THE CONFLICT ABOUT BEAUTY – AESTHETICS BETWEEN NATURE AND ARCHITECTURE
The creed of all marketing and public relations strategists, the meaningful AIDA (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action), an abbreviation for all that which is intended to arouse the consumer, rests on the fact that the human being, the most highly developed visual creature in all evolution, can be decisively manipulated by means of visual stimuli. Which are the most effective optical signals? Which are able to attract attention? In experiments, it is taken as a criterion for aesthetic effect if eye-oriented animals or even children turn to a certain visual object.
Aesthetics comes from the Greek Aisthesis = sensitivity, and can also be seen in anaesthetic – means to render insensitive. Certainly, sensitivity is unequally distributed – it can be encouraged, but sadly, it can also be suppressed.
So did Nature give us our inborn elements for our sense of beauty? Are there standards for beauty which are not solely individual taste or solely cultural?
The question is all the more interesting because there do exist such different cultural preferences: is there such a thing as a trans-cultural accordance about beauty – a general human aesthetic sense? (Human universals of aesthetics – a common denominator for our sense of beauty).
I do not comment on the sense of beauty of a glutton as he feasts his eyes on a pink ham, or of a sailor as he observes a buxom maiden, of a male chimpanzee considering the estrogen-enhanced behinds of his mates, or of a jockey as he spots a muscular race-horse. These preferences have their roots in the satisfying of animal drives and in functional lust. Hiding behind these aesthetic feelings are interests. Kant’s definition of aesthetic feelings, on the contrary, was “a visual satisfaction of a pleasing sight, free of interests” - that jumps out at one, although we can expect no advantage from the object of our attention, no satisfying of our drives – where the only reward is the pleasing sight itself, such as a flower, a butterfly, a peacock’s display, crystals or a rainbow.
This study was prompted by the alarming uglification by our global techno-civilisation. As an urban ecologist, this subject has interested me for the last 30 years.
An urban ecologist wanders between biology and architecture. He seeks aesthetic reasons that do not spring only from his subjective taste. The question of how much the world view of ethology (behavioural research) can contribute to the problem of beauty has fascinated me ever since I first got to know Konrad Lorenz.
HOW “GODLESS” AND IMMORAL IS THE STRAIGHT LINE or BETWEEN CHAOS AND ORDER
The final impulse to search for the inbornsource of our sense of beauty came from the friendly, though skeptical, discussion of Hundertwasser’s aesthetically inspired criticism of architecture – his demonization of right-angled boxes and technical monotony.
His favourite hates were Adolf Loos, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier – still considered by today’s architects to be great designers of form. In Hundertwasser’s opinion they ruined form, because they impoverished the shape of buildings and cityscapes and made them unbearably monotonous. Hundertwasser wrote:
The ruler is the symbol of a new illiteracy, the ruler is the symptom of the new disease of decline. The architecture of today is criminally sterile. This architectural crime spread out from Austria to the rest of the world, the Austrian Adolf Loos committed the evil deed. But Adolf Loos was incapable of thinking 50 years ahead. Now the world cannot rid itself of the spirit he conjured up…he praises the straight line, the sameness, the smoothness. Now we all slip on the smoothness. The Almighty slips too and falls, for the straight line is godless and immoral. Hundertwasser, 1968, Los von Loos, In. Schöne Wege, page 174.
Are irregularity, chaos, crooked lines, and anti-geometry really a recipe for beauty? What makes an artist who is sensitive to Nature demonize the straight line, if he is looking for a world of shapes that is fitting for humans?
MAN, THE CREATURE OF NATURE, “Evolutionary Epistemology”
“Wär’nicht das Auge sonnenhaft, die Sonne könnt’ es nie erblicken” (Goethe)
The evolutionary theory of cognition developed by Konrad Lorenz states that our image of the world arose out of a dialogue with Nature, and is adapted to it as are fins to water, as are wings to air, leaves to light or roots to earth, as otherwise eyes and ears, hands and brain could not function, operate or guide us in order to survive. This adaptation dialogue between the Nature around us and the Nature within us has been going on for millions of years, has formed every fibre of our being, from the retina to the nervous system. Thus, deep inside, Man has remained terribly old-fashioned, carrying around with him the traces of his biological evolution, which took place only in the natural environment and in the social associations of small groups. So, even today every baby is born with the instincts of Cro-Magnon man (“Stone Age hunters in limousines”).
The self-inflicted estrangement of the environment is running out of man’s control, away from human adaptation patterns that have evolved over millions of years, now causing him to become more and more neurotic. If it were possible to shrink 30 million years of primate development into the space of one year, from our first ape-like ancestors up to Homo sapiens, then on this scale of things the period since the industrial revolution would take up no more than the last 2 minutes of this hypothetical “primate year”.
Constitutionally, Man is adapted to a highly structured landscape with a great variety of plant life, especially savannah with groups of bushes and trees, and water edges. Eibl-Eibesfeld (1985) even speaks of a distinct “Phytophilia” (a love for plants) – wherever he can, Man takes plant forms into his immediate environment, either as living plants in the modern living cave or – artistically encoded – from the acanthus capital of Corinthian columns up to the floral decoration of Art Nouveau. It was only when functionalism banned plant-like ornamentation from architecture that Man, the ancient creature of Nature, began to feel that something was missing.
HOW MUCH NATURE DOES MAN NEED? DOES HE NEED NATURE?
Psychologists blame the increase in nervous and psychological disorders of civilisation on the often unconscious shock of losing Nature. This is even more important now that it is known that most diseases have a mental component. This fits the words of a Viennese family doctor: “My life’s experience is that a healthy person does not become ill”. The prominent representative of the Viennese school of psychosomatic medicine, Erwin Ringel also says no less succinctly: “What hurts the feelings hurts the health” (“Was kränkt macht krank”). An intensive involvement with Nature can reduce stress, increase powers of concentration, harmonise blood-pressure and mood, as well as relax tension. The landscapes of national parks contribute to reducing the “mental starvation” of industrialised man – they are not only “biotopes” but also “psychotopes”. The German photographer Ehlert supplies hospitals with posters from the last European wildernesses – among them the Danube wetlands - and the doctors observe a marked positive effect on their patients.
PROPOSITION: NATURAL FORMS AS VITAMINS FOR THE SOUL – THE GODLESS STRAIGHT LINE
One could live for years in the environment of a native of Papua or of the Amazon without seeing any “godless” straight line – even in mid-European landscapes when a straight line is seen, one can be sure that human technology has made its alienating mark here. And apart from this, the ecologist knows that these straight lines always become instruments of the devil.
The dead straight trapezoid section of the artificial beds of regulated streams have placed dead rivers in concrete coffins, barren channels or gutters that not only offend the eye, but are also functional failures (lacking sufficient self purification, lowering ground water levels and – being a race course for flowing off instead of retarding it –flooding the settlements. But this ecological criticism of straightness is only a late confirmation of the artistic feeling of the unnaturalness of techno-geometric perfection, the justification of an intuition which suspects that the structures of life are basically expressed in other forms – so that thousands of generations of humans before us grew up in an organically determined environment, lived, loved and died, never encountering a perfect straight line, perfect symmetry or even large shiny geometrical shapes.
But what conclusion may we draw from this?
Is it not futile in spite of all this, to deny the fascination of geometrical objects?
COUNTER-PROPOSITION: THE CHARM OF REGULARITY - GODLY GEOMETRY
Did not the Egyptians, with their pyramidal world wonders, fulfill a dream of Man? Is the glass pyramid of Biosphere 2 not an aesthetic wonder in a New World desert? Is this a contradiction? Even Nature produces, where she has to arouse interest, optical signals, clear forms which contrast with organic irregularity and confusing chaotic structures. Suddenly we observe strict symmetries, simple arrangements and marked coloured patterns. (The biologist calls this “advertising colours”).
And because the usual situation in nature is irregularity, instinctively familiar to all visual creatures, it needs to have a clear order as a contrast, in order to arouse interest. This is why all visually-oriented organisms feel familiar with irregularity - they are however attracted by geometrical order (and this is why megacrystals of technomorphic large-scale architecture begin to overwhelm us, being super-perfect dummies of our search for order).
Mirror Symmetry, Flowers and Rosettes
One of the most successful aesthetic effects is achieved by means of symmetry, in particular radial symmetry, as in the radially arranged petals of flowers or the radial monstrance of the peacock’s display (which also includes “eye symbols”, similar to those on many a butterfly’s wing). Reflections in water are a favourite subject for landscape photographers, kaleidoscopic pictures fascinate us, as do Gothic rose windows.
The glory of flowers is Nature’s way of dressing the shop window – developed by competition in evolution in order to attract insects – and this is why it is so interesting in natural philosophy that optical signals, with their purpose of attracting the attention of the compound eyes of passing nectar seekers with their pin-head sized brains, also irresistibly attract humans who have quite a different sensory world. But as we know, it is a misfortune for wild flowers that humans find pleasure in them. On the other hand the attraction to, let us say, an orchid bloom has no material advantage for humans. Or what biological advantage could their tendency to pick flowers have, what is the reason for the keenness of children to amputate the sexual organs of higher plants and to carry them home? Here we find the general aesthetic principle that orderly colours and forms are preferable to a disorderly or less differentiated environment. There the sense of beauty is the only reward – as is the Kaleidoscope. Any element – also the most trivial or even ugly one – is becoming an irresistible eye catcher the moment it is mirrored and symmetrically radialized, clearly an innate reaction of eye orientated animals.
The eye – universal signal among all eye orientated animals, including man
Lorenz describes the principle of the ideal visual signal in his Vergleichende Verhaltensforschung (1978) (Comparative Ethology) as Prägnanz (conciseness) (a term used by Felix Krüger). This means: conspicuous and unmistakable through improbability (the attraction of the rare). Easy to remember by their simplicity, signals must be easily stored in the memory as “trade marks” (in part also in the genome of inborn knowledge – like when a newly matured female mallard spies, for the first time in her life, a colourful drake of her species and knows instantly and instinctively that those colours indicate a potential mate).
THE SEARCH FOR ORDER - inborn in the visual creature
The above also explains why visually-oriented animals actively seek aesthetic order. In experiments where monkeys, raccoons, jackdaws and crows are given the choice, B. Rensch (1957, 1958) shows that animals prefer regular forms to the irregular, and symmetry to the asymmetrical. Also children rank such patterns aesthetically higher than chaotic, asymmetric or non-parallel patterns.
Furthermore, our perception strives to order visual phenomena. If the eye is shown for the fraction of a second a triangle of which an angle is missing, it is perceived as a perfect triangle. Asymmetry and other irregularities in simple geometric figures are cancelled out by our perception. We complete, i.e. we idealise, in order to achieve regularity and symmetry.
The fascination which regular crystals hold for us - the more regular the prisms the more valuable for the collector – can be explained by just these areas of our perception. Dürer’s well-known engraving “Melancholy” (1514) – beside its hidden meaning –is significant for the interesting contrast between the almost geometrically perfect crystal and the organic forms of the late Middle Ages (One of these crystal planes was chosen by the Albertina to carry the title for an exhibition poster).
19th century explorers often reported that primitive indigenous populations were irresistibly attracted to phenomena that was rare for them; that the explorers could obtain from the natives all they wanted in exchange for worthless cut-glass beads.
I asked I. Eibl-Eibesfeld and C. Sütterlin to carry out some experiments with children of tribal people (Nuba) to choose between crystals (pyrites, glass) and organic forms (pretty sea-shells, small model animals). They found an overwhelming preference for the inorganic shining geometrical crystals. The children chose just those rare objects which Nature only offered them as an exception, if at all.
It can be very sensible to react to the rare object. Everything that tasted sweet gave our wild ancestors, without them knowing it, a supply of vitamins. Nature signals sweetness by shininess, roundness or by contrasting colours (cherries, berries, even the red berries of yew, the only edible part of this poisonous conifer).
The search for salt, which our primate ancestors only seldom found, complemented their blood ions and assured the sodium to calcium and potassium ratio in their body fluids (like today’s salt licks for wild animals). However, whatever man craves, easily becomes a craving (what he seeks may become an addiction). Nowadays salt is cheap and easy to obtain. According to heart specialists, civilised Man sometimes makes himself ill by consuming too much salt.
Equally, in the view of dieticians and internal medicine specialists, Man also eats himself sick on refined sugar. And in the same way we overeat ourselves today on geometry, on the “godless straight lines” which the industrial age has enabled us to construct perfectly and without limit.
This is what Hundertwasser has to say about this:
“It should be at least morally forbidden to even carry a straight line with one. The ruler is the symbol of a new illiteracy….Not long ago it was the privilege of kings and learned men to own a straight line. Nowadays every idiot can carry a million straight lines in his trouser pocket.” (He had counted the straight lines on an industrially produced razor-blade under a microscope).
Hundertwasser, 1958, Verschimmelungsmanifest In: Schöne Wege, pages 165 ff.
Already in 1958 the artist recognized that worshipping machines, industrial design and technomorphic architecture had built a gigantic cage of geometry for our senses. That which Nature offers in small doses as an exception, in only a few decades we have made it into the ordinary for our visual environment. The rare has become the rule; the former interesting unique phenomenon has become the boring imagination-stifling mass product. The fascinated native reaching for the glass beads would very soon tire of the huge glass prisms and shiny metal cubes and wish to return to his familiar wilderness. And even Man in this industrial age takes more and more jungle plants and epiphytes into his technoid crystal halls. The city child on the 11th floor of his monotonous high-rise building dreams, like all children before him, of a crooked gingerbread house, moss and woodland gnomes.
Irregularities as “chewing-gum for the brain”
The tension between order and chaos rules our visual environment, just as the tension between culture and nature dominates our whole being. Our perceptive powers are in search of lawful patterns and orderly arrangements, just as they automatically convert the almost-complete into geometric perfection: this is an admirable ability of our brain-computer, constantly scanning to detect significance (similar to the ability to see forms in clouds and mountains). If our perceptive powers are offered perfect geometry and an abundance of stereotype repetitions, they get bored. The eye and the brain then lack the intriguing challenge otherwise offered by slight irregularities.
RHYTHM versus STEREOTYPE
The rhythmic repetition of similar (but not identical) parts is an important principle of biological construction and a characteristic of life – just think of cell structures, of caterpillars, of feathery leaves – rhythmic repetition is often also used as a visual signal in order to attract attention (such as the stripes on coral fish, wasps, and many others).
It is for this reason that animals and humans react positively to such structures, and repetition became the design principle in decorative art, from the string of pearls to the classical ornament of the “running wave” (the “Greek key”), or the stitched borders used by ethnic cultures of all times. Rows of columns, arcades, avenues of trees, men on parade, can-can dancers, all these express the formal pleasure of rhythmic repetition. However, nature and handwork always guarantee a slight irregularity, uniformity never becomes monotony, organic rhythm never degenerates into technical stereotype. Variety in the uniformity was sometimes cultivated on purpose – think of the varying capitals in the cloisters of the Middle Ages.
It was only mechanical mass production that made exact repetitive reproduction possible, which nature and handwork had only approximately achieved, without ever succeeding. So proud were we of this result, and so great was the economic success, that for a long time we did not notice how we were impoverishing our visual environment, how cold and impersonal everything around us was becoming.
It is only today, forty years after Hundertwasser’s first protests against the fatal sterility, equality and smoothness, against the deadly monotony of industrial mass production, that some of us began to wake up from the anaesthesia of stereotype. Even the makers of industrial cement roof tiles are beginning to produce these with an artificial patina, using randomised computer programmes, in order to make them more acceptable for historical townscapes.
WHY DO WE FIND GOTHIC ART BEAUTIFUL?
If the builders of breathtaking Gothic structures had had to wait until it was possible to calculate them with the aid of structural engineers, there would have been no Gothic cathedrals. Long before mathematical statics were invented, Gothic masters had found impressive static solutions by developing “architecture of lines of force” of organic skeletal forms (we see these everywhere in Nature where it is important to achieve maximum stability with the minimum of material). An artistically stimulating analogy are the radiolaria, unicellular marine plankton no larger than specks of dust, described by Ernst Haeckel in his “Art Forms of Nature”, appearing as if they had been the inspiration for Gothic master builders. Because of their floating way of life these siliceous scaffolds are as delicate as possible – which was also the aim of cathedral stonemasons, to make their stonework as light as possible. “Light” meant “bright” at the same time. Their motive was based on the “mystics of light” emerging at that time, with the idea of making the interior of the church – magically bathed in light – a representation of the heavens. Stone had to become transparent. Abbot Suger called the basic theme of his architecture “Bâtir avec la lumière“ (building with light).
A polished section through a thigh bone shows in its interior the lines of force of the pointed arch architecture of Gothic church naves. Of course, “gothic” lines of force constructions also apply to many plant structures – such as sections through stems that look like the ground plan of a tower. A beech wood closing over a road gives the impression of a cathedral.
The fascinating correlation between natural objects and the works of man comes from following laws of organic form and function, intuitively realised by the master builders through their conscious and unconscious experience of nature and then applied to their architecture. These perceptible statics are also the reason for their aesthetic attraction.
Organic beauty: Observing and thinking, our brain detects the significance of order within chaos. The ability to observe, to make sense of everything that one sees, has made the human being the most successful creature in evolution. His constant search for cause and effect, his search of set patterns, of sense and meaning in all phenomena. It was the recognition of regularity and lawfulness that gave this tool-and fire using ape power – namely to predict. The reactions of his environment became predictable and could therefore be mastered and made use of. Forms which reveal the effect of forming forces give him great pleasure, whether it is the evident static of plants, elegant bridges or cathedrals, the perceptible streamlines of fish, ships, birds and aircrafts, the interlude of wind and sand in the gentle slopes of dunes in the Sahara or the rhythmic loops of a meandering river, the regular colour spectrum of a rainbow or the suspected laws behind logarithmic spirals, also the golden section which also applies to describing growth rates; the evident principle of order of geometric bodies or the calculated undeniable beauty of fractal computer graphics.
The culmination point of satisfying our search for order is reached by the challenge of our power of perception: our brain computer has to filter out irregularities and faults, has to subtract them in order to distil from them the pure principle. The optical experiences are the most interesting where order is situated on the border to chaos, where total predictability ends. The actual attention seems to begin where the predictable tips into the unpredictable.
In principle a tree, a river delta, a network of veins, the branching of the bronchial tubes are like a slowed-down flash of lightning – slowed down by a factor of 1012 but extremely similar in its branching and how it fills a given space. They are all fractal forms – they follow the principle of self-similarity. That is, the smallest branchlet is similar to the whole, the single twig to the whole crown – even a forester could be deceived if one took a branch from a tree crown and stuck it into the ground like a sapling.
Since Benoit Mandelbrot (doing IBM research), we have been able to describe “deterministic chaos” mathematically.
*Deterministic, because it (often surprisingly) obeys a simple law.
e.g. : Z 2 + c...which, repeatedly applied in sequential steps (iterations), finally results in highly complicated forms of self-similarity – analagous to the sequential dividing steps and growth thrusts of living systems.
*Chaos, because the fine details – the actual position of individual twigs – are in principle not predictable. Every forester recognizes the shape of the crown of an oak or of a poplar, but in principle it is impossible to say where, in 10 years’ time, the crown of the young tree or every shoot will be situated because they are the consequence of much feedback.
Such fractal systems with a high degree of self-similarity can be used to solve the most difficult logistic problems – for example the oxygen supply to tissues and organs. In our bodies, no cell is further than 3 or 4 cells from the next capillary, although our blood vessels take up only 5% of our body volume. Our bronchial system, too, achieves an inner area corresponding to the area of a tennis court by fractal branching. Fern leaves and even inorganic powers, such as weathering or erosion, can also be fractally represented, so that mountains can be constructed on a computer: landscapes which have never existed, but which could very well have existed.
THE BEAUTY OF FUNCTION
Without doubt beauty is also a “by-product” of function, principally in the realm of living things: our brain recognizes familiar principles in all biological forms. Nevertheless, functionalism limited to technical commercialism misses the essence of creation. It is not sufficient to explain the variety and the beauty of Nature, as the number of forms is larger than that of the functions. Here again radiolaria are a good example because the 4000 different species of delicate skeletons which Haeckel discovered (of which even 1100 were described up to now) do not represent 4000/1100 different mechanical functions, all of them freely floating in an homogenous environment. Costa Rica alone has 1,400 species of orchids, and their thousands of different blooms do not achieve more than a daisy, namely pollination. Not everything in life has to be functional, as long as it is not anti-functional or inhibits function (i.e. everything is permitted that is not disadvantageous for survival).
Nature does not create like an engineer, but like a playful artist.
Evolution’s playful forming can most clearly be experienced where Nature creates works analogous with art, that is, makes signs to communicate, attracts aesthetically and employs “advertising”. The term analogous here means “similar in function” (as opposed to “similar descent in evolution which we call “homologous”) – for how does modern human ethology define fine arts (and not only those, but also the performing arts)? In Eibl Eibesfeldt’s words: “using aesthetic means in the service of communication”, or more generally “creating in the service of communication” (design intended to express something)
This definition applies to the larger part of artistic creation by all peoples and at all times. At the same time – especially in the case of the 20th century – other artistic opinions are valid. But excellent commercial art would be “art” in this context – and the development of visually and acoustically “strong” signs and signals in living Nature are analogous to art in this sense.
BEAUTY AS A FUNCTION
Sunflowers and orchids, Purple Emperorand Peacock butterflies, Moorish idol (Zanclus cornutus), cardinal tetra (Paracheirodon axelrodi),clownfish (Amphiprion sp.), Picasso fish (Rhinecantus aculeatus), poison arrow frogs (Dendrobatidae) and fire salamanders, kingfishers, mandarin ducks and parrots – their beauty is not a by-product of function. In their case, beauty becomes function, for only the “strong” optical signal can attract and warn, even other species.
And no other organ – no matter how important– can disturb the aesthetic function (in this case the strong visual effect). This seems to be a total reversal of the functional dogma. For a long time it was denied that beauty could be created for beauty’s sake, even if this was only on the surface. The deeper motives of Neo-Functionalism were always anything but functional. It is only the historical distance that enables us to recognize this.
The proposition that art is communication also applies to architecture. Techno-brutalism is an artistic language – bringing a message that once irresistibly intoxicated many technicians, exactly that message that we can no longer bear to hear today: the expression of arrogance that believes in the final victory of technology over Nature, without realising that having defeated Nature, we will find ourselves on the losers’ side. Techno-brutalism is the emotive formal language of the 1960s and 1970s, a spirit of the times which may very soon cost this biosphere its life. Plainness has become a virtue for the drawing-board prophets of profit. Idolizing of the engine-world in building design is the artistic grimace of technocracy, worship of machine elements the dictatorship of the utilitarian, and the loss of meaning, sense and spirituality. (“Technology is the answer – but what was the question?)”.
Man, the eye-dominated being
Biospheric aesthetics: Man in search of order symmetry, rhythm, geometry, striking contrasts.
In various cultures, certain visual impressions are generally agreed to be “beautiful”. They are successful in the design of jewellery and ornaments, graphic arts and advertising, for example flowers and butterflies (Nature’s advertising with radial and bilateral symmetry and striking colour contrasts), mirror images, kaleidoscopes, crystals, rhythmic repetition, spectrum colours (from iridescent structural colours to the rainbow), fascination of the (apparently) unnatural (e.g. geometry, metallic shine, luminescent organisms). As we share these preferences with eye-orientated animals, we tend to regard this level of aesthetic as biospheric. What do all these elements have in common? They impress our perception by Geometric order, mirror images, radial symmetry, prisms and crystals, conspicuous through their contrast and rarity. These principles, which have a strong effect on eye-oriented animals and children, have been known for a long time (e.g. Haeckel, E. Gombrich, I. Eibl E, B. Lötsch).
But this does not explain the beauty of river meanders, mountains and other erosion forms, wave patterns and stream-lines, plant forms with their branches and twigs, iridescent colours, the spectrum of a rainbow, the swirls of dye dropped into water, and the colour washes in a water-colour. This leads to apparently unsolvable conflicts between seekers of beauty of various schools of thought. Some emphasize the significance of strict orders for decoration and architecture (the Greek “Kosmos” means order, as well as decoration, beautification – the latter still to be found today in “cosmetic”).
Hundertwasser took the opposite view with his thesis of the “godless straight line” and his almost uncompromising admiration of the irregular as the foundation of organic beauty. Ernst Haeckel, already in his “Kunstformen der Natur“ (Art forms in Nature) (1899-1904) asked himself why all the aesthetic principles that he considered highly effective, such as symmetry and geometry, failed absolutely when trying to explain the beauty of a landscape, where fine taste rejects geometry and straightness.
The common denominator of all higher elements of aesthetic is beyond simple geometry and symmetries which we do not share with any animal. The conclusion drawn by our study is a consequent application of the basic assumption of the theory of evolutionary epistemology: (Evolutionäre Erkenntnistheorie).
Man, the thoughtful observer
Noospheric aesthetics : Elements of higher aesthetics which go beyond simple orders and contrasts affect the ability of man to be a“thinking observer”, which has allowed him to become the great success of evolution; his ceaseless hunt for cause and effect, his search for formative processes resulting from natural laws and forces, for the sense and significance of all phenomena. This view of his environment gave power to the tool- and fire-using ape, that is, the ability to predict. His environment became predictable and therefore manageable and usable (causality was the key).
Forms that reveal the effect of formative powers please him, whether it is the evident statics of plants, elegant bridges or cathedrals, the perceptible streamlines of fish, ships, birds and aircraft; whether it is the interplay of wind and sand in the dunes of the Sahara, the rhythmic loops of a meandering river, the effects of weathering and erosion forming the shape of mountains, the regular colour sequence of the rainbow, or the suspected law behind logarithmic spirals (which are equally valid in describing growth rates); or whether it is, on a lower level, the simple order of geometric structures, symmetries or the much more complicated calculated beauty of fractal computer graphics.
Satisfying of our search for order is at its peak when our perception filters out or subtracts irregularities and faults in order to distil the pure principle. Thus, rhythm (repetition of similar elements) is more interesting than stereotype (monotonous repetition of identical elements). The most interesting are optical experiences, on the border between order and chaos, where the predictable tips over to the unpredictable, offering surprising impressions.
Man, the visual (eye-dominated) creature
The human being can be manipulated almost at will by means of visual key stimuli, releases, super-optimal dummies in consumer advertising, as long as one does not develop psychological counter-strategies by being aware of the ethological basis. As the most visually-oriented creature of evolution, a man can be sexually stimulated simply by the sight, photo or even a caricature of a well-endowed female, while a male dog remains unaffected by the perfect image of a bitch when there is no appropriate odour.
The human eye is not only a receptor of stimuli, but also a transmitter. Not only does it see but it looks, it is at the same time a sensory and an expressive organ. It is not for nothing that the expression on our face is also called a “look”. The strong effect of iris and pupil is often used in commercial and advertising art, logos and signals, and usually unconsciously, also in folk art motives.
The word “window” comes from the Old Norse vindauga “an “eye in the wall” which was made of woven wands and clay. The old word “ow” for eye still survives in “owl”, one of the most expressive visual creatures. Vindauga reminds us of the expressive power of windows, as does “facade” which comes from “face”. For the human perception house facades may even be “friendly” or “cool”, formal values which are sadly neglected in 20th century architecture – a further aspect of the loss of the human measure.
UNCOUNTED NUMBERS – “GESTALT” (SHAPE) versus STEREOTYPE
A characteristic that humans share with other creatures that live in small groups, such as jackdaws or squirrels, is the ability to distinguish five, six or seven points at one glance without counting them. A collection of identical elements of a number higher than nine requires numbering and counting (or arranging in shapes – see the 8, 9 and 10 on playing cards). The stereotypical repetition, such as more than nine identical building elements (in facades), causes loss of orientation in men and animals. Nowhere in Nature can one find the repetition of completely identical prefabricated elements as in an industrial environment. Every organic element is in principle unique, tree shapes may be excellent for orientation.
As far as repetitive technical structures are concerned, such as ladders suspended horizontally, it can be observed how animals are misled by the stereotype – the same bird (e.g. a blackbird) begins to build its nest at different spots close to each other. Children also, in modern apartment houses in Berlin or in identical rows of terraced houses in Finland, found it difficult to find their way home. In one case, children in Berlin would investigate the rubbish bins standing near the entrances because they could recognise their home by means of the family’s rubbish.
“Hundreds of thousands of mass housing are built, which can only be told apart by means of their numbers, and do not deserve the name “house”, they are rather more chicken batteries for domesticated man,…”
(Lorenz, 1973, page 23)
AESTHETICS BETWEEN NATURE AND CULTURE
The nature of our aesthetics in no way demands only the aesthetics of Nature! This is why, in the case of bio-aesthetics, an “ideology of the natural” is not far-reaching; it is always only a partial truth. The other part of the truth is the stimulus of rarity, the attraction of the unnatural, the artificial. Nature itself often even uses absolutely “unnatural” effects in order to attract attention, ranging from “metallic” interference- and shimmering- colours to the “neon lights” of luminescent organisms. And because the crystalline, the metallic and the geometric have always fascinated us as a contrast to the organic, these elements have overwhelmed us.
The pendulum swing towards the organic has become a vitally necessary reaction on the way to a new culture of building. It will come from new regard for craftsmanship, a new respect for the Nature around us, an acknowledgement of the Nature within us and respect for the timeless values of cultures developed with the accumulated wisdom of hundreds of generations, to which we owe our being humans.
So, how does Konrad Lorenz (with Arnold Gehlen) define Homo sapiens?
A “cultural being by nature”, so that he is also a creature with an occasional natural preference for the unnatural.
While a hopelessly antiquated avant-garde fears beauty like the devil fears holy water, Lorenz and Eibl-Eibesfeld and their school have for a long time been pointing the way to understanding the important “vocabulary of beauty”, which should be familiar to every planner and designer, marketing and public relations strategist, while architects burrow themselves into a defiant sub-culture of techno-minimalism, costing millions and destroying historic urban cultures.
One of the most important lessons to be learned from human behavioural science (ethology) is an innate preference for plants. Vegetation does not only mitigate today’s urban climate – but much more: vegetation has to mitigate today’s urban architecture… green plants not only provide health factors to our body, they may become vitamins for our soul.