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Unfinished: Winthrop Under Construction

As I walk through art museums, I often notice half-colored canvases and partial figure drawings, placed prominently in frames beside drawings and paintings that are more obviously complete. Last year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted an exhibition called “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible.” The exhibition explored the question of why we label some artwork unfinished, categorizing artwork as either pieces whose process was halted by some sort of accident or pieces that are purposely constructed with an incomplete aesthetic — in other words, finished in an unfinished way.

The second category finds close parallels in architecture. An “unfinished” aesthetic is not uncommon in modern and contemporary buildings. Even on Harvard’s campus, for example, Mather House trumpets rather than conceals its construction, its unfinished look characteristic of Brutalist architectural style.

Less attention is paid, however, to genuinely unfinished architecture. While I may marvel at a half-exposed canvas in a museum, my instinctive reaction to passing a building under construction is exasperation: The ugly scaffolding is blocking my view of the facade. Architecture that is halted mid-creation is usually labeled “abandoned” rather than unfinished, and visible construction or renovation is considered an eyesore.

So why is it then, that unfinished drawings are beautiful, while unfinished buildings are at best unappealing? In theory, the same things that draw me to unfinished drawings—the visual representation of process—should draw me to unfinished buildings as well. Maybe the difference is an issue of context and scale, or perhaps of the practical roles buildings play. It would be easier to be frustrated by the waste of resources in an unfinished building than a drawing, and a building under construction is often unable to fulfill its intended function. Yet, when I pass a building as I walk down the street, I don’t need it to function, and I don’t necessarily know anything about its funding or history. I interact with it purely visually.

This suggests that the difference lies in our visual experience of each art form, or perhaps in our visual expectations. The concept of an “unfinished aesthetic” depends on a preconceived notion of what a finished piece ought to look like. Without that notion, pieces would simply be finished when the artist stopped working on them. Perhaps our conception of what finished architecture looks like is less fluid than our conception of what finished sculpture or drawing looks like. Fluid expectations for how fine art ought to look allow us to register the unfinished aesthetic while still appreciating the work as a finished piece. The stricter conception of what finished architecture looks like makes it more difficult to appreciate an unfinished building as a piece meritorious in its own right.

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It is difficult to know exactly what shapes our visual reactions, and it’s hard to say whether I’ll be able to shake off my instinctive annoyance at construction. I do believe, however, that it is possible to appreciate unfinished buildings as we do unfinished drawings and paintings. The metal grid of the scaffold is no different from the guidelines in a perspectival drawing, and revealed interior beams are the same as a monochrome underpainting for a portrait in oil.

Moreover, because each building is not isolated in its own frame like a two-dimensional piece, unfinished buildings visually interact with finished buildings. For example, the scaffold and metal stairway on Winthrop House lines up perfectly with Lowell’s bell tower. The bars of the scaffold extend the sides of the tower, uniting the two into a new tower that is unfinished on the bottom and finished on top. Through relationships like this one, architectural landscapes can harness the beauty of the unfinished in ways that works in a museums cannot.

Unfinished: Winthrop House

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