Life of an Artist – Blog 12

The Lost Beauty in Old Architecture

Gouache Plein Air Painting of Dunedin

New Environment, new Inspiration

It’s been nearly a year, now since I’ve moved to Dunedin City, where I’m currently enjoying my favourite time of year: Autumn. I first came to Dunedin during Autumn in 2015 and absolutely loved being able to see the change of the seasons, again. I know it’s an extremely colonial sentiment, but having grown up in Europe I have missed watching the trees take on the radiant colours of the sun as she becomes a distant and secluded friend over Autumn and Winter time. The trees aflame with reds, oranges and yellows warm the spirits as everything else gets colder. And it’s so fleeting! The next storm might strip them all naked, a state they have to endure all winter until the buds of spring grace them with a new cloak to cover those barren branches once more.

To capture that fleeting moment is an artists dream, a theme that has occupied many artists throughout history.

Fig 1: Plein-Air painting with Gouache – Location sketch of D.M.Stuart statue (c.1898) in the Queens Garden, Dunedin

Thus I have been going out as much as the weather has allowed to capture that brief magic. Unfortunately I only caught the tail end, so the magic is very nearly over but here are some impressions. (I’ve been using a new set of Himi Gouache, which I’m really enjoying as they are a sweet medium between Watercolours and Acrylics.)

Another thing that pulled heavily on my nostalgia-strings, when I first came to Dunedin was the beautiful “old” architecture, which still stands proud in the city. It makes me wonder when exactly in time humans stopped caring about the aesthetics of the things we build, which then become placeholders for a long time to come. When did the art and craftsmanship behind architecture disappear? Have we just forgotten those skills, did they die along with the old masters or is it merely a reflection of the economic times?

After doing some research I believe it might be the classic ‘action – reaction theory’ at play here (a theory which explains a lot about humanity, one worthy of its own blog). One guy in particular seemed to be a huge game changer. His name was Adolf Loos (1870-1933) (what is it about the name Adolf?) and he lived in Vienna during an interesting time in art history. Being a very influential architect, he helped shape the principles of the Modernist movement. Here’s a famous quote, which will indicate why his ideology may have laid some nasty seeds which we haven’t even begun to properly weed out:

Fig 2: Plein-Air painting with Gouache – Location sketch of The Gingerbread House,
Univeristy Otago, Dunedin

Gouache Plein Air of University of Otago

“The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornamentation from objects of everyday use.” 1

Adolf Loos

As a reaction to the ornamental decadence of Vienna, due to the popularity of the Classical and Renaissance era and with the rise of the flourishing Art Nouveau movement during the turn of the century, Adolf Loos along with other artists, poets, philosophers and architects started an ‘anti-ornamental’ movement called Modernism. Modernism was like an antihistamine to cure an odd allergic reaction to filigree. He believed that form should follow function. It seems like our human culture loves to fluctuate from one extreme to the other, and so we live in the aftermath of a fashion-statement, a strange ‘allergic reaction’, which was born about 100 years ago, and has unfortunately remained in the psyche of architects the world over. There have been evolutions in design with the Bauhaus and Brutalist movements, which just added to the ugly and sterile nature of ‘pure form’. I believe we are now technically in the Post-Modern era, but that just seems to be modernism on acid, pushing the simple shapes to the extremes. I can imagine that the birth of this ideology has been a heaven-sent for project developers the world over as machines, materials and labour is nowhere near as expensive and construction can be done in half the time, but at what cost to our psyche?

Modernism: Steiner House, Vienna, Austria, 1910 by Adolf Loos. From Ornament is Crime
Postmodernism: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

Ornament does not heighten my joy in life or the joy in life of any cultivated person.1

Adolf Loos

I beg to differ and it seems like there are studies out there that do, too. I found an article, that looks at the effects our environment has on our mental and physical health, and there have been some interesting discoveries:

“Eye tracking studies demonstrate that people focus mainly on details and ornaments when appraising their environments. Experiments with skin conductance sensors have shown that looking at dull, vast facades makes us feel bored and uncomfortable. This kind of boredom has been linked to raised heart rate and increased stress levels.”2 This quote by Natalia Olszewska in her article Why has beauty disappeared? published online in the Venetian Letter completely refutes Adolf Loos’ previous statement, as the studies she refers to have in fact shown that the world around us influences physical reactions within our bodies, meaning that if we strip away the ornaments and details leaving merely boring grey blocks of concrete walls to look at, this does indeed cause an increase in heart rates and stress levels and this in a time where depression, heart disease and chronic illnesses are on the rise.

Fig 3: Plein-Air drawing with Pen – Location sketch of the High Court, Dunedin

Furthermore she declares that “Professor Irving Biederman at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles has found that when people look at scenery, like beautiful vista, a sunset, a tree-lined drive, the nerve cells in this opiate-rich pathway fire. It means that when you’re looking at a beautiful scene, your brain actually gives you a morphine high.” 2 This is extremely interesting seeing as opioids are currently the leading prescription drug against chronic illnesses and pain, and unfortunately lead to addiction, abuse and overdose, according to data from the CDC opioid-overdoses cause 128 deaths per day, both prescribed and illegally acquired. 3
So it would be interesting to consider whether chronic-illnesses, heart disease and depression could be reduced, if more emphasis was put into beautifying our urban surroundings. I’m hopeful, as I don’t seem to be alone in this train of thought, there appears to be a push for more research and more voices criticizing the modern monstrosities surrounding us everyday. One such voice says, “Whereas beauty, also subjective, is a positive inducement that inspires, uplifts, and grants energy, an attribute that people repetitively and sometimes subconsciously seek every day.”4 these are words from architect and writer Nader Sammouri in his article Why is most modern Architecture ugly?

Fig 4-6: Plein-Air painting with Watercolour and Pen – Location sketches of original houses of High Street, Dunedin

In line with my ‘action-reaction’ theory it’s only a matter of time until we culturally and most likely subconsciously agree that enough is enough, and the new fashion counteracts the modernist movement, spicing up the classicist school of thought once more, which declares that there is a standard of beauty in design! Personally when I look at these beautifully ornate buildings I don’t just sense awe, but also a sense of pride to be human, a feeling that in this day and age of mainstream idiocracy does not happen very often. This sense of pride doesn’t stem from a patriotic ideology but pride in the human species itself, and the mind-blowing capabilities we have when given adequate time and resources.

The thing that led me to this conclusion is just the absolute awe of draftsmanship behind the architectural designs of the buildings I’ve been sketching on location. The amount of detail in every single column and window is extremely challenging to copy, which makes me realise how impossible it must have been for the architects to design these from sheer imagination, and this before the aid of computer technologies. I honestly do not know how they designed such intricate, yet repetitive patterns. All I can do is keep on studying them and practicing this level of accuracy in perspective and detail.

It honestly makes me wonder whether a certain incapability of students such as Adolf Loos, to copy and replicate the great masters led to the frustration and thus a rebellion in style… leading instead to nice comprehensible rectangles!

Fig 7: Plein-Air drawing with Pen – Location sketch of the Railway Station, Dunedin

“Considering the role of beauty in design is crucial to “successful” architecture and opening the way for people to feel engaged, included and healthy in a space.” 5

Julia Keim

On that note I will love you and leave you! I hope you have enjoyed this exploration of architecture in our daily life and what may have shaped it. We can only hope that a new wave washes over the minds of all future architects, and have faith that the skills of the past haven’t all died with the craftsmen who built the buildings, that we marvel at today. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject in the comments below.

Much love and inspiration from
Natalie J. Cheetham

(All artwork on this page copyright of Natalie J. Cheetham.Art)


2 thoughts on “The lost beauty in old Architecture”

  1. First of all, very good paintings and sketches, great detail and perspective. Also your research about this subject is very interesting and I am suprised that more people are trying to get behind this matter. Otoh, On my outing yesterday, walking through the most amazing landscape with beautiful looking trees, and smelling plants in gardens and around a lake, I noticed with great sadness how many of especially young people, there were, who either walked by or even sat on a bench in the middle of it all, not looking at any of it the beauty, but – yes – down on their smartphones. Same thing on the way home, almost everyone (younger) walking with their heads down, hardly even looking up to cross the road, not noticing their surroundings, so I said to my friend how sad it was, that so many people, whether in the countryside or in the town, simply don’t care about what surrounds them anymore.
    I actually watched a documentary on tv about the architecture of Spain, which is amazing too (don’t know, if you remember the Alhambra in Granada?, you might have been to little). They said that in the olden days one way of displaying how well off you were, was by adding more and more monuments on to your house or building. I think, these days, people display their riches in a different way. And of course a lot of people who could afford beautiful artwork on their homes go more for plain and modern and practical and have their treasures inside the house? May be? Also, I think you have to be brought up to pay attention to those things. I know some people, who simply NEVER look at any of these details unless they are pointed out to them. Then they might start to do it themselves. But as you said, one extreme will follow the other extreme, so there might still be hope for beautiful architecture to return again.

  2. This has been an informative and enticing treatise to read, not only on architectural histories but the beauty of artistic design wrapped up in the bricks and mortar of by-gone eras. Excellent to sip dandelion tea while musing.
    I too have been traveling and capturing the last morsels of settlers huts rotting away into barren and cooked landscapes, sizzling in the drastic heat of Australian seasons. I have a strong collection that I hope to show both yourself and dear S one day! I call it ‘old huts’. While I’m photographing these old wooden structures I become completely immersed in the energies left behind, questions running wild, who built these little bedraggled homes, what was their life, where were they from, what did they think about. every hand print etches into the walls of time like the strokes of the pen/brush that will later draw them. Then it dawns on me that they started as a drawing, a design jotted in age old note pad and likewise they will end as a scrawled ink painting in my notebook. What a fabulous notion. A idea is born and dies with the stroke of a brush.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

We use cookies in order to give you the best possible experience on our website. By continuing to use this site, you agree to our use of cookies.