Saturday, October 18, 2008

In Re: The Katz Building

We are past the day, if ever it dawned, when humanity could speak with one voice as to what is beautiful and what grotesque. Yet it seems possible we are capable of coming to a rough consensus whether something is, on the whole, closer to one pole or the other. To test this hypothesis, I offer for public determination the aesthetic status of the new Katz Building, which will be the architectural expression of the Penn State Dickinson School of Law on the University Park Campus of Penn State University (pictured above).

I stipulate the administration’s great efforts to bring this building to fruition and the continuing value the building will confer on PSULaw. I anticipate the thing will be a functional marvel. At issue here is purely outward aesthetics (such a judgment on the innards of the building awaits the day they are experienced).

It seems PSULaw professors will be hard pressed to be objective. They may regard the Katz building, whatever its appearance, as the thing that will emancipate them from the cinder-block mausoleum where their offices are currently housed, and from storm-lashed travel between classrooms in PSULaw's extant multi-building campus, and so find it beautiful.

Those of us who are PSULaw students may have our own trouble with objectivity, seeing the Katz building as responsible for the upward revision of at least one left-side decimal place holder on our student loan statements.

Still, the profession of law frequently requires objectivity; we are all capable, with a conscious effort, to bring it to the present question.

Third party judgments are of course both welcome and sought-after.

I will not come right out and state my aesthetic judgment on the building. Rather, I offer this observation that conveys my conclusion through implication: just as one can only run 1.5 miles into a 3-mile thick patch of woods before one in fact starts to run out of it, so, it seems, a thing can only become so ugly before it begins, progressing in the same direction, to become by degrees first ‘endearing’ then ‘interesting’ and, finally, beautiful.

There is this consolation to those in the PSULaw community who feel strongly that the building is unlovely. Find comfort in the fact that you soon will be going inside the building everyday, and in so doing will be making incidental use of Guy de Maupassant’s coping mechanism for dealing with unsightliness. Guy de Maupassant was a Parisian writer of the late 19th century. Unreconciled to the appearance of the new and omnipresent Eiffel Tower, Maupassant had lunch at the base of the structure nearly everyday. He had lunch there not for the quality of the food, but because it was the only place in Paris from which M. Eiffel’s offensive spawn couldn’t be seen.

Similarly, and even more in keeping with Maupassant's inspiration: for Katz-detractors in its line of sight but outside the PSULaw community, I note the Katz building will have a cafe.

Finally, and not as an indictment of the structure’s appearance, it seems worth noting that there is a non-negligible danger that an occasional plane intended for the University Park airport will land beside either end of the Katz building and attempt to off-load passengers.


Kelly J. Bozanic said...

Dave, your writing is a joy to read! Your question of aesthetics raises many thoughts. I have shared the very same Maupassant story with some who liken the Katz Building's form to a sort of Loch Ness monster. I believe the shape of the Katz Building is actually supposed to be reminiscent of a camera craning towards Mt. Nittany. But whether monster, camera, or terminal, the building is certainly modern and sleek.

I will confess that it is difficult for me to see it as anything but special, and so objectivity may not be within my grasp at present. In that regard, I will agree with you that humanity may not ever have been able to make uniform judgments about beauty. I posted a while back on a study suggesting symmetry was the key to beauty, but I am less convinced of that in the case of the non-organic. The Katz Building embodies many things; for starters, the bitter-sweet and exciting emotions of our approaching graduation are all wrapped-up in the move to Katz. A new chapter is beginning for both Penn State Law and for the first graduating class from University Park, we turn the page on May 9th in the Katz Building, what a place!

David Hutchinson said...


Regarding symmetry being the key to beauty: I have read about studies which, while confirming that facial symmetry is a reliable attribute of human beauty, find additionally that the most beautiful people have generally symmetrical faces leavened with an aesthetic apostasy or two (e.g. think Jolie with her giant lips and eyes; models whose chins are closer to the tip of the nose than the tip of the nose is to the space between their eyes).

By the way, these studies are conducted by sticking babies (too young to have had what society thinks is beautiful communicated to them) in front of images of faces and seeing which they stare at and for how long. Funny that there seems to have been no test done for supreme ugliness; perhaps that would be child abuse.

After I read the study I kept trying to get babies to stare at me, and felt sore and unworthy if they looked away or, worse, cried (both of which occurred).

Kelly J. Bozanic said...

I have heard of the baby methodology, although I think the study reported by the Economist was done first with insects and their mating success correlated to bodily symmetry. The study also manipulated images of individuals and asked members of the opposite sex to rank them in order of attractiveness. In any event, don't feel sore and unworthy, it could have been the baby's digestive system!

David Hutchinson said...

I'm sure you are right about the babies' digestive systems. And in any case, what do they know?

I recall hearing something about the insect study; it explains why I am frequently at the gym working on my thorax.

Alison M. Kilmartin said...

Many people in State College have told me that they think the new building looks like a plane terminal. I usually proceed to give them the craning camera explanation, but if often results in little consolation.

Ugly or beautiful, one great thing about the building is that it signals that yes, indeed, there is a law school at Penn State. And yes, we mean business. No longer will we prowl in the bowels of Beam. My hope is that once the landscaping is planted it will soften the sterile lines of the building.

Jim Chen said...

I like the Katz Building. I'd bring it to my campus in a heartbeat.

David Hutchinson said...

Dean Chen,

If the Katz building were to be moved to your campus, it would need to be on the proviso that the thing face in the correct direction; this to ensure compliance with the architects' vision that the building evoke a forelorn camera, craning towards Mt. Nittany.

But we will be keeping it for the following non-exhaustive reasons:

1) the thing allegedly comes with 3L parking spaces

2) we have paid for it

3) it offers shelter against the harsh State College winter

I think you are right to well-regard the Katz building; as I alluded to in the post, it promises to be a functional marvel and is at least physically interesting. And, in a universe governed by the law of entropy, it has the virtue of being new.