Preservation Through Beauty

A recent New York Times article, examining struggling efforts to preserve the architecture of the New Deal, raises an interesting question: Why do some attempts at preservation capture broad-based attention and support while others wither away as fringe acts of desperation?

The answer might have a lot to do with beauty. Because, while we’ve come to accept as truth that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, it really doesn’t.

The dimensions and proportions of "beauty" reflect far more agreement than we'd like to admit.

The dimensions and proportions of "beauty" reflect far more agreement than we'd like to admit.

In a 2003 paper, V. Patnaik and others examine the human face and demonstrate how we culturally establish a shared understanding of beauty, concluding it’s the “relational proportion of our physical features that is the primary factor in determining the perception, conscious or subconscious, of beauty.”

More simply, certain proportions and arrangements are more pleasing than others. Not as a matter of personal opinion but as a collective, cultural agreement. We may not, as a nation of individuals, want to admit that we essentially view beauty in the same light, but tough luck. We do.

That’s why it’s not such a leap to conclude that our buildings and infrastructure work the same way. Most would agree that, at some point, our built environment stopped responding to a shared, cultural understanding of what’s beautiful and started expressing – at the upper end – the personal artistic ambitions of its designers and – at the lower end – the need to cut costs.

Either way, the result has been buildings and places that often lack the one thing most likely to ensure their preservation – the ability to be loved and valued by the everyman. As architect Steve Mouzon says often, “Any serious conversation about sustainable buildings must begin with the issue of Lovability.”

We can agree on what’s beautiful. We have met the beholder and it is us. The big question moving forward, especially as the financial floodgates of the stimulus package begin to open, is what are we going to do about it?

– Scott Doyon


  1. Its a good argument, but in the preservation field those that subscribe to the 50-year rule and support the preservation of modern structures seem to have a lot more support than the argument above.

    Not necessarily because people love modern architecture, but because they can’t rationalize why older buildings should be saved while more modern ones should not. The 50-year rule standardizes judgment and makes people feel better about their confusing, poorly understood desire to save older buildings.

    BTW…didn’t the GOP cut all the HP funding out of the stimulus package?

  2. PlaceMakers says

    Thanks, DM. Always appreciate your perspective. One note: It’s not about money going into the HP movement. The stimulus money is going to result in a lot of building, period — infrastructure and otherwise. Will the results be value-engineered into oblivion or will they embrace shared values of beauty that will encourage their prolonged care? If we want them to last, I advocate the latter.

  3. So, we all agree on what we see as beautiful?
    Seems like a weak argument. We save wildlife and it’s environment to sustain them because we know that without out help (or to counter act it) the wildlife will disappear and thereby dimenish our ability to sustain our life. Why is the built environment any different? If we erase everything that came before don’t we lose our guide for the future? Everyone, everything has it’s own unique “beauty” why? becuase it does.
    Judging on the basis of beauty is only one criteria for most things.

  4. PlaceMakers says

    I think we agree, Whynot. We’re not advocating against preservation; we’re advocating for it. The issue is that preservation — like saving the environment — is a proactive act and proactive acts don’t happen without majority consensus. When the built environment is comprised largely of self-reflective statements, such consensus is far more difficult (albeit not impossible) to come by.

    We’re interested in maximizing preservation’s chances. Adhering to cultural consensus is one way to get there.

  5. Very interesting argument. I think if we can establish that there is an innate positive human response to certain building types and styles, it would provide an important new dimension to the case for preservation. It could supplement rather than supplant the “historical significance” metric.

    It would could also bolster the case for revising traditional styles in new buildings, which architects still apoplecticly dismiss as “ersatz” and “nostalgia.”

  6. This is a fascinating topic. Philosophers have long debated “what is art?” but this is one case where the answer to this question has practical (even legal) implications. I’m with you about 70% of the way. There seems to be patterns in nature that are inherently pleasing to humans – however “art” does not always communicate pleasant order but sometimes carries us through a sequential drama having a variety of effects on us.

    Consider music. It’s pretty obvious there are triads and chords that please us objectively, and some tone combinations make us uneasy. The same can be said for rhythm and syncopation. But good music contains sequences of tension and release, and it allows variety which tells a more complex story.

    The thing is: I have no idea how this plays out in architecture. Buildings become a part of our everyday life. They are not consumed by choice on particular occasions (like a depressing movie I may be in the mood for), but they are always there. Because of this, we’re probably better off going with the pleasant symmetry. Maybe architecture shouldn’t be classified as art at all.


  1. […] Doyon certainly agrees, and goes on to write in PlaceShakers and NewsMakers that beauty is not just in the eye of the […]

  2. […] I tend to prefer the traditional though I agree that both can be beautiful. I’ve even written before that the perception of beauty seems rooted more in particular proportions and arrangements than in […]

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