“Beauty” Wasn’t Always a Dirty Word

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The recent sale of the landmark Fisher Building in Detroit was a painful reminder of the way the word “beauty” has disappeared from contemporary architectural practice. When the Fisher Building opened in 1928, its architect – Albert Kahn – received a medal from the Architectural League of New York for creating the year’s “most beautiful commercial building.

Alas, it is inconceivable that any mainstream professional organization today would honor an architect for creating “beauty.” At best, Modernist architects ignore beauty as design parameter; at worst they scorn beauty as an irrelevant, subjective, relativistic concept.

For example, Moshe Safdie, winner of the 2015 AIA Gold Medal was cited for his “hunger to follow ideals and ideas across the globe . . .” Not a word about creating a more harmonious built environment . . . nothing about elevating the human spirit . . . and certainly nothing about beauty. Indeed, looking at Safdie’s body of work (see typical image), “beautiful” is not a descriptor that comes to mind.

The Fisher Building’s good looks were no accident, but rather the result of an inspired collaboration between architect and a well-heeled client – the Fisher brothers. The seven Fisher brothers became rich by selling their car-body company to General Motors in 1919. The Fishers devoted much of their resulting wealth to civic causes, which included a desire to construct a building that would both honor their legacy and provide a great civic monument for the city they loved. Thus the Fisher Brothers gave architect Albert Kahn a generous budget with the charge to build the most beautiful building he could create.

Albert Kahn considered himself a modern architect – but also disdained striving for the weird and the bizarre as proof of originality. For the Fisher Building, he created a huge (over one million sq.ft.) building whose refinement of massing and detail disguises the massiveness of its volumes. Kahn certainly did not follow the “ornament is a crime” dictum, using the finest marbles, mosaics, murals, decorative painting and ornamental brass and bronze metalwork to create a building that still inspires delight – even in its current neglected state.

Unlike Albert Kahn, today’s Modernist architects prefer the shock of the new and the next instead of the emotional thrill of timeless beauty. Disdaining the organized complexity of traditionalism and any sense of urban harmony, designers today compete with each other to create ever more bizarre and bombastic structures, creating civic spaces that become more chaotic and visually disturbing by the day.

Vitruvius was only re-stating the accumulated wisdom of centuries when he declared that the creation of beauty (“venustas”) was one of the three objectives of architecture. No wonder that the public – whenever given a chance to voice an opinion – prefers the elegance and grace of beautiful traditional buildings over abstract, theory-based, egoistic, disruptive shapes grounded in Modernist ideology. In the world of architecture, “beauty” should not be a dirty word.