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The Forgotten Politics of Aesthetics

The Problem

The point of studying theory is to interrogate, to go beyond understanding grand philosophies and use those theories as a lens to illuminate and reexamine ourselves and our local contexts. At a place like the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), however, it is difficult to look at the local without implicating the global. Each year, the GSD attracts and graduates individuals who now shape built environments and plan cities around the world. GSD affiliates’ continue to grow their influence internationally, further solidifying this institution’s position as a pioneer in planning education. Given the considerable direct and indirect impacts the GSD exerts on future urban planners, the pedagogy adopted by GSD has profound implications on contemporary urban problems.

From this perspective, it seems bizarre that ‘aesthetics’, the very first lesson given to planning students during their pre-term workshop and which proves to be foundational to other planning coursework, receives scant critical attention.  Since day one of the MUP program, GSD tirelessly inculcates its aesthetic values, characterized by austere colors, clean fonts, and grid layouts. Then, throughout the semester, the planning faculty continues to instruct the students to visualize data, to spatialize urban plans, and to fit the above contents neatly on rectangular boards. During the entire process, the reason given to students for conforming to this set of aesthetic practice is none other than to make the arguments or designs more convincing.

Behind the ostensibly innocuous motive to “convince”, is the deep-rooted ideology that orients design aesthetics as it is practiced at GSD toward consumption. The consumers, in the academic setting, primarily consist of professors and design critics, who hold considerable influence in shaping planning students’ professional education and career paths. This is most pronounced in studio reviews, where critics’ ‘feedback’ equals the verdict for successes and shortcomings of students’ projects, seamlessly affecting how students conceptualize planning in the long run. Therefore, our designs gradually end up conforming to the GSD’s aesthetic norms (which interface with the aesthetic norms in the broader planning and design fields). We face few choices but to appeal to the consumers in exchange for approvals, potential funding, and other essential conditions one must attain to be a functional planner in contemporary society.

The process described above bears an uncanny resemblance to the capitalist exchange market, where commodities are produced “within a circulation process of capital that has the augmentation of exchange values as its primary goal” (Harvey, 1989, p. 17). In the planning field, the “augmentation of exchange values” lies in the endorsement and execution of plans, whose embedded aesthetic principles would consequently materialize in the built environment and crystallize their significance. Thus, the orientation toward consumption is symptomatic of how the design aesthetics promulgated at GSD follows and reinforces the capitalist system (or perhaps aesthetics itself has already turned into a new form of capital, but this line of inquiry requires more in-depth investigations beyond the scope of this paper).

This supposition then begs the question of why few at GSD has discussed, exposed, criticized, or denounced our aesthetics, which has been taken for granted in our design endeavor. Why does the GSD continue to unquestioningly indoctrinate its aesthetic principles among generations of students, when other discourses that seek to critique or transform capitalism have flourished? Why do professors and students who otherwise exhibit revolutionary potentials continue to make visualizations that look “pretty” by classic GSD standards?

The fact that aesthetics seem to have escaped the wide net of political discourses is precisely the manifestation of a deeply political move. As sociologist Pierre Bourdieu points out, “… the tendency of the structures of capital to reproduce themselves in institutions or in dispositions adapted to the structures of which they are the product, is … reinforced by a specifically political action of concerted conservation, i.e., of demobilization and depoliticization” (Bourdieu, 1986). What is happening to aesthetics at the GSD is indeed an underrecognized yet possibly insidious act of depoliticization, in order to preserve the aesthetic standards that beautify capitalist projects. And this lack of critique through political lenses has led to the slightly tragic contradiction of students and faculty expending tremendous labor sculpting their intellectual products according to the institution’s aesthetics that might actually run counter to their equity-minded, radical pursuits. Then there is the larger tragedy that, if and when their equity-minded, radical designs become reality, they might still display aesthetic features that originate from capitalist traditions and undermine part of the noble cause.

Hence, as members of GSD, we must halt this inertia of negligence by questioning and politicizing GSD’s aesthetic norms if we are to fully realize our social justice goals.

The Road Not Taken

A prime example of politicized aesthetics is the short-lived German art school, Bauhaus, founded in 1919 by Walter Gropius (Gropius, 1919). Even though the public today mostly remember Bauhaus architecture as dull, stern, and even inhuman, it is important to look beyond the monochromatic façade and excavate the passionate social and political convictions that motivated such designs (Moore, 2012).

Started as a social experiment, Bauhaus emerged from the catastrophic consequences of World War I ,which ended just a year prior and sought “to find a new way of living” (Moore, 2012). Envisioning a more democratic and more equal society, Gropius harbored strong socialist inclinations and demonstrated his beliefs in his innovative approach to art. During Bauhaus’s early years, in order to democratize art and break down the class division within the art world, Gropius came up with a curriculum that required the students to learn craft skills and engage in manual labor. This workshop pedagogy, he posited, would make art accessible to all, useful in real life, and free of elitist values (Gropius, 1919; Weingarden, 1985).

Figure 1: Breuer furniture, emblematic of the Bauhaus design. 1926.

Moreover, in the face of rapid industrialization and the accompanying proliferation of mass production, Gropius incorporated this reality into the Bauhaus design. Specifically, he viewed mass production as an opportunity to dramatically expand the availability of artistic creations to average households, which aligned with his democratic ideals. Furthermore, since he was searching for a new unity between art and functionality, he repudiated the traditional setting of artistic production, where artists were isolated and divorced from the world, and instead encouraged Bauhaus faculty to understand the society and use that as the basis for creating artistic objects. In doing so, he believed he “free[d] the machine from its lack of creative spirit” (Weingarden, 1985). Gropius’s philosophy is palpably reflected in Bauhaus aesthetics, characterized by simple forms and colors, a result of the emphases on accessibility, practicality, and functionality (see Figure 1).

It is important to note, however, that Bauhaus was by no means the first artistic movement to politicize its aesthetics. As early as 1856, the Arts and Crafts Movement, spearheaded by William Morris, was already exploring the possibility of uniting art and functionality, albeit from a drastically different approach. Concerned about the alienating labor conditions resulting from machine production, Morris returned to medieval craft procedures and advocated for cheerful, naturalistic artworks by means of cultivating an organic, harmonious relationship with the nature (see Figure 2). In his utopian vision, the joyous, dis-alienating labor process would lead to “real art” that is also democratic and constitute “a peaceful revolution from capitalism to socialism” (Weingarden, 1985).

Though the productions of William Morris and Bauhaus appear fundamentally different, they both rely on socialist values to guide their aesthetics. Unlike many GSD practitioners (of whom I am a member), whose seemingly pleasing designs are simply obeying the institutional norm, Morris and Gropius exercised utmost discretion in determining the forms, colors, and textures of their creations. They were thoroughly political in both their thoughts and their practices, at least when they began their experiments (Bauhaus eventually came under tremendous funding pressures and succumbed to industrial capitalism). Perhaps even more commendable is the fact that Gropius was able to see through the ostensible aesthetic differences to find value in Morris’s underlying ideas—in fact, Gropius’s writings suggest that the Arts and Crafts Movement made a significant impact as he formulated his Bauhaus philosophies (Weingarden, 1985). Therefore, it seems all the more unfortunate that less than 70 years after Gropius retired from the faculty of GSD, the school has shifted much of its focus to superficial distinctions in line weights and fonts and largely (though not entirely) neglected the more crucial political implications of design aesthetics.

Figure 2: chair and wallpaper with plant motifs by Morris and his company.

Additionally, both Morris and Gropius valued the production process as much as the outcomes. From Morris’s “rural workshops” that fostered proximity between the artist and  nature, to Gropius’s Bauhaus workshops where students manually built rather than merely theorized artworks, both men saw the labor arrangement as instrumental to their artistic beliefs of having art serve practical functions and political ideals of socialism. Their deliberate choices were indeed successfully translated into their respective aesthetic outcomes: Morris’s interior design (see Figure 2) featured natural objects, while Bauhaus furniture remained simple and utilitarian. Juxtapose their approach with the consumption-oriented design at GSD. As the visual outputs reign supreme, scarcely any attention is paid to the stressful conditions in which the designs are produced, or the lack of connection between the creators and the creations. In my personal experience (see Figure 3), though I had to make a map about the accessibility of playgrounds in Cambridge for one of my courses, I as a childless person truly could not care less about this topic and felt completely indifferent to my production. On the other hand, the significance of the very real statistics represented on this map, which matter intimately to a lot of local families, is also lost to me. Like many other design exercises other students and I have engaged in at GSD, the visualizations fail to connect the rich lived experiences of the designers and the populations represented on the graphics. Not only is design aesthetics today depoliticized, but it also runs the risk of perpetuating alienated labor and further reinforcing the capitalist mode of production.

Or perhaps such alienation is never an unintended consequence, but rather an implicit requirement for our designs to serve consumption.

Figure 3: one of my assignment submissions for Spatial Analysis and the Built Environment course.

What Is to be Done

Though Bauhaus eventually closed due to tumultuous changes in the political environment and a lack of sustainable funding stream, it cast long shadows on the field of architecture. Most notably, after prominent Bauhaus members like Gropius and Marcel Breuer moved to the United States, they revolutionized modern architectural education right here at GSD, which earned the reputation of “Harvard Bauhaus” (Pearlman, 2000).

Clichéd as it might sound to harken back to GSD’s “founding fathers” for inspirations, the genuine political convictions they instilled in their aesthetic choices need to be urgently revived. Re-politicization of aesthetics today means that GSD should move away from preaching a narrow range of normative values and embrace a multitude of design choices. The purpose is not, however, to merely encourage diversity and inclusion in aesthetic standards (though these are valuable objectives as well), but more important, to re-anchor the design education here on our visions for contemporary cities. This entails a shift in our priorities, to have our politics guide our design aesthetics, rather than upholding the aesthetic status quo to advance the existing conservative political agenda.

A possibility I am imagining is “grounded design.” Similar to the concept of grounded theory, grounded design is rooted in the realities it seeks to represent and tries to prevent predetermined color palettes or fashionable fonts from glossing over pains and sufferings, as some maps on, for example, income equalities or racial segregation often do (see Figure 4). Take the example of community mapping, a method often cited in the qualitative methods course and used in student research (see Figure 5). Rather than viewing community-generated maps as an intermediary stage in the research process to be morphed into GSD-style design outputs, GSD students and faculty could base their design aesthetics on how the community members choose to represent themselves—departing from the institutional norm and deemphasizing visual ornamentation altogether. Eventually, this will lead to divergence in aesthetic expressions, which will undermine the normativity entrenched in Gund Hall.

 

Figure 4: a map showing the percent of population living under the poverty line in certain census block groups of Boston. What is missing is the rich lived experiences of poverty (and affluence). What does poverty mean for different people? Do the individuals at the upper-left corner of a block group have the same experiences as those at the lower-right? Why should the poor and the rich color-coordinate with each other?

“Grounded design” will not only make a difference on the evaluation of designs at GSD, but also transform the production process. Under the current pedagogy, the labor that goes into each piece of design is private and thus largely unrecognized (the number of individuals in Gund at 3 am is a case in point). However, if we are to politicize and democratize our aesthetics, the labor becomes public and available for problematization. That is, if the confines of Gund Hall no longer limit our aesthetic expressions, then there is a real chance for our work to connect with people outside the ivory tower; the inputs are drawn from both within and outside GSD, which affords an opportunity to rethink how we construct our environment for our labor to be dis-alienating and meaningful.

It is difficult to imagine what the outcomes of this process will look like: the messiness of politics and interactions entails myriad possibilities. But hopefully, the breakdown of institutional aesthetic norms could make the maps we produce less complicit in the societal beautification/“legibility project” and more truthfully represent real-life travesties of justice. This could then serve more effectively as a starting point for fruitful political actions.

Figure 5: community mapping.

Of course, my imagined possibility is not without problems. To begin with, this could turn out to be a fantastic aspiration lacking any practicality. But even before considering the implementation of this proposal, we face the questions of the utility of “illegible” designs and the ethics of involving communities. To be more concrete—could the diversification of aesthetics hinder useful representation, which constitute an important part of the purpose of our designs? And how could we navigate the unequal power dynamics between GSD and its surrounding communities, if we want to ground our designs in realistic issues? These are problems we need to inevitably grapple with, and good answers are by no means apparent. Yet, as with all experiments, the risks also signals room for deep potential.

In a word, regardless of how the aesthetics at GSD evolve, we must constantly interrogate the purpose and consequences of our designs—and further politicize our design aesthetics.

Rui Su is a candidate for the Master in Urban Planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Bibliography

Bourdieu, P. (1986). The Forms of Capital. In J. E. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of Theory of Research for the Sociology of Education (pp. 241–258). Greenwood Press.

Gropius, W. (1919). Bauhaus Manifesto and Program.

Harvey, D. (1989). The Urban Experience. The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Moore, R. (2012, April 13). Bauhaus: a blueprint for the future. The Guardian.

Pearlman, J. (2000). Joseph Hudnut and the unlikely beginnings of post-modern urbanism at the Harvard Bauhaus. Planning Perspectives, 15(3), 201–239. https://doi.org/10.1080/026654300407445

Weingarden, L. S. (1985). Aesthetics Politicized: William Morris to the Bauhaus. Journal of Architectural Education, 38(3), 8–13.

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