A keynote opens a gathering, sets the tone, and possibly 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 with 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 moment of denouement in King Lear) is at the edge, continuing the past but opening new space and time. Beauty promises.
The keynote ends with a proposal that we use Beauty to determine value. In modernity where we eschew all cosmologies with larger cultural or moral orders, we fall quickly to the level of schlock, determining value through money which is our the lowest common denominator, or counting thumbs up/thumbs down icons in marketing polls. At least in much scientific work the intuitive sense of Beauty is still seen as the highest integrative level of understanding.
In between the suggested 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 hierarchy. The ugliness of contrived complexity versus the beauty of true hierarchies which unify disparate material with intelligibility and yet preserve the surprise of difference, precisely by holding it within a frame of unity. Questions of cultural artefacts and their evolution. Technologies which are extensions of ourselves. Our drive to sort things out and classify them and then, if we have the structure, the what,we want an elegant explanation, a why. And if Stendhal associated Beauty with a future happiness, Alexander’s QWAN links it to tears.
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.