Skip to content

An objective theory of Modernist aesthetics.


The Medieval.

It was in the Middle Ages that the horseshoe, collar and harness gave four times the horse power and enabled agriculture to flourish…

THE MEDIEVAL IS much maligned. One mistaken narrative about the Middle Ages—what a Renaissance poet laureate, Petrarch, called ‘a Dark Age’—is a simple return to barbarism. But, as Terence Kealey has pointed out, although the sacking of Rome might have “…brought little joy to…season ticket holders at the Colosseum,…for ordinary people it proved a liberation.”1 After all, it was the barbarians who invented stirrups. And, although the Romans had yokes, it was in the Middle Ages—the ninth and tenth century—that the horseshoe, collar and harness gave four times the horse power and enabled agriculture to flourish. This, with the introduction of three field rotations a year, increased agricultural productivity twofold.2

The concern here, however, is a question in philosophy. Were the Middle Ages a period of progress or regress? In the twentieth century, the answer of regress is clearly stated by Bertrand Russell. In a History of Western Philosophy,3 first published in 1946 and an important part of a body of work that earned him the Noble Prize for Literature in 1950, Russell characterises medieval philosophy as ‘Catholic Philosophy’’—the ‘building’ and ‘perfecting of a Catholic synthesis’.4 In this long task, the battle was always between, at the beginning, the legacy of Plato—seen, for example, in St Augustine (354–430)—and at the end, the legacy of Aristotle—seen, for example, in St Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274).

A stultifying effect was the institution of the Church. This is pretty much summed up by Russell in his estimation of the greatest of the Scholastic philosophers. Despite a masterly exegesis of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas’s work amounted to little more than ‘special pleading’; contrived ecclesiastical conclusions that are accepted as true prior to philosophical investigation. So, for the same reason that to practice law is not to practice philosophy, Aquinas fails in comparison to both Greek and Modern philosophy.

According to Anthony Kenny, the methods of the Scholastics are no less sophisticated and proceed in a similar way to ordinary language philosophy of the twentieth century.

In A New History of Western Philosophy,5 Anthony Kenny challenges this twentieth-century consensus. Putting to one side simple religious or humanistic prejudice, there are a number of reasons why medieval philosophy has been largely ignored and seen as a regress. Scholastic Latin is difficult to read and full of technical neologisms. Much has only recently been translated. This is a closed and parochial language restricted to clerics, very often in monastic orders. These were the Schoolmen, and their prodigious writing remains daunting. To come to grips with just one of these figures might take an academic lifetime. As with the greatest aesthetic accomplishment of the Middle Ages, the medieval cathedral, the colossal scholastic edifice was constructed by a group of cloistered craftsmen “…who, however individually gifted, took little pains to identify which parts of the overall structure were their own unaided work.”6 There is some irony in this debate. Medieval thought shares a similarity with the contemporary tradition Russell helped shape. According to Kenny, the methods of the Scholastics are no less sophisticated and proceed in a similar way to ordinary language philosophy of the twentieth century. In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas follows the Arabic Aristotelian scholar, Ibn Rushid, whom he calls ‘The Commentator’. First, the philosophical issue is presented as a question, for example, ‘Does God exist?’. To answer this he presents what he calls an Article. This is a specific question, such as, ‘Can it be demonstrated that there is a God?’ This is answered, first, in the negative, with a series of objections to the existence of God. Next he responds with a positive position, such as the ‘five ways for the existence of God’. Finally, to further support his thesis, he enumerates a series of replies to each of the initial objections. The systematic nature of this way of philosophising reminds Kenny, not of ‘special pleading’, but of contemporary conceptual analysis. Indeed, modern philosophy is

“…closer to medieval methods and concerns than any other era of post-Renaissance philosophy. …Medieval logicians had addressed questions that had fallen into oblivion after the Renaissance, and many of their insights had to be rediscovered during the twentieth-century rebirth of logic.”7

In particular, the developments in modal logic and propositional calculus.

English translations of Aquinas appeared first with The Fathers of the English Dominican Province in 1947. Next came a Blackfriars edition, a translation started in the 1960’s and completed in the 1970’s. In 2006, this translation was significantly revised by Cambridge University Press. Even though much of the work is now freely available on the web, some scholars have questioned group projects as imperfect and uneven. Because ‘the translator also betrays’ the more hands the more opaque the betrayal. Hugh Bredin’s translation of Umberto Eco’s The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas8 also includes his own translations of Aquinas and is an accessible place to begin. Aquinas, in point of fact, has relatively little to say about beauty per se. Not much more than a few sentences in a handful of places. The strength of Eco’s commentaries is the drawing out of his position from a broader context.

Aquinas on Aesthetics.

ALTHOUGH THERE IS a pervasive Catholicism in the theistic philosophy of the Schoolmen, Greek enlightenment is never far away. Aquinas’s theology is always informed by Plato and Aristotle. In his dialogue with Euthyphro—a religious seer—Socrates poses the opposition between subjectivism and objectivism in the following way: “Is what is pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved?”9 Socrates’ answer is the objective alternative: “What is pious is loved because it is pious, and not (as the subjectivist might contend) pious because it is loved….” 10 The reformulation of this question in aesthetics is posed, at the beginning of the medieval era, by Augustine of Hippo:

If I were to ask first whether things are beautiful because they give pleasure, or give pleasure because they are beautiful, I have no doubt that I will be given the answer that they give pleasure because they are beautiful.11

Some 800 hundred years later, at the end of the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas would concur, referring to St Augustine, in his Summa, as ‘The Theologian.’ It is the objectivity of his aesthetics, the treatment of art as a quality not a relation, which enables him to avoid relativism and suggest a positive theory of beauty.

The ontological starting point of Aquinas’s theology…is his conception of God.

NOTE: In The Fortnightly’s online template, illustrations are thumbnails with captions or onward text links embedded. To enlarge an illustration, click on it. To read a caption, hover over the illustration. To play an embedded video in a larger size, click twice.

The ontological starting point of Aquinas’s theology—the Summa Theologica was like a handbook of the sacred doctrine for student priests—is his conception of God. It begins with The One God, where the famous ‘five ways’ for the existence of God are put forward. Any account of what it is to be, begins here. Without God there is nothing, and his existence transcends the corporeal, or our physical world. This dualism is found in Plato. It is the distinction between the universals of Pure Forms (or an Essence) and the particulars of the physical world. The truth maker is the Pure Form. In Aquinas, the truth maker is God. Indeed, truth, goodness and beauty are one in God. All are attributes of God, hence all are transcendental attributes of being.

Everything that exists come from beauty and goodness, that is from God…And things have their being in beauty and goodness…And they turn towards beauty and goodness and desire them as their end…And all things are and all things become because of beauty and goodness.12

In the physical world, objectivity in the values of truth, goodness and beauty is grounded in this being.

…The beautiful and the good are the same in any subject. For they are grounded in the same thing, namely form, and this is why the good is esteemed as beautiful.13

It is from Aristotle that these ontological categories of being are described as form. When combined with matter they become contingent, something in this world. Aquinas adopted this position on form and matter. As Umberto Eco puts this, form

…means the actuality, perfection, or determinacy of a thing, although the thing consists also of matter, and matter is not reducible to form. At the same time, the form, albeit not identical with matter, cannot subsist nor have any reality if it is not individuated in matter.14

The epistemological basis of Aquinas’s aesthetics is the relation between the object, that is beautiful, and the knowing subject.

Moving from the form of an object, the epistemological basis of Aquinas’s aesthetics is the relation between the object, that is beautiful, and the knowing subject. Following Albertus Magnus, whose lectures he attended, these are not constitutive relations, and because of this a relativist epistemology is avoided. The material is perceived, and this reality is then cogitated upon. Knowledge is brought to bear; concepts applied, abstractions made. Importantly, the formal properties of what will be explored later as ‘proportion’ and ‘integrity’ are contemplated. An aesthetic judgement is then made between these and the appearance. There is no difference between this epistemology and any other type of knowledge, except that, unlike truth, beauty also entails feelings of pleasure. As with truth, it is not a question of empathy or intuition, but a disinterested judgement. This coming together of cognition and knowledge, is encapsulated by Aquinas in the concept of the aesthetic visio.


IN A CELEBRATED passage of the Summa Theologica, Aquinas suggests, in passing, three criteria of beauty. He expresses it in the following way:

Three things are necessary for beauty: first integrity or perfection, for things that are lacking in something are for this reason ugly; also due proportion or consonance; and again, clarity, for we call things beautiful when they are brightly coloured.15

This is not the beginning of a closely argued dissertation on aesthetics. No, his concern, as always, is other theological matters. To give flesh to these brief comments, Umberto Eco trawls his great body of work to give context to the notions of proportion, integrity and clarity.

The idea of proportion is not new, and as a concept was one of the most pervasive in the Middle Ages.

To begin, the idea of proportion is not new, and as a concept was one of the most pervasive in the Middle Ages. Again, its genesis is with the Greeks. Pythagoras had noticed that as the blacksmith’s hammer struck the anvil, the change in pitch was in direct proportion to its weight. Within music, proportion has always been expressed quantitatively. Through numbers, the perfect 5th—as in the jump in notes from ‘twinkle twinkle’ (‘…little star’)—was regarded as a dissonance in the ninth century. By the twelfth, with the development of descant, the 5th was seen as pleasing. Qualitatively, a medieval sensibility viewed beauty as colour, symmetry, and the harmonious relationships of the parts. Aquinas inherits this, and Eco uncovers eight different senses to the notion of proportion in his writings

The first relates to the ontological distinction between form and matter. For Aquinas, proportion is

…the disposition of matter to receive a form…16 Thus, form and matter must always be mutually proportioned and, as it were, naturally adapted, because the proper act is produced in its proper matter.17

A second sense also emphasises the importance of the metaphysics of form. From the ontological, Aquinas derives the concept of transcendental beauty. Proportion here is understood to mean a harmonious relationship between an essence (the form) and its existence (the matter). The third sense returns to the quantification of things, and the harmony found in musical sounds. In the wholly transcendental, Aquinas posits a fourth sense. With the purely contemplative, there is a harmony in the rhythm of the spiritual, where the individual is closest to the beauty of God. A fifth sense returns to the corporeal. As a philosophical doctrine, pragmatism is first outlined by the Greeks. Following this, in medieval times, beauty was often understood as something functional: the adequacy of something to perform its purpose for a desired end. Aquinas describes this, in a teleological way, as ‘…the goal that the thing is to achieve.”18 A sixth sense of proportion raises the problem of reductionism. Again, Greek in origin, this is the question of the relation of the parts to a whole. Aquinas comments:

Just as the walls and roof are held up by foundations, and the roof covers the foundations and the wall,… the parts…all combine into the whole; so that out of the parts of the universe there emerges one single wholeness of things.19

The notion suggested here is a macroscopic reduction of things to the immanence, and wholeness, of beauty. Proportion is an ontological category that is inherent in everything in the universe. Just as beauty is an attribute of God, so beauty emerges as proportion, harmony and rhythm in the material world. Moving from the ontological, there is a seventh, psychological sense to proportion. This is the connection between cognition and the senses, between perception and the object. Aquinas continues:

Aristotle says that, since harmony—that is, a consonant and well-proportioned voice—is a kind of voice, and since voice is in some sense the same as what is heard, and since harmony is a kind of proportion, it necessarily follows that what is heard is a kind of proportion. 20

If ontological proportion is the underpinning to beauty, psychological proportion enables us to see the beauty of the structure built above.

If ontological proportion is the underpinning to beauty, psychological proportion enables us to see the beauty of the structure built above. The eighth sense of proportion appears in Aquinas as a rejection of certain forms of microscopic reduction. It is concerned with the material constitution of beauty, not the underlying form. It is the notion that proportion can arise with the coming together of a diversity of parts, and that this macroscopic unity is a new whole that is not reducible to these parts.


THE TERM ‘INTEGRITAS’ is used by Aquinas in his fleeting reference in the Summa. As a second criterion of beauty, integrity is identified with perfection and wholeness. He elaborates:

…perfection is present when the thing has all that makes up its substance. The whole object’s form is its perfection and arises out of the integrity of its parts.21

The concept of wholeness, explicit in the idea of integrity, has led some to suggest this criterion is a form of proportion. Although wholeness might suggest the whole is more than the sum of its parts, it also has a connotation of something quite different, the idea of completeness. For Aquinas, if something is missing, if it is ‘lacking in something’, it is ‘for this reason ugly’.22 For example, if one had a ‘defect in some limb’, we would

…call (such) mutilated people ugly. What is missing in them is a due proportion (of parts) to the whole.23

Questions of integrity, in this sense, is an examination of deficiencies which might turn out to be a case of insufficiency—something missing—or a case of excess—something too much. This investigation relates to the ontological notion of proportion, because there is always a comparison to some concept or ideal. For Neo-Platonists, this would be an essence; for Aquinas it is also certainly metaphysical, but is ultimately expressed as a comparison with the transcendental beauty of God.

Medieval sensibilities took great pleasure in luminosity and colour. Chiaroscuro was avoided.


Whereas Aquinas’s first two criterion of beauty are grounded in ontology, the third, what he calls ‘claritus’, is an epistemic devise. Although it refers to the ontological, it is not itself ontological. Clarity conveys the capacity to express. Medieval sensibilities took great pleasure in luminosity and colour. Chiaroscuro was avoided. In Aquinas, clarity had a number of references. Certainly light and colour, but also the ‘light of reason’, an expression that enables things to be known. Theologically, its reference extended to the celestial and ‘the blessed Christ’s transfigured body’.24

The criterion of clarity introduces the ‘eye of the beholder’. Before him, Albertus Magnus, the first to use the term ‘claritus’, sides with Aristotle. The knower does not constitute the known. Beauty resides in the immanence of the object, not in the knowing subject. Clarity was resplendence, part of the form. But for the appearance of beauty to be uncovered it must be perceived. To resolve this, Aquinas reintroduces the knowing subject and clarity becomes, in Eco’s words,

…the fundamental communicability of form, which is made actual in relation to someone looking at or seeing the object.25

This looking and seeing, the subjective aspect of beauty, Aquinas describes as follows:

Beauty …has to do with knowledge, and we call a thing beautiful when it pleases the eye of the beholder. This is why beauty is a matter of right proportion, for the senses delight in rightly proportioned things as similar to themselves, the sense-facility being a sort of proportion itself like other knowing facilities. Now since knowing proceeds by imagining, and images have to do with form, beauty properly involves the notion of form.26

In this way, Aquinas stays true to Augustine, and before him, Socrates. Objectivity is secured in the form. Sense-data is processed by the eye of the beholder, but the images are mediated by knowledge. The employment of reason, meaning, and imagination make a disinterested aesthetic judgement possible. Aquinas calls this ‘visio’. Aesthetic pleasure is a consequence of this delight in proportion. Clarity is an epistemic connection whereby the formal and material aspects of integrity and proportion are uncovered.

The Sacred and the Profane.

BECAUSE ART IS a cultural universal, and because an understanding of a cultural practice presupposes a theoretical interpretation, Umberto Eco concludes his discussion of art and beauty in the Middle Ages with the following contention.

…The aesthetic theories of a given period are an indication of its Kunstwollen: the formal characteristics of an art are reflected in the theoretical consciousness of its contemporaries. 27

The medieval world-view of Aquinas—his philosophy of beauty—was transcendental. By definition, this cannot be part of artistic practice, even though it is presented as the criteria for judgements of this practice. There is always, as Eco metaphorically tries to explain it, a ‘glass sheet’ between the aesthetic theory and the artistic practice. For Eco, this means a “…continual tension between the theory of what ought to be the case and the contradictions of life.” 28

There are problems with Eco’s explication at this point. With scant detail, there appears some sort of Althusserian ‘base-superstructure’ model of society. This is used to explain the crisis that enveloped the Scholastic world-view and the economic conditions that led to the Renaissance.29 More might have been made of the changes in religion—of the superstructure—than the ‘relations of production’ in the base, even if it might be shown they are reciprocally related. Dispensing with metaphor and Neo-Marxism, a clearer way of viewing this tension between a transcendental world-view and the practicalities of artistic life is Emile Durkheim’s distinction between the sacred and the profane.

Although Durkheim does not address this issue, it could be said that in medieval times art arises in the intersection between the sacred and the profane.

Although Durkheim does not address this issue, it could be said that in medieval times art arises in the intersection between the sacred and the profane. Religious conceptions of the sacred were a determinant of the profane, or the secular practice of art. But the difficulty for the medieval world-view was a transcendental theory quite separate from the artistic practice of the profane. It entailed a notion of God, of Oneness, Goodness, Truth, and Beauty; an image of God as Light. And this was all bound up in speculations on the nature of form. Although certitude was thought to be secured with this theory, it is only when this transcendental world-view becomes corporeal—that is to say, the sacred takes on the material world of the profane—that this transcendental theory can have practical consequences. For Aquinas these include the Holy Scriptures, where “…God has, once and once only, made use of people, objects and history as expressions of his own language.”30 This is the incarnation of God in Christ; the salvation of mankind through Christ; where, in Aquinas’s words, “…Holy Scripture fittingly delivers divine and spiritual realities under bodily guises.” 31

By contrast, the purely profane embodied what Hugh of Fouillio typified as the ‘wondrous but perverse delights’. These might include a Christian girl being acquainted with a flute, the harp or lyre being played in the House of God, the metaphor and similitude of poetry being confused with the sacred knowledge of the Scriptures.

The theoretical consciousness of the medieval, and the interpretations this brings to bear on art, is a rigorous separation of the sacred and the profane. As Durkheim has pointed out, this is characteristic of all religious life. In its elementary forms—in pre-literate culture such as the Australian Aborigines—proscription rituals become institutionalised as an interdiction between the two. The original taboo is that the profane should never touch the sacred: the touching of the bull-roarer, the eating of sacred animals, words and songs which women must not hear. Even with social evolution to a different cultural context, the sacred and the profane cannot co-exist in time. For example, there are fasting days, feast days, days of rest. They also cannot co-exist in space. There are cathedrals and sanctuaries where sacred relics are separately kept.

If the interdiction of contact is the first principle governing the relation between the sacred and the profane, then the ritual of consecration is the upshot when contact invariably takes place. Such contact is inevitable because of the ‘contagiousness’ of the sacred. Again, an elementary form of this contagiousness is found in pre-literate Aboriginal culture, and it is “…upon this principle of the contagiousness of sacredness that all rites of consecration repose.”32 Durkheim elaborates:

The sanctity of the churinga is so great that its action is even felt at a distance.…this extends not only to the cave where they are kept, but also to the whole surrounding district, to the animals who take refuge there, whom it is forbidden to kill, and to the plants which grow there, which must not be touched.33

It is the extraordinary power of this contagiousness that “…explains the extreme rigour of the interdicts separating the sacred from the profane.”34 Although transgressions in Aboriginal culture might involve a consecration both dreadful and violent—of sickness, or death—not all profanation has such grave consequences. Much later, in the medieval Catholic era, this might simply involve anointing or washing, the consecration of the Cathedral, or the blessing of a stained glass window.

These notions of the interdictions of contact, contagiousness, then consecration, suggest a fourth social construct— transmutability.

These notions of the interdictions of contact, contagiousness, then consecration, suggest a fourth social construct. This is the concept of transmutability. At this point, Durkheim makes the interesting connection between religious ritual and the sociology of knowledge. It stands as an explanation for the origin of science. In pre-literate culture, and extending to the medieval—before the revolution of science—there is a conflation, or running together, of heterogeneous things. In pre-literate culture, different objects transmute:

…men, animals, plants and rocks come to have the same totem: the men because they bear the name of the animal; the animal because they bring the totemic emblem to mind; the plants because they nourish these animals; the rocks because they mark the place where the ceremonies are celebrated.35

These connections are a protogenic form of categorisation; of concatenated descriptions and explanation. This is the basis of science. In medieval religious consciousness there is a more evolved form of transmutation. As Eco describes it,

The Medievals inhabited a world filled with references, reminders and overtones of Divinity, manifestations of God in things.36

Their world was one of symbols within a ‘web of meanings’. This is more complex than the simpler connection of the totem to disparate things, but there still remains the element of transmutability in their symbolic universe. Eco explains that, in this

…symbolic universe, everything is in its proper place because everything answers to everything else. In such a harmonious system, the serpent is homogeneous with the virtue of prudence; and yet the same serpent can symbolise Satan. It was a kind of polyphony of signs and references. Christ and His divinity were symbolised by a vast number and variety of creatures, each signifying His presence in a different place—in heaven, on mountain-tops, in the fields, the forests, and the seas. The symbols used included the lamb, the dove, the peacock, the ram, the gryphon, the rooster, the lynx, the palm-tree, even a bunch of grapes: a polyphony of images.37

Much later, it might be observed, alchemy—a practice much closer to science—was also underpinned by the notion of transmutability, in this case that of substances.

These cultural universals of religious life—the interdictions of contact between the sacred and profane, the contagiousness of the sacred, consecration and transmutability—effected artistic practice in the Middle Ages. This cannot be enumerated here, suffice to say that in this period there was no conception of ‘fine arts’, as such, no distinction between art and craft. Interdictions will have prescribed or proscribed certain images of the deity, transmutability will have characterised the symbols employed. Art was simply the making of something, and the consecration of this something involved, as Durkheim might express it, “…the transferring into …(the)…profane object the sanctifying values of a sacred one…”38 The decline of this sacred world meant the rise of a more profane one.

The Renaissance.

AN INVESTIGATION OF the Medieval reveals that it is simply not true to say that the Renaissance was the rediscovery of Greek culture lost in the Dark Ages. What arose was a reinterpretation of this culture independent from religious constraint, and where the influence of the sacred was in decline. These secular social forces united with a rising individualism. As Eco remarks,

It was only when painters began to labour in workshops amidst everyday life, as happened in Italy from the thirteenth century onwards, that people began to gossip about them as individuals.39

A full bloom of this individualism occurred in the later years of the High Renaissance (circa 1520–1580). It is referred to as Mannerism, though it is not consistently applied as a style, a movement or simply a period. There is, however, a commonality between the individuals seen as Mannerists. Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, were all marked by a particular character. Their manner was individualistic and one involving artistic virtuosity, wit, felicity, even artistic conceit. As Douglas Hassall has pointed out, in a different context, Raphael’s tomb “…bears the telling inscription… ’Here lies Raphael, by whom Nature feared to be out-done while he was living, and at his death, feared herself to die’.”40

No artist’s grave in the Middle Ages could convey such an image. Architects and sculptors ignored personal fame. Eco makes the point that “The work of figurative artists …was part of a team effort, so that their only personal memento would be monograms carved upon the keystone.”41 As distinct from the anonymous artisan toiling for a sacred community, the Renaissance was the beginning of the artist seen as the creative genius. The Scholastic aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, and the relationship between the sacred and the profane, was out of step with this social change. Many aspects of the sacred in art might have remained intact, but the Catholic Church had lost its monopoly to the nobility, and other patrons in the mercantile classes.

Informed by aspects of Greek philosophy, the Scholastic’s philosophy had a transcendental form—as part of Catholic orthodoxy—that precluded further progress.

Informed by aspects of Greek philosophy, the Scholastic’s philosophy had a transcendental form—as part of Catholic orthodoxy—that precluded further progress. The Copernican revolution was just one of a paradigm shift to science. A new humanism, also enriched by Greek philosophy, was part of this march of the profane. In the sciences, objectivity was reformulated along empiricist lines, whilst the arts began an extended humanistic exploration of the subjective. A bifurcation emerged between the two. This was to be questioned as the social sciences emerged in the nineteenth century, and in the twentieth, Karl Popper’s philosophy of science suggested a convergence. In the field of aesthetics, however, it is notable that Socrates’ opponent, the clairvoyant Euthyphro, has held sway.

To recover the objectivity of Socrates, Eco is certainly correct in observing that this cannot be achieved by a Neo-Scholastic reworking of Aquinas. This is despite the many insights to be found in his work. Eco’s solution is in terms of a European ‘Structuralism’. Here the ontological categories, as a basis for objectivity, are reformulated as some sort of ‘universal logic’, where the social sciences are reduced to a theory of linguistics. In his few brief remarks it is hard to make much sense on what this theory of aesthetics might be. ‘Linguistic universals’ seem to take the place of Aquinas’s notion of form. There is also an opaque reference to ‘dialectic logic’; but, as Popper has long ago asked, ‘What is Dialectic?’42 A more fruitful way of proceeding is John Anderson’s realist treatment of aesthetics.43 Aquinas’s notion of clarity is his starting point. Unfortunately, the only treatment of any length that Anderson advances is confined to considerations of literature, where clarity is seen as the consistent development of a theme. It remains to be shown how the concepts of proportion, integrity and clarity might be contingently applied to the plastic arts.

A Contingent Reformulation.

A disinterested research program in aesthetics cannot be predicated on empathy, intuition or the expressive, but falsifiable judgements on the work itself.

THERE ARE MORE productive lines of enquiry in aesthetics, more of Karl Popper’s progressive problem shifts, to be found in Thomas Aquinas and the Schoolmen, than in Bertrand Russell’s era of modern philosophy. Far from a philosophical regress, in Aquinas there are the foundations for progress, and the lines for a realist theory of aesthetics. It is in Aquinas that an insistence on objectivity can be found. Regress in aesthetics—so evident today in the work of ‘cultural theorists’—has always followed the relativist route. Relations, such as ‘the eye of the beholder’, are the main roads, and no progress can be made on a disinterested appraisal of the object as a work of art. Aquinas takes the Socratic position, as suggested in The Euthyphro; he adopts it from ‘the theologian’, St. Augustine, and ‘the philosopher’, Aristotle. To establish objectivity, there is an appeal to the form. In Aquinas’s transcendental argument, the material of beauty is ultimately compared with a notion of form that inheres in God. This is analogous to the dualism of Plato, and the distinction between the universality of pure form, and the particularity of empirical reality. A realist alternative to this idealism grasps the objectivity, but redrafts the categories, or the form, contingently. It becomes something to be explored as part of one empirical reality. Although transcendentalism is rejected, there is a concurrence with objectivity. The epistemology behind this position is Aquinas’s concept of the aesthetic visio. Here a realist, such as John Anderson or Karl Popper, can be in complete agreement. A disinterested research program in aesthetics cannot be predicated on empathy, intuition or the expressive, but falsifiable judgements on the work itself.

English Modernism.

A CONSIDERATION OF Modernism, as a significant movement in art in the twentieth century, illustrates how insights from Thomas Aquinas might be the basis of a realist theory of aesthetics. Let the protests and critiques against traditional architecture at the beginning of the century comprise the social context. Let the dimensions of proportion, integrity and clarity circumscribe an alternative tentative theory. Let an understanding of Aquinas help refine this theory. The pertinent questions for Ernst Gombrich or Karl Popper would then become: What new problems are generated by this theory? Does it constitute a progressive or a regressive problem shift? Can Modernism be included in the artistic canon?

Modernism arose in Europe after the First World War. It was also called the International Movement, and this more clearly describes its character. It was suggesting global, not local, solutions to building design. The participants moved between many cultures. Although the Bauhaus of Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, in Germany, were central, the vanguard also included Le Corbusier in France, Wells Coates in Great Britain, McGrath from Australia, Buckminster Fuller in America, Loos in Austria, and many others. By the early 1930’s, London had become home to a coterie of young immigrants. From Germany, Serge Chermayeff and Erich Mendelsohn. From Canada, Wells Coates.From Australia, Raymond McGrath. Their commission was the interior design of various studios in Broadcast House, the new Modernist home of the BBC. In particular, Wells Coates and McGrath were active publicists, and their writings in the early 1930’s provide a snap shot of the Modern Movement in England.

Born in Tokyo in 1895, to Methodist missionaries, Wells Coates trained as an Engineer in Canada and England. But his artistic sensibilities came from the East. In perfect harmony with Mies van der Rohe’s aphorism, ‘less is more’, Wells Coates adopts his Japanese tutors prescription: ‘Of the thing itself, never on it.’ Just as the French Impressionists were captivated by the wood block, Wells Coates not immodestly proclaims”…a man whose eyes have been trained in the East will only rarely want to open them in the West.” 44

In a promotional brochure, featuring important examples of his work, and appearing around 1934, Wells Coates strings together some of his more memorable lines from The Architectural Review and The Architects Journal into a not altogether coherent manifesto:

For my part I shall say that I have, in Europe, derived more visual inspiration and design experience from the study of the works of modern painters and sculptors than from any work of architecture except one alone: The Parthenon.45

As far as eighteenth- and nineteenth-century architecture is concerned, it is not only derivative of this Greek tradition, but also a “…pattern, blotted and marred, and finally debased…behind the monstrous banality of a commercial city.” Here is Wells Coates—the ‘cultured man of the East’, “…one who is himself an artist of living, one who has been trained, sensually to the aesthetic apprehension…”—speaking:

How barbaric is your habit of overloading!… what is the meaning of this ugliness, banality and squalor which meets the eye as it travels up practically any street in London…any hotel lounge…or facades of buildings in Bond Street?…You have converted a Greek temple into a banking-house; you have plastered the second-hand columns of the ancients on to the grocers’ shops of Oxford Street.46

It seemed to Wells Coates that the Modern Movement was not opposing architecture, but ‘theatrical sets’; ‘literally dead weights’ of steel and concrete,

…raised up and held to praise by the academic…professors, designed to prescriptions by the property-men of architecture, and so often scarcely visible even (for all the gold and labour spent on them) in the narrow, unlit, unplanned, sordid streets of a contemporary city. 47

Raymond McGrath was born in Sydney in 1903, and graduated in architecture from Sydney University in 1926. Before setting up a practice in London, in 1930, he read at Cambridge and became a protégé of Mansfield Duval Forbes, a Fellow of Clare College. (C.K. Ogden, the linguistic philosopher and publisher, was also a seminal figure.) Mansfield Forbes gave him the commission of creating a Modernist interior design for ‘Finella’, a Victorian house owned by the college. From the success of this project he ‘took the position of Decorative consultant to the BBC’. In 1934, McGrath published a wonderfully written book entitled Twentieth Century Houses.48 This book was dedicated to Forbes with the words, ‘no one is his equal as a friend and no one has such power to firing others with new idea’.49 The clarity and simplicity of this work, in marked contrast to Wells Coates’s pretence and turgidity, lay in the employment of Ogden’s ‘Basic English’. In a ‘note’, at the end of the book by Ogden, there is the contention that

In building with words there is the same pull between the science of structure and the art of ornament as there is in building with steel and stone and wood…50

Like Modernism, Basic English was developed as an ‘international movement’, but in this case taking a linguistic form. Employing only 850 words (excluding general science), it was also a case of ‘less is more’. Although McGrath is not averse to colourful language in describing, for example, Victorian England—to wit, “The houses of the poor were all in streets like unending lines of smoke-coloured teeth.”51—his main concern is to first outline the precursors of Modernism. The Crystal Palace of 1851, by Joseph Paxton, is notable. There was no ‘dead weight’ here. The supports for the building—1,106 eight-inch iron columns—made up 1/2000th of the complete building. With St Pauls, by contrast, columns and walls take up 1/6th. William Morris’s (1834–1896) ‘The Red House’, designed by Philip Webb (1830–1915), was another. But it was in Vienna, and the work of the Austrian architect, Otto Wagner (1841–1918) that made him, “without question the greatest architect of his time, the first to be placed on the level with the great names of the past.”52 From here, of course, it was only a few steps to Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus.

The Problem Situation.

THE VICTORIAN LOVE of decoration, some would say clutter, was a style brought into question in the twentieth century. McGrath sums up this change in fashion with the following observation. As to

…ornament, it is not necessary to say much about it. Ornament is not art, it is frequently the overworking of the power of design, and in the present day the place of a thousand Adam mouldings is taken by one Modigliani or a head from the Congo.53

Even the employment of colour became restricted, and in those cases where it is boldly employed, such as Rietveld’s chairs, it is a restricted palette and constrained to a limited number of surfaces, as in a Mondrian painting. It was McGrath’s view that no one put the case against ornament better than the Austrian architect Adolf Loos—a follower of Otto Wagner—in his book, Ornament and Crime. Here the fashionable becomes a crime. Because taste in pre-literate culture is less refined,

The Papuan puts paint on his skin, his boat, his blade—in fact on everything in range. This is no crime, but the man of today who has designs painted into his skin is generally a man with a prison record or someone with a twisted mind.54

Loos might not have anticipated much later fads in Oceanic Art, and his evolutionary anthropology could not have anticipated the ‘sleeves’ on highly paid footballers. But, writing at that time, his challenge to ornament became a leitmotif of Modernism. The aphorisms of van der Rohe—‘less is more’—and Coates—‘Of the thing itself, never on it’—became the new fashion.

In The Architectural Review, Wells Coates published a review supplement on decoration and craftsmanship, entitled ‘Furniture Today—Furniture Tomorrow’. Before and after photographs contrast the ‘museum-type’ furnishing—the clutter—of a Victorian house and , in his words, “…a contemporary treatment of the problem of living equipment and environment.”55 It was Wells Coates’s belief that, because anything of value was already in a museum,

The new freedom determined by the conditions of modern life calls for a corresponding freedom from enslaving and toilsome encumbrances in the equipment of the modern dwelling-scene.56

This was a minimalist ethic, the elimination of paraphernalia, and the design of compact flats and houses where furnishings were built in.

Very soon it will be considered quite as fantastic to move accompanied by wardrobes, tables and beds, as it would seem today to remove the bath, or the heating system, including all the pipes.57

Although McGrath was not entirely convinced with the universal appeal of minimalist architecture, he could see its connection to Japanese interior design: a minimum of furniture, with just one or two sculptures, or a flower arrangement.

Quiet space is made by putting away the noise of ornament. Rooms have no furniture. There are no chairs and when tables are needed they are taken out of a cupboard. Windows are not covered over with curtains. Anything of value, silks, pots, pictures, mouldings in stone or wood, is kept in boxes in the store-house safe against fire, water and insects.58

What all Modernists were agreed upon was the beneficial effects of sun, light and fresh air. This dovetailed with movements at the time concerned with health, sanitation and hygiene.

What all Modernists were agreed upon was the beneficial effects of sun, light and fresh air. This dovetailed perfectly with social movements in England at the time concerned with health, sanitation and hygiene. As Elizabeth Darling points out, in Re-Forming Britain: Narratives of Modernity Before Reconstruction,59 the wake up call was the Boer War. Only 2/5 of the volunteers were deemed fit; in the First World War only 2/3 of the conscripts were fit. Orientation to these elements of sunlight and fresh air, along with the interconnection between the inside and the outside, was a restatement of the Chinese principle of Feng Shui.60

The relation of home to garden is most important. One is open to the other. The rain and wind are not shut out. The rain has to be seen falling on the leaves. The wind has to be in hearing when it goes about in the branches. The colour of the sky has to be seen when the dark comes at nightfall. In this way the Japanese house is a design for living. 61

One example of this ‘design for living’, in the hands of Wells Coates and David Pleydell-Bouverie, was the ‘Sunspan House’, first built for The Ideal Home Exhibition at Olympia, London, in 1934. Orientated to span both the morning and afternoon sun, this prototype, in minimalist form, could be replicated in housing estates—as illustrated in his promotional brochure around that time—or enlarged for more commodious living. In Raymond McGrath’s mind this newfound commitment was one legacy of the First World War.

…On those who did come through undamaged the effect of that time of destruction seems to have been a burning desire for sunlight and clean air and clear thought.62

Tentative Theory.

DESPITE READING VERY WELL a changing social milieu that might be receptive to their ideas, clearly the British Modernist were not reading Aquinas, even though Wells Coates claimed some familiarity. At the beginning of his dense article in Architectural Review, ‘Response to Tradition’,63 he quotes James Joyce’s recently published A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) in which Joyce’s  character, Stephen, refers to Aquinas and his three qualities of beauty — ‘Integritas’, ‘consonantia’ and ‘claritas’. 64 He remarks this was as good a statement as any on an artist’s intent. At the end he also briefly attempts to grasp the connection between the integrity of the architect and the wholeness of his creation.

But it could not be said this was the basis of his aesthetic ‘response’. What the Modernists were doing, however, was proposing a number of important statements on the nature of proportion and integrity. This involved the treatment of the building as a whole, conceptualised as the primacy of the plan; the integrity inherent in new materials, and how these determine form; the exploration of function and purpose, parts which come together in the whole; the employment of craftsmanship, informed by the discoveries in science and industry. These are all modalities of proportion and integrity. They can be expressed as a tentative theory of aesthetics that is a response to the problem situation, that is to say, Modernism’s response to earlier traditions. In ‘Materials for Architecture’, Wells Coates begins succinctly:

Concerning Architecture, what can be stated can be stated clearly. All that can be stated is included in the materials for Architecture. For the rest, architecture is shown, seen, used.65

These materials “…have always been contingent on man’s discoveries…never fixed or settled, except by force of convention.” Then craftsmanship brings “…new principals of construction, inherent in the materials.”66 This, in turn, leads to refinement of the materials. In the twentieth century, steel, steel-concrete and glass has ‘created the greatest revolution in the history of architecture’. With the employment of these new materials, the cantilever has changed our notion of proportion. Because internal and external walls are no longer of structural significance, they become screens for thermal and acoustic requirements:

…to include or exclude the light, the view, the weather, or the public-functions whose separate and related values are determined by the… specific purpose of the building.67

In the past, these walls were required to hold the building up. They determined the overall shape, plus the size and placement of the windows. To stand up, the structure more often than not required symmetry, whether these were flying buttresses or a post-and-lintel. The larger the building, the larger the walls. McGrath made this point when he compared the mass of the Crystal Palace with St. Paul’s. With steel and curtain walls of glass, the cantilever enables exploration in asymmetric design. Today, a further determinant of form is the incorporation of machines. Indeed, in Le Corbusier’s words ‘the house becomes a machine for living’. At any rate, it was Coates’s view that the modern building must incorporate, as integral, not just an add-on, ‘heating, lighting, ventilation, refrigeration and sanitary processes.’ This he calls the principle of integration, and in the future this will include, as fixtures, much of the furniture as well.

Wells Coates concluded his ‘sketches’ from an ethical standpoint, which, as with all cases of the conflation of aesthetics and ethics, somewhat muddies the waters. With an implicit nod to ‘hygiene’, shape and proportion are “…achieved by clean lines, clean surfaces, clean purposes. Clean does not mean plain, but it does mean significant.”68

Along with cleanliness, freedom is the other clarion call in the ‘Age of Science’. Modernists believed their aesthetic theory was a means to this freedom. It required the rejection of ‘old habits, old social prejudices, old visual prejudices.’ Coates’s assertions only avoid tautology by pointing to a liberating potential of this ‘visual’ aesthetic. From these new modern forms will grow new social ‘habits’, a ‘new vision’. There is an echo in these comforting utopian thoughts to Gropius: The architect can liberate mankind from ‘the strait-jacket of old forms.’

Wells Coates’s explication of integrity also starts with the ‘materials for architecture’.

Wells Coates’s explication of integrity also starts with the ‘materials for architecture’. When an architectural style incorporates the new materials to create an old form—to make a banking chamber into the Parthenon—there is a loss of integrity, or what he terms a ‘misalliance of forms’. Steel and concrete have become ornaments of ‘dead weight’. Integrity is the eschewal of this ornament. Integrity is always ‘of the thing itself, never on it’. It is only though ignorance that one would cast steel into a Corinthian column. In Aquinas, questions of integrity are resolved around an investigation of the parts that make up the whole. Coates’s ‘misalliance of forms’ is a case of excess, or superfluous parts. In architecture a consideration of the whole might also be the uncovering of omissions, or an insufficiency. By giving primacy to the plan, Wells Coates also alludes to this second aspect of integrity, touched on by Aquinas. Here he is probably following Le Corbusier. McGrath cites his widely read Vers une Architecture.69 For Le Corbusier, “The plan is the first cause. Without a plan there is no order, no law. The plan has in itself everything necessary for the complete experience.”70

Wells Coates’s reformulation was the following:

‘It is from the plan of the temple that the effects of its design arises’ said Vitruvius.71 Twentieth-century architecture begins from the plan as generator, and makes explicit externally the processes, functions and qualities included in it.72

For their conception of the whole, Modernist architects always turn to the plan. This, in turn, relates back to the elevation as an expression of proportion. These functions are never ‘disguised, but are fully expressed and clothed’ as the outside form.

By simplifying their project, Modernists more easily achieved clarity of purpose and a simpler development of their themes’…

Following John Anderson, Aquinas’s notion of clarity can be understood as the development of a theme. This sits easily with the Modernists. Explorations ‘of the thing itself’ was ‘never’ complicated by also trying to incorporate things ‘on it’. Such ornamentation would always confuse the problem of thematic development. Is there too much? Is there enough? Does it add anything to the form and the proportion that is being explored? By simplifying their project, Modernists more easily achieved clarity of purpose and a simpler development of their themes: of the integration of materials and functions, of minimalism, of the primacy of the plan and the efficient methods of modular or unitary construction. Like sculpture, architecture deals with three dimensional objects. With multiple planes, or facets, clarity can be understood as the development of a theme over these surfaces. It is a more obvious problem than in a two dimensional painting.

Much of the Modernist theory on proportion and integrity can be illustrated with an example from McGrath’s Twentieth Century Houses. Connell and Ward’s ‘Pollard’, built between 1931 and 1932 for Sir Arthur Dickson, a partner in Price Waterhouse, was designed by New Zealand born Amyas Connell. There are earlier and better known examples, such as Mies van der Rohe ‘Garden House’ at the Barcelona Exposition of 1929, but ‘The White House’, as a subsequent owner called it after repainting the blush pink walls and the leaf green Crittall steel windows, is a more complex commission, designed for a specific location in Surrey woodland. Connell, who was London trained, follows Le Corbusier’s precept and starts with a plan. Triangular in shape, the sharper end faces north-west. This is the least desirable aspect—with wind and little sun—and is relegated to servant’s quarters, tradesmen’s entrance and store. The commodious villa is certainly not a minimalist ‘Sunspan’ plan; nor is there a convertibility of living spaces. But the Modernist understanding of Feng Shui is evident. Walls shield the wind and weather; the attractive views and the sun captured by glass. This orientation is made possible by steel-concrete columns and floor slab, a structural steel frame, and non-structural curtain walls of thin concrete. Various shaped windows are then quite freely ‘cut in’, with no effect on the stability of the structure. The size and placement of these is determined solely by the plan, and the orientation to sun, wind and outlook. As McGrath remarks, ‘Pollard is more like an invention of Picasso than a house.’ Cantilever enables this asymmetry, and a new sense of proportion. ‘It is a plan full of thought, not limited by old ideas of balance.’73

Function takes the form of a very substantial staircase cantilevered off a concrete enclosed hydronic heating system. This proceeds to bedrooms on the second floor, then up to a reinforced concrete flat roof and garden. The first view of the house is from the driveway, and the main entrance is also on this western side. From here the stairs are the dominant feature. They are clothed, on two sides, with a glass wall that reaches the full height of the building. This simple sculptural form is an adornment without ornamentation. The south-east perspective is more utilitarian, with not a Corinthian column in sight! Light and sun is enjoyed through steel framed doors and windows across the three main reception rooms downstairs, and the three main bedrooms above. Like ‘Sunspan’, and many early Modernist buildings, these half-length windows appear as strips that extend, or wrap around, the full length of the facade. Today, this perspective might strike us as a detail more in keeping with a commercial building. And there is no external facility for shading. This design fault forced the owner to install curtains. In this instant, McGrath would have to make an exception! 74

Error Elimination and Problem Shifts.

WRITING THIRTY YEARS after Wells Coates and McGrath, Robin Boyd pronounced the end of Modernism. He never doubted it deserved a place in the architectural canon, he just thought, mistakenly as it turned out, that progressive problem shifts had ended. ‘Period revivals’ had begun to appear around 1960. “It was sad indeed for the old men. It was the end of the revolution.”75 Coates was not quite dead, though like Boyd, he died relatively young and, as an architect, unfulfilled. After the war, still brimming with ideas he failed to secure many new commissions. His innovative work on prefabrication and new materials failed to win support in industry or in government.76 Serge Chermayeff had been bankrupted building his own house in Sussex. In 1940 he left for America, and ultimately a Chair at Harvard then Yale University. In the same year, Raymond McGrath joined the Office of Public works in Ireland. Becoming Principal Architect in 1948, he also failed to develop Modernist architectural practice. Indeed, his acclaimed Glass in Architecture and Decoration (1937) was an eschewal of Loos; and his main work, the conservation of Georgian State Buildings, was simply a return to traditional crafts, to ‘Adam mouldings’, and certainly not to images of ‘Pollard’ or Modigliani.

So was Boyd right? The ‘revolution’ may have finished, many of the participants may have failed, and fashions might have changed. But it could be argued, against Boyd, that the theory continued to evolve and pose interesting new problems. With his relaxed and elegant prose, it might seem odd to observe an underlying Neo-Hegelianism in Boyd’s position. ‘The puzzle of architecture’, and the response to Modernism, was seen as dialectic. The International Movement arose as a practical and efficient solution to the problem of shelter. The thesis, or in Popper’s words, the tentative theory, was European Functionalism and, in America, an Organic version; ‘a cosier style led and personally coloured’77 by Frank Lloyd Wright. The antithesis, the refutation of this theory, was first formulated by the vanguard. Erich Mendelsohn, who in the 1930’s was in Chermayeff’s office, had already designed the Einstein Tower at Potsdam in 1920. Boyd describes this alternative to Modernism—a ‘second phase’—as Monolithic. It continued on into the 1960’s, with Jorn Utzon’s Opera House in Sydney being one of the best known. Here a loss of refinements in function had been replaced by expressiveness. In the 1960’s, according to Boyd, ‘violent evolution’ challenged the ‘plainness’ of Modernism with ‘plastic forms’. It was a return to “ornamentation…in various new guises.”78 The synthesis, or resolution to this conflict, was less clear. Just as the striving for efficiencies might have led the architect being replaced by the technocrat, there is also an end to architectural history in Boyd’s final Hegelian synthesis. It might take one hundred years, even more, but “Probably there will be no place for the artist architect in the last chapter of building. Architects one day will be an interest for archaeologists only, an art whose medium became obsolete like the radio play and the silent film.”79

Written in the middle of a battle over Modernism, Boyd’s observations on the theory are more interesting to us now than his historicist predictions. At the time, one of the best examples of Boyd’s synthesis was English Brutalism. Here, “the new emphasis on wholeness, singleness, or monolithic form was tempered by a return to the old regard for functional flexibility.”80

Boyd called Brutalism ‘realist architecture’. It is a pragmatic enterprise that takes inspiration from utilitarian structures such as farm buildings or factories. The industrial designer Charles Eames and his wife Ray built such a house for themselves in California using ‘pedestrian’ off the shelf products. By “…observing the integrity of materials and the logic of planning.”81 the form was far from pedestrian. His house was not unlike many of Boyd’s domestic architecture. Of more substantial structures, the closest Boyd personally achieved was the controversial Menzies College, at La Trobe University, Melbourne (1967–70) Distinct from the homogeneity of the universities master plan, the building turned out more concrete than coloured brick. A blow-out in costs, questions on the quality of finishes and other complaints by staff and student about acoustics and privacy were the brick bats; the only bouquets came from Professor Trendell, happy with his eyrie, and the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, asking for details. Most of the bats were aimed at “Robin Boyd’s contribution to the Australian Ugliness.”82 The Brutalist form, not unlike the Park Hill apartments in Sheffield, England, was intended as “…a concept based on…human activities while exploring the three dimensions of space.”83

Experiments with horizontal or vertical proportions were sanctioned in Boyd’s Brutalist scheme, but plastic versions were dismissed…

Experiments with horizontal or vertical proportions were sanctioned in Boyd’s Brutalist scheme, but plastic versions were dismissed as a compromise of function, hence integrity. Developments and refinements in Modernists theory had come very fast. Mies van der Rohe’s Garden House, in 1929, incorporated many of the elements. There were, however, errors to be ironed out, refinements to be made. In Boyd’s mind the final instantiation was Mies’s Farnsworth House designed in 1946 and built in 1949. This was the glass box. On ‘raised floor and cantilever ends’, the notion of simplicity had led to this ‘illogical conclusion’. A similar example was built in 1949 by his disciple, Philip Johnson. This was for himself, so a client could hardly complain of living in a fish bowl. Boyd remarks, “Johnson had to build another pavilion nearby to make the glass house work. This was a guest-wing of bedrooms decently withdrawn inside brick walls.”84

As Johnson had dismissed Frank Lloyd Wright as “the greatest architect of the nineteenth century”, it is not surprising to learn that in the early 1950’s Johnson was greeted by Wright with the words: “Hello, Philip. Are you still putting up little houses and leaving them out in the rain?”85

Was the glass box, then, the final problem shift of Modernism? No, function could be explored further, and that is why Boyd includes this dimension in the synthesis of Brutalism. As a technique of design it still had much to learn from nature. The microscopic examination of natural structures—bones, trees, leaves—might be incorporated into building design. By the mid 1950’s, on Boyd’s reading, these potential problem shifts were ignored; by then, most architects were happy to throw out functionalism “…along with the bathwater of the glass cube…”86

The Monolithic stage—the antithesis of Modernism—was not a refinement of the theory because form failed to follow function. One solution was Mies van der Rohe’s suggestion of reversing the slogan. If the architect built a “…perfect structural form…the function would fit in.” 87 Wells Coates would certainly have regarded these new plastic forms as a development of Modernism. They had been made possible with new engineering principles for moulding and supporting new material. Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal could have wings because of support, or tension from above, instead of compression from below. It was little wonder he liked Utzon’s sketches for the Opera House. There is no doubt that Jorn Utzon starts with form, then incorporates function. In an essay, ‘Platforms and Plateaus’, the Mayan temples in Mexico are described.

By introducing the platform with its level at the same height as the jungle tops, these people suddenly obtained a new dimension of life, worthy of their devotion to their Gods… By this architectural trick they had completely changed the landscape and supplied their visual life with a greatness corresponding to the greatness of their Gods. 88

In Mexico, upon this platform they built their temple. In Sydney, ‘On top of the platform the spectators receive the complete work of art’. 89 Unlike early Modernism, unlike ‘Pollard’, the problem shift involves a different treatment of the roof. As Utzon explains, to ‘express the platform’ is critical, and “a flat roof does not express the flatness of the platform.”90 The shell vaults achieved this thematic development as ‘the complete work of art’.

As originally conceived, with merely free hand sketches, the shells could not be built. Not surprisingly, other architects who competed against him in the competition became cross. But the genius of Utzon was his Modernist solution. This was perfectly consistent with twentieth-century principles of modular design and unitary construction. Interestingly, Utzon’s source was, once again, ancient history. According to Peter Myers—who worked in Utzon’s Sydney Office—Utzon had travelled to China in 1958 to study “Sung Dynasty prefabrication building construction.”91 Redesigned, the shells were now conceived as segments cut from a sphere.

Constant radius spherical geometry…allowed the shell vaults to be assembled from post-tension, repetitive pre-cast concrete ribs.92

No scaffold was required, and “Bennelong Point…became an efficient precasting factory where these modular segments were fabricated, cured and then placed by means of an ingenious telescoping ‘erection arch’…”93

This Utzon was able to finish. Almost everything else he could not. But the documentation remained, and from this can be pieced together the integrity and clarity of the structure. As an acoustic expert, Wells Coates would have been impressed with the Modernist solution for the interior. Working with an innovative industrialist in Homebush, prefabricated plywood mouldings, to be tested in full-scale mock-ups, ‘determined the ideal ceiling profile’. Utzon described these as ‘walnuts in their shells’. Box beam construction was also to be an elegant solution to the windows. Developing the horizontal theme of the platform and steps, this comprised a “…bronze covered plywood mullioned glass wall….”94 Very different to the over-engineered vertical steel structures in place today. This same material was to be the theme in the service areas below. As modular U shaped units, they could be reconfigured at any time, as functions changed or the spaces evolved. This puts to rest Boyd’s primary objection to the inflexible nature of the Monolithic. Peter Myers remarks, “This minimum cost idea would have introduced a welcome vivacity to otherwise mundane service areas while also reaffirming the primordial architecture of Utzon’s podium.”95

Boyd’s ‘realist architecture’, was not the last problem shift for Modernism. Progress, not regress, has characterised the Modernist canon.

Neither the glass box, nor Boyd’s ‘realist architecture’, was the last problem shift for Modernism. Progress, not regress, has characterised the Modernist canon. The Opera House is now over fifty years old. Today, the plasticity of Frank Gehry has superseded the strictures of Brutalism, some forty years earlier. The monolithic has evolved and lived on. Whether these new architectural styles are termed Modernist, Post-Modernist, or whatever, is another question. Certainly many of the returns to ornamentation—the Neo-Georgian, etc.—are not. ‘Of the thing itself, never on it’, is central to the doctrine. And Wells Coates’s contention, that the integrity of the material determines form, remains true. It explains much of the shape of architecture today.

Dr Tronn Overend is the author of Social Idealism and the Problem of Objectivity (Queensland University Press, 1983) and the author of numerous articles on social theory and the philosophy of the social sciences.


  1. Terence Kealey. Sex, Science and Profit. William Heinemann. 2008:111
  2. See Kealey. 2008:114
  3. George Allen & Unwin, New Edition 1961
  4. Russell. 1961:303
  5. Oxford University Press. 2010
  6. Kenny. 2010:258
  7. Kenny. 2010:259
  8. Harvard University Press. 1988
  9. Plato. The Last Days of Socrates. Penguin. 1969:31
  10. Plato.1969:33. my elaboration
  11. St Augustine, quoted in Eco.1988:49
  12. Aquinas in Eco.1988:28–29
  13. Aquinas in Eco.1988:35
  14. Eco.1988:69
  15. Aquinas in Eco.1988:65
  16. Aquinas in Eco. 1988:84
  17. Aquinas in Eco. 1988:83
  18. Aquinas in Eco. 1988:89
  19. Aquinas in Eco. 1988:92
  20. Aquinas in Eco.1988:94
  21. Aquinas in Eco. 1988:99
  22. Aquinas in Eco.1988:99
  23. Aquinas in Eco. 1988:99–100
  24. Eco. 1988:104
  25. Eco. 1988:119
  26. Aquinas in Umberto Eco. Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages. Yale University Press. 2002:70
  27. Eco. 2002:118
  28. Eco. 2002:118)
  29. see Eco. 1988:209,213
  30. Eco. 1988:151
  31. Aquinas in Eco. 1988:150
  32. Emile Durkheim. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. George Allen & Unwin Ltd. 1976:318
  33. Durkheim. 1976:318
  34. Durkheim. 1976:320
  35. Durkheim. 1976:324
  36. Eco. 2002:53
  37. Eco. 2002:56
  38. Durkheim. 1976:322
  39. Eco.1986:115
  40. Douglass Hassall. “From the Grand Tour to Melbourne.” Quadrant. Vol.58(7,8) 2014:108
  41. Eco. 2002:114
  42. A paper first read in 1937. Reproduced in Conjectures and Refutations. Routlege. 1972. For a subtle reading of Hegel, see B C Birchall ‘On Hegel’s Critique of Formal Logic’. Clio 9(2) 1980
  43. see John Anderson. Art and Reality. Hale & Iremonger. Sydney. 1982.
  44. Wells Coates. ‘Response to Tradition’, in The Architectural Review, November 1932. 3rd page.
  45. Promotional Brochure. ‘Wells Coates’, undated, circa 1934.
  46. All quotes above from Wells Coates. 1932:4th page
  47. Wells Coates. 1932:3rd page
  48. Faber and Faber. London. 1934
  49. McGrath. 1934.86
  50. C.K. Ogden, in McGrath. 1934:221
  51. McGrath. 1934:9
  52. McGrath. 1934:13
  53. McGrath. 1934:62
  54. Adolf Loos, Ornament and Crime, quoted in McGrath. 1934:63
  55. The Architectural Review. July, 1932. ‘The Craftsman’s Portfolio No 70’
  56. Wells Coates. ‘Furniture Today—Furniture Tomorrow. Leaves from a Meta-Technical Notebook.’ The Architectural Review. July. 1932
  57. Wells Coates. 1932
  58. McGrath. 1934:186
  59. Routledge. 2007
  60. lit. wind, water
  61. McGrath. 1934:187
  62. McGrath. 1934:19
  63. Architectural Review, Nov 1932:165-8.
  64. See James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Penguin 1968: 211 -213.
  65. Wells Coates. ‘Materials for Architecture’, Architects Journal. Nov. 1931. Sec.1
  66. Wells Coates. 1931:Sec.2
  67. Wells Coates. 1931:Sec.4
  68. Wells Coates. 1931:Sec.6
  69. Published in France in 1923, and translated into German in 1926, and English in 1928
  70. Le Corbusier quoted in McGrath. 1934:142
  71. First-century Roman, author of De Architectura.
  72. Wells Coates. 1931:sec.5. My elaboration.
  73. McGrath. 1934:96&97
  74. For a contemporary review of Connell and Ward’s work in the 1930’s see: Dennis Sharp and Sally Rendel. Connell, Ward, and Lucas: Modern movement architects in England 1929–1939. Frances Lincoln Publishers Ltd. 2008:66–71
  75. Robin Boyd. The Puzzle of Architecture. Melbourne University Press. 1965:77
  76. For an account of Wells Coates’s career, see Elizabeth Darling. Wells Coates. Twentieth Century Architects. RIBA Publishing. London. 2012. For an outline of his influence in Melbourne, see Best Overend and Tronn Overend. Tramp to Shanghai: a Young Man’s Tale Before The War. iBook
  77. Boyd. 1965:47
  78. Boyd. 1965:17
  79. Boyd. 1965:16
  80. Boyd. 1965:132
  81. Boyd. 1965:183
  82. Geoffrey Serle. Robin Boyd: A life. The Miegunyah Press. 1995:294–5
  83. Boyd. 1965:145
  84. Boyd. 1965:73
  85. Boyd. 1965:73
  86. Boyd. 1965:71
  87. Boyd. 1965:87
  88. Jorn Utzon.’Platforms and Plateaus’ in Modernism and Australia. Documents on Art, Design and Architecture 1917–1967 Edited by Ann Stephen, Andrew McNamara and Philip Goad. The Miegunyah Press. 2006:955–6
  89. Utzon. 2006:957
  90. Utzon. 2006:957
  91. Peter Myers. ‘Sydney Opera House’ in The Encyclopedia of Australian Architecture. Edited by Philip Goad and Julie Willis. Cambridge University Press. 2012:672
  92. Myers. 2012:673
  93. Myers. 2012:673
  94. Myers. 2012:673
  95. Myers. 2012:674
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x