Thursday, July 14, 2011

A carbuncle on the face of Istanbul

Istanbul is one of the most wonderful cities in the world. It has an extraordinary history, is rich in fabulous monuments and has a very privileged natural position by the sea - the Bosphorus dividing and uniting it at the same time. It is a delight to be in and I have made a point of visiting it regularly.

One would think that such a treasure is worth treasuring. Yet architects, presumably with the agreement of city planners, have allowed it to be defaced thoughtlessly. One hideous example of this is the huge Ritz Carlton which has been built in such a way as to obscure some of the loveliest views of the Bosphorus on the one hand, and to blight the serenity of a 19th century mosque on the other (see the pictures I took with my mobile 'phone below)

Far from being a delight, like some of the extraordinary constructions of Frank Gehry, the building itself is very undistinguished architecturally. It is a ghetto for the rich which can, regrettably, be seen from land, sea and air. There is no respite from it.

Prince Charles once described the Sainsbury extension to the National Gallery in London as "a carbuncle on the face of an old and well-loved friend". The hideous Ritz Carlton in Istanbul is much worse than that, for at least the Sainsbury wing (which I do not find nearly as objectionable and which, significantly, houses great masterpieces of art and is open to all, rich and poor, for free) cannot be seen from all over London, while the Istanbul Ritz-Carlton cannot be avoided.

What is it that makes those responsible deface their city in this way?

The Daily Mail cartoon, which is the subject of my previous post, may provide a clue.

I presume that the medial orbito-frontal cortex of the brains of architects and planners who allowed this monstrosity to deface the beauty of that well loved city was inactive, or de-activated, during a long period when the building was planned and was under construction.

What could have de-activated the medial orbito-frontal cortex?

Greed comes to mind. Rich tourists, and so on.

Which makes it interesting to ask whether, in the face of greed, the medial orbito-frontal cortex is de-activated, rendering subjects unable to experience beauty.


Jocelyn Ireson-Paine said...

Horrible. Reminded me that here in Oxford, we have our own carbuncle, the Castle Mill flats built on the edge of Port Meadow by the University. I suppose the University planners' medial orbito-frontal cortices were deactivated too.

By the way, I find the new building in your first picture particularly ugly, for reasons that I can't quite define. There aeems to be not merely an absence of beauty, but the presence of a very specific kind of ugliness. Perhaps this would be a nice topic for a new study: are there brain systems which become more activated as ugliness increases, and what visual properties are they registering?

Jocelyn Ireson-Paine said...

In my previous comment, I said that in your first picture there seemed to be not merely an absence of beauty but the presence of a certain kind of ugliness. Perhaps a clash: the new building disrupting the flow of lines that my brain is trying to follow in the old.

This reminded me of the Jargon File, a dictionary of computer-programmer jargon, and its plethora of words for various kinds of inelegance. See for example the entries for "bag on the side", "cruft", "hack", "kluge", and so on.

To quote from the Introduction: "There is a whole range of altered states and problem-solving mental stances basic to high-level hacking which don't fit into conventional linguistic reality any better than a Coltrane solo or one of Maurits Escher's surreal trompe l'oeil compositions (Escher is a favorite of hackers), and hacker slang encodes these subtleties in many unobvious ways. As a simple example, take the distinction between a kluge and an elegant solution, and the differing connotations attached to each. The distinction is not only of engineering significance; it reaches right back into the nature of the generative processes in program design and asserts something important about two different kinds of relationship between the hacker and the hack. Hacker slang is unusually rich in implications of this kind, of overtones and undertones that illuminate the hackish psyche."

It would be interesting to see whether differences in brain activation show up when hackers are presented with the words for these different kinds of ugliness, and also with examples of them, e.g. computer programs or jokes which are defective in various ways.

And then to see whether one can find analogues in art.

S.Z. said...

Thanks for your comment. Yes, it is truly ugly, thoughtless.

I believe that activity in the amygdala that correlates with the experience of ugliness is graded with the declared intensity of the experienced ugliness.