Reconciling Poetics and Ethics in Architecture

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Alberto Pérez-Gómez
Saidye Rosner Bronfman Professor of the History of Architecture

Thursday, September 13, 2007, 18:00
RM G10, McGill University School of Architecture
Macdonald-Harrington Building, 815 Sherbrooke Street West

This lecture is organized in conjunction with the McGill School of Architecture Lecture Series.

Architectural Longing after Ethics and Aesthetics

The forced polarity between form and function in considerations of architecture--opposing art to social interests, ethics to poetic expression--obscures the deep connections between ethical and poetical values in architectural tradition. Architecture has been, and must continue to be, built upon love. Modernity has rightly rejected past architectural excesses; I argue that the materialistic and technological alternatives proposed do not answer satisfactorily the complex desire that defines humanity. True architecture is concerned with far more than fashionable form, affordable homes, and sustainable development; it responds to a desire for an eloquent place to dwell--one that lovingly provides a sense of order resonant with our dreams. Drawing on material from my recent book, Built Upon Love: Architectural Longing after Ethics and Aesthetics, I will examine the relationship between love and architecture in order to find the points of contact between poetics and ethics--between the architect's wish to design a beautiful world and architecture's imperative to provide a better place for society.

Can we imagine an architecture that is both beautiful and contributes to the common good? Given our complex world, burdened by environmental degradation and social inequity, the question of architecture’s contribution to humanity’s well being is not an obvious one, but it seems to have an urgency that it lacked during the earlier, more optimistic phases of modernity. Our central modern institutions have become problematic. Democratic national governments act like police states and corporations operate like pathological criminals. Should architects design comfortable hospitals more concerned with business than with healing, or well-detailed prisons that will never hold the real criminals that destroy the environment or exploit and decimate the economic and social fabric of the world?

Our conference over the next two days should offer a space to meditate on what might be an appropriate architecture for our world, for a global civilization that continues to actualize a crisis that has been brewing since the European industrial and political revolutions of the eighteenth century. My wager is that architecture has indeed something specific to contribute: Beauty matters and coincides with the common good, but this equation has to be understood properly and modulated by a sense of responsibility that goes far beyond global planning, gestural formal innovations, and the notion of merely serving a client through codes of professional deontology.

To unpack this hypothesis I believe we must first recognize the historical complexity of our discipline: both shifting with cultural changes, and in some ways also remaining the same. Though the questions are similar, architecture provides diverse answers appropriate to specific times and places. It is naïve to identify our shared tradition of architecture with a chronological collection of buildings, understood as useful creations, whose main significance was to delight through more or less irrelevant aesthetic ornament. This definition, associating architecture with the Fine Arts, dates only from the 18th century, and hardly does justice to the broad changing historical definitions of the field in human civilization. A more careful appraisal of our architectural traditions and their changing political and epistemological contexts, suggests a different way to understand architecture’s “universe of discourse”—operating in the realm of what Giambatista Vico called in the early 1700’s “imaginative universals.” Architecture may then be understood as a discipline that over the centuries has seemed capable of offering humanity, through widely different incarnations and modes of production, far more than superfluous pleasure or a technical solution to pragmatic necessities. Architecture is manifest in those rare places that speak back to us and resonate with our dreams, it incites us to real meditation, to 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 personal death, unveiling a glimpse of the sense of existence and revealing our limits.

My discussion leads by necessity to the valorisation of the poetic imagination of the architect: a controversial position for our world of complex, interrelated environmental problems, in which planning and democratic consensus seems to be the obvious answer. Notwithstanding, a personal imagination with deep cultural roots has been at work in the most moving architecture from the past. In the Western tradition, the products of architecture have ranged from the daidala of classical antiquity (objects such as ships, temples and deceptive war machines, all put together from small parts through carefully crafted joints), to the sundials, machinae and buildings that Vitruvius named as the three manifestations of the discipline. These artefacts, which the Greeks qualified as thaumata, convey wonder, a form of beauty grounded in eros (Venus-tas). This was still clearly understood during the Renaissance by the likes of Marsilio Ficino and Francesco Colonna: a quality altogether different from formal composition in the sense of modern aesthetics. Architecture, in this sense, has included the gardens and ephemeral architecture of the Baroque and the built and unbuilt "architecture of resistance" of modernity such as Le Corbusier's La Tourette, Gaudi's Casa Batlo, or Hejduk's "masques."

Most crucial to each of these works is not the capacity to communicate a particular meaning, but rather the possibility of recognizing ourselves as complete, in order to dwell poetically on earth and thus be wholly human. This recognition of wholeness 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. The moment of recognition is embedded in culture, it is playful by definition, and is always circumstantial. When successful, architecture allows for participation in meaningful action, conveying to the participant an understanding of his or her place in the world. In other words, it opens up a clearing for the individual’s experience of purpose through participation in cultural institutions. In this way, architecture offers societies a place for existential orientation and its meaning is bounded by time. Vitruvius provides a fine example when he describes the manner in which the theatre, that paradigmatic ancient institution, conveys its sense to the spectators as they participate in the event of the dramatic representation. [Explain.] Its disclosure of beauty and meaning is ephemeral, yet it has the capacity of changing one’s life in the vivid present—exactly like magic, or an erotic encounter. Like falling in love, it strikes a blow that reveals reality as is (Socrates). Thus, it can be said to embody knowledge, but rather than clear logic, it is knowledge understood in the Biblical sense: a carnal, 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. And this is particularly important for modernity, for its seems that whenever buildings become “idols” (or signposts—like the logo of a corporation or a national government) they lose their capacity for edification. They should rather allow us to see through to meaning precisely by not restricting it, in themselves meaning no single thing.

In connection with this example would be a good place to invoke Plato and argue that beauty, as a form of deeply shared cultural experience, understood as a priori meaning in cultural worlds, is a fundamental category. This is the experience that produces catharsis in the theatre. 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. In other words: it is the purposefulness of nature mimetically reflected by an artefact. Following from this reading of Plato, Gadamer has argued that while we can be deceived by what only seems wise, or what merely appears to be good, even in our world of appearances 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. This Platonic formulation is of course challenging for our epoch of cultural relativism. Proposing a valorisation of the imagination in the design of our environment must therefore be qualified. Indeed, it is easy to dismiss taste as merely subjective, participating in local, historically determined norms. Yet, when we move beyond aesthetics, taste takes its place among other forms of phronesis, Aristotle’s “practical wisdom,” grounded in the habits and values which we share with others in a particular cultural and linguistic context, and that appear with utmost clarity and certainty as long as we trust perception as a final arbiter of truth. Such self-evidence, manifested in the poetic artefacts and stories of our traditions, can produce judgements that are no less rational for being grounded in prudent understanding. These works of architecture, art and poetry are indeed capable of moving us, they transform our life and ground our very being.

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 contradiction of necessity and superfluity; it is both necessary for reproduction, and crucial for our spiritual well-being, the defining characteristic of our humanity. Contrary to the view that there exists an irreconcilable contradiction between the poetic imagination and an ethics based on rationality and consensus, it is the lack of imagination that may be at the root of our worse moral failures. Imagination is precisely our capacity for love and compassion, for both “recognizing” and “valorizing” the other, for understanding the other as myself, over and above differences of culture and belief. Thus in my book I argue for building an architecture upon love, understood both as erotic seduction and as brotherly compassion. Imagination is both, our capacity for truly free play, and our faculty to make stories and to partake from the language and vision of others.

And yet, unreflective intuitive action, often associated with the personal imagination, does not suffice and is indeed dangerous. Contemporary humanity must assume a great responsibility, for in fact, unlike our ancestors until the seventeenth century, we effectively make history. We have the technological tools to destroy the world, and this not necessarily through war. The technological project goes hand in hand with the self-evidence of human-generated change, a particularity of the Western (originally Christian) project 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, somewhat infirm more-than-human world that appears forever fragmented. We don’t share, like our more distant ancestors, a cosmological ground, a perception of the universe as a fundamentally changeless totality, limited and straightforward. Only by grounding the architectural imagination in historical precedent can it realize its capacity to create compassionately and negotiate the nearly infinite possibilities for production, in view of our now real cultural diversity, and the proliferation of instrumental methodologies and computer software, capable of endless innovation. Our post-modern condition may now reveal the futility of Utopia and the early modern ideal of progress, yet to project inherently means to propose, through the imagination, a better future for a society; it is inherently an ethical practice, and this should not be equivalent to a mindless search for consumable novelties disconnected from history.

Let me emphasize the crucial role of a theory based on historical interpretation for an ethical practice. The architect must act responsibly, and language plays a crucial role, allowing him or her to articulate a position. The production of precise working drawings and specifications does not suffice. And let’s add a few remarks about the particularities of language. While we must acknowledge that words and deeds never fully coincide, this is to be celebrated rather than deplored. This opaqueness of language characterizes the very nature of human communication, never coincidental with the Word of a god for whom to name is to make. Like the making of technical artefacts, 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, our over three-and-a-half thousand distinct languages for a single species, often in close proximity to each other and mysteriously diverse, and capable of speaking poetically in ways that always enrich our experience of reality, is the ultimate enigma which no evolutionary theory of man can ever reduce.

No matter what we produce as architects, once the work inhabits the public realm, it is truly beyond our control. An expressed intention can never fully predict the work’s meaning. It is the “others” that decide its destiny and its final significance. Despite this apparent limitation, understanding that there is a phenomenological continuity between thinking and making, between our words, in our particular language, and our deeds, is still our best bet. What we control, and must be accountable for, is our intentions. Despite the usual saying dismissing good intentions in view of “real” deeds, well-grounded intentions are crucial and rare in the modern world, and imply a whole style of thinking and action, a past life and thick network of connections with a culture, far more than what an individual is capable of articulating at the surface of consciousness, or through one particular product. This is the nature of an ethical practice guided by practical philosophy or phronesis, by prudence, in the sense of Aristotle.

Prudence is a rhetorical skill, based on historical understanding, one that has little to do with formal descriptions and stylistic classification. It is essential for the development of a coherent praxis: To articulate a political position with regards to a given task. History in this sense provides guidance, since it engages alien artefacts to tell us their stories through a hermeneutic process, one that acknowledges as positive the potential bias implicit in the questions that are crucial for contemporary practice. This is essentially a history for the future, one meant to enhance our vitality and creativity, rather than one that may immobilize us through useless data, an immoderate respect for the old for its own sake, or unattainable idealized models. The architecture and words that express the praxis of other times and places must be understood in light of relevant contemporary questions, yet with full consideration of the cultural context of their makers. Thus the process of interpretation, appropriating that which is acknowledged as truly distant, makes it possible to render their voices into our own specific time and politics, rather than assuming a universal language at work, or a progressive teleology. The aim is to read “between the lines” and with courtesy, the world of the work, and the world in front of the work; acknowledging that the human pursuit of meaning is present above other motivations. This means bracketing the cynical tendencies of Marxist or feminist scholarship that sees power and deceit behind most historical artifacts. Yet, hermeneutics also engages a critical dimension, seeking to understand how these architectural works may respond to the questions of our present humanity. A critical hermeneutics rejects the historical flattening and homogenization of deconstruction and proposes the valorization of experiential content, the mystery which is human purpose and the presence of spirituality. To account for what matters and can change our life. Needless to say, this hermeneutic understanding is equally applicable to our engagement with other synchronic cultures and should be, at all levels, present in the education of design professionals.

The poetic and critical dimension of architecture is not unlike literature and film, addressing the questions that truly matter for our 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 technologies contribute to homogenization, 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. This practical wisdom is conveyed primarily through oral transmission, in conventional apprenticeship. Varied but culturally specific practices are capable of poetic expression precisely through the specificity of languages. Each diverse poetic articulation of a shared more-than-human world contributes to our rich human heritage, and is always accessible to others through translation, which is nothing less than the fundamental condition of human understanding. Local architectural practices are like valuable endangered species, and must be preserved, for paradoxically true understanding depends on difference rather than on homogeneity.

I am convinced that the stakes for change are very high. Our built environment is pregnant with ambivalent meanings exacerbated by the mock impartiality of technology. As such, buildings play a crucial role in forming, if not increasing, our psychosomatic pathologies and political crises. We need to question the assumed neutrality of techno-capitalism and the false values that often ground our way of living and producing such as the unceasing pursuit of ever more efficient means while always postponing an accountability of ends. Architects, seeking in their work a coincidence of the good and the beautiful, should have a vital role to play in the survival of human cultures.