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Continuing this thought about aesthetics, one thing to think about is whether what one might interpret as an aesthetic is actually something else.  To start, it might be useful to get a working definition of “aesthetic.”  Here’s Merriam-Webster’s:

  1.  a : of, relating to, or dealing with aesthetics or the beautiful  b : artistic <a work of aesthetic value> c : pleasing in appearance : attractive
  2. : appreciative of, responsive to, or zealous about the beautiful; also : responsive to or appreciative of what is pleasurable to the senses

Now, as a hypothetical, consider a poorly designed house that is very large in size (much larger than the owners functionally require) and does not consider the surrounding environment, but rather only considers how much square footage can be built on the parcel.  One might argue that this is simply a particular aesthetic of the owner.  We may not agree with it, but we do have to respect it.  We say this because we want to be tolerant of other people.  We want to respect their opinions.

I agree with that in part (and maybe in whole).  We do want to be tolerant and respectful of other people, but what we are considering in this instance, may not be aesthetics, and this misunderstanding, I would argue, can cause serious problems down the line.

That desire for a very large house perhaps is actually just a desire to express a statement of quantity—to communicate some level of power or wealth.  That’s different than aesthetics, relating to beauty or art. That statement of affluence does not appeal to the senses.  It appeals to the ego of the owner and perhaps incites envy in some who aspire to possess the same level of wealth, but again that is something different from beauty.

This may seem like nitpicking or just rhetoric.  It’s just a matter of what words we use, one might argue, but the meaning is the same.  I would disagree.  There is an important distinction here because if we do not recognize the difference between aesthetics versus someone or some group that wants only to express their own self interests, we have a real problem.

Can this distinction exist in the setting of an entire community or region?  I believe it can.  Think of the exurbs, big box retail, and bedroom communities.  Those regions strive for great wealth but do not consider beauty to any significant degree.  That is not what those places are about.  The objective there is acquisition and quantity, and unfortunately no one in positions of authority ever stops to ask the question, “But to what end?”

Yes, people have different tastes and ideas about what is attractive.  That’s a tall enough order to try to deal with when designing or planning without muddying the waters with self-serving efforts and statements of affluence.  That’s not about community; that’s about self-indulgence.  The same way one homeowner can affect the neighborhood with her desire to express abundance, so too can a multinational corporation or a short-sighted town council affect a community.

Think about this in terms of your own community and how self-serving interests might get in the way of form and function.  Beautiful design is not ancillary or supplemental.  It is intrinsic to a healthy community because it creates an environment where one wants to be, where we want to interact with other people, participate in commerce, and generally feel good about life.  That is no small thing.

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