Contextualism, Functional Beauty, and LEGO

Some anti-formalists appeal to the importance of architectural history, styles, and contextual information and propose that, if we don’t grasp the relevant contextual background, then we don’t have full access to aesthetic properties of built structures. An original LEGO structure composed of all-white bricks might be considered stark or pure if simply considering formal color properties—whereas fuller aesthetic judgment might require familiarity with real-world architecture styles (for example, Le Corbusier, Meier, Mediterranean vernacular), or LEGO element production (for example, the early prominence of red and white bricks, or the post-2013 all-white and translucent LEGO Architecture Studio kit6), or the history of built structures in the original or alternate LEGO worlds.

Other anti-formalists appeal to functional beauty theory, suggesting that the aesthetic properties of architectural objects—as with other functional objects, like cutlery or clothes—are gauged in terms of the objects presenting a functional solution.7 In real-world architectural settings, we might suggest that aesthetic successes or failures of a built structure are connected to the architect’s intention to solve a particular problem, like designing housing for a given client or population in a specific location. In a contemporary LEGO world, we might point to built structures functioning to organize the spatial environment for one or another minifig population, and gauge the beauty or other aesthetic properties of the structure accordingly. In these cases, the functional beauty theorist maintains, formal properties alone don’t determine the aesthetic properties of the structure or our judgments thereof; broader design features are gauged against the prescribed functional needs and the degree to which those needs are met. We find a LEGO village delightful, for example, because it features circulation paths fitting to the functions of its constituent structures, those structures fitting to the basic range of a village’s functions, and all at a scale and in styles fitting to one or another concept we have of a well-working village—in contemporary LEGO worlds, as populated by minifigs.

To be sure, neither contextualism nor functional beauty theory is inconsistent with a moderate formalism. The aesthetic judgments we make of a structure in original LEGO world architecture as based on, say, context or function, are triggered because the structure has forms particularly fitting to such framing or judgment. The contextu- alist and functional beauty theorist will protest that, while we might need the forms of our LEGO structure to arrive at such aesthetic judgments, they are not sufficient to producing our delight (for example) in that structure. Conceding the necessity of the forms, though, is a step toward at least a moderate formalism.

Worse still, for these top brands of anti-formalism, is the strengthened case against your friend’s initial claim that the aesthetic identity of the LEGO houses was reflective of a Mykonos context. For it turns out that any design in the original LEGO world can be built anywhere at any time for any function or user or, even more compellingly, for none at all. As we have seen, one reason for this broad robustness of possibilities, not anchored to context or functional intention, is the versatility of forms among the elements of the original LEGO world. A second reason is that original (and other) LEGO worlds feature very loose rules of use. In the original LEGO world of buckets of bricks, there are effectively no directions, hence no constraints or shaping influences. If I want to build a Fallingwater-like structure in the original LEGO world amid a LEGO model of the Aegean sea or Saharan dunes, no guidelines prevent me—and the structure’s aesthetic properties likely arise from, and will be judged by, its forms.

We still might not think, per formalism, that we account for aesthetic properties and judgments in original LEGO world architecture in terms of forms and formal properties of structures built with elements of that world. What we have indicated, after all, is only that the most prominent alternative views do not hold. In the absence of a positive argument, we might opt for an agnostic stance. Yet given the dominant contribution of LEGO forms to aesthetic properties and judgments in original LEGO world architecture, the onus is on the anti-formalist to say in what other ways such properties and judgments might arise. The most likely candidates—for which better cases might be made in other LEGO worlds or perhaps real-world architecture—are not on the table or, in this case, the baseplate.

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