Dynamics of Delight (by Peter F. Smith)


I was going to start in on the Kant and Hume today, but it was so nice over in the architecture library that I just stayed over there reading. In particular, I picked up a fairly recent book on aesthetics to see what the current thinking is in the field.

Interestingly (for me), there were all sorts of concepts in the book which I have written about before and which I had thought to be my own 'discoveries' (i.e. things I'd picked up from the process of designing combined with my readings on psychology and explorations in design). I suppose it's good that I now have an 'authority' to quote for those things, but it's kinda disappointing to find that much of the base work for the thesis is well-trodden ground.

Luckily, there appears to be some fundamental flaws in how the ideas are applied. Again, as with Padovan, the theorist moves forward, but doesn't completely commit to the supposition that the test of any design methodology is human perception. Smith looks at beauty (harmony, balance of complexity, readability via heightening/leveling) as the goal of design without acknowledging that beauty itself is just one of the possible goals of design.

Hume and Kant basically showed that there can be no solidity, no absolute truth save that which is grounded in our perceptions. Designers are attempting to create an effect within the viewer, and that effect may be one of beauty or harmony (and in architecture it often is), but the overarching purpose of design is to help us better understand our world, and to do so we may have to create something which is neither beautiful nor harmonious.

Interestingly, Smith points out Donald Berlyne's 'Aesthetics and Psycho-Biology', in which Berlyne points out the drive to discover order and patterns in our environment, and our satisfaction when we discover an order. He (Berlyne) then suggests that the purpose of design is to mimic that experience, as a sort of drug that gives us the feeling. Smith then points out that Zeki (who I did't find in U of T's library yet) moves toward my position that the purpose of design is actually to help us understand the universe, that it is part of our drive to understand that leads us to create art and design.

Interesting side-note; Smith is very much a civic architect. He's constantly mixing in 'content' ideals with the theoretical mechanisms. He sees civic responsibility, connection to the community and the like as absolute requirements. At certain points I almost felt like yelling at him that what he was pointing out were aspects of the culture of individualism being reflected in the architecture. Without addressing that lack of civic interest and involvement you can't solve the problem architecturally.

Thought I had as I was reading this section: Kant's categorical imperitive applies to building as well as any other action. If you wouldn't want the society (town) where everyone does what you are doing, then it is not likely a good thing to do (build). If your goal is to have unified and coherent overall design for your town then creating a radically different building every time you build is sub-optimal.

Smith also seems to apply an almost mystical significance to the perceptual processes of heightening and leveling (the mechanisms we use to create distinctions between things, to organise perceptual fields into figure/ground relationships). He combines this with a fairly un-examined belief in fibonnaci/golden-section proportion.

Interesting idea he points out is one wherein decoration's purpose is to cover up differences between parts of a structure, unifying them by obscuring their nature. Nice to look at that against Loos at some point.

Bit of discussion of propriety and balance, though it basically comes down to "make it readable, but not trivially so", which is hardly new (then again, the entire idea of propriety and balance is ancient).

Discussion with examples (the book is very good for examples) around pp 103 of the use of changing program in generating complexity and underlying orders. Similarly a straightforward discussion of metaphor as generator in chapter 14.

Anyway, probably finish off the book tomorrow, then have people over for coffee. Suppose I should head off to sleep now so that can happen.

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