It is said that when the Eiffel Tower was built in Paris the great French writer Guy de Maupassant was so shocked by its ugly presence in the beautiful French capital that he left the city in disgust. Since then, however, millions of people, both of more and less refined tastes, have come to Paris and admired the elegance and majesty of the grand structure, and posed for snapshots with it, while artists have captured on canvass different views of this technological feat. Perhaps the same may be said of the Empire State Building in New York City or the Liberty Arch in St. Louis. For, these too, like many others all over the world, are mammoth constructions that are products of our technological ingenuity, and these must also have offended (and do offend) the aesthetic sensibilities of some people.
Interestingly enough, some of the people who vehemently decry the grand structures of modern technology as vulgar and symptomatic of an obsession for the huge, are also the ones who would most readily admire the symmetries of Egyptian pyramids and the magnificence of medieval cathedrals. While it should be granted that not every grandiose expression of our technological potential is an instance of artistic beauty, it would be unfair, not to say dishonest, to condemn something as being devoid of any aesthetic value simply because it is a product of modern technology. But then, as Margaret Hungerford said, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
When we look at some of the human technological achievements with some sensitivity for the complexity of the science and engineering behind them, as well as in terms of what they accomplish in economic and cultural terms, we are also likely to experience an aesthetic experience of them. From this perspective, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Panama Canal, the Kennedy Center and even a giant supertanker may strike one as objects of beauty.
At much smaller scales, considerable effort is expended in modern technology for enhancing the aesthetic qualities of its products, and this for a simple reason: Whether it be an automobile or an airplane, a computer or a TV set, a telephone or a wrist-watch, the attractiveness of the final product plays as important a role as its functioning capabilities in the buyer’s decision. As a result, technologies have also developed for the express purpose of making things beautiful. Rendering objects smooth and symmetrical are no less important. So too are different kinds of paints, attractive façades and veneers, compact and good-looking packages, calligraphic etchings, shining buttons, etc. All these are as much part of present day technology as the technical components and arrangements that go into a product.
20 September 2010