Beauty of abstraction

I was struck recently by an interview on the radio with Cecil Balmond, the engineer who is realising Anish Kapoor’s Olympic Tower. He was talking about the aesthetics of the laws of physics and mathematics and how he took to mathematics when he saw the beauty inherent in it. The observation which struck me was that, for him, the beauty lies in the fact that it can be abstracted. This interests me because sometimes you come across the idea that the opposite is true – that abstraction is somehow cold, calculating and inhuman. (I’ve just read C.S. Lewis’s sci-fi novel, Out of the Silent Planet, in which the cold, evil imperialism of the character of Weston is linked to his scientific, abstract thought. The good character, Ransom, is a humanities academic. Ransom’s first instinct on encountering the alien race, the sorns, is that they must be technocratic, calculating, soul-less overlords to the cuddly hrosses – in fact, they turn out to be a feathered version of Tolkein’s Treebeard).

The quote I liked the best from Cecil Balmond was this: “I think the beauty is that it can be abstracted. I think that there is a huge power of abstraction in engineering, so that you are not limited to the surface of things; you can extract down, and, in extracting down I think there is a process beauty at work, because you come to the essence of something, and there is a beauty when you find that. So I think that in that sense, yes, there is a whole process of discovering beauty through engineering processes – through scientific imperatives – that gives you a feeling of discovery of beauty, though it’s abstract, and I think it’s because it’s abstract that it’s powerful”. I like the idea that by abstraction you can come to the essence of something – and that beauty lies there.

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