Showdown: Beauty vs Presence

“Architecture is not about beauty; it is about presence.” These words, pinned to the wall as inspiration by local architecture students, along with a citation suggesting that this is something they’ve heard from their studio teacher, make me uneasy.
Sure, I get it, in the sense that part of the discipline involves getting away from a simple devotion to images—having a cup of coffee while you look out the window just so, having an important conversation while the natural light uplifts you just so, or feeling the excitement of the nightclub as the lights reflect just so—and that’s a really easy way to get stuck on something unproductive when you’re an inexperienced designer. And even experienced designers can get stuck on an image when it’s close to home; part of what attracted me to my eventual dissertation topic was watching architects who should know better putting forth arguments like “That’s how the hall works in my aunt’s house, and it’s OK.”
However, there is also something really wrong with the idea of presence as having an overwhelming surplus of value over beauty. The obvious place to start is the general devaluation of beauty as feminine, something transitory or supplied via artifice or superficial. Beauty was not always like that in the popular imagination, but ever since Burke and the idea of the sublime, that sort of powerful and scary appeal to our emotions, beauty has been left to play the role of domestic servant (see JRR Tolkien on the Ents and their missing wives). Beauty is something we add as designers for the sake of an audience, perhaps, and thus there is always the suspicion that it is in some way extra or untrue, something that can’t be integrated into the core of a design.
Presence, by contrast, sounds very salt of the earth. “I was just standing here being completely well-adjusted and feeling nobly at ease with myself,” says the building, unassumingly shouldering its way into the sunlight past all its merely pretty neighbors. For overachievers: think also about all these uses and meanings of light. Presence allegedly relies on nobody, although I am pained to think how something could really be present with nobody at all to be present to. Is it something I could do for myself on the cheap when I am feeling down?

“I was minding my own business, not in the least wondering what that bystander over there thinks of me,” says the present building, for which we can probably read “the anxious architect.”

Presence is a kind of aspirational universal, so to speak. We hope the design does all our talking for us in a way that is both mute and compelling. It is charismatic, charisma being the acceptably masculine form of personal attractiveness. Presence reaches out and seizes you but plays it cool at the same time. Just standing there, no biggie. Presence, as the teacher and his studio were using it in this case, is an ahistorical and secular form of “holy ground”—traditionally the location for encounter with the gods, but now just for your encounter with the architecture. If beauty becomes a culturally-bound social or ideological construction, then presence is the appealingly strong but silent type that, were this a movie, would save the day through hard work and innate goodness. Well, we imagine it would, at least. Or it would at least save this one project we’re working on right now.
To be sure, presence is ultimately no less a cultural construction than beauty. And it is not mystically independent of its audience any more than that movie action hero is. To be present is to be present to someone, but without the vulnerability of admitting to wanting that relationship. The architect wants the client (or the student wants the teacher) to love her or him through the proxy of the building, but with some plausible deniability built in, because desperation ain’t pretty. So when you tell me that architecture is not about beauty, what I should be hearing is that you greatly prefer your portfolio photographs with no people in them.

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