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Shifting Sensibilities: Architecture and the Aesthetics of the City

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Abstract

In recent discussions on contemporary architecture, two strands of thinking have become increasingly central. On one hand, the urgency of demands for sustainability and, on the other hand, the fast pace of technological development which is affecting the sphere of architecture with growing intensity. Neither of the ideologies behind these phenomena is exactly new but they have become increasingly relevant for how architecture is defined and understood in the contemporary philosophical and theoretical discussions. This will inevitably have an effect also on how architectural aesthetics is understood, through questions such as what is the role of beauty in architecture, and how is aesthetic value in architecture related to other values such as ethical, ecological or more instrumental values linked to efficiency and economics, for example. The discussion regarding values in architecture is not new, of course, on the contrary. From very early on, architecture has been defined in the Western tradition through combining the different interpretations of what is beautiful and useful. Architecture has also been understood as one of the artforms with varying degree of emphasis on its aesthetic and creative dimension. But to what extent do the new demands for architecture affect its role in the wider aesthetic context of the city? And what are the further repercussions for aesthetics of architecture and city that stem from the philosophical interest in the specific aesthetic features of human environments in general? The emphasis in this article is on recent discussions from all represented fields, as the aim is to bridge these discussions in new, meaningful ways. This article presents some of the contemporary ideas developed within the aesthetics of architecture and the aesthetics of the city. The aim is to show a continuation from the aesthetic interest in the architectural form to the aesthetic interest which has the urban form in its focus. This is done through the notion of the human environment, which has been notably present in the philosophical study of environmental aesthetics since the 1990s. The article is by no means a conclusive representation of the complex relationship between the aesthetics of architecture and the aesthetics of the city but instead, it is an attempt to further the discussion by bringing up some interesting and vital developments in both areas. The underlying intention is to bring forth the study of urban aesthetics by making clearer how it is positioned in relation to an aesthetic interest in architecture and human environments at large.
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Published in: Mimesis: Scenari #12, pp. 89-106
Estetica & Architettura Aesthetics & Architecture, directed by Aurosa Alison
Article title
Shifting Sensibilities: Architecture and the Aesthetics of the City
Author
Sanna Lehtinen, PhD
Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science HELSUS
University of Helsinki
sanna.t.lehtinen@helsinki.fi
Abstract
Aesthetic interest in architecture is a well-documented and discussed area of specialization in
architectural philosophy. However, how it is related to the broader and so far, less-defined area of
the aesthetics of the city is not equally clear. This article traces how aesthetics of the city is
formulated based on architectural aesthetics but also through the notion of the human environment.
The intention is to show, how aesthetic attention to architecture, building details, and analysis of the
experience of architectural stylistic phenomena translates into a heightened awareness of the
aesthetic dimensions of the urban lifeform. Whether explicitly or implicitly, the urban environment
is interpreted based on information gained through the senses and we analyze and assess the city in
the process continuously. This article presents some of the contemporary ideas developed within the
aesthetics of architecture and the aesthetics of the city. The aim is to show a continuation from the
aesthetic interest in the architectural form to the aesthetic interest which has the urban form in its
focus. This is done through the notion of the human environment, which has been notably present in
the philosophical study of environmental aesthetics. The article attempts to contribute to a growing
body of literature defining urban aesthetics as a separate field of philosophical and applied
environmental aesthetics.
Keywords
Aesthetics, Architecture, City, Urban aesthetics, Human environment
Author bio
Sanna Lehtinen works currently as Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Helsinki Institute of
Sustainability Science HELSUS at the University of Helsinki specializing in urban and
environmental aesthetics, philosophy of technology and art in the urban sphere. She completed her
PhD studies at the International Institute of Applied Aesthetics (IIAA) of the University of Helsinki
in 2015 with a monograph “Excursions into Everyday Spaces: Mapping Aesthetic Potentiality of
Urban Environments through Preaesthetic Sensitivities”. Before launching her research career
Sanna worked as a curator at the Amos Anderson Museum of Art in Helsinki with a special focus
on contemporary art. Sanna was the recipient of the Young Scholar Award of the International
Association of Aesthetics (IAA) in 2013. After obtaining her degree, Sanna has collaborated
with Helsinki-based studios Architects Davidsson Tarkela and NEMO Architects and worked as a
Visiting Lecturer at Aalto University in its School of Arts, Design and Architecture and School of
Science. Sanna is currently the President of the Finnish Society of Aesthetics and a Codirector in
the board of the international Philosophy of the City Research Group (PotC). Sanna is a prolific
writer and an acclaimed speaker both nationally and internationally. www.sannalehtinen.com
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Introduction
In recent discussions on contemporary architecture, two strands of thinking have become
increasingly central. On one hand, the urgency of demands for sustainability and, on the other hand,
the fast pace of technological development which is affecting the sphere of architecture with
growing intensity. Neither of the ideologies behind these phenomena is exactly new but they have
become increasingly relevant for how architecture is defined and understood in the contemporary
philosophical and theoretical discussions. This will inevitably have an effect also on how
architectural aesthetics is understood, through questions such as what is the role of beauty in
architecture, and how is aesthetic value in architecture related to other values such as ethical,
ecological or more instrumental values linked to efficiency and economics, for example.
The discussion regarding values in architecture is not new, of course, on the contrary. From very
early on, architecture has been defined in the Western tradition through combining the different
interpretations of what is beautiful and useful. Architecture has also been understood as one of the
artforms with varying degree of emphasis on its aesthetic and creative dimension. But to what
extent do the new demands for architecture affect its role in the wider aesthetic context of the city?
And what are the further repercussions for aesthetics of architecture and city that stem from the
philosophical interest in the specific aesthetic features of human environments in general? The
emphasis in this article is on recent discussions from all represented fields, as the aim is to bridge
these discussions in new, meaningful ways.
This article presents some of the contemporary ideas developed within the aesthetics of architecture
and the aesthetics of the city. The aim is to show a continuation from the aesthetic interest in the
architectural form to the aesthetic interest which has the urban form in its focus. This is done
through the notion of the human environment, which has been notably present in the philosophical
study of environmental aesthetics since the 1990s. The article is by no means a conclusive
representation of the complex relationship between the aesthetics of architecture and the aesthetics
of the city but instead, it is an attempt to further the discussion by bringing up some interesting and
vital developments in both areas. The underlying intention is to bring forth the study of urban
aesthetics by making clearer how it is positioned in relation to an aesthetic interest in architecture
and human environments at large.
1. Aesthetic interest in architecture
According to the some of the most influential canons in Western philosophical and aesthetic
thinking from Vitruvius through Kant, architecture has been described as a form of human activity
that combines beauty with utility (Kruft 1994; Guyer 2011). This paradigmatic definition of
architecture through it combining the interlaced values of beauty, functionality, and ability to
express aesthetic ideas dominates still the aesthetic discussions related to architecture, although
with slightly changing nuances. It is interesting to speculate, whether and how the defining
conditions of the human civilization in the 21st century, such as globalization, rapid technological
development, and the growing awareness of the planetary boundaries for human activity, are
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affecting this paradigm. One option is that the entire question needs to be posed anew and a new
type of definition for architecture will be found more in conjunction with the broader notions of the
human environment or the city.
Turning attention from the general idea of architecture as a unified, definable phenomenon to
individual works of architecture is one way of approaching the aesthetic value manifested by the
general art of building. Aesthetic attention can address features of a building such as its shape, size,
texture, and colour. Aesthetics is also defined by factors determining the proportions of the
building, features such as balance, unity, movement, emphasis, contrast, symmetry. Overall
management of space determines the aesthetics of a building but details such as patterns,
ornaments, and decoration draw aesthetic attention relatively easily. How different spatial and
visual features are aligned with each other is important in the scope of an individual architectural
object. More broadly, culture and context are present in all of the aforementioned features and how
they become perceived and interpreted. Some determining aesthetic factors of a building have
traditionally been considered static such as shape, size, and the overall proportions, but most of the
features change with time. Philosophical study of architectural aesthetics has not been very agile in
taking into consideration how the elements of time, temporality, and transformation manifest in
architecture. One way to complement this area of interest is through interdisciplinary approaches to
empirical case studies (Lähdesmäki 2018).
Aesthetic approach to architecture often starts with the broad question to what is architecture?”,
the same question having raised interest in a broad range of aesthetic traditions relatively recently
(e.g. Ballantyne 2002; Winters 2007). It is thus relevant to ask whether it makes sense to discuss
aesthetics of architecture in particular or if the wider notion of philosophy of architecture is better
suited to cover also the aesthetic questions explicit and implicit in architecture. In a similar way,
“aesthetics of art” might not make fully sense, since art is so thoroughly conceivable as an aesthetic
practice even taking into account the contemporary conceptual and relational turns. Also, aesthetic
matters in architecture in particular are rarely only aesthetic as they are practically always tied
together with other values, such as ethical, social, environmental, and so forth (Fisher 2016). If
architecture is to be studied as an artform, an artlike practice, or even as something parallel to
different forms of art, questions such as “can buildings quote”? (Capdevila-Werning 2011), “how
do buildings mean?” (Whyte 2006) will also be of interest. Denotation, meaning, and expressivity
are arguably one side of the aesthetic repertoire of architecture but aesthetic attention to architecture
seems to require a broader perspective than what is offered by likening architecture to an artform.
As pragmatist approaches show, the question of the (aesthetic) nature of architecture can be
approached also through the various manifestations of it. Stating, that architecture is permeated by
aesthetic interests to a greater degree than other engineering practices, for example, does not mean
that aesthetics would be the main concern of all architecture. On the contrary, the cases of
aesthetically insensitive architecture are omnipresent in contemporary societies, in the form of
commercial, industrial or multi-purpose utility buildings, at the very least. Within architecture and
recent architectural discourse, aesthetics is treated as the “uneasy dimension” of architecture, this
resulting in critical discussion having become marginalized or almost non-existent(Rönn & Toft
2019, 4). This type of characterization and worry is symptomatic of the tense relation between how
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philosophical aesthetics is understood in architectural research and the extent to which the practical
prerequisites of contemporary architecture are seen to determine also its aesthetic qualities. The
uneasiness of aesthetics risks thus building up into a blind spot of the entire field, according to this
worry presented by architectural researchers.
The aesthetic dimension of architecture tends still very often to be understood as synonymous only
with the surface of buildings: how they are perceived visually. This creates tension between the
exterior versus interior spaces of a piece of architecture and there is a risk of treating the building as
a piece sculpture rather than as a spatially more diverse artefact. A way of looking at buildings is
focused on evaluating built spaces from the outside, occasionally meandering to the inside of the
buildings to admire how the exterior formations are visible from the other side or how they are
linked to the decor. However, aesthetic experience does not require a certain attitude or readiness to
evaluate and appreciate a piece of architecture: buildings and other architectural objects are
intertwined in a much more varied ways with our everyday lives and individual lines of
experiences.
Aesthetic sensibility in architectural theory is often linked to mastering a version of the
phenomenological method for interpreting the human experience, for example in giving a detailed
account of what is experienced when one perceives or enters a building. The phenomenological
approach to the aesthetics of architecture has been found relatively easy to adopt by architects due
to its “practical character” towards comprehending architecture (Shirazi 2012, 11). Although there
are various ways to define phenomenology in architecture, each seems to acknowledge its power to
reveal the underlying common qualities that mark the core of the architectural phenomenon
(Seamon 2000). It is at best complemented by a deeper look also into the socio-cultural sphere of
meaning-making since architectural objects are not experienced in a vacuum and are instead
probably even to a greater extent linked to the broader networks of power, representation, and social
justice than many other aesthetically significant areas of human life.
The visual orientation seems to be still dominating partly due to the nature of the architectural
process: it is difficult to assess plans with other senses than vision. However, there exist well-
argued theoretical contributions against ocularcentrism both from the side of architects (e.g.
Pallasmaa 2012) as well as philosophers (e.g. Merleau-Ponty 2012). (Re)claiming the “physical,
sensual and embodied essence” (Pallasmaa 2012, 35) of architecture is one attempt to reflect the
multisensory aesthetic dimension of architectural objects. Emphasis on the body is also something
that enables the aesthetic evaluation of inside as well as outside spaces and also links experiencing
an architectural object to its wider context: its immediate surroundings as well as the environment
more broadly. As the experiencing body is not static, it is moving in the space and bodily aware of
its surroundings through perception and engagement (Merleau-Ponty 2012; Vignemont 2011).
We do not face architecture in a vacuum, but our values (and the values of the future generations
assessing the built legacy) is affected by social and economic conditions as well as an array of
aesthetic preferences that change with time. Fashion- or trend-based understanding of architectural
aesthetics acknowledges the role of changing values made visible in architectural styles. One big
debate relating to this is whether modernism is an architectural style in itself or whether its
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principles are guided by more generally prevalent functional ideas. Architecture is also defined by
its social practices. To a great extent and despite its largely public role, it is a closed practice, in
which design and execution require higher-level education and understanding of the explicit and
implicit norms. The aesthetic consequences of this are not in the reach of this article, but
nonetheless an interesting area of future study on aesthetic choice, taste, and preferences in
architectural design.
2. Aesthetics of human environments
The unavoidability of architecture in contemporary societies has led to it gaining prominence in the
aesthetic discussions. It is almost impossible to imagine a developed human community without an
architecture of some type. It is easier to imagine a human community existing without most parts of
common infrastructure such as roads, bridges, or sewer systems than without buildings of some
type. It is possible to imagine human communities (as there exist also such) which lack most or
even all contemporary urban technologies (power supplies, GPS, or public transportation network).
Even though the forms that human habitation has taken are more varied, our contemporary
understanding of it relies strongly on it consisting of buildings of some architectural type.
In philosophical and applied study of environmental aesthetics, the interest in natural environments
defined by an underlying notion of wilderness dominated the discussions for the most part until the
latter part of the 1990s. The transition from the natural environment to the urban environment has
not been a straightforward one in academic aesthetics. Rural, cultural, agricultural and industrial
environments have gained increasing interest; however, it has come often through an implicit
comparison to the more natural environments as the ultimate environmental and aesthetic ideal. In
the literature from the early 2000s, landscape, art, and architecture were often bundled together as
socio-culturally conditioned phenomena that differ from natural environments as objects of
aesthetic appreciation (Carlson 2000). The notion of the human environment seemed to bring
balance into this by presenting environments affected by humans as aesthetically relevant in their
own terms.
By ‘human environment’, it is possible to refer to different typologies of landscapes. Urban and
periurban environments, as well as countryside all have their distinct level of characteristic features
with combine the human-made and the natural. Periurban refers to areas which are adjacent to cities
or urban areas, but which nonetheless are not yet fully urbanized. Importantly, also rural areas are to
a great extent human environment since their cultivated landscapes have been formed by human
agricultural or industrial activities. These un-urban landscapes, however, have been perceived as
significantly more natural than urban landscapes until very recently. It is only now, that the
increased knowledge about unsustainable farming methods or increased criticism towards livestock
farming has become more mainstream, that rural and agricultural landscapes are revealed to the eye
as more unnatural, even in the negative sense. The same goes for forests, of which it is
surprisingly difficult to perceptually determine whether they are cultivated or left in a natural state
unless one is a forestry professional of some level.
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The concept of the human environment is thus apt to show how the lines are increasingly blurred
between natural and human-influenced environments. It is however questionable in the light of
current environmental research, whether there are any more places on Earth that have not been
“affected by human agency” (Berleant & Carlson 2007). Indeed, the human traces are found already
beyond the planet Earth as well, whether in the form of human footprints in the Moon or the
alarmingly increasing amount of space debris in Earth orbit. The concept of a human environment
seems thus so expanded that it almost becomes irrelevant. However, instead of strict division and
human-made, it is more useful to think of the human influence on the environment through a scale
model. Cities, towns and dwelling places, in general, are most firmly affected by human agency and
practices whereas a varying degree of natural elements are present in environments beyond large
human settlements.
The degree of “humanness” is not, however, the only interesting aspect of determining what are the
particular human environments interesting from an aesthetic perspective. Putting focus on the
concept of the everyday has brought important insight into which human environments and
elements in them are more central to aesthetic discussions and how they are experienced (Saito
2007). For it is the context of the everyday which is the most central yet underexamined framework
for either aesthetics of the human environment. In their everyday functions, architectural
constructions create “stability, reliability, and structure in our environment” (Haapala 2017, 171).
This concerns those types of buildings that are clearly a part of one’s everyday environment. In the
contemporary urban environment, there are also increasingly present different types of temporary
forms of architecture even though they are a clear minority.
Conceptually, human environments make visible human-originating elements as antithetical to
natural ones. However, in reality, human environments seem, quite on the contrary, to blend and
merge human aesthetic influences with the gradually more natural phenomena. In what relation are
thus the human elements to the allegedly more natural ones more precisely? This distinction seems
somewhat easier to make in urban environments, although the easiness is also deceptive since many
elements perceived natural are also products of human influence. For example, elements of natural
greenery in urban environments are mostly planned and cared for by human agents, even though
they take shape to a certain extent based on other factors such as abiotic elements (e.g. the weather
conditions) or other, non-human species (e.g. pollinators or non-native species).
An interesting point to consider is how differently aesthetic attention is directed and focused in
different type of environments. Stimulation of the senses might differ depending on whether one is
faced by the wilderness of the arctic region or a bustling urban hub. Architecture as a form and
result of human intentional activity is a central part of different types of human environments.
Naturally, architecture in rural areas is designed partially for different purposes than in the more
urbanized context. Similarly, buildings have different functional and sensorial properties when
comparing periurban, suburban and urban areas. In this regard, human social relations and activity
define the further nature of different types of human environments. Distance or proximity to others
(humans or other species) as such and the quality of the relations, for example, might prove to be a
more central factor in determining the aesthetic relations to the surroundings than what has been
thought so far (Lehtinen 2015).
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With this in mind, cities are also much more than simply “human environments”. They might be
predominantly defined by human-originating features, but their interaction with the unintended,
non-human, and unpredictable phenomena is still not understood to the extent it should. The
increasing knowledge of interlinked planetary and urban sustainabilities is one example of new
perspectives that require a re-evaluation of aesthetics of the city as well.
3. Aesthetics of the city
When zooming out from individual buildings or the blocks and neighborhoods that those buildings
create, we take a wider stance on how a city is perceived and appreciated. But what makes a city a
city, how to define the urbanity of the urban environment? Most commonly, the city is defined by
sufficient level of economic and social activity. Cities represent efficient use of space and are
considered to be logistically the most efficient way to provide means of living for large quantities of
people. Instead of a place, the city should be perceived as a system (Jacobs & Malpas 2019). When
taken further, this process emphasizing, systemic understanding of a city will have a great effect on
how the presence of the aesthetic is perceived, and its relevance for defining the urban lifeform is
understood.
A city can be perceived first and foremost as a logistically and efficiently organized functional
place. This definition emphasizes mainly the role of economic and social activity. However, a city
is also a place more or less full of potential for different types of experiences that go beyond the
principles of efficiency. Any city also makes visible the ideologies of different generations of
people through its architecture and the ways of living it makes possible. (Berleant 1992; Besson
2017) Besides offering economic opportunities, cities have become successful by growing
population because they offer social and cultural meaning to the life of individuals. Cities are places
of collaboration, of bringing explicitly shared meaning to the everyday life of an individual. Cities
also depend on human collaboration, they cannot survive let alone thrive without the joint efforts of
people, who do not even share the same ideals necessarily. The aesthetic dimension is found in all
these functions of a city in various ways, and this is what causes confusion when trying to define
what urban aesthetics addresses more specifically.
In the case of entire urban environments, it seems to make more sense to discuss aesthetics of the
city instead of a wider notion of philosophy of the city, since city as a concept is conceived first and
foremost through their social meaning and values. What type of aesthetic form these social and
societal meanings get, is a more specific question, which has been of a more detailed interest only
occasionally. How this urban aesthetics or aesthetics of the city is defined then, is a further question
which has to take into consideration advances in both philosophy/aesthetics of architecture and
aesthetics of human environments.
Similarly, as architecture in general or in its individual representations, cities have been likened to
artworks or the concept of art in different ways. The city can be approached as an artwork in itself,
a Gesamtkunstwerk or a “total work of art” of human activity (Sepänmaa 2007). The idea is
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admittedly fascinating, even though metaphorical reflection on the serendipitous results of human
activity does not take us necessarily very far in thinking about the uniquely aesthetic qualities of
different types of formations of human communities. The idea of the city as a Gesamtkunstwerk is
more symptomatic of the extent of the illusion of power and control over the order of the city. A
much more nuanced metaphorical elaboration is the idea of the art of the city, which stays
sensitive to urban beauty rooted in the fluctuating difference between routine and creativity (Milani
2017). Also, as in the case of architecture, urban aesthetics is still commonly considered to cover
predominantly the visual side and study of the urban environment. However, the emphasis on more
multisensory account of urban aesthetics is present in contemporary philosophical approaches (e.g.
Sepänmaa 2003; Shusterman 2019) as well as in approaches stemming from fields such as
sociology and urban studies (e.g. Frers & Meier 2008).
Reflective attention to the building styles or architectural details is another direction pointed out for
urban aesthetics. It is possible to rate or rank cities according to the ratio of authenticity in relation
to building era or the prevalence of certain building styles. These types of rankings are often made
by art historians, architects, or professionals in other similar history- or design-oriented fields. “The
most beautiful cities in the world” rankings are as popular as the justification of their choices are
various. These lists often focus on the perspective of travelers and seem to be mainly aimed at
increasing tourist attention. Against these most common thoughts, a comprehensive approach to
urban aesthetics does not refer only to the outer appearance of the city, the arrangement of its
elements, or to urban art as a particular phenomenon but covers instead more broadly diverse areas
of urban life (Lehtinen 2020).
Cities inarguably consist of intentional architecture, although not all elements of the built
environment are products of human decision-making processes (von Bonsdorff 2005). Besides the
totality of these planned and unplanned built elements, also plenty of other things make the physical
structure of the city: streets, trees, bridges, hidden infrastructure, people, animals and so on. What is
the relationship of these elements and how does their interplay determine the aesthetic potentiality
of a city? Another deceivingly simple question to urban aesthetics is, what does urban life comprise
of and should it be a matter of interest for aesthetics as much as the setting in which it takes place?
Or does it make even sense to separate them? Without resorting to more detailed concepts such as
“social aesthetics” (Berleant 2005), human activity clearly is a defining factor for how cities exist
for the human perception and experience even in the changing everyday conditions. This is made
even more clear by the exceptional conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has
caused cities globally to temporarily empty from most human presence in public spaces. Even
though the images of empty city streets are fascinating as such, it is clear that they represent only
one dimension
One persistent worry related to the sensory level of experiencing urban life regards the decline of
sensory practices as a threat to aesthetic sensibility. With the increase of the number of stimuli,
attention gets dispersed and scattered. According to this perspective to the urban aesthetic
experience, the particularity of objects and people in the city are muddled into a mass of
unrecognizable features (Simmel 1950). Currently, the increase of new urban technologies in
ubiquitous, everyday use (e.g. GPS-based mobile apps) is often seen as a factor that leads to even
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more of this type of sensory numbness. However, it is also possible to interpret the use of these
types of technologies so that they enable new types of aesthetic attention in the urban environment.
As an example of this, one can start paying attention to architectural details when attention does not
have to be directed only towards the legible features of the environment for wayfinding purposes
(Vihanninjoki & Lehtinen 2019). In any case, even in the hustle and bustle of a city, the sensorial
intricacies and details of architecture are not altogether lost. The scenic, almost panoramic stance
towards the city is so compelling precisely because it is accompanied simultaneously by an array of
much more detailed observations. The flow and exchangeability of objects of attention create
rhythm to the aesthetic side of experiencing the city.
4. Aesthetic evolution of the human lifeform
Determining, whether there could exist a sort of “optimal human habitat” is an interesting and
challenging quest in itself (Besson 2017). Even if one would argue, that there really is no one type
of habitat that would be optimal as such, it is clear that the idea of such a habitat has been a driving
force behind many phenomena in the development of human habitation. In fact, there seem to be
various different types of optimal habitats: what is optimal for humans as biological organisms, for
example, might be different from what is optimal for interpersonal relations or for the continuation
of the human culture. Acknowledging thus the difficulty of pinpointing optimal living conditions
for the human species opens the opportunity for making wiser choices within the inevitable limits of
compromises.
This said, there seem to exist some parameters which link both aesthetic quality and the quality of
living. Urban density has been considered to be one such parameter, space as a contested resource
affecting how both architecture and cities will be built in the future (Harries 2016). Once again with
the issue of density, the ratio of human-built or -determined elements and natural, less planned
elements is important. In urban environments of the future, it is likely that these elements will
merge to a greater extent, creating hybrid environments consisting of instances of “micro-nature”
(such as grass-roofed or -walled urban furniture or community-managed foraging spots) and
technologically mediated opportunities for using the shared spaces efficiently and in creative ways
(e.g. apps for finding alternative transportation routes with focus on scenic beauty or environmental
history).
The functionality and usability of built spaces will be and has already been redefined by the
contemporary scientific knowledge regarding sustainability. Climate change will change the use of
outdoor spaces in large parts of the cities globally, whether due to extreme heat or increasing
rainfall. Aesthetic qualities and evaluation of human habitats is increasingly dependent on different
forms of technologies. GPS-based wayfinding, urban lightning, urban mobility and further
applications of technological innovations structures in the urban sphere will have a defining effect
on the overall look and feel of a city. Besides these scenarios which until very recently have seemed
futuristic in most parts of the cities globally, more nuanced changes will take place within the
domains of architecture and urban planning which have a defining effect on discussions on urban
aesthetics. Architecture which works with existing buildings, with the layers and remnants of the
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past times, is becoming increasingly important for our understanding of the practice. Existing
buildings pose other types of aesthetic problems to be solved architecturally than entirely newbuilt
structures. This pragmatic approach to contemporary conditions calls for architecture which also
takes buildings apart instead of limiting itself to making them (Stoner 2012). The dynamic and
continuously evolving nature of most cities needs to be merged with the traditions that are written
into the urban landscape when defining the fate of their buildings (Donohoe 2019).
Let’s return briefly to the question of why aesthetics should be of interest in discussions on
architecture or the city. This seems to be an especially relevant question in the times of urgent
environmental crises and sustainability deficiency on global levels. Architecture or the practice of
building has been slow to transform to the circular economy, for example. With these grave
challenges in mind, it might seem secondary or even superficial to discuss ideas such as beauty or
the sublime. However, it is clear that the topic of the experienced quality in urban environments is
as important as ever also with sustainability in mind.
The future of the human civilization will be directed by how cities are designed, developed, and re-
designed and what further forms they take. What has not been in the scope of the discussion of this
article, are the social and moral features of architecture and urban environments, to the great extent
they also affect the aesthetic features. It is around these factors, that future work needs to be done in
order to fully understand the complexity of the human aesthetic sensibilities and the extent to which
contemporary and future cities take them into consideration.
5. Conclusions
This article has traced how the aesthetics of the city is linked to the aesthetics of architecture
through the notion of the human environment. Instead of attempting to define aesthetics of
architecture as such anew, the focus here has been on understanding how the aesthetic approach to
individual works of architecture develops when attention is directed to the complex context of the
city. How this, in turn, transforms into an overall notion of urban aesthetics, is also preliminarily
sketched. The initial hypothesis has been, that human environment is an important mediating
concept when pursuing an integral aesthetic understanding of the city which is not derived solely
from the aesthetics of architecture.
The built environment is an important factor in defining the aesthetics of the city. However, it is
only one factor, the influence of which to the overall aesthetics differs case by case. This ratio of
human versus more natural elements in a city is not fixed either, which in the contemporary times
of overdesign or overplanning of cities makes urban aesthetics an especially important topic for
broader discussion. If urban aesthetics is to be developed into a more defined area of interest, it’s
relation to the aesthetics of architecture and human environments will need further clarification.
This article has been an attempt to initiate this discussion in a contemporary framework by
presenting what similarities and differences these overlapping areas of philosophical and practical
interest have.
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References
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Berleant, Arnold 2005. “Ideas for a Social Aesthetic in The Aesthetics of Everyday Life, Andrew
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Arnold Berleant & Allen Carlson (eds.) 2007. The Aesthetics of Human Environments. Toronto:
Broadview Press.
Besson, Anu 2017. “Building a Paradise? On the Quest for the Optimal Human Habitat”,
Contemporary Aesthetics, vol. 15,
https://contempaesthetics.org/newvolume/pages/article.php?articleID=806.
Bonsdorff, Pauline von 2005. "Building and the Naturally Unplanned” in Andrew Light & Jonathan
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... Everyday Aesthetics (EA) was and still is for me, as for many other scholars, a major field of investigation in last decades (Berleant, 2010;Leddy, 2012;Mandoki, 2007;Melchionne 2013;2014;Naukkarinen 2013;Naukkarinen and Vasquez, 2017;Saito, 2007;. 1 Here, I will deal instead with a topic that rather fits in a more specific, intersectional area, Urban Aesthetics (UA), which is currently advancing at the junction between everyday aesthetics and the philosophy of the city (see Meagher, Biehl and Noll, 2020). Recently, Sanna Lehtinen (2020aLehtinen ( , 2020b has provided an informative overview of the conceptual and methodological shifts in philosophical urban aesthetics towards a new, larger, vantage point focusing on the experience of city life: the entire urban life forms and lifeworld, with their aesthetic and social dimensions/values and ethical concerns as well. Within this framework, the aesthetic interest in cities encompasses the whole range of urban aesthetic phenomena. ...
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