Beautiful Access

What is beauty? A dictionary tells us:

n.      The quality that gives pleasure to the mind or senses and is associated with such properties as harmony of form or color, excellence of artistry, truthfulness, and originality.

— From The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition. 

The internet’s best website, the Online Etymology Dictionary says the word comes from Latin bellus “pretty, handsome, charming”

Beauty creates happiness, joy, or pleasure Though obviously these words are often used synonymously, they are not always synonyms. Pleasure is the opposite of pain, and is momentary, intense, but fleeting. Happiness, though more sustained than pleasure, remains a more transient sensation than joy. Children bring you joy, but less so happiness.

timelessSo what business does an engineer have in even examining the idea of beauty with something as abstract and technical as the notion of access. Beauty is not just for the traditional artsy-fartsy aesthetes — scientists, mathematicians, and engineers have their own notions of beauty and elegance.

Math and the physical sciences can have beauty.  Beauty has a mathematical sense of nice (a nice result vs. an elegant result).

In physics: 

[B]eauty is a guide .. symmetry, simplicity and something called naturalness are often sought. — Steve Crandall

In math:

`[E]legant’ = “that proof is a lot more efficient than I would’ve thought”  while `beautiful’ = “that method of proof is genuinely enlightening and makes things possible I wouldn’t have thought were doable.” — Haggai Elitzur

In short, in theories, beauty and efficiency are complements. Things that are inefficient are far from beautiful. Is the same true in our perceptions of the physical world? Most of us agree on the many environments that bring us happiness, and others that bring us the opposite.

There are clues. One has to do with how human senses evolved to absorb information. Not too much sensory input, nor too little, but the amount the human mind has adapted to. This of course varies per person. For instance, autism may be a result of too much sensory sensitivity, an over-wired brain.

This perhaps explains why much of nature is often thought beautiful, humans evolved in a natural environment, and have acclimatised to environments with certain levels of complexity. Yet we have repulsion at certain types of bugs and snakes and so on, which might have been considered predators. We adapted to prefer certain environments rather than others. The built environment, which we have lived with for a much shorter period of time, is far more contentious. It is a product of creationism, rather than evolution, and the parts of the built environment which we adjudge the least beautiful are often the most recent (yesterday’s mistakes are often destroyed, but perhaps yesterday also made fewer mistakes).

The mythological figure Adonis was a beautiful male, his beauty gave him pick of the Greek Goddesses. So, in theory, the beauty to him conferred a biological advantage, increased reproduction with fitter females, though he is only reported to have had two offspring (Golgos and Beroe). But even more than private benefits, Adonis beauty may have also given pleasure to those he chose not to bed himself, who could imagine him while loving those not quite as attractive. Beauty produces benefits for others that cannot be fully capitalized by the beautiful, in an economic sense, beauty creates positive externalities.

In selecting a mate, beauty remains an important factor, the ‘beautiful people’ congregate amongst themselves, and assortative mating indicates that a ’10’ will more likely marry a ‘9’ or a ’10’ than a ‘7’ or an ‘8’, much less a ‘1’ or ‘2’ (where we rate people by decile, so a 10 is among those who would be in the top 10th percentile of attractiveness as ranked by people from their culture, and a 9 is in the top 20th percentile, and so on, so that a 1 is among the least attractive 10 percent.) Now beauty isn’t everything, and a beautiful person may choose to trade beauty in a partner for smarts or bravery or strength, none of which correlate perfectly, with the hope that beautiful but not so smart plus smart but not quite as beautiful couple produces children who are both beautiful and smart, rather than not so smart and not quite beautiful. In a simplistic Mendelian breeding strategy, this might happen 1 in 4 times, but in practice there may be other selection processes going on giving the favourable outcome a better than 1 in 4 shot.

We are all familiar with the concept of beauty when applied to other humans, whether we like it or not, and can see daily the media and marketers selling us on a culturally if not biologically preferred definition of idealized appearance.

We have similar ideas when it comes to place. The wealthiest people use their resources to live in some of the most beautiful environments, because they can, subject to other constraints like accessibility (and inaccessibility). There is sorting among the well-to-do and housing. (If there weren’t what would be the point of being rich?) But since beauty and efficiency are complements, there is no reason why we cannot all have beautiful environments, we just need to organise our resources somewhat better.

Some environments bring us happiness and joy, they are places we want to spend our time, and other environments bring us down.

In Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth, architect Christopher Alexander makes a case for hand-made and human-scale rather than automated and massive buildings and places. That sounds an expensive approach. Is there any fundamental reason why the development system of today cannot produce beauty and efficient, durable construction that scales for the masses? The terrace houses  of Australia are lovely in the aggregate, and also relatively mass produced in the day.

We might alternatively pose this problem as one of `Form vs. function’, for which the architects have had a famous dialog. Louis Sullivan, to whom Frank Lloyd Wright apprenticed, wrote:

Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function and this is the law. Where function does not change, form does not change. The granite rocks, the ever-brooding hills, remain for ages; the lightning lives, comes into shape, and dies, in a twinkling. — Louis Sullivan

This harkens back to Keats:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know — John Keats (1820) Ode on a Grecian Urn

and `truth and beauty’, as a building where the form is pre-eminent over the function is in a sense fakery, it is untrue to its purpose.

Which argues that needless adornments are indeed needless. But then what is needless? Sexual selection has produced peacock’s tail, widely perceived as beautiful by humans, and which is locally optimal for the individual peacock (helping him strut his stuff before the peahens), but likely dysfunctional in the longer term group struggle of peacocks against other species seeking to occupy their niche. This is a social dilemma for peacock society, so much resource is spent on adornment, that the species loses out as a whole. 

But is the opposite of needless adornment, minimalism, beautiful? This is not a universally accepted notion. Consider the classic debate:

Less is More — Mies van der Rohe


Less is a Bore — Robert Venturi

Having high quality designs that people actually want to be around is something we as a society are perfectly capable of doing, if we actually valued it. These designs are neither simple ornament nor stripped bare minimal cost structures. They need not be constrained to a particular style from a particular era, though they should be compatible with the climate and complement neighbouring structures.

Consider infrastructure. Normally not considered at all, but if so, it would generally be thought to be purely functional. Yet London’s Underground is nothing if not stylish. As the first Underground rail system, it was at the forefront of transport technology from its grand opening in 1863. From 1908 forward, it has pushed forward the state of the art in transit system design. The head of the London Transit, Frank Pick, had a keen design sense, and hired Edward Johnston to give London the consistent, and by most accounts excellent, iconic look and feel it has today.

The logo of the London Underground, the bar-and-circle symbol officially called a `Roundel’, evolved over time to its familiar form, by the 1920s. It was so successful that it has been adopted by other rail systems, notably older urban stations in the Sydney Trains system. It has also been adapted by for my book the  30-Minute City, where an early version of this blog post was considered as a chapter.

The London Underground has not only given us a logo, it also presents Maps, Posters, Fonts, Stations, and Vehicles that have thoughtfully considered aesthetics as well as efficiency in their physical expression. While more expensive in the short run to create, standards and design require some investment, they are also more effective in communicating the aims and intent of the organisation.

Kevin Lynch gave us the `View from the Road’, and our perception via windshield inspection differs from that on foot. We should also consider the view from the bus, the view from the train, the view at the train station, and the view from the bike.

Beauty changes both how much time you perceive, but also the quality of that time, and how much you would pay to experience or avoid it. I may pay to avoid an ugly route, I may pay to traverse a beautiful one. We know from route choice experiments, people say they prefer the more attractive route, even if slower. In short, the journey is at least part of the reward.

Access has focused on objectively represented time, though we have talked about perceived or reported time, from time-to-time. We have yet to fully address quality of time, or willingness to endure particular environments.

We can easily treat this mathematically. The more difficult question is actually assessing those environments, translating them into something quantifiable, like we do for money or time, so that aesthetic judgments can be rendered objectively, rather than arbitrarily. We know people prefer trees at bus stops, for instance.

Do we want access to beauty, or beautiful access — the latter referring to beauty permeating our lives? Obviously both, but the beautiful access is much more significant, because we experience it so much more often. Museums are largely inaccessible storehouses of beauty. While being able to visit a scenic vista or museum is better than the alternative of not being able to do so, having beauty around us on our ways about our neighbourhood and community, and not merely a few selected beautiful objects, but a pleasing amalgam of all of the natural and built environment, will, I argue, make us collectively happier. If we can make travel paths more beautiful, people will enjoy them more, and 30 minutes will feel like 20.

Thus, beauty, which should complement efficiency rather than compete with it, must have value in the public sphere, just as it does in the private. Beautiful neighbourhoods are more expensive, and thus pay more taxes — people pay to enjoy the beauty provided by the community, that is their neighbours private goods: their homes and yards. And we can have it for the low, low price of some thought and consideration — at a minimum, requiring any visible changes to the built environment make it more beautiful, not less — but setting a bar higher than that, say it must also be better than, say, two-thirds of existing structures in the community.

We can actually quantify this.

Would you be willing to endure 1 minute of ugly for 5 minutes of beauty every day, for the rest of your life. How about 2 minutes, 5 minutes, 10 minutes? That’s hard to assess.

Instead,  for instance, imagine a rule whereby the project regulator conducts a preference survey among a reasonable large jury drawn from the community,  when shown two sets of renderings, the proposal embedded in the surrounding buildings and environment and a series of random similarly-sized structures serving a similar function (houses vs. houses, apartment building vs. apartment building, store vs. store, warehouse vs. warehouse, office vs. office, street vs. street, station vs. station,  drawn from the same community rendered in that same location, the proposed structure must be preferred (supported by more than half the respondents) over more than two-thirds of the structures. Obviously neighbours with a vested interest would be in a separate sample from the general community. These surveys are relatively inexpensive to conduct compared with the costs of large projects.

There is always the risk that the community has terrible taste, but we are not asking them to design the structure, just identify whether it improves or worsens the community. I think the public is capable of doing that, and the bias towards aesthetic conservatism is wise. Perhaps it risks the unusual being downvoted, missing some successful starchitecture like the Sydney Opera House, but it also perhaps filters the high-concept, overly expensive misbegotten architecture which jars with the local neighbourhood. Any system risks being gamed or corrupted, but would it be worse than what we have now? It’s worth testing.

While no particular measure of beauty is complete, and at least some beauty is in the eye of the beholder,  having no measure or standard at all implicitly values beauty at nothing.