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. . . But I know what I like

They scoffed at the Eiffel Tower, calling it “useless and monstrous.” They disdained the Guggenheim museum as “an oversized and indigestible hot cross bun.” They mocked the Villa Savoye, calling it “a box on stilts.” So why should we be surprised when critics deride London’s Shard or find Boston City Hall a plague on the eyes?

In the examples above, “they” were mostly established arbiters of good taste, worthies like Guy de Maupassant or the editorial board of The New York Times. But you don’t need a pedigree to pass judgment. There’s a long history of scorching architectural criticism — a comforting reminder that many of our most beloved buildings hardly started out that way. The Pyramids of Giza were no doubt denounced in their time as monumentally out of scale and disappointingly opaque.

What is beauty; who decides? This issue of ArchitectureBoston wades right in to these contentious questions, not so much to locate answers as to find a language to discuss them. By definition, taste is personal and subjective; we like something or not “as a matter of taste.” Others argue that quality can be defined by certain universal, objective criteria, whether it be proportion, integrity, or balance. The debate is as old as Vitruvius and as contemporary as Koolhaas.

In our democratic — not to say populist — times, we grow squeamish about suggesting that some things are better than others, that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not all opinions are equal. Discussions of taste veer uncomfortably close to its cousin, class, which is still the great American taboo.

But we must not shy away from confrontations with beauty, says Harvard professor and author Elaine Scarry. In her conversation with Mark Pasnik AIA, she makes a strong case for rescuing beauty from its exile precisely because its power takes us out of ourselves, enabling us to relate to the suffering of others. For Scarry, beauty is a verb, driving us to take moral action.

Even purists can’t escape the fact that tastes change over time, affected by external conditions from culture to technology. Can a building be truly tasteful today if it isn’t energy-efficient or accessible? The advent of plate glass or the computer-generated curves of Bilbao introduced new building materials and techniques unimagined in Plato’s time; we adjust our notions of taste along the way.

Then there’s the performance of a building: how it acts upon the visitor. One of the laudable aspects of the Harleston Parker Medal — conferred by the Boston Society of Architects/AIA since the 1920s — is that its jury doesn’t simply look at photos but visits the building finalists in person (see “In an extraordinary space” by three-time juror Christina E. Crawford). Such a practice is good defense against the sly secret most architects know: Any building photographed at dusk looks more beautiful!

When we think about taste, our fancy turns to food — and drink. The trade journal Food Quality and Preference recently conducted an experiment that pit wine experts against mere enthusiasts, each group tasting 27 different Cabernets. The results were predictable: The average drinkers preferred sweeter wines that were lower in astringency and complexity — the very opposite of the quaffs hailed by the cognoscenti. Sound familiar?

Herein may be a way out of the conflict between populism and elitism. A trained eye may be able to find beauty in Brutalism, just as a cultured palate can appreciate more complex wines. It’s not “educating” the public that’s needed but a sincere curiosity and openness to opinions on both sides of the aesthetic divide. Saint Augustine said that beauty “is a plank against the waves of the sea.” Respectful conversation is the life raft we need today. ■