Ethics and Poetics in Architecture

Beauty and Justice

Contrary to common assumptions, the discipline of architecture is very complex, shifting with history and culture and also remaining the same. In some ways it is analogous to the human condition, which demands that we continually address the same basic questions to come to terms with mortality and the possibility of cultural transcendence, while expecting diverse answers that are appropriate to specific times and places. Architecture, like other forms of making traditionally associated with the fine arts, is an ontological mutant. It has shifted throughout history and cannot be reduced to a species of works. It is a naïve prejudice to identify the tradition of architecture with a chronology of useful buildings whose main significance is to delight through aesthetic contemplation.

This popular modern concept was a product of the Enlightenment and only came to fruition in the nineteenth century, particularly after the dissemination of J.N.L. Durand’s Recueil et Parallèlle des Edifices de Tout Genre, Anciens et Modernes, where architectural history is first presented as a progressive sequence of rational building types. A more careful appraisal of architectural traditions in diverse cultures and their changing political and epistemological contexts suggests a different way to understand architecture. Over the centuries and through widely different incarnations and modes of production, this discipline has offered humanity far more than superfluous pleasure or a technical solution to pragmatic necessities.

Our technological world often promotes skepticism about architecture having any meaning other than providing for shelter or functioning as a commodity and status symbol. For a technological mentality, universal truths obtain legitimacy by association with the technical achievements of applied science based on a mathematical language, the one language that seems unquestionable, regardless of local traditions and cultures. Our technological world is one driven almost exclusively by efficiency of means. Efficiency, demonstrable through mathematical argumentation, stands as an absolute value in all orders of life. The means can therefore claim to be unaffected by the social consequence of its ends. This is potentially disastrous for an ethical intentionality. Furthermore, the technological world is one in which specialization is deemed as the only solution to the proliferation of information. To operate efficiently the specialist typically disregards the language of history and the humanities, the source of wisdom that provides an ethical capacity to speak for one’s actions in view of a total life experience, here and now. Misled by technological progress, reason may be capable of dismissing the quality of the built environment as central to our spiritual well-being, yet our dreams and our actions are always set in place, and our understanding of others and ourselves would be impossible without significant places. Our bodies can recognize and understand—despite our so-called “scientific” common sense and its Cartesian isotropic space—the wisdom embodied in a place and its profound, untranslatable expressive qualities. With little effort we can recognize how architecture, in those rare places that speak back to us and resonate with our dreams, incites us to meditation, personal thought and imagination, opening up the “space of desire” that allows us to be “at home” while remaining always “incomplete” and open to our most durable human characteristic: personal mortality.

Even the seductive binary spaces in our computer screens could not appear to resemble reality if we were not first and foremost mortal, self-conscious bodies, already engaged in our world through orientation and gravity. We don’t merely have a body; we are our bodies, already engaged in our world in mutual dialogue. Our unarticulated, pre-conceptual “ground” of being depends fundamentally upon architecture as the external, visible order that makes our limits present. Architecture does not communicate a particular meaning, but rather the possibility of recognizing ourselves as complete despite our inherent openness as erotic beings, in order to dwell poetically on earth and thus be wholly human. In the Western tradition, the products of architecture have ranged from the daidala of classical antiquity to the sundials, machines and buildings that Vitruvius names as the three manifestations of the discipline, from the gardens and ephemeral architecture of the Baroque period to the built and unbuilt “architecture of resistance” of modernity, including a number of projects and architectural objects produced by Henriquez Partners. These objects and spaces are seductive. They destabilize us, like when we fall in love. Socrates often emphasized that this moment, a seemingly irrational state represented by cupid’s arrow, was (contrary to the arguments of reason) the true foundation of any knowledge that may be significant for humans. This recognition enabled by architecture is not merely one of semantic equivalence; rather it occurs in experience, and like in a poem, its “meaning” is inseparable from the experience of the poem itself. It is embedded in culture, it is playful by definition, and is always circumstantial. These artifacts, thaumata, convey wonder, a form of beauty grounded in eros (Venus-tas is the word used for beauty by Vitruvius). Architectural beauty, like erotic love, burns itself into our soul, it inspires fear and reverence through a “poetic image,” one that affects us primarily through our vision, and yet is fully sensuous, synaesthetic: it is thus capable of seducing and elevating us to understand our embodied soul’s participation in wholeness. What differentiates these artifacts from other forms of ars or poiesis is their intertwining with life itself in the form of significant action. To be rooted in culture, architecture aims to be appropriate, a form of decorum. Architecture is a mimesis of praxis (or a representation of ethical human action), in the definition that Aristotle provides for the work of art.

In other words, good architecture offers societies a place for existential orientation. It allows for participation in meaningful action, conveying to the participant an understanding of his or her place in the world. Successful architecture opens up a clearing for the individual’s experience of purpose through participation in cultural institutions. At its best, it plays with power. The order it conveys, however, is impossible to paraphrase. It is radical orientation in experience, beyond words. Its theory has been rooted in myths, philosophy, theology and science throughout history, yet architecture is none of these but an event. It is ephemeral and has the capacity of changing one’s life in the vivid present—exactly like an erotic encounter. It embodies knowledge, but rather than clear logic it is a bodily, fully sexual and therefore opaque experience of truth. For this reason, its meaning can never be objectified, reduced to functions, ideological programs, formal or stylistic formulas. Likewise, its technical medium is open rather than specific (like say, building typologies), including all artifacts from diverse media that make possible human dwelling and which by definition stand at the limits of language, establishing the boundaries of human cultures within which other more properly linguistic forms of expression may take place.

Architecture engages language to frame significant events appropriately. In the best of cases, its main theoretical concern is not instrumental but ethical. The purpose of theory is therefore to find appropriate language (in the form of stories) capable of modulating a project in view of ethical imperatives, always specific to each task at hand. The practice that emerges from such a theory can never be an instrumental application or a totalizing operation, one that might be universally applied as a particular architect’s style or method. Rather, this praxis aims at the production of harmonious, well-adjusted fragments that may question, by inducing wonder, the hegemony of the ideological, fundamentalist or technological beliefs embedded in the physical fabric of the global village. This praxis may be better grasped as a verb, as a process that has inherent value, rather than in terms of its heterogeneous products, as a process that has inherent value. The presence of a well grounded praxis, the trajectory of an architect’s words and deeds over time, embodying a responsible, practical philosophy grounded in history, is far more important than the particular aesthetic or functional qualities of a particular work.

The poetic and critical dimension of architecture is not unlike literature and film, addressing the questions that truly matter for humanity in culturally specific terms, revealing an enigma behind everyday events and objects. The cultural specificity of practices in our global village is therefore absolutely crucial. Though technology has already had a homogenizing effect, praxis involves much more than technical means and scientific operations—it concerns values, articulated through the stories that ground acts and deeds in a particular culture. The enduring quality of architecture is essential for the perpetuation of cultures. Values, as emerging in the life-world, are preserved by institutions, and embodied in our physical constructions. These diverse practices, like their accompanying dying languages, are valuable endangered species, and must be preserved.

For the true architect, design cannot be dictated by functions, algorithms, or any sort of compositional method. Since the real issues concerning architecture are never simply technological or aesthetic, architectural design is not “problem-solving,” and formal innovation is not enough. Architects engage their imagination to make poetic artifacts rather than plan buildings, employing dimensions of consciousness that are usually stifled by our culture and present educational paradigms. This is not an intuitive operation or unreflective action, but rather the continuation of a practical philosophy and a meditative practice: it is making with an awareness of expectations, in a collaborative mode whenever appropriate to the tasks. For poetry, according to Giambattista Vico, is a kind of metaphysics whose truth speaks to and through the imagination-consciousness, body and memory all in one, rather than in the language of scientific algorithms. Humanity creates, makes poetry, architecture and institutions, but in a way very different from that of God (or modern technology). I quote: “For God, in his purest intelligence, knows things, and by knowing them, creates them; but [humans] in their robust ignorance, [do] it by virtue of a wholly corporeal imagination, one liable to perturb in excess.” In view of these realizations, it is essential to grasp the possible confluence of ethics and poetics in the 21st century. The present excesses of empty computer-generated formalism, with its roots in liberal capitalism, and the far more insidious moral disasters that humanity witnessed during the last century in the name of health and beauty, associated particularly with fascism, but also with communism, have made us justifiably skeptical. I would like to invoke Plato and argue that beauty, as a form of deeply shared cultural experience, understood as a priori meaning in the world of culture, is a fundamental category. In Phaedrus the experience of beauty is a vehicle for the soul to ascend towards truth, (pt)eros provides the wings. Beauty is truth incarnated in the human realm, it is a trace of the light of Being that mortals can seldom contemplate directly, it is the purposefulness of nature mimetically reflected by the artifact. To paraphrase Hans-Georg Gadamer: In this “world below,” we can be deceived by what only seems wise, or what merely appears to be good. Even in this world of appearances, however, all beauty is true beauty, because it is in the nature of beauty to appear. This is what makes the beautiful distinct among ideas, according to Socrates. Beauty exemplifies, in Karl Jasper’s terms, reason incarnate in existence. This Platonic formulation offers a great challenge, as we must understand it in our epoch of cultural relativism. It is easy to understand taste as participating in local, historically determined norms. Yet, when we move beyond conventional aesthetics, taste takes its place among other forms of phronesis, Aristotle’s “practical wisdom” grounded in the habits and values that we share with others and that appear with utmost clarity and certainty. Such self-evidence, manifested in the poetic artifacts and stories of our traditions, can produce judgments that are no less rational for being grounded in ethos. These works of art and poetry are indeed capable of moving us. We may question the motivations behind them and even believe that their effect is illusory. Deconstruction has even tried to reduce it all to homogeneous “writing.” Yet, poetic works transform our life and ground our very being; they become hinges revealing a sense of purpose and order in history.

Eros and the imagination are inextricably linked. This is more than a physiological fact. Our love of beauty is our desire to be whole and to be holy, beauty transcends the aporia of necessity and superfluity; it is both necessary for reproduction, and crucial for our spiritual well-being, the defining characteristic of our humanity. Richard Kearney, among other philosophers in the hermeneutic tradition, has demonstrated the importance of the imagination for ethical action. Contrary to the view of many critical theorists who may believe that there exists an irreconcilable contradiction between ethics (associated with democracy, rationality and consensus) and the poetic imagination, Kearney convincingly shows how it is the lack of imagination that may be at the root of our worst moral failures. Imagination is precisely our capacity for love and compassion, for both recognizing and valorizing the other, for understanding the other as self, over and above differences of race, gender, culture and belief. Imagination is both our capacity for truly free play, and our faculty to make stories that partake from the language and vision of others. Architects are called to build the public realm, and their main vehicle is the personal imagination. Rather than a limitation that should be avoided, the imagination is the condition for truly significant work. Architectural works may have enormous consequences. This obvious observation is actually magnified by our historically given condition. We have inherited a great responsibility, for unlike our ancestors until the seventeenth century we effectively make history and believe in the self-evidence of human-generated change towards progress. This is a characteristic of Western culture with its origins in Christianity that has become universalized. Thus history, our diverse stories as varied as our cultures, is what we share as a ground for action, together with an indeterminate and somewhat infirm, more-than-human world that appears forever fragmented. We don’t share, like our more distant ancestors, a perception of the universe as a fundamentally changeless and limited cosmos. The imagination’s capacity to create compassionately is crucial to acknowledge cultural diversity in view of the nearly infinite possibilities for production offered by computer software. The imagination is equally the antidote to the prevailing cynical view about architecture, according to which it matters little what we make, for it will be co-opted by politics and power, its purpose being to exploit, dominate or control the other.

There are, of course, difficulties that emerge from monetary and political interests. Nietzsche has shown us that for this purpose a playful attitude seems to work best. Despite these difficulties, renouncing innovation is not an ethical option for the architect. Our historicity may now reveal the futility of Utopia and the early modern ideal of infinite progress, yet to project inherently means to propose, through the imagination, a better future for a polity. The architectural project is inherently an ethical practice, and this is not equivalent to a mindless search for consumable novelties disconnected from history. Throughout human history, architecture has often provided authentic dwellings, enabling individuals to recognize their place in a purposeful natural and cultural context. At times, however, particularly during the modern period, buildings have contributed to tragedy. The aesthetic programs underlying Nazi Germany are a case in point. Rather than being underscored by the imagination, the Nazi programs were borne from a rationalized mythology, transformed into the dogma of nationalism. Think as well of the way two very tall yet typical skyscrapers, secular products of a triumphant technology, were read as ideological signs by Muslim fundamentalists on September 11, 2001. The sad event of their destruction transformed two largely conventional buildings into symbols, having a nefarious effect on our world civilization. For all these reasons, we should remember that despite the loss of poetic enchantment in the world as it opens itself to nihilism, all we can do is continue to weaken the strong values of all sorts of ideologies and fundamentalist positions, ranging from organized religion to technology, expecting that in the gaps a new, genuine spirituality may emerge. Truly unethical is to pretend that there exists a unique and absolute set of values to be represented in architecture, articulated in one mythology, dogmatic religion, rational ideology or technology. The most authentic modern architecture opens itself to the abyss. It is meaningful precisely by not functioning as a literal sign: like poetry it operates against prosaic or scientific language. To attain the goal of weakening strong values, an ethical praxis in architecture is fragmented, difficult to consume and reduce to fashionable image; every project is carefully contextualized and the design responses are specific, never artificially stylistic. In every circumstance the architect must be prepared with Nietzsche and Heidegger to wait patiently for the rustle of the angels’ wings that may be passing by, avoiding the planner’s dream of total solutions and the fashion designer’s quest for consumable images.

Given the dangers at hand, it is crucial for the architect to develop a language that articulates responsibility and that anchors an inherently ambivalent practice. From its inception in human history, technical production, however poetic, carries a dimension that moves “against nature.” It is a necessary danger for Homo sapiens, who unlike other animals can never simply adapt themselves to the natural environment: a potential curse which is also one of humanity’s most precious gifts, narrated by many myths of traditional cultures, such as the stories of Prometheus and Cain. We may recall the ambivalent nature of the Greek daidala, the earliest architectural artifacts in the Western tradition (like Tecton’s ship, the labyrinth, the horse of Troy, and Achilles’ shield) that were both dangerous and wondrous, eliciting a power of seduction that was also a power of defense against all enemies, deceitful and yet necessary for the survival of the human spirit. Like votive and sacrificial objects, daidala were both sacred and polluted. While many of our cultural achievements have been obtained at great cost, it would be naïve to claim that the answer might be to live closer to nature, following the wisdom of our ancestral cultures. For us on the other side of modernity, reading the landscape like an Australian aborigine, or living at one with nature like our mythical ancestors, are not real options. As Heidegger has shown, there is a serious danger for humanity when, as we live our lives in a world of objects that conceal our finite horizon and impede our access and understanding of the more-than-human world, we treat nature as a collection of resources to be exploited. If something has been lost through modernity, such as our cultural understanding of genius loci, something has been gained as well. The highly artificial culture within the technological world is now capable, through historical self-consciousness, of embracing the previously contradictory aporias of cyclical and linear time in order to recognize the same mysterious origins once discovered and released through the earliest products of techne-poiesis. Through historical recollection and future orientation, architects can cultivate a capacity for stewardship and responsibility. They can develop their poetic potential as makers to disclose and celebrate the original mystery as it appears in the primary structure of our embodiment, the meaningfulness of a given world that refuses to be reduced to universal categories.

While the appropriate language (and critical understanding) is therefore crucial for an ethical practice, one should immediately acknowledge that words and deeds never fully coincide; language is opaque. This is not the fault of the architect, and should be celebrated rather than deplored. The opaqueness of language characterizes the very nature of human existence, which is never coincidental with the words of gods for whom “to name is to make.” The possession of symbolic, multivocal languages is among the most precious gifts that makes us human, perhaps more precious than our approximations to an ideal, scientific or mathematical universal language. As George Steiner has eloquently stated, human beings are singular among all species for having over three-and-a-half thousand distinct languages capable of poetic expression. Homo sapiens, despite living in close proximity, remains linguistically diverse and capable of speaking poetically in ways that through translation may enrich the other’s experience of reality: this is the ultimate enigma which no evolutionary theory of man can ever reduce.

No matter what architects produce, once the work inhabits the public realm, it is truly beyond their control. An expressed intention can never fully predict the work’s meaning. Others decide its destiny and its final significance. Despite this logical conundrum, the architect’s best bet is to understand that there is an inherent phenomenological continuity between thinking and making, between words and deeds. Despite the predominant opinion that often dismisses good intentions in view of “real” deeds, well-grounded intentions are crucial and rare in the modern world. Beyond what an individual architect is capable of articulating at the surface of consciousness, or through one particular project, intentions imply a whole style of thinking and action that takes into account a past life and thick network of connections within a culture. Intentional thinking is the foundation of praxis, in the full Aristotelian sense. Once a modern architectural theory is understood as practical philosophy driven by ethics, techne-poiesis or practice appears as process, as a fully embodied and open-ended personal engagement with making that is not driven by instrumental concerns or methodologies.

Within a framework of understanding derived from a hermeneutic reading of history, ethics appears not through norms or generalities, but through stories that focus on specific works and individuals. In recent critical theory the self has been portrayed as a dangerous, inflated ego, product of the eighteenth century. Feminist and social critiques have tended to render art and design as the result of more or less anonymous, more or less insidious forces. The unmasking of ego-centered interpretations is healthy. What is very dangerous, however, is to follow up this diagnosis with a desire to renounce the personal imagination in design as if it were some evil, distorting device, in favour of diagrams, algorithms, or a supposedly objective consensual framework. I have already alluded, with Richard Kearney, to the ethical function of the imagination. The imagination is the hinge of ethics and poetics, crucial for seduction and compassion; it is the vehicle to build an architecture upon love, in the sense of both seduction and brotherly affection, as a promise for the common good.

It is always the I who acts, a fully embodied and imaginative first person, caught in a technological and historical world that both endows the architect with responsibility and limits the range of possibilities. The author of architectural projects, fully rooted in language and culture through the medium of the body, is also capable of poetic speech, of making beyond the confines of a narrow style, ideology or nationality. My claim is that individual architects in history, despite the apparent dangers of the imagination and the opaque relationship between words and deeds, have indeed contributed imaginative answers to our universal call for dwelling. Through their personal reformulation of universal, social questions, in view of their own historically and geographically specific framework of beliefs, they have generated poetic responses that embody beauty as the expression of justice.

— Alberto Pérez-Goméz, Towards An Ethical Architecture: Issues Within the Work of Gregory Henriquez

[Top Image: Stan Douglas, The Downtown Eastside, 2002]


September 16, 2011 | No Comments (yet!)

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