August 24, 2006

The subjectivity fallacy

If you care about the quality of architecture and urban form, you will invariably have heard the following response to your rantings: "But...it's subjective, isn't it?"

You have to choose. When confronted with a building and asked: "what do you think?..." you have to choose whether to judge it as an evanescent moment of theatre or as a suit of clothes someone will have to wear for a few decades.

If the response that question is usually along the lines of:
-"It's different!"
- "I like it, the _____ bit, it looks awesome!"
- "It sure stands out!", etc.

Then you are probably blurting out the visual, epidermic effect the appearance of the building elicits. You are judging it as an object, se stante, and your engagement with it is ephemeral, superficial.

Some things are fleeting, and they can only be judged on the basis of immediate perceptions. But buildings are not, as rule, so impermanent; especially new, large, publicly funded buildings (which are often the sort you will be asked to "critique" and pay for).

No, buildings stay with us; and the city, its people, the building's actual users are like someone who will have to wear that suit, day in, day out, for many years.

Is it well-cut (built)? Is it practical (we can mean this broadly, rather than prosaically)? Does it complement or clash with the other clothes (buildings) in your wardrobe (city)? Is it handsome? Is it quality?

The easily pleased, the novelty seeker, the instinctive optimist will all say that different people like different types of clothes; that taste is subjective. But if we premised that these clothes were to be used for a purpose? We may still prefer somewhat different styles but how subjective would it be, really, to discern quality of fabric? How subjective that an orange-and-mauve, polyester, slightly tight suit would not be as good a choice (remember, day-in, day-out...for years) as a sober, well-cut, super-200s?

Readability, natural illumination, relief of mass, scale, perspective, detailing, materials, texture, complementarity to the extant environment, accessibility, texture, suitability to its purpose; how subjective are these qualities in a building?

In the picture above, look at the difference between the surface of the older building and the new, brutalist addition. One can wilfully claim to like the latter better, but what does that say about them?


Another contrast between the two buildings in the pictures above. There is no legitimate quality based on which building 2 is not inferior to building 1.


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