The Sublime versus the Pretty


“The Beautiful

Origin from the Latin bell(us) fine + -ity (state or function). The quality present in a thing or person that gives intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind, whether arising from sensory manifestations (as shape, colour, sound, etc.), a meaningful design or pattern, or something else (as a personality in which high spiritual qualities are manifest).”

Architects are often viewed in contradicting way when it comes to beauty. Architects are blamed for the “ugliness” of modern architecture, accused of either lacking in the understanding or use of beauty. At the same time Architecture is seen as a profession whose only purpose is to brings beauty into a building project and can be easily discarded if cost or other issues are more important.

Neither one of these opinions are true. Most of the work architects do revolves around problem solving. From the arrangement of uses and access to solving how a building is put together. There is beauty in this too, a beauty of the functionality of something. Architects from Vitruvius (that we know off) to Le Corbusier spoke about the beauty of functionality. A chair designed by Hans J. Wegner is indisputably beautiful, even though each part of it is purely functional.

This Form-follows-function is the mantra of Modernists. But in truth there is also a beauty in things that have no or very little function, such as the entrance gates to Paris subway station by Hector Guimard. This “decoration” is frowned upon by the Modernists who claim a monopoly on or the concept of beauty and regard decoration as frivolous. In the meantime, classicists, and allot of the public, dismiss Modernism as boring, ugly and mindless.

Beauty is not a singularity

These are many such arguments and debates about beauty. But are we really all talking about the same thing? Is there only one type, or many types of beauty? Beauty is in large measure an emotional concept, based on both ingrained and cultural attitude.

Beauty is multi-facetted and we can attempt to untangle it in some way. To start at the most straight forward, there are two variations of aesthetics that are often bundled under the concept of beauty, yet they keep bouncing off each other when considered together. This is the minimal (or sublime) and the “beautiful” (or pretty).

The Sublime

“Origin from the Latin sublīmis, high or elevated. Of high and noble aesthetic or spiritual value. inspiring deep veneration, awe, or uplifting emotion because of its grandeur or immensity. It is the ultimate degree or perfection. It is also a process. undergoing or causing to undergo a process.”

The Sublime is raw geology from open deserts to Rocky Mountains, deep oceans to the emptiness of space. The sublime is simple and unsafe. Its simplicity can defy scale and can become a space of focus and existentialism. Over time, due to its simplicity, the sublime has the ability to either focus us inwardly, or become boring. The sublime is therefore often the approach of religion or authority. Overuse of the sublime becomes not just boring, but ugly when it loses its initial shock value. In its most successful resolutions, such as in traditional Japanese architecture, or Villa Savoye, the sublime is timeless. In its least successful Modernist form of repetitive, homogeneous and international style. It is boring, inhuman and destructive.

The Pretty

“”Pretty” first appears in Old English (1000 AD) as “praettig,” meaning “cunning or crafty,” a modification of the word “praett,” meaning “trick.” Derived from cognates found in Dutch, Low Northern German, and Old Icelandic. A person or a thing that is attractive in a delicate way, pleasing or attractive to the eye, as by delicacy or gracefulness, especially without grandeur.”

The pretty is living nature and patterns of behaviour that are fleeting. Forest glades, flocks of birds, a rose and butterfly. The pretty is complex and adaptable. It’s relatable to the personal scale and often acts as a mask for something.  Pretty is comforting and safe and it stimulates the senses. In its best approaches it elaborates the environment, emphasising the heterogeneous nature of the world. Scale up and the pretty can lose its affected and can becomes artificial and pastiche. The pretty is often used to hide problems, so can become a tool to lie. Great examples include the work of Gaudi and Hundertwasser. In its least successful approaches like Victorian or Classical architecture or American McMansions the pretty becomes tasteless theatre stages for the ill-informed.

A Thought Experiment

The sublime and pretty are two extremes of a spectrum of aesthetics and can be used well, or badly. A sublime approach works well when juxtaposed against nature, when assembled with tectonic materials, and used sparingly. A pretty approach works well when inseparably integrated with the whole and again used sparingly.

A simple artistic design theory states that a portion of 30% complex against 70% simple is pleasant on the eye. In our thought experiment above, this would translate to 30% Pretty to 70% Sublime. Perhaps a worthy experiment.


By Gudjon Thor Erlendsson

© 2020 Gudjon Thor Erlendsson, all rights reserved.