By Eric Livingston
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; aesthetics is not.
Don’t believe me?
Then I’d like to ask you – the reader – to participate in a little experiment. It should only take a few minutes.
All you have to do is make two lists. The first list is – in order of preference – the 10 most beautiful buildings in the Edmonds’ Bowl. The second list is – again, in order of preference – the 10 ugliest buildings in the Edmonds’ bowl.
The only limitation is that all buildings listed must be commercial, professional or government buildings. NO PRIVATE RESIDENCES are to be listed (condos are OK – I guess). Also, the buildings on your lists should be known by their name or business; i.e. City Hall, the movie theater or such and such bank etc… Got it? Definitely – NO ADDRESSES and NO PRIVATE RESIDENCES.
Like I said, these lists should only take a few minutes – so while you’re creating your lists; I’m going to the kitchen and make a sandwich.
Ok, I’m back and hopefully you’ve made your selections. The next step is, you can post your lists in the comment section on this page. I’ll make a list too and post it with the next article.
The phrase “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is often misused to justify poor design – situations where somebody tries to justify poor taste by judging according to their individual preference. The actual meaning of the phrase goes further than individual taste and shared understandings of aesthetics.
Now I’m going to presume that the question you might have in the back of your mind is — if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then why isn’t aesthetics also in the eye of the beholder? Both subjects are related and both deal with our personal likes and dislikes. The same question popped into my mind as I thought about beauty and aesthetics.
But they are not the same. The following examples might help:
First example: I like Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. Most people that I know strongly dislike Pollock’s artwork. Even the other students in the art classes I took in college hated Pollock’s work. In fact, most folks don’t understand why Pollock’s stuff is in art museums around the world.
So why do I like something that nearly everybody I know hates? I dunno. Individual taste, I guess.
Second example: Everyone I know loves the fall colors as the leaves turn from summer green to dazzling reds, gold and orange. Even I do. However, when I lived in New England, I hated being stuck in traffic as the “leaf peepers” stopped their cars and took zillions of photos.
The second example shows there are some types of beauty that everybody enjoys. This is known as ‘Universal Aesthetics’
The point of all this is twofold. First, we all know that we, we lucky few, who live in Edmonds, live in a very beautiful spot. Second, and most important, if we are not careful we will lose a great deal of that beauty.
What this is leading to, is that on Feb. 5, Edmonds dodged a bullet when the Edmonds City Council voted to amend the Harbor Square Master Plan rather than simply accept the Port of Edmonds proposal.
As I understand it, the intention of the council is to eliminate major parts of the plan — like 55-foot building heights — and replace that with a lower height limit; or to eliminate the possibility of residential use. I’m not overly sure what the council’s ideas are, but they are going to start deliberating ideas in about five weeks.
The big problem is, Edmonds doesn’t have a clear idea of what Edmonds should look like. The Municipal Code and the Comprehensive Plan give guidelines to the look of the landscaping, the “massing of buildings,” “building’s modulated surfaces” and (my personal favorite) “buildings should of a pedestrian scale.” These terms aren’t clearly defined anywhere in the city’s codes or plans, so that – unless one is an architect – it is extremely confusing for anyone to build anything in this city.
In fact, in the Design Standards sections in the Muni Code or the Comp Plan, there is no defined architectural style for Edmonds.
Yes, we have an Architectural Design Board, but they are limited to making sure that the proposed building designs merely conform to the design standards outlined in the Muni Code. Then they can either recommend/not recommend the builder’s/developer’s design to the City Council to vote to approve, disapprove or amend the required permits.
Consequently, some really wonky-looking buildings get built. A prime example would be the new apartments on Edmonds Way. You know the one I mean. The building, which is 55-feet tall, painted grey and burnt orange, looks like it should have razor wire and search lights to keep the residents from escaping. This building is right across the street from the gorgeous building the veterinary clinic built.
The city is now studying how to use “form-based codes,” which may give the city and its planners greater control over what, where and how property gets developed. Insofar as I understand this new-fangled concept, there is (again) no architectural style standard discussion for Edmonds. But — and this may actually be more important — there is no anti-franchise architecture language in either the current codes or design standards, and until there is, there will be no such language in the form-based codes if/when utilized by Edmonds.
In short, unless we lucky few who live, pay taxes and vote in beautiful Edmonds, can get language that clearly define the aforementioned terms and define a desirable architectural style in our Comp Plan and Muni Code, we could easily find ourselves living in a city with no aesthetic value. Strip mall and franchise-designed buildings will dominate and the only real beauty will be when we look away from our beloved town and look across Puget Sound at the Olympic Mountains.
When we return our gaze to Our Fair City, we’ll wonder what happened.
Your lists of buildings – of what works and what doesn’t work – are extremely important to give our elected officials an understanding of where the citizens want to go and how we want to be seen.
To be continued……..
About the author: Eric B. Livingston has degrees in art (focusing on sculpture and a minor in music), culinary art, technical writing and has credits towards an MBA. He has been awarded prizes for photography and portrait sculpture, has had a one man show, as well as having had work accepted in juried art exhibitions in Pennsylvania and Connecticut. He has researched and written papers on “Aesthetic Universals in Art”, “Linguistics of Food/Cookery” (which was submitted to the 2009 Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery), a white paper for a non-electric irrigation pump manufacturer and wrote several pieces for Seattle Home & Lifestyles magazine. Currently he is a freelance web designer and tech writer. He resides in Edmonds with wife, Eliza, and a dog, Pershing.