Monday, December 31, 2007

On Architecture and Elegance

[Maillart's] bridge is endowed with a subcategory of beauty we can refer to as elegance, a quality present whenever a work of architecture succeeds in carrying out an act of resistance—holding, spanning, sheltering—with grace and economy as well as strength; when it has the modesty not to draw attention to the difficulties it has surmounted.
From philosophical historian Alain de Botton's inimitable The Architecture of Happiness, itself a paradigmatic illustration of the aesthetic elegance of well-engineered minimalism (be it architectural or textual).

The NYRB's synopsis of de Botton's work makes note of this:
The simplicity of his writing is not the product of a simple mind....

In The Consolations of Philosophy (2000) he remarked that "there legitimate reasons why books in the humanities should be difficult or boring; wisdom does not require a specialized vocabulary or syntax."
Both Robert Maillart’s Salginatobel and Isambard Brunel’s Clifton Suspension bridges are structures of strength; both attract our veneration for carrying us safely across a fatal drop—and yet Maillart’s bridge is the more beautiful of the pair for the exceptionally nimble, apparently effortless way in which it carries out its duty.
With its ponderous masonry and heavy steel chains, Brunel’s construction has something to it of a stocky middle-aged man who hoists his trousers and loudly solicits the attention of others before making a jump between two points
whereas Maillart’s bridge resembles a lithe athlete who leaps without ceremony and bows demurely to his audience before leaving the stage.
Both bridges accomplish daring feats, but Maillart’s possesses the added virtue of making its achievement look effortless—and because we sense it isn’t, we wonder at it and admire it all the more.
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