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Norwegian University of Science and Technology
Approaching an Aesthetic Relativism of our Built Environment
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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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
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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,
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
Vogt, Stine. Perceptual Processing in Artists and Laymen. Ph.D.-dissertation. University of Oslo, 2006.