Monday, March 06, 2006

Ugly to the Bone

Someone once said that beauty is skin-deep but ugly goes all the way to the bone.

While I didn't say it explicitly, I hope I certainly implied (or should that be inferred? no, I think "implied" is correct)...I hope I implied that the Louisville 61-story building ensemble designed by the Rem Koolhaas firm was freakin' ugly. Or as Dena in comments said using shorthand, "God, that's fugly." You did understand that was my intent, too, right? I just couldn't find the words that came so easily to Dena.

Now to the meat of the matter: What makes something ugly? Or even worse -- fugly?

One architecture professor of mine from 20 years back said -- and I'm sure he was plagiarizing someone else as architects have no original ideas of their own -- that ugly is just shorthand for "unfamiliar". The best example of this principle in action, he said, was demonstrated by the reception to the design for Paris's Eiffel Tower.

Immediately upon publically announcing the design for the Eiffel Tower, it was widely and snidely panned by artists, architects, and their belovedly crotchety critics.
It was considered ugly, crude, and clumsily proportioned -- everything Parisians despise and live to condescend to.

Despite the horrible reception, the Tower was completed in March 1889 for the "Universal Exposition" to celebrate France's 100th Anniversary of the French revolution. Designed and built by Gustave Eiffel, the only reason it was tolerated by the public during planning was because the Exposition Committee promised that it would be torn down immediately following the Exposition's conclusion. Instead, by the completion of construction, the criticism had burnt itself out as the grace and beauty of the Gothically-inspired and groundbreaking system of "Expression of Structure" became obvious for all to see. And yes, nearly all did see it as over two million visitors visited the Eiffel Tower in 1889. An immediate success, the Eiffel Tower survived the wrecking ball and went on to become the architectural centerpiece for the World's Fair of 1900 (pictured above).

The point was -- as the architecture prof said, gently returning to his thesis -- that the Eiffel Tower was initially considered to be ugly because it was such an unfamiliar design in an unfamiliar aesthetic style and form of expression.

Ugly's just another word for nothing left to compare to. Or something like that.

And then about a decade ago, my wife's parents gave me a book for my birthday that had as its central thesis the scientific and objective assertion that beauty was based on a classic Greek-inspired biological proportioning system that can be perceived subconsciously by the mind's eye: You may have heard of the Fibonacci series and the Golden Section? Click on the link to figure out what the heck I'm talking about. Or don't. In the meantime, I need to find that book and re-read it.

So the bloggy question is: Is ugly, as the French demonstrated, a subjective matter of unfamiliarity determined individually by unsophisticated hicks like us who clearly don't know any better? Or is it a matter of the science of good and bad proportions, much the way a human face that is subtly (or grossly) asymmetrical is said by edumacated types to be considered ugly by objective though not yet fully understood standards?

And so we return full-circle to My Original Question: Is the new Louisville building as butt-ugly as I think it is, or is it as butt-ugly as it truly is, regardless of my personal opinion? Once we answer this, we'll be able to take on the "tree falls in the forest, but does it make a sound?" puzzle. Stay tuned.

P.S. Happy birthday dear Alex and Old Man!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The first person to comment on the previous posting alluded to this very notion, and they would undoubtedly argue that "ugly" is contextual. Just as the nonsensical scribblings of an infant are considered beautiful, priceless works of art to a loving parent, so too can buildings invoke the kind of beauty bestowed merely by an emotional attachment. Back to the first person's comments: If this building destined for Louisville were instead deposited in Manhattan, it would evoke such an emotional outpouring from the citizens of New York that the beauty of this collection of rhomboids would not be in question. Further, any design that is meant to replace the WTC and does not explicitly honor the previous buildings (made obvious to even a layperson) would be called ugly, gawdy, and disrespectful no matter how many bricks contain the golden rectangle.

Countless other examples exist such as the fact that until the last couple centuries, festively plump women were considered the beauties. Today beauty is measured by how many ribs protrude and to what depth. Another point: Some forms of traditional Asian music do not use the same system of scales we do. This results in music that to myself and others of European descent always sounds slightly off key or disjointed. Is it "ugly"? I think so, but to the other half of the world it sounds harmonious; similarly they would bust out the earmuffs as soon as they heard our "noise".

Your beloved Ayn Rand would not agree with me, but my beloved Kurt Vonnegut would. I've come to believe that Kurt trumps Ayn....

Your anonymity is beginning to erode, Howard. You better watch yourself. The number of Alexes with birthdays coinciding with Old men with birthdays is not a large one. Irony of the day: the subject of this posting also coincides with Michaelangelo's birthday, who I've heard was some painter guy back in the day. What would Mike have to say about this discussion????

9:15 AM, March 06, 2006  
Blogger HRlaughed said...

1) None of the nonsensical scribblings of any of my childen were ever considered beautiful or priceless. But then I was never a "loving" parent.

2) Growing emotional attachments you refer to are a natural part of any familiarization process, which would in time gradually remove any Veils of Fugly... such as what happened with the Eiffel Tower. So your vote is that my architecture prof was correct?

3) While there is a certain (no doubt intentional) resemblance to the WTC towers, the Louisville building looks to me more like a giant middle finger about to be uncorked.

4) Appreciated your comments about fat women, protruding ribs, and the traditional Asian musical scale. However, the study done on facial beauty that I referred to (without providing valuable links) transcended cultural differences. Beauty is beauty, science determined, whether the viewer be European, Burmese, Siamese, or Persian. Additionally, the traditional Asian pentatonic scale is identical to the standard diatonic scale we're all familiar with (do ray me fa so...), only leaving out the fourth and seventh tones ("fa" and "tee"). I personally only put on the ear muffs when dissonance such as John Cage, hip hop, and country western are played.

5) Ayn Rand is hardly my beloved. As a matter of fact, on my Blogger profile I list a Kurt Vonnegut title, Cat's Cradle, well before The Fountainhead. Yes, I've read everything by both authors and they are like night and day. I leave it up to you to decide which is which.

6) Regarding the debate over whether beauty is truth (and vise versa) or whether it is culturally biased and subject to revisionism, Michaelangelo, who was known to resort to composing with Golden Sections from time to time, would surely answer with a Forrest Gumpism: "Maybe it's... both."

Thanks for playing!

10:44 AM, March 06, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

back to #4: you indicated that beauty comes with familiarity, with which I agree. And that is exactly why, I believe, that the symmetrical face thing is considered beautiful. It is normal to have an eyeball on each side of one's face bridged by a nose with a nostril on either side. The overly symmetric beauties are just a vision of Ueber-Normalcy. So if that's accepted beauty, so be it. Rather than "Maybe it's... both," it should read "Maybe it's... one and the same." Beauty IS familiarity, which is why the WTC replaced by the corked middle finger, as you say, would instantly be viewed as beautiful, owing to the association.

As a guy with a crooked nose, whose face is so unsymmetrical that he can't find a decent pair of aviators that won't lean comically to one side, yet is ogled by every young thing on the west coast, I scoff at your theories sir Howie.

3:21 PM, March 06, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

so yes i would agree with said professor. in fact, perhaps the golden proportion stems subconsciously from the appearance of these proportions in the human form, which goes back to the normalcy argument. As for Fibonacci, you look hard enough you're gonna find patterns. There are 9 innings in a baseball game, and Elway wore 7, and water forms hexagons when it freezes, and most animals have 4 legs. Goodnight sweet Fibonacci....

3:28 PM, March 06, 2006  
Blogger HRlaughed said...

Anonymous wrote: As a guy with a crooked nose, whose face is so unsymmetrical that he can't find a decent pair of aviators that won't lean comically to one side...

Like father, like son!

Anonymous continues: ...yet is ogled by every young thing on the west coast...

I wouldn't know what that must feel like. Viva la differance!

As for "my" theories on beauty, the study I've been citing also focused on the reactions of infants towards varying facial types. They too were attracted to faces with strong symmetry and a certain set of proportioning considered to be ideal, suggesting that there is a genetic factor to perceived beauty. Have to wonder if those "young things" would find your curiously deformed nose a thing of beauty and a joy forever...

But back to the Louisville finger-about-to-be-uncorked, there is so much about that building group that is just plain bad that I'm still quite confident in pronouncing it uber-ugly. As in butt.

3:38 PM, March 06, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I figured you were alluding to the infant study. way ahead of you old man. first of all, even infants can be socialized. secondly, infants are inherently more fearful than adults, and as such no doubt seek out that which is "normal" and thus more comforting. then again, if a study were conducted in which particularly ugly parents' infants were subjected to similarly ugly people and beautiful people, I bet the infants would be comforted more easily by the person with the similar features as its parent, all classic notions of beauty aside. the fact that "normal looking" people are probably more likely to procreate means that their progeny are statistically more likely to feel comfortable around "normal" people. the data probably pointed to this notion, but I doubt the "testers" looked for similar features in the parents. to be blunt: if a dog-faced woman had a dog-faced child, i bet that dog-faced child would be comforted by other dog-faced people. lastly, remember when the Klingons were spying on the members of the Enterprise through Jordy's visor and the fugly Klingon chick says, "ugh, these Earthling women are so ugly!!!". How can you possibly argue with Gene Roddenberry?

p.s. I hate the thing too, but I am only being intellectually honest that it would be considered beautiful by "the masses" if placed in Manhattan. What's more, the red states would get plenty of enjoyment from the fact that the finger would be symbolic of a big FU aimed at the rest of the world.

7:05 PM, March 06, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! It's so neat that you actually read the comments and incorporate them into subsequent posts!

...For me, context can make a huge impact on the fugliness quotient of a thing...

I agree that the proposed building would look a lot less ugly in Manhattan than it would in Louisville...

...Somethings we humans seem to be hard-wired to regard as beautiful -- for example: a rose -- Other things we're hard-wired to think of as ugly for example: a rotting fish... (but then a dog wouldn't think a rotting fish is ugly - so it couldn't be universal for all species -- I'm not sure where I'm going with this idea :-)

--- There are somethings - new things that we haven't seen before (such as the Eiffel Tower in the 1900s) which we have no context for so we pronounce them as an eyesore... - But as they grow and seep into the collective consciousness and become part of the context and landscape they don't look so ugly any more... I don't think the Eiffel Tower is particularly beautiful... (In the same way, for example, that a Mansard roof is -- it hasn't really been copied except, I think, in Las Vegas, -- where, out of context it looks ugly -- but it is a very strong Parisian landmark...

As for people looking beautiful or ugly -- that is such a huge topic! I'm always fascinated when I see the pictures of serial killers in the paper... and I try to figure out to myself -- would I think this person was attractive if I didn't know their history?


7:44 AM, March 08, 2006  
Blogger HRlaughed said...

True, context is everything. Well, nearly everything, because there are still certain principles of good design that are necessary in Louisville as in Manhatten as in Casper, Wyoming. Well, maybe not so much in Casper.

One of the worst aspects of the Louisville building is it's complete lack of human scale at the point where it meets and greets the planet. It just shoots up out of the ground like a group of giant cubic salamis. The entrance, wherever it might be, has to be a chilling and inhumane experience. That's why I got such a kick out of Kunstler's comment about how context was entirely left out -- "a post-atomic-blast hardpan desert" -- because context in a drawing or rendering gives you human scale and a feeling for the spaces created. If each of those stories is 14 feet high, then the sheer vertigo, sense of danger, and intimidation a visitor to this complex must feel would be horrific.

And what's with that giant 20-story ladder/conveyor belt framework? Is is structural or sculptural or just a self-indulgent folly?

I personally love the Eiffel Tower. I've been to Paris twice and absolutely love it. The Eiffel Tower was designed in the Gothic tradition of emphasizing the structural character of the vertical elements, celebrating what is possible with the materials at hand. Gothic cathedrals -- stacked and arched stone. The Eiffel Tower -- triangulated and trussed iron. Of course, there are background buidings to be lived in and worked in, and then there are monuments -- foreground buildings -- which are not to be emulated or used as examples of how Everything Should Be. As a fuctional sculptural object, the Eiffel Tower is a total success.

The Louisville buildings, on the other hand, scream for foreground building fame and attention on behalf of the owners, but at the cost of cooperation and connectedness with context, neighborhood, and society.

12:38 AM, March 09, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for that insight...

I wonder why the architects would leave out the surrounding street scape in their rendering?? it's so important... Incidentally, when I was looking to buy a condo in Toronto, I remember looking at quite a few... I remember one project with a scale model that completely left out the surrounding buildings... So, although it looked as if the occupants would have a nice view -- in actuality they would be staring smack dab at another concrete slab... I thought the whole thing intentionally misleading....

Anyway, thanks for all the info... I think I'm actually learning something... what a beautiful thing the "internets" are!


11:03 PM, March 09, 2006  

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