Architecture of Beauty

Holiday Farm Fire Ridge, Leah Wilson

At a recent dinner with a group of landscape architecture graduate students from the University of Oregon, the subject of beauty arose. Beauty is such a sticky topic, full of pitfalls. Typically I attempt to veer around it, although it’s not possible to not bump into beauty as an artist. It comes up in conversation and  I have participated in a panel discussion grappling with the subject.

The art establishment has solidified beauty into a solid material to push hard against, and social justice issues attack conventional beauty while simultaneously attempting to elevate conventionally non-beautiful forms to the same position as conventional beautiful ones. Yet beauty is still frequently lauded in day-to-day discussions such as on social media. Often a response to a post is simply, “Beautiful!” This is another way of saying, “Good.” I have never received a response such as, “Hideous! Wonderful!”

Spaulding Reservoir - Leah Wilson

Spaulding Reservoir, Leah Wilson

Landscape architecture, I was told, has a stunted lexicon with which to express ideas concerning beauty because of the very nature of landscape architecture’s purpose to make landscapes aesthetically pleasing. Art, he claimed, is better equipped at having a conversation about beauty. This assertion came late in the evening after my brain slowed down. All I could manage to do was to listen quietly and to ask a few questions. The thought lurking in the back of my mind the entire discussion was, ‘Have you attempted to talk to an artist about beauty lately?’ Many artists, including myself, trip over our tongues when it comes to beauty. Discomfort around beauty is not misplaced. There has been a lot of harm done in the world in service to beauty.

Ladybugs - Leah Wilson

Ladybugs, Leah Wilson

Even if we are wary of beauty and its seductive qualities, it is still very difficult to avoid being seduced. The discussion at dinner revealed a bias toward beauty I had not considered: there is a bias toward beautiful landscapes regarding scientific research. Is this true? Are beautiful places studied more because of their perceived aesthetics? I could not come up with any counter argument. This claim, although not equivalent, was supported by an assertion that entomology has fallen out of favor as an area of study. Is this true? I did a very cursory Google image search with the word entomology and my screen was instantly populated by colorful images of beautiful insects like butterflies and stunning beetles. There were some unpleasant looking ones in the mix, but even unsavory insects, when looked at through a macro lens, are often quite beautiful. If entomology has indeed fallen out of favor, I am doubtful that it is due to a lack of beauty.

Clear Cut Bones - Leah Wilson

Self, Leah Wilson

For a class project, each landscape architecture student chose a degraded lot to observe. A student seated next to me spoke enthusiastically at length about the lot she chose. It was historically a dump site for the city, and more recently the site was used for dumping yard waste and organic debris. Although it is not a developed recreation area, people use the area to walk their dogs and to find a quiet, unpopulated patch of nature to sit in for a while. For some time, the lot’s designation was contested. Was it a dump, or a park? Naming has a lot of power to determine how a landscape will be regarded and used.

Her account of this unnatural natural area was fascinating. Yet she felt somewhat abashed that she had chosen this site over others because of the fact that it is beautiful. I don’t know if her discomfit was warranted. She obviously connected with this site. She built a relationship with it. If she chose this site over other less aesthetically pleasing ones this time, she may choose to connect with a more distressed area next time, and combat her own bias toward studying beautiful places.

Salvage Logging - Leah WIlson

Salvage Logging, Leah Wilson

There may be a bias toward studying beautiful objects and landscapes, but I am thrilled if following beauty leads to curiosity about other qualities and issues. Robin Wall Kimmerer leads with a question: Why is the world so beautiful? Beauty might very well be a doorway leading to deeper engagement. If beauty is no longer maligned, but followed with curiosity, where could it lead us?


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