, beautiful. In referring to architecture as a useful art we are emphasizing another aspect of it--the aspect that lies beyond utility. We are implying that a work of architecture can be appreciated not only as a means to some goal, but also as an end in itself, as a thing intrinsically meaningful."[2] The "knowledge of architectural function is important to the judgment of beauty; but architectural function is bound up with the aesthetic goal...In other words, when we take beauty seriously, function ceases to be an independent variable, and becomes absorbed into the aesthetic goal."[3]

A lack of beauty can have a negative impact. For example, one teacher in the 1960s Boston inner-city school system collected letters from his fourth grade class describing "what they saw in front of them each day when they came into school." The letters consistently mentioned how dirty and rundown the classroom appeared. As this teacher explained,

The insult to aesthetics, the affront to cleanliness and harmony and sweetness, are continuing realities as well for children who must go each morning into morbid-looking buildings in which few adults other than their teachers would agree to work day after day...There is no misery index for the children of apartheid education. There ought to be; we measure almost every other aspect of the lives they lead in school. Do kids who go to schools like these enjoy the days they spend in them? Is school, for most of them, a happy place to be?[4]

Aesthetics can and should play a role within organizations. While "open-plan" offices have been the rage since the 1990s (with its focus on collaboration), evidence continues to mount that this design can be distracting and unproductive. Google has in some sense attempted to merge the functional with the beautiful. As one expert put it, "Aesthetics are just the first layer and they are only going to work if they are aligned with deeper levels of change."[4] In other words, "the aim is to respond to the business and cultural drivers of an organization." There is some research that demonstrates aesthetics (apart from ergonomics) can have an impact on employee well-being.[5]

Samuel M. Brown
Zackary Berger and Samuel Brown make an excellent case for aesthetics in hospital design in the Annals of Internal Medicine:

The Johns Hopkins Hospital (JHH) and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), 2 of the most prestigious training hospitals in the United States, both harbor vestigial figures that remind us of what hospitals used to be. The Johns Hopkins Hospital is home to a much-visited statue of Jesus, the divine healer. With the recent hospital expansion, this statue feels like a quaint relic relegated to an old hospital building where important committees consider patients in the abstract but never in reality. At MGH, the actual body of an Egyptian scribe from the Ptolemaic period, Padihershef (Padi), stands watch over the illustrious Ether Dome, far from patient and visitor traffic, in the figurative shadow of recent massive expansions of the hospital’s physical plant. Both Jesus and Padi represent an age when medicine was often found in the context of specific faith and cultural traditions. Part church, part museum, part distinctive cultural space, the earliest hospitals were often operated by religious order or religiously minded civic groups to care for the desperately ill who were too poor to receive care in their homes.[6]

Technological advances and upgrades have left many hospitals "massive and modular, generic and cold." Patients no longer "imagine themselves as human beings," but instead as "collections of medical problems waiting to be solved."[7] Berger and Brown suggest that hospitals include "more living things, more spaces to sit quietly and reflect, perhaps even specific works of art or curios."[8]

When it comes to the ancient triad of Truth (science), Goodness (ethics), and Beauty (aesthetics), most organizations most of the time get the first two right. It's time to bring in the third.

1. Scruton, "A Plea for Beauty: A Manifesto for a New Urbanism," Society & Culture Outlook 1 (AEI, March 2012): 5.

2. Scruton, Beauty (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 17.

3. Ibid., 22.

Some researchers have suggested that invoking a sense of "awe" in students could help children develop a sense of purpose. Awe is typically generated from an experience with beauty. This "aesthetic experience" is what Sir Ken Robinson describes as "one in which your senses are operating at their peak, when you're present in the current moment, when you're resonating with the excitement of this thing you're experiencing, when you're fully alive."

5. See Elisabet Schell, Tores Theorell, Helena Saraste, "Workplace Aesthetics: Impact of Environments Upon Employee Health?" Work 39 (2011): 203-213.

6. Zackary D. Berger, Samuel M. Brown, "Should Hospitals Look Like Airports?" Annals of Internal Medicine 159:7 (2013): 492. See Allen Hansen's "
Missionaries and Modernization" at Difficult Run for the impact of medical missionaries.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid., 493.

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