The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture

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Course Description

spring 2011

01020 | ARC 386M

On Beauty (Architectural Theory III)

Michael Benedikt

on beauty image 1

After decades of neglect, the idea(l) of beauty is making a comeback in the arts, in architecture, in music, poetry, and talk about nature. New approaches are telling us that beauty is no sappy thing, and no undecidable, “relative,” or purely cultural phenomenon either. Rather, our sense for, need for, and love of beauty points to something deeper in the human psyche, something having to do with our ancient connection to nature and our longing to transform it justly.

Beauty is not always easy, comforting, or pretty. Indeed, new beauty often strikes us as ugly, unnerving, wrong…until suddenly we see it.

Nor is beauty eternal.

Can beauty serve evil? Alas, yes; and this is a concern we will address more than once.

What this seminar will not provide:

  • A systematic survey of the history and theory of art, of aesthetics in philosophy, or of architecture.
  • A final, detailed understanding of the phenomenon of beauty— one that would allow for its sure-fire production and/or never-mistaken perception.

What this seminar will provide (or try to):

  • A critical review of selected historical explanations/theories of beauty to see how they illuminate the present condition of architecture and the environment.
  • A possible challenge to students’ conceptions of what is beautiful, but certainly a deepening of the meaning of the term.
  • A vocabulary of terms and ideas that will enable students to better articulate, universalize, and validate their aesthetic judgments, and to argue for beauty’s relevance.
  • An enhanced ability to appreciate and produce new beauty, the emphasis being on architecture and its allied arts (e.g. furniture, landscape).


The seminar draws on three sources: (1) the experiences and thoughts of the students in the class, (2) instructor-selected readings, images, and films, (3) lectures by the instructor and visitors.

With regard to (2), the seminar looks especially to film—not to film as an art so much as a way of experiencing unfamiliar but real physical worlds and thinking about their quality, design, and beauty (or the lack of it). Poetry and photography serve the same purpose.

The seminar meets Tuesdays for two hours and Thursdays for one hour. Every other Tuesday will be devoted to viewing films (some in their entirety, most on Blu Ray, shown in BTL 102). The Thursday of that week will be devoted to discussing the film and assigning a reading for the next Tuesday. These Tuesdays—every other Tuesday—will be devoted to a discussion of the reading and a lecture by the instructor, continued on the Thursday of that week. Exceptions to this rhythm will be made for vacations, presentation days, and so forth.


Forty percent of each student’s grade will reflect his or her level of participation: 20% for simple attendance, 20% for contribution to discussions.

Sixty percent of each student’s grade will reflect the quality (and timeliness) of his or her own productions, of which there are three: a mid-term paper, a “work of some beauty,” and a final paper, discussed below. The grade distribution of these productions are 20%, 20%, 20%.

Although this class is not difficult and aims to be pleasurable, the work-load could be significant (and significantly pleasurable) for students aiming to earn an A. The instructor is inclined to avail himself of the full range of grades, using plusses and minuses to make finer distinctions.


Each student will be expected to produce three works in response to the contents of the seminar: (1) a mid-term paper of roughly 2000 words, illustrated, that uses the readings and other materials to address one of the questions raised in the first five weeks of the seminar, (2) the production of a “work of some beauty”—which may be an object or drawing, short movie, or set of photographs—which is original to student and made for this seminar, and (3) a final paper of roughly 2400 words, illustrated, which is an appreciation, analysis, and critique of two “works of some beauty” produced by other students in the class. Students enrolled in studio will be encouraged to develop some part of their final design project as their “work of some beauty.”

Readings: (Note: this reading and movie list is in the making. It will be finalized by January 10, 2010).

Students are asked to purchase the Required Readings. Instructor will provide copies of readings that are excerpts from other books. Students could do worse than to purchase these books too. All films will be shown in BTL 102 on a new 60" HD plasma display.


  • Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
  • Michael Benedikt, For an Architecture of Reality
  • Michael Benedikt, God Creativity and Evolution: The Argument From Design(ers)
  • Elain Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just

Excerpts from:

  • Dennis Dutton: Art and Evolution
  • Peter Collins: Changing Ideals in Modern Architecture
  • Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
  • Alphonso Lingis, Excesses
  • Junchiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows
  • Peter Zumthor, Thinking Architecture
  • Juhanni Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin
  • Bill Beckley, ed., Uncontrollable Beauty
  • Bill Beckley, ed., Sticky Sublime
  • John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture
  • George Santayana, The Sense of Beauty
  • George Dickie & Richard Sclafani, Aesthetics: a Critical Anthology
  • Frederick Turner, Beauty: The Value of Values
  • Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women
  • John Dewey, Art as Experience
  • Michael Benedikt, Deconstructing the Kimbell

Films we will watch all of part of:

  • Baraka (1993), dir. Ron Fricke
  • Life on Earth (1998), dir. Abderrahmane Sissako
  • Manufactured Landscapes (2007), dir. Edward Burtynsky
  • The Architecture of Doom (1989), dir. Peter Cohen
  • Blade Runner (1982), dir. Ridley Scott
  • The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003), dir. Byambasuren Davaa
  • Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring (2003), Ki-Duk Kim
  • Winged Migration (2001), dir. by Jacques Perrin
  • Encounters at the End of the World (2007), Werner Herzog
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1999), dir. Stanley Kubrick
  • Chronos (1987) dir. Ron Fricke
  • +
  • Various digital shorts and “slide shows” by instructor.

on beauty image 2

For more information, you may email the instructor at mbenedikt@mail.utexas.edu.