I am sitting on the south side of Columbia Square, along with about a dozen other people on the other three cardinal points of the square. Pretty crowded one could say, especially for a square this small in size.
The square is compact, but neatly organized with four paths and a fountain in the center with a sitting area surrounded by flowers on each side of the square. One live oak tree covers each corner.
It is the week after St. Patrick’s Day and it looks like peace has finally returned to Savannah. I wasn’t here for the festivities myself, but from what I have heard the city pretty much flooded with tourists eager to hit the booze and paint the town red—or should I say green?
I can see the Davenport House on the north side of Columbia Square and the Kehoe House on the west side. Their prominent architecture, along with the calm and symmetrical organization of the green and flowery square, create a sense of beauty.
But what is beauty? It is a very abstract and ambiguous term that can mean almost anything to anybody. Especially when talking about architecture or the built environment in general.
The question is why we perceive something as beautiful? What triggers that special feeling we get when we gaze at something “beautiful?”
If I apply this question to where I am sitting right now, the answer would not be the flowers in the square, nor would it be the architecture of those two buildings. It is certainly not the live oak trees either, or the sound of falling water that comes from the fountain.
In my opinion it is what we connect to all these things. For instance, the brightly colored flower bushes and twisting, low-hanging branches of the trees create a feeling of untamed wilderness in my mind. Add to this the falling water and the sound of birds singing and the picture is complete. The idea of beauty through untouched nature, even though not present, is still evoked by all these elements and this is what triggers that feeling of beauty for me.
It is the same for the architecture. I think you can never judge a building out of its context since there are so many other factors in its surroundings that may complement, or sometimes contrast, the architecture. The Kehoe House is beautiful in my observation because of its Queen Anne style architecture, but even more because of its setting.
Overlooking this green square, set against the other 19th century architecture, even the carriages that pass by every 10 minutes, they all add to the beauty of this building. In fact, it wouldn’t look as sublime as it does if it would have been built in the midst of dozens of tall, glass skyscrapers, fleets of city buses and hordes of people walking by.
I look to my left and an older but well-groomed man wearing suspenders is relaxing on the bench next to me. I ask him if he lives in the neighborhood and while answering my question he points at the house to his left and tells me he owns a bed-and-breakfast. Sadly, he tells me he has to sell his business because of the bad economy and his declining health.
When I ask him why he comes to this square, he says he loves the serenity here. Now, this—the serenity—is what makes this square so beautiful to him. Not necessarily the idea of untamed nature as it is for me, but whatever gives him the feeling of serenity.
Different people will interpret beauty in a different way, and most importantly, no matter how much this opinion may differ from your own, it can never be quite wrong since the person in question is merely acting on what he or she is feeling at that time.
Some might say Columbia Square is dull and lifeless, and that is fine. If you do not feel comfortable in a neatly organized or picturesque environment, of course that will evoke aversion, and we cannot for one second tell those people they are wrong—in fact, I think it is even more interesting to find out why disorder would attract certain people and what exactly could trigger beauty in something as unusual as chaos.Contact Olivier Maene.