6 min read

Beauty vs. Aesthetics in Architecture

Beauty vs. Aesthetics in Architecture
Photo by Cristina Gottardi / Unsplash

Last year before our international symposium on Beauty at Work, we interviewed a few of our speakers on what beauty means to them and why it matters in their work. The first of these interviews I'd like to share with you is with Dr. Julio Bermudez, who spoke to us about the importance of beauty in architecture, and how it needs to be understood as distinct from aesthetics.

Recently retired from The Catholic University of America, Dr. Julio Bermudez directed the Sacred Space and Cultural Studies graduate program at the University’s School of Architecture and Planning since 2010. Dr. Bermudez’s interests are focused on the relationship between architecture, culture, and spirituality. He is president of the Architecture, Culture, and Spirituality Forum, a 700-member international organization that he co-founded in 2007. He is the author of three books, the most recent of which is Spirituality in Architectural Education (CUA Press, 2023).

In his interview, Dr. Julio Bermudez discusses the critical role of beauty in architecture, lamenting its neglect in modern discourse. The good, the true, and the beautiful are perennial values, but while we continue today to take ethics and truth at least somewhat seriously in our conversations, beauty is often disregarded. Contrasting a judgmental, third-person perspective on aesthetics with a more experiential, transformative understanding of beauty, Bermudez advocates for a deeper appreciation of the value of beauty. He argues that architecture should go beyond mere functionality and offer the possibility of transcendence. Beauty is not just an aesthetic preference but a profound connection that can transform one's being, while also improving societal conditions.

You can watch three short clips from the interview below. They're only about a couple of minutes each and are worth watching. A transcript of each clip follows.

  1. Why do we neglect beauty?

If you look at the good, the true and the beautiful: these are the fundamental perennial values. And if you look, to this day, most people will talk about the true and the good. They will talk about that, you know?

Ethics is everywhere these days with all these issues, you know, social justice, equity and so on. Everybody's talking about it. We should—no question about that. Truth is everywhere because, you know, fake news, the manipulation of people, and you know, and science, that's a huge conversation. But beauty — you don't, people are not talking about that. They think this is trivial, like it's superficial, it’s skin-deep beauty. But here we’re not talking about that.

And that's the difference between aesthetics, which is largely a visual phenomena, and beauty, which is a full-being reaction to become one with. It's a very different understanding.

You could look at this, the good, the true and the beautiful, as three perspectives on reality. The true, you could say, is the world in the third person. You you look at it as: that exists, that doesn't exist, I can measure it. So it's almost a gap, a separation. So anybody would, given that data, they will say, "Yeah, it's true." Right? So it's third person. 

The good is second person. It's I in relationship with you, or society in relation with other people. It's a communal value. 

The one that we haven't paid attention to is beauty. And it is the subjective. Because it’s "I feel that." That's the first person, right? And they say the subject is only in the eye of the beholder. And I don't think so. I would challenge that. There is some sort of foundation to beauty. You have, as a human being, you have certain conditions that will tend to gravitate you to this or that. Now of course, culture, all that stuff affects — I'm not naive about it. But beauty is something that is not solely, purely cultural. And that's why you send people to see the Parthenon and people are just blown away by the Parthenon. Or you send people to to look at a Rothko painting and they will be moved. So beauty is the least of the perennial values discussed. And I think bring it up to the foreground I think is is very important.

  1. Beauty vs. Aesthetics

So there are different ways of understanding beauty, right? The modern way of understanding beauty is called aesthetics. And it's judgmental. So I put up something in front of you — a painting, let's say, or sculpture, and say, well, is it beautiful? You're judging that. And you have this third person perspective to it. And also for the modern or even contemporary viewpoint, you want to understand what that is, what is it trying to tell me? And that's how we are for the most part taught what beauty is in the ordinary world. 

The ancients had a very different understanding of beauty, which was much more let’s call it experiential. It was one in which there was no detachment, you know? You fall in love with beauty, you are one with beauty, you are intimate with it. And you're not certainly judging it. When you have that experience of beauty, you are transformed. Because you are able to connect at a profound personal level with this other thing – which in this case would be a building or a particular object or a particular painting, right? And suddenly, that experience of joy, of fulfillment, of oneness, produces total transformation of being. And it's not so much about knowledge but it’s about being. 

So to me, that's the one I'm interested in particularly. And it's one that hasn't been really explored very much because again, it's not in fashion or is not highly understood, and it's hard to measure.

  1. Why Does Beauty Matter in Architecture?

Beauty is central to architecture. However, the paradox is that modernity basically has denied that or it has made beauty something that we don't talk about, because modernity wanted to be all about functionality, pragmatism, materiality, you know, resolving concrete problems. However, of course, every architect wants to produce beautiful things. So architectural schools have that, that challenge from forever. And as a professor of architecture, that, to me was always a problem. 

Beauty is fundamental to what architecture does. To me architecture, at least ideally, should produce buildings that are transcendent. Transcendent in the sense that it should foster an improvement of either life condition of humanity, improve our environment, surroundings, or make us better human beings, or connected to something, perhaps nature or God. To me, architecture, good architecture should do that. And there are three ways in which you could do that. 

One is ethical, you know, to improve the life condition, do the good. It doesn't need to be a beautiful building. but if you give shelter to people, maybe that's pretty good. Hopefully it's better than just physical shelter, but that's good enough. Or if you do sustainable buildings that doesn't continue to destroy our natural environment, that's pretty good, you know, Net Zero buildings and stuff like that. So that's doing the good. 

You can also begin to change cultural norms, begin to produce conditions that make people to question racism or question issues that are very endemic to our society that we need to change. I can think of museums or or centers that that foster that kind of situation. 

And then we can do it through beauty. And beauty is a fundamental one because we learn from the very beginning of history that whatever we find beautiful, we are attracted to. I mean Plato talked about that, right? We only fall in love we will we find beautiful, and what we find beautiful, we want to know. What we don't find beautiful we avoid or don't pay attention. So if you look at all the great buildings of human beings through history that we remember or that still stand up are all beautiful buildings for that very reason. 

So the question of course, then comes Okay, well, what is beautiful? And how you could produce beautiful buildings how you teach that or how you assess that, how you go about the business of doing the beautiful thing.

What do you think about these topics? I'd love to know – please leave a comment or feel free to reach out over email. If you found this post valuable, please share it. Also please consider supporting this project as a paid subscriber to support the costs associated with this work. You'll receive early access to content and exclusive members-only posts.