Habitat, language, and emotion
There used to be a big debate on the beautiful versus the sublime. Forest edges are usually beautiful. They do not usually include things like sheer cliffs or water that goes to the horizon. Those have an "awesome beauty" or “sublime” quality that puts one at least slightly on guard. Our ancestors usually sought out beautiful places and were appropriately on guard around the sublime or awe-inspiring.
Take Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright's prairie style architecture especially adopted a nearly literal version of the forest edge. The raised living room with fireplace and views filtered by art glass recall a bower at the forest edge. They almost function like duck blinds. Wright’s designs often had an aspect of the awesome as well. His piers and chimneys had the drama of sheer cliffs. However, he softened that drama with planters as if to reassure us. On the rare occasions when he engaged large expanses of water, he used piers and break walls to soften the empty horizon.
One way that Wright differed from his contemporaries, though, is that he did not use the same architectural language the same way. In his Prairie-style buildings, he used urns, sure, and roofs, but he did not use ionic capitals explicitly, for instance.
Perhaps it is not surprising, but there are probably three ways in which architecture does these good deeds.
First, architecture is an environment. It is literally a habitat, so it is not surprising that it has some of the qualities of good natural habitats: prospect and refuge, for example. This is the main job of architecture: to produce a comfortable habitat. How else could our species cover the globe?
Second, architecture is also linguistic. Architecture tells us about the time and place when it was built – and often by whom and for what. At least traditional architecture does. In fact, this communicativeness is part of what makes traditional architecture traditional. It helps us tell one tribe from another, and tells us what is going on.
Third, perhaps it is not a stretch to say that we personify buildings. Buildings often seem to be “dour” or “cheerful.” We might take that as an empty phrase. Maybe we just mean that the building makes us feel dour or cheerful. Yet deep down, emotionally, don’t we often truly feel that a building or a place has a personality?
Maybe we should take a step back and ask ourselves not abstractly whether we “like” a building or not, but whether it makes a good habitat, whether it tells us what it is about and how to use it – and whether it has the right mood.
The other side is that architecture can fail these tasks just as completely as it does anything else. A failure to communicate and comfort is just as bad as a failure to keep the rain out. If a train station lifts us up, gives us our dignity, and helps us find our trains on time, it can be a great success.
Why did our ancestors expend so much effort on such supposed frippery as ornament and tall ceilings? Perhaps they were willing to stand behind their emotions.