Beauty is more than Facade

Recently I was invited to take part in a panel discussion at the European Forum Alpbach in the Tyrol. This place has the reputation of being “the most beautiful village in Austria”. I used one of the breaks to take a stroll around the village and take a closer look at it, and to my astonishment I saw that each house looks exactly like all the others – a stone ground floor painted white and the upper floors built of dark wood with balconies and each street-side balcony decorated with a profusion of red geraniums in full bloom. Never before had I seen such uniformity in any town or village. It was fascinating but also strange at the same time. And I began to wonder whether such rigorous conformity really could be beautiful. 

Beauty as the epitome of outer uniformity

This principle is in accord with the building regulations in Alpach and is precisely what distinguishes this place from all the other villages in Austria. And it’s paradoxical because it’s the rigorous uniformity in the facades that gives the place its special character. Alpach is different because everything there is the same. It’s the uniqueness of the place that has made it famous and that draws in huge crowds of visitors. 

But what about individuality in all thus unreal outward beauty? The individuality of the people who live in these houses can only be expressed behind the scenes. A strange world which somehow reminded me of the artificiality of the attractions in Disneyland.

Beauty as a deviation from never-ending sameness

Then I walked through the little cemetery of the village and I could hardly believe my eyes. It was like a thicket of elaborate wrought iron crosses each one the exact replica of the last. All the same height and the same width – only the names and photos of the deceased were different. Outward uniformity even in death. 

But then I came across a grave that wasn’t quite the same. It was the grave of the Austrian Nobel Prize winner Erwin Schrödinger, one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century whose work has always inspired both OUBEY and me and filled us with enthusiasm. And I found it rather moving in such a place to see that a respectful homage had been paid to such an extraordinary genius as Erwin Schrödinger by allowing his grave to deviate from the otherwise strict uniformity. Even in Alpbach an exception had been made for a man of such outstanding calibre.  In that moment beauty for me was an opening onto the possibility of individuality. 

Beauty as a mark of respect

Outward homogeneity can be seen as beautiful but can also take on an unappealing or even ugly form. Compared with the grim depressing facades of many modern apartment blocks and purpose built constructions in our cities, the outward conformity of the houses in Alpbach seem like a soothing benediction for the eye. Conversely, something is not automatically beautiful just because it’s individual or deviates from the norm. 

So what is beauty? This is a question that much cleverer people than I have asked across the ages. Aspects of what constitutes beauty have been defined by aesthetics, by the natural sciences and geometry and also by manifold findings of psychology. What someone subjectively finds beautiful adheres to some extent to these definitions yet always remains a subjective perception. What you might find beautiful someone else might well find anything but beautiful. And this is how it should be because it’s an expression of human individuality. 

In the Alpbach cemetery the principle of absolute conformity was bent to honour the extraordinary individuality of one single man and make an exception for him. And in this very moment it flashed on me once more that respect for the individual is the precondition for the creation of a beauty based on diversity. And such respect – it should go without saying – belongs to each and every person and not just a world famous Nobel Prize winner. 

If architects, urban planners, landscape artists and designers of all strips would whole heartedly embrace this basic principle instead of following the dogma of bare functionality and minimal costs for maximum efficiency, the living circumstances of many people today would certainly be at least a lot less unattractive than they now are. 

The brilliant design artist Stefan Sagmeister, who also created the award-winning MINDKISS book on OUBEYs art, will soon be opening a major exhibition in Vienna on the theme of Beauty. I certainly intend to see this. And perhaps I will gain some fresh perspectives there which I shall be glad to share with you on the social web or in this blog. 

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