Identity Aesthetics: Approaching an Aesthetic Relativism of our Built Environment

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Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Identity Aesthetics

Approaching an Aesthetic Relativism of our Built Environment

Ruben Ratkusic

AAR4921 Aesthetic Communication

Assoc. Prof. Eivind Kasa

2. December 2020

Introduction: The Universal Meets the Global

Since its conception, the field of architecture has been ridden by debates regarding aesthetics in the

theoretical realm and with critique of the lack of its proper implementation in the physical realm. Contrary to

what we wish to expect, architects have not rarely been accused by laymen of aesthetic degeneration of our

environment. Aesthetics, here considered as "a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art,

and taste and with the creation and appreciation of beauty"

1, is hardly to be understood as a straight forward

framework for determining aesthetic quality.

Nevertheless, architects inhibit a key role in determining and deciding aesthetic qualities to ensure

the beauty of our built environment. Architecture is often seen as a tug of war between the ideal and it's

obstacles – the economic interests of the developer, the unrealistic wishes of the customer, the ever present

technological realm and even the limitations of gravity are all well known hurdles in the architects' path

towards the design of a beautiful building. In this text, a different perspective is to be made – perhaps one

less common. Rather than seeing architecture and its aesthetic endeavor as a linear conception of better or

worse, it could be seen as a multilateral endeavor for beauty, with identity playing the leading actor.

In 21st century society, our convictions, beliefs and preferences are increasingly subject to change

and critique by the multi-cultural conglomeration made evident through the effects of globalization,

centralization and technology. The world is not only globalized through cheap and effective means of

transport, but also by the vast virtual display of our world and its people on the ever more encapsulating

internet. In addition to increased tourism, long distance emigration and global business making the cultural

world smaller, our regions are increasingly concentrated in urban settlements where people of different age,

culture, sub-culture, economic status, nationality, ethnicity, upbringing and so much more, live side by side

surrounded by the same environments. This is how the pertinence of identity in relation to our environment is


Seeing that the world is becoming increasingly globalized and cities and its regions increasingly

centralized, how does the concept of identity, and differences thereof, affect our personal and collective

aesthetic preferences and how could these considerations be implemented to substantiate architecture's quest

to create aesthetically pleasing environments?

The Shortcoming of Universal Explanations

Parallel and superordinate to the quest of determining an architectural aesthetic has been the pursuit of a

general philosophical aesthetic. Countless attempts at universal definitions of both beauty, art and taste as

well as to explain their nature, have been made over the course of humanity. From the ontological Platonic

form of beauty to Alexander Baumgarten's phenomenological definition of beauty 2 that later has defined our

modern aesthetics. Further, from Baumgarten's view of taste as an inherent skill that could be either good or

bad we have transgressed to view of taste as something subjective.

The intention here, will not be to delve respectively into these aesthetic theories, but merely to

declare the existence of a multitude of theories. Because, implied by this plurality, is the understanding that

every theory has for at least one point in time been believed as a valid theory by someone. One could shape

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1 Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, “Aesthetic.” Accessed 22 Nov. 2020. https://www.merriam-webster.com/


2 Chris van Rompaey, The Concept of Beauty in Alexander Baumgarten’s "Aesthetica". University of Tasmania, 2017.

from this an idea that, the more we discuss and theoreticize, the more perspectives we gain as a collective of

philosophically progressive beings, and that the introduction of a new theory does not necessarily debunk the


What we are left with, is ultimately a collection of theories and perspectives that could be forever

discussed and contemplated, and where, eventually, none but the most trained of theoreticians are in the end

able to distinguish and determine theoretical and practical legitimacy. Perhaps an acknowledgement that

theoretical postulates will forever come short in the mission of ensuring a built environment that meets a

shared belief on aesthetics.

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Defining Identity

To include identity, in this mission, which is a term mostly associated to the social sciences, into the

discussion of aesthetics, a definition of the term should first be established. In his research paper What is

Identity (as we now use the word)?, James D. Fearon endeavors to derive its contemporary meaning through

an ordinary language analysis. According to his paper, the meaning of the word identity is complex: "

'identity' means either (a) a social category, defined by membership rules and allegedly characteristic

attributes or expected behaviors, or (b) a socially distinguishing feature that a person takes a special pride in

or views as unchangeable but socially consequential (or of course, both (a) and (b) at once)" 3.

Put simpler, Fearon breaks this down to a twofold meaning of identity: a social identity (a) and a

personal identity (b). The social identity pertains to assigning an identity to others (and assigning yourself to

a category for others), often categorizing people, based on assumptions and apparent identifiable traits. This

type of identity could be stated as something as simple as e.g. "man", "European" or "musician". The

personal identity touches on a much more individual and subjective aspect that can pertain to questions like

"Who am I?" and deals with self-identity. Even with a simpler look at Fearon's definition, it is illustrated

some of what makes identity a slippery task, firstly to take on through a social science perspective, but even

more so to try to include the concept in design and aesthetic decision making.

Though Fearon's definition provides some clarity, it also implies some challenges. First of all, we

have the problem of ambitiously trying to assign other people to social categories that do overlap and are

subject to change – how do we weigh the different values of each identity? Who's to decide if it is more

accurate to describe someone as the identity of, say, a "football player" or a "father"? Second, to try to even

provide an answer to other people's personal identity (trying to answer the question "Who am I?" on behalf

of others) through design is a discouraging task. Here, we touch upon the well known irreconcilability of

relativism. Is it even possible to derive any right or wrong in our aesthetic endeavor – small or big – through

the complexities of the human social world ? Some theoretical perspectives claim to.

The Idea of a Cultural Aesthetic

To be able to utilize this vast definition of identity we must outline its different parts and aspects. A place to

begin, could be to isolate the two parts of its double meaning and implement their meanings separately to

further reflections. The first part of the meaning, social identity, is a concept where an individual is subsumed

under a group through their possession of any attributes shared with any other person from the same group.

3 James D. Fearon, What is Identity? (as we now use the word) (Stanford University, Department of Political Science, 1999)

The attributes could be anything, as long as it is shared with others: "tall people", "Norwegians", "gamers",

"everybody in this supermarket" and so on. What is here relevant considering social identities are the groups

that can be considered cultures (or subcultures). Culture is perhaps one of the most widely definable terms,

but here it is sufficient to see culture as "the ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular people or

society" 4. For example, a group of people in the same supermarket would not necessarily classify as a group

of a certain culture.

The forms of groups constituting different cultures, are part of what makes our identities, and most

of us are affiliated and identified by several cultural groups simultaneously. How does our cultural identity

pertain to our aesthetic preferences and values? In his book Aesthetics and Environment, professor Arnold

Berleant examines what he calls the "idea of a cultural aesthetic". In a world where our cultural relativity

becomes increasingly apparent, the task of finding common ground becomes increasingly daunting. Though

delving deep into the issue, Berleant stays buoyant from his conviction of the inseparable interconnection of

culture and environment.

"Architecture, for example, cannot be considered merely as the art in building but as the creation

of a built environment. And because no aspect of the human habitat is unaffected by our presence, it is

no exaggeration to say that architecture and the human environment are, in the final analysis,

synonymous and coextensive." 5

Startling, perhaps, as it may sound for an architect, we cannot see architecture as merely a

separate art form, but more importantly as the creation of our environment – a point that should be

revisited later on in this essay. Nevertheless, his argument is that as people are part of culture, so culture

is interlinked with our environment. This is not a new notion, but one that has yet to truly make its way

into architectural practice and theory.

To study the link between culture and aesthetics, we have to study the culture and the perceptual

experiences valued in that culture. The case has often been to see the art (art of building) as a certain

type of object explained by the culture from which it has derived. 6 But art and architecture is comprised

of much more than the results of aesthetic consideration. To only study perceptual experience implies a

negligence of circumstances like economics, historical or technological reasoning, and so on – and this

may seem paradoxical – but as Berleant also points out, the concept of art (and architecture) per se, is a

concept that some past (and therefore not excluding present) cultures had never established. So, to make

intercultural aesthetic comparisons based on objects of art and architecture can, for one, prove itself

difficult due to aesthetics being a convoluted aspect among many other considerations in art and

architecture, but would also discriminate and exclude the plurality of cultures by outlining a world

where cultural aesthetics only pertain to cultures of art and architecture.

Does this then mean that one should not use art or architecture as objects of comparison between

cultures? No, rather it means that, instead of considering this as a comparison between objects, it should

be the comparison of the objects' experienced perceptual aspects defining its cultural aesthetic value.

This in turn, will for example transform the concept of "Persian carpets" into fabric of certain color and

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4 LEXICO Powered by Oxford. "Culture". Accessed 20 Nov. 2020. https://www.lexico.com/definition/culture,

5 Arnold Berleant. Aesthetics and Environment (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2005), p 149

6 Ibid. p 153

pattern, "Scandinavian design" into design of natural materiality and "American cars" into extravagant

shapes. This is not to be considered as a purely formalistic approach of including every culture, but we

should consider the evident case that formal qualities are subject of interpretation and different valuing

across cultures.

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So we have scraped the surface of the idea of a cultural aesthetics and how our identity, as part of different

cultures, affects the perceptual experiences that we value. But this is only part of what defines what we call

our identity. We should also consider the personal identity that concerns the introspective part of our identity

through the examining of our socially distinguishing features – meaning an identity that takes into

consideration all features that set you apart from others. What makes this personal, and the assessment of this

kind of identity so subjective, is the fact that it is, by far, oneself that best knows all the features that sets you

apart from others. So, how do we include the notion of a personal identity, and therefore personal aesthetics,

without getting dangerously close to the hopelessness of relativism?

To take on this challenge, I turn to Environmental Psychology – a branch of science that has long

considered the link between the psychological subject and its environment. In their research paper, Place

Identity: Physical World Socialization of the Self, American psychologists Harold M. Proshansky, Abbe K.

Fabian and Robert Kaminoff investigates the relation of place to self-identity, directly linking the perceptual

environment and the perceiving personal identity. Studies of self-identity pertains to the development of

one's sense of self and place-identity sees the environment as playing a key role in this development:

" … the subjective sense of self is defined and expressed not simply by one's relationship to other

people, but also by one's relationships to the various physical settings that define and structure day-to-day

life […] In a constantly changing technological society, it is imperative to ask the question, 'What are the

effects of the built environment?"


Already nearly four decades ago, the question of the environments' impacts on the individual was

posed. It could be claimed that this question is ever more imperative to ask not only in an increasingly

technological, but also globalized and centralized society where the differences and development of

environments are juxtaposed and emphasized through, among other things, the ease of inter-continental

transport, urbanization and the influence of media – the modern composite of countless unique and

overlapping cultural and personal identities.

In their paper (Proshansky et. al.), the idea of an "environmental past" is conceived as "every

person's past individual encounters with places, spaces and their properties, and how it has served the

person's biological, psychological, social and cultural needs." From this follows that the environmental past

is consisting of encounters that has satisfied these needs in varying degree, thus creating the individual

judgement of good and bad environments. Furthermore, this judgement outline a set of "particular values,

attitudes, feelings, and beliefs about the physical world – about what is good, acceptable, and not so good

… that serve to define and integrate the place-identity of the individual." 8

This demonstrates how we, in addition to our cultural aesthetics, have inherent individual cognitions

7 Proshansky et. al.. Place-Identity. Journal of Environmental Psychology. (London: Academic Press Ltd., 1983), p 58

8 Ibid. p 60

about what of our perceptual environment is good and bad. An important step towards an individually

considerate aesthetic is made through recognizing and emphasizing this, but efforts should also be made on

understanding the effects of this link between individual and environment. One of them is by Proshansky et.

al. described as the 'recognition function' and describes further that the sense of self and its environment is

not only related, but also correlated. Recognition function describes that the perceived continuity of places

and spaces is correlated to the continuity of self-identity. This in turn implies that a discontinuity of the

environment – when the existence of the self is found in places that are unfamiliar or with strange properties

– could create a discontinuity of the self-identity and threaten the individual's sense of self. 9 We see

environmental discontinuity exemplified in today's society by tourism, migration, war, institutionalized

residences, the rapid changing of our built environment, the rapid changing of our natural environment and

so on. This tells us, that the consideration of individual recognition is highly applicable to the tase of creating

individually considerate aesthetic environments today.

Another effect integral to place-identity is what is called the 'Meaning Function' in which the

meanings exhibited by our environments, places and spaces and their objects and properties are always seen

in relation to our identity and its meaning.


Several environmental meanings are easily accessible and shared

by many (like the function of a hospital or which activities to expect to be going on in a basketball court).

The individual perceptual meaning of a place is linked to place-identity through our 'environmental

past' (linking, by experience, certain physical configurations with certain meanings), this implies that some

individual environmental meanings are also highly inaccessible knowledge, as it derives from a person's past

and memories. Also, on another level, the meaning of a place is also closely linked to our general or

contextual identity and role. The same way the continuity of a place emphasizes continuity of one's identity,

the meaning of a place will emphasize the meaning of one's identity. When meaning of place and identity do

not correlate, one or both can be questioned through the notion of a discrepancy. This gives clarity to how we

expect for example a king to reside in a castle (or rather how we expect a castle to house a king). We should

be weary of having the need of always correlating the perceived meanings of place and identity on behalf of

others, because, as previously stated, individual identity is hardly any easy task to assign to others. For

example, overly bureaucratic reasoning could in some cases be able to reduce an individual to the identity of

'drug addict in rehab', thus implying the meaning of 'temporary resident' into the individual's identity – this

doesn't mean we have to apply the meaning of short-term stays onto the environment in which people are to

be rehabilitated. The same can be seen in the provisionality of refugee camps, where nothing of a refugee's

environmental past or identity is reflected in the environment and provides both a discontinuity of the selfidentity

and assigns the meaning of refugee and provisionality to someone in need of affirmation and

stability. This shows us not only that the individual appreciation of our environments are correlated with our

expectations of meaning, but also that, if the complexity of personal identity is not given enough care it can

potentially attribute legitimacy and meaning to aesthetically unpleasing places.

The paper goes on to present the different ways in which we meet the discrepancies between the

taste and preferences specific to our identity and how it is met by our actual environment. There is a

'Mediating Change Function' that serves to assess whether our environment meets our desires, and further

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9 Proshansky et. al., Place-Identity, Journal of Environmental Psychology, (London: Academic Press Ltd., 1983). p 66

10 Ibid. p 68

also how realistic it would be for a desired change to be carried out, based on personal skill, ability, authority,

economics etc.


The mediation of personalizing our environment is exemplified in how diverse we find

people's homes, as making changes in our home is most of the time not limited by lack of skill, ability or

authority. Though many may have desires out of economic reach, the point to be made is that people are

nevertheless, mostly, able to create an environment at home that keeps the self-identity integral – after all,

being economically limited from fulfilling every desire has for most people been a part of their identity since


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The Issue of Taste on Complex Matters

Taking a leap from the realm of psychological reasoning, I will try to implement the concept of taste into the

our consideration of identity and aesthetics. As has been touched upon previously, taste was in the past, as

with the view of Baumgarten, seen as an attribute defining a person's ability to recognize (objective) beauty –

this implied in turn a taste to be either good or bad. Today, we have adopted the word taste as an insignia of

individual preference (and the freedom thereof). We all possess a taste, and they all differ somehow, if ever

so slightly. A taste is personal, individual – constituting part of our identity.

This shift of meaning happened parallel to the increasing of mass production of "designed" goods, or

as the renowned design commentator Stephen Bayley put it "The single aristocratic standard of taste which

had existed before the industrial age was explosively diffused by consumerism" 12. If this change of

perspective was due the mass producer being forced to succumb to the desires of the mass consumer or just

the substantiation of the value of a layman's opinion through economical reasoning is hard to answer. What is

certain, is that the designer, previously guided by his or her own expertise in beauty could now also find

themselves as an 'aesthetic servant', responding to, often, banal wishes of the consumer.

Stephen Bayley considers the implications of taste so far as to say that "The theory of design is

largely bogus. […] Most discussion of design is, in fact, a discussion about taste." The reasoning behind this

is how today, less of the effort in design lies in technological or technical challenges and much more effort is

put into how it looks – how it succeeds to satisfy consumer taste. 13 To exemplify this: designing a Mocca

Master is no longer technically difficult, the feat is to meet the ever changing aesthetic preference of the


The presence of taste and aesthetic preference is comprehensively showcased in the field of product

design. To choose between e.g. Moccasins or sneakers, pink or blue or a Cadillac or a Volkswagen

demonstrates how the fulfillment of function is only second to that of perceptual attributes. But here it

becomes imperative to again consider architecture as a field demanding unique attention. To choose what to

wear one day is not the same as deciding the design of a building. Given its complexity, the conception of

any work of architecture is continually facing economical, technical, structural, logistical and environmental

challenges. These are also always contextual and evolving with time. Even though individual taste should be

given attention in designing our environments, its consideration cannot be as liberal as with the design of

small scale products.

11 Proshansky et. al., Place-Identity, Journal of Environmental Psychology, (London: Academic Press Ltd., 1983). p 70

12 Bayley. Taste. (Copenhagen: Danish Design Centre, 2000) p 23

13 Ibid. p 13

The limited capacity to base architecture on individual taste could also be explained through the

"Mediating Change Function" of place-identity, which was elaborated earlier. The average Joe is less adept to

understand the design and construction of a hospital than that of a chair. The given knowledge, power and

skill level makes him or her less able to implement (or state a reasonable wish for the implementation of) a

desired change to the design of a hospital than to that of a chair. Another difference that exemplifies the

complexity of architecture, is stressed by Reich et. al. in their research paper Varieties and Issues of

Participation and Design: "… , in the market-based approach to participation, users "participate" via their

purchasing decisions." 14 Architecture cannot base itself on user participation, the same way Coca-Cola

launches a new flavored soda. To include the desires and opinions of laymen into the design of our

environment, a communicational bridge between the user and the architect (the "know-what" and "knowhow")

has to be established. In the case of combining the intricacy of identity with the complexity of

architecture, the positive implications of participatory design has proven to be a valuable technique for

securing individual needs and desires. 15 The proper execution of participatory design still require

competency and knowledge regarding aspects of for example participatory progression, group decision

support systems, multi-party communication and various forms of prototyping with users.


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The Identity of the Architect

In all of this discussion and inclusion of identity as a general concept in designing our built environments, it

is important to consider the architect as a distinct identity, relative to the rest of the world it is designing. Of

course, one cannot go as far as to say that architects share the same identity, but one must ask, according to

our definition of identity: what are the membership rules, and characteristic attributes or expected behaviors

of the architect as a social identity? Most architects share a common base of knowledge and environmental

past and, among other topics, a certain attitude to materiality, construction, formal aspects and technique – at

least enough to separate a group of architects from a group of laymen. If we are able to define the social

group of architects as a culture, we are able to state that valued perceptual experiences may vary from

architects to laymen.

Studies also suggest several differences in perception itself, between artists and laymen. For

example, it has been found that laymen show a larger interest to identify familiar objects within their

perceptual experience, whereas the artist have a tendency to see the more abstract and structural features.

Also, when asked to visually scan pictures, eye movement pattern was shown to differ between artists and

laymen. This is seen in connection with the training of an artist. 17 If we could draw parallels between an

artist and an architect (at least pertaining to perceptual and aesthetic aspects) we should also consider the

possibility of architectural training to affect perception – not only what an architect perceive, but also how

they perceive it and what is valued in their perceptual experience.

14 Reich et. al. Varieties and Issues of Participation and Design. p 4

15 Henry Sanoff, Participatory Design in Focus

16 Reich et. al. Varieties and Issues of Participation and Design. p 4

17 Stine Vogt, Perceptual processing in artists and laymen, University of Oslo, Faculty of Social Sciences, 2006, part 2 p. 20


Besides the 'stroke of an architects pen', there is of course a number of reasons why a certain environment

does not meet the aesthetic ideal of a certain individual. And in most cases, it is not relevant or possible to

consider individual preferences. But to try to answer the question of what the architect can do, in order to

consider cultural and social identity in the shaping of our environment is still valid. Firstly, the mere

acknowledgement of the existence of different cultural aesthetics can help to recognize and respect differing

aesthetic design choices and preferences, in this way eliminating the notion of the architects sovereignty in

purely aesthetic matters. Second, even though the implications of personal identity are, as we have seen, too

complex and vast to implement surgically to the task of designing beautiful environments, here too, the

consideration of self-identity through our investigation of place-identity can help us consider the ideas of

individual desires and preferences. Through our environmental past and our social and personal identity we

reflect ourselves in our surroundings that, reciprocally, satisfy these desires and preferences more or less. The

problem of implementing personal identity to design is nearly impossible to expect an architect to be solely

responsible of solving. Knowledge of initiating participatory design could prove useful as a tool to avoid the

need of assessing other people's social and cultural identity, but rather let users participate and exhibit their

own identity, composed of a wide range of individual desires and aesthetic preferences.

What has been investigated are different perspectives regarding identity and aesthetics. But to avoid

this being an exhibit of relativism, the implications of identity should be investigated further to establish

"truths" and techniques to successfully include a pluralistic consideration of aesthetics into the design of our

environment. As deep as the concept of identity goes, the identity of "human" still applies to us all. Maybe

this could be a starting point in our endeavor for a common beauty.

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Bayley, Stephen. Taste. Copenhagen: Danish Design Centre, 2000.

Berleant, Arnold. Aesthetics and Environment. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2005.

Fearon, James. What Is Identity (As We Now Use the Word)? California: Stanford University, 1999.



Proshansky, H.M., Fabian A.K., Kaminoff R. "Place Identity: Physical World Socialization of the Self",

Journal of Environmental Psychology, 1983. Vol 3. 57-83

Reich, Yoram, Suresh L. Konda, Sean N. Levy, Ira A. Monarch, Eswaran Subrahmanian, Varieties and Issues

of Participation and Design. Research Paper. Carnegie Mellon University, 1995.

Sanoff, Henry. "Participatory Design in Focus". Arch. & Comport / Arch. & Behav., 1988. Vol 3. 27-42

Van Rompaey, Chris. The Concept of Beauty in Alexander Baumgarten’s "Aesthetica". University of

Tasmania, 2017.

Vogt, Stine. Perceptual Processing in Artists and Laymen. Ph.D.-dissertation. University of Oslo, 2006.

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