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On "Taste" (Summer 2017)

As an architect who has practiced and taught in Boston for more than 20 years, I have watched the urban realm evolve physically, socially, culturally, and politically. However, I have also observed that the built environment in our city often remains unchallenged as a space where community can flourish, in which the architect’s craft can inspire individuals from all backgrounds and cultures, and encourage new paradigms of engagement. The abstract concept of beauty in the built environment, recognized once a year with the bestowing of the Harleston Parker Medal on a single architectural project, offers a rich opportunity to encourage, and even inspire, public engagement.

As Christina Crawford conveys in “In an Extraordinary Space,” the history and selection process of the Harleston Parker Medal has always been a complex undertaking, charged with the responsibility of measuring beauty in the built environment as a physical, philosophical, and, ultimately, transient condition. Architecture is, by nature, a reflection of its time, as compellingly illustrated here by nearly a century of controversial winners. And the criteria for beauty continue to evolve as public space transforms from physical to digital. In this new social realm, will the criteria become trivialized, and true opportunities for public engagement lost?

This selection process, in which I am honored to participate this year, is an opportunity to engage with my peers from varied professional walks of life and to wrestle with identifying criteria for beauty in a politically uncertain and, dare I say, confrontational time. The task is daunting but has also sparked my sense of optimism. Although the process of deliberation and selection will, indeed, be a democratic one, complete with the ebb and flow of debate and deliberation, it represents for me more than a collaborative means to the outcome. The award can transcend bestowing an honor on a singular building. It can invite citizens to continue the debate around beauty at all scales of the work.

At no other moment in my professional life have I felt this level of responsibility to engage in the political terrain of architecture, one that presents itself as more than a superficial sound bite. As I make my selection of the top four candidates for the most beautiful building of 2017, I am optimistic that the winning work will incite discourse and invite all — citizens and designers — to revel in this sublime moment in time. After all, beauty is more than skin deep.

Anne-Sophie Divenyi AIA
Senior Capital Project Manager
Harvard University

Cambridge, Massachusetts

The essence of the rich discussion in “Beauty is a beast” is really a series of meditations on beauty and its percep­tion. I was particularly struck by the dialogue on the meaning of symmetry that enlivens the incisive conversa­tion between Mark Pasnik and Elaine Scarry. Is symmetry to be taken literally — bilaterally, by common definition — or can we interpret what Indra McEwen calls the “appearance of symmetry” (what Vitruvius called “eurhythmy,”) to include the kind of dynamic asymmetric balance found in much of the best Modern architecture?

Vitruvius equates eurhythmy with “shapeliness . . . an attractive appearance and coherent aspect in the composition of elements.” At the dawn of modernity, the French architect Claude Perrault discarded the ancient cosmological proportional criteria, declaring that the human mind determines beauty, and found symmetry to be a component part of a construct that equates eurhythmy and proportion. The Oxford English Dictionary defines eurhythmy as “harmony in the proportion of a building” but also “rhythmical order or movement,” tying it back to qualities of active human perception. To me, this is a term that can perhaps better describe the importance of proportion and balance — absent strict bilateral symmetry — to the creation of beauty.

We design without cognizance of the power of beauty and the extraordinary effort often needed for its achievement at our peril. I once saw a catamaran docked at a marina on Cape Cod whose exquisite design and execution provoked an immediate, visceral reaction that renewed my faith in the sublime, transformative power of human creativity. Tragically, the owner confessed that this was all he had left — the realization of his dream had cost him 12 years of his life, his fortune, and his marriage. It was a hard lesson on the difficulty of achieving beauty at this level — and on the cost of perfection. Perhaps this is why we don’t see it more often — but we should never stop trying.

David N. Fixler FAIA
Principal, Architecture Planning Preservation
Weston, Massachusetts

Thank you for Mark Lamster’s insightful piece, “Informed sources: Architectural criticism in the digital era.” As Lamster correctly observes, those who predict that the digital age has doomed criticism are false prophets. The field is changing, not dying, as digital media enable new ways for critics to inform readers and broaden critics’ reach far beyond old geographic boundaries. In the same vein, his analysis implies that at the very time critics’ audiences are expanding, the scope of their subject matter is widening. Indeed, the term “architecture critic” may now be a misnomer — or, at least, not inclusive enough to encom­pass concerns ranging from landscape architecture to rising seas. To be sure, there are new opportunities for relevance in the exploration of these related fields. Yet such adventures also pose challenges. Do we know the territory — and the traps — when we range beyond the discipline of brick, mortar, steel, and glass?

In my view, this broadening of critics’ readership and mission is ultimately to the good. It makes architecture more democratic and less hermetic. At the same time, any discussion of a critic’s worth invariably will return to a narrower issue suggested by the Greek root word for “critic” — kritikos, mean­ing “skilled in judgment.” As I wrote in my own recent assessment of the field (“Architecture Criticism: Dead or Alive?”) “What a critic writes, what impact he or she has on architectural dialogue, is more important than how many clicks he gets or how many followers she attracts. While the means of delivering criticism should change in response to new media realities, the essential purposes of criticism — separating the meritorious from the mediocre, monitoring the shapers of our built world, and illuminating architecture’s powerful effect on human experience — must remain unchanged.”

Blair Kamin
Architecture critic
Chicago Tribune

What captured me about the article by Henry Scollard AIA (“An idyll to the King”) was the statement that Elvis Presley’s home had “very little kitsch” within. Scollard expects that readers of ArchitectureBoston think of Presley’s material legacy and Graceland itself as bound by tackiness, passé style, and bad taste — perhaps the essence of 20th-century kitsch — and I wonder if this isn’t true. Scollard is attempting to relax readers’ hackles in regard to taste and instead consider the expression that one can project with a designed space.

He shows us that the personality of the King is on full view and that Elvis personalized his space with the same passion and creativity as his life in entertainment. In expressing an appreciation for this maximalist aesthetic, Scollard reinforces a position against Modernism but more intentionally promotes that we acknowledge the meaning, memory, and delight of our material existence. He reminds us that space intrinsically communicates, but the biggest lesson is to prize the designer’s role as an instigator of possibilities. I am left to wonder: Do enough designers consider themselves entertainers?

Jeffrey Leclair AIA
Architect, Bruner/Cott & Associates
Cambridge, Massachusetts

The appeal of Elvis Presley’s Graceland must be in the eye of the beholder (“An idyll to the King,” by Henry Scollard AIA). When visiting there some 10 years ago, the front with columns was dinky-looking and the rooms were straight out of 1950s mediocre, with a couple or so ornaments — maybe awards. What struck my daughter and me was how modest it was; we admired that. We also visited his birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi. Modest? You bet. A railroad shack.

Thanks for a great issue of ArchitectureBoston.

Ann Hershfang Hon. BSA/AIA
Founder and former president, WalkBoston