Monday, August 27, 2007

The aesthetics of landscape and architecture

Is aesthetic appreciation merely fetishistic behaviour, a type of learnt imagination, or is it grounded in something objective, which is shared amongst humanity, something which is perhaps a remnant or a by-product of some evolutionary instinct?

John Barrow argues that "the fact that our ancestors spent very long periods in tropical savannah habitats leads us to expect that some of our emotional responses to such an environment may possess adaptive features. Instinctive aesthetic reactions to the world could not have evolved if, on average, they contributed negatively to survival...

"The savannah landscape is an environment with many reliable cues for safe and fruitful human habitation. These cues are widely reproduced in our parklands and recreation areas. There is scattered tree cover, which offers shade and escape from ferocious predators, interspersed with grasses; yet there are long vistas with frequent undulations that allow good views, orientation and way-finding...The most distinctive unpredictability about savannah life is the availability of water. Here, one recognises the importance of cues like cloud formation, changes in temperature and weather outlook, and seasonal variations in the colour and vitality of plant life, together with the water levels in rivers and streams. Sensitivity to these environmental indicators has a clear adaptive advantage over insensitivity. The presence of tress, greenery, and water offers an instant evaluation of the suitability of a potential habitat. These primary indicators, together with a sense of the openness of the terrain, its prospects for shelter, and the furtive viewing of others, are valuable sensitivities that signal whether further exploration or settlement can safely ensue...We recognise, also, the encouragement to exploration that is created by the mysterious element in the terrain: the path that leads out of sight or behind a hill.

"There is a clear adaptive advantage to be gained by choosing environments that offer places of security and clear unimpeded views of the terrain...These combinations remain an innate preference: their attractiveness informs many of our aesthetic preferences, from landscape architecture to painting. Extensive views and cosy inglenooks; daunting castles; the tree-house, the 'Little House on the Prairie'; the mysterious door in the wall of the secret garden: so many of the classically seductive landscape scenes combine symbols of refuge and safety, with the prospect of uninterrupted panoramic views; or the enticement to explore, tempered by verdant pastures and water. These comfortable, pastoral scenes appeal to out instinctive sensibilities because of the selective advantages that such attractions first held for our ancient forebears...

"Our aesthetic preferences are a fusion of instinct and experience. We would expect that, in the absence of experience and special influence, our innate sensitivities for these life-supporting features of natural scences would remain. Indeed, simple landscapes and still-life scenes are usually preferred by those with no special interest in art. A taste for the avant-garde or the abstract is a fruit of experience overriding instinct. Even then, what appeals in man-made art is the symbolic play, or counterplay, on those same adaptive features that have for so long informed traditional artistic images," (The Artful Universe, p91-95).

Barrow cites studies which show that younger children prefer images of savannah landscapes, whilst older teenagers, with experience of, say, deciduous woodland or rainforest environments, often like these landscapes just as much.

Is this approach capable of explaining why many of us have a shared appreciation of what constitutes a beautiful building, or a beautiful car? Certainly, experience, learning, and social conditioning can be shared, so a common aesthetic reaction to something doesn't necessarily entail that it must be rooted in evolutionary instinct. But perhaps there are other, common cognitive sensitivities, which are not learnt, which have developed through evolution, and which produce common aesthetic reactions, but which are not rooted in the specific cues of the savannah landscape itself.

Lee Smolin argues that what makes a scene beautiful is a variety of harmonious structure on different length scales. Describing the city of Verona, he recalls that

"From a tower or garden overlooking the city one sees the great curves of the river Adige, in the albows of which are nestled the different parts of the city, built in different eras, by what were almost different civilizations. And what is most striking is the way the same red tile roofs cover such a variety of shapes and sizes of buildings, from the medieval churches and palazzi to the modern stores and office buildings. Descending, one comes to streets that curve gracefully, with the rhythmic patterns made by the balconies and windows blending harmoniously the styles of houses built over ten different centuries, until one stands before a door or gazes on a medieval wall, and sees there the carvings and the frescoes made by artisans long passed. And then one goes through the door into a gallery or a boutique to see what strange tastes the modern inhabitants of this ancient place now fancy.

"Imagine, by contrast, those man-made landscapes that we find most ugly, the suburban deserts with every house simple and similar, the American shopping center, the great monoliths of soviet architecture, or the unfortunate office towers and hotels based on economized postmodern styles. Certainly, what most of these lack is a variety of interest and harmony occurring over a large range of scales, so that so many of them look like models or computer images of themselves. In most of these the planners have taken care only of how things look on one scale, so that with one glance one takes in all that is to be seen there," (The Life of the Cosmos, p162-163).

A sensitivity to size and shape on a variety of different length-scales, could well be a favourable evolutionary trait, which promotes the aesthetic appreciation of landscapes and cityscapes quite distinct from that provided by the savannah. Such a sensitivity would be innate, and would have initially developed in the savannah environment, but would be independent of the specific cues of the savannah landscape.

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