A keynote opens a gathering, sets the tone, and a theme. The proposed theme is Beauty. Notice that it is not Aesthetics, a much cooler, distant, cerebral, and safer term. Intellectuals can sit around all day and nitpick about aesthetics and nobody is risking anything. Beauty pulls from deeper ground, intestinal, vulnerable, mythic, Beauty and the Beast.
The keynote starts by exploring a preliminary definition: beauty as the creative force which transcends a present moment of paradox without eliminating the terms of the paradox. Beauty’s place (thinking perhaps, for an example, of the denouement in King Lear or Romeo and Juliet) is at the edge, continuing the past but opening a new space and time. Beauty promises.
The keynote ends by proposing that Beauty be our compass. In modernity, where we eschew cosmologies with larger moral orders, we fall quickly to the level of schlock, determining action and value through our lowest common denominators: money or silly thumbs up icons in marketing polls. At least in much scientific work the intuitive recognition of Beauty is still seen as the highest integrative level of understanding.
In between the emerging definition and the closing proposal, the talk will address just some of what might go into further conversations about Beauty. Questions of coherence, without which we can not build anything. Questions of values. Questions of judgement and measurement. Questions of generativity and complexity. Of course, there are also questions of cultural artefacts and their evolution: the violin, the knife, the tailored suit, the microscope, the computer.
And if Stendhal, from whom the title of the talk is borrowed, associates Beauty with a promise of happiness, the two main authors referred to in the talk link Beauty, one to laughter and the other to tears. What’s that about?
Sometimes we dutifully submit to day jobs in order to pursue more intriguing but non lucrative questions on the side. Until last autumn I was, by day, a university professor. My abiding side query revolved around human geography, vernacular building traditions, and the phenomenology of places and spaces. This personal investigation led me to pattern languages and a six year collaboration with architect Christopher Alexander.
The methodology behind the original APL embodied a conservative stance. Discovery entailed noticing, cataloguing, and analysing existing time tested solutions. This kind of pattern work inspires us to be sure, but doesn’t deliver when we are faced with novel situations and a dearth of reliable solutions. Where I am working now, at the newly minted Embodied Making Institute in Amsterdam, we’re experimenting with the other way round. We start by extracting the unresolved forces at play in a problem space and from there inch our way toward solutions. Currently I’m tackling pattern languages for urban cycling and regional safety programs.
I have been asked to speak about Beauty. A tall order and not an obvious one given the audience. I can talk about Beauty in Alexander’s writings, or tune into the philosopher Frederick Turner, or take a cue from Sherry Turkle’s collection of essays on evocative objects. Giving a speech, however, seems less pertinent than launching a conversation. That’s what conferences are good for. Conversations. I wish for a conversation around these questions. What is Beauty? Does it matter? Is it germane to our gut level distinction between day job and abiding intrigue? How do we achieve it?
Since a keynote must have a title, I will borrow from Stendhal, Beauty is the Promise of Happiness.