Lab | Log

What Is Beautiful? Q&A with Teddy Cruz

Teddy Cruz--What is Beautiful?

Teddy Cruz

Among the many intriguing issues that were raised during the Berlin Lab, a few in particular became the subject of intense discussion here on the Lab | Log. Christine McLaren, responding in part to talks given at the Lab by Jürgen Krusche and Wolfgang Welsch, wrote a post that explored what makes urban space beautiful, what makes it ugly, and who gets to decide on those definitions. Our readers responded with a host of thoughtful comments expounding their definitions of beauty and ugliness in cities. We found the issue so interesting that we thought we’d ask a few of our Berlin Lab collaborators for their take. This week, the San Diego-based architect Teddy Cruz answers our one pressing question:

In your eyes, what qualities make a city beautiful?

The question is complex, or at least it solicits a complex answer. It immediately makes me want to revisit the schism that often exists between a city’s “appearance” and the way it actually “performs.” I have always been inspired by urban theorist Stan Allen’s thinking: he reminded us that as architects, we are obsessed with the way buildings “look” instead of enabling what they can “do” (to urbanization).

This possibility to move from aesthetics for aesthetics’ sake into an expanded, more problematic idea of beauty that also engages the relational socioeconomic and cultural complexity embedded in the everyday has become essential. Today, the city is increasingly defined by urbanisms of consumption where architecture serves the purpose of wrapping and camouflaging the exclusionary politics and economics of urban development with hyper aesthetics and forms.

This is nothing new in the history of urbanization: projects of beautification have often been used as instruments to disguise socioeconomic injustice, becoming the excuse for the displacement of communities for the sake of economic progress. I also do not mean to imply that beautiful buildings do not matter. Any city benefits from them, and our commitment to beauty is something that architects, cultural producers, and even politicians must embrace. But when this pursuit of beauty is at the expense of the socioeconomic collective well-being of a city, then beauty is simply a term that is emblematic—as if what matters in the construction of a city’s identity is the façade, the display of the city as in a postcard, rather than enabling urban aesthetics as the engine for social and cultural production.

In a recent meeting where I was serving as jury for a major waterfront project in San Diego, a typical developer and architect presented their project. In the context of their proposal—the normative collection of semi-beautiful objects—they presented “their inspiration”: Sydney’s harbor. What bothered me is that they treated the example as if the harbor was “beautiful” because of the iconic opera house. As I pointed out, I believe Sydney’s harbor is beautiful in the way it operates daily: there is a collection of cultural institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art; it has a working network of harbor ferries transporting people from the neighborhoods along the different bays; and it has a public park and a variety of businesses. It is this mixture of intertwining programs and the palimpsest of uses and activity that make the harbor a beautiful civic space. So this is what I mean: we tend to think of beautiful objects, but we never think of the conditions that can enable the spaces in between those objects to operate in civic ways, enabling access and activity, anticipating sociability.

On one hand, I am thinking of the experiential dimension of beauty, less based on an ocular-centric quality and more on a sort of subliminal drama and vibrancy, an atmosphere, a process of encountering and co-existing with the “other.” This is an aesthetic approach that embraces contradictions and requires risk. It is an idea of beauty that does not smother and suppress contradictions or conceal conflict. On the other hand, I am imagining an idea of urban beauty that is not exclusive, but one that emerges out of a socioeconomic and political inclusion.

In other words, I do not care for a city that pursues beauty just to serve the purpose of the very fortunate few that can have access to its manicured identity. A city is beautiful to the extent that it is an inclusive city whose spaces are catalysts—not for an urbanism of consumption, but for an urbanism of cultural production, of a collective imagination.

Read past installments of “What is Beautiful?” with responses from architect Van Bo Le-Mentzel and artist Thomas Bratzke.

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Photo: courtesy Teddy Cruz