Architecture and Ethics

Architecture’s concern with ethics is perhaps more clearly highlighted when asking about its relations to social and political concerns. What does this tell us about the knowledge and discipline of architecture?

Works of architecture—not just great or iconic works, but those where design is manifest in practical concerns—are also aesthetic achievements. A well-built house, for example, is not a bunker but potentially a home—where the notion of it being a home has an aesthetic and moral valence that ideally contributes to the well-being of its inhabitants. Architecture is often judged in terms of aesthetic and technical, rather than moral, criteria. Yet, the view that judgments based on aesthetic criteria are independent of those based on moral criteria has a history of being challenged. The idea that the aesthetic value of an art work, including architecture, is independent of moral considerations, and so should properly be judged apart from such considerations—the view in philosophical aesthetics known as “aestheticism” or “autonomism”—is perhaps more easily disputed in architecture than in any other aesthetic endeavor. Even on the face of it, architecture impacts our daily lives in ways that are morally significant. Architecture’s concern with aesthetics is mediated in ways that, according to some, make it an essentially ethical discipline.

As we have seen, various understandings of the relation between form and function already contain ethically normative precepts. Adolf Loos’s functionalism, as implied in his claim about ornament and crime, is ethically as well as architecturally grounded. While some architectural theory remains focused on Vitruvius’s elements and the relation between form and function, contemporary discussion about the relationship between architecture (including landscape architecture, and other planning and design professions) and ethics (including social and political philosophy), has refocused the discussion in different terms.

Thus, Lagueux (2004) argues for an intrinsic connection between architecture and ethics, distinguishing this connection from art forms and professions in which, he argues, any connection with ethics is extrinsic. He claims that architectural problems are, at one and the same time, ethical problems and that the two, being intrinsically related though not identical, must be solved at the same time and in the same way. This alleged connection between architecture and ethics may be seen to be a reformulation or evolution of the Vitruvian problem, where the notion of function or utility (or essential function) is interpreted as irreducibly ethical in part, and the “ethical” is understood to include judgments about value—about what is “good” as well as about what is right.

Even if it is true that interventions in the urban landscape have ethical implications as Brain believes, this would not necessarily substantiate Lagueux’s claim that architecture should recognize its inherently ethico-political character. The two sets of problems might best be kept separate and, to a degree, resolved separately. Nevertheless, in practice there may be reason to believe he is right, even if no sharp distinction can always be made between architecture and other disciplines (for example, medicine and biology) as to whether ethical considerations are intrinsic.

Lagueux’s claim regarding architecture and ethics as opposed to other disciplines may seem implausible. Medicine, for example, inevitably confronts its practitioners with practical moral problems and dilemmas that must be considered in relation to the concrete details of the situation. Lagueux does not deny this, but claims that such moral problems remain moral problems and that there is no fundamental or intrinsic connection between the medical and ethical aspects of the problem. One might, for instance, bring in an ethical specialist for advice—as indeed is often the case. Lagueux needs to explain why he sees architecture as having resources for dealing with the moral issues it raises that medicine lacks. If doctors not trained in ethics cannot deal with the issues, what qualifies similarly untrained architects to do so?

Lagueux would say that insofar as architects are not ethically competent, they are also not architecturally competent. In other words, unlike the case of medicine, ethical and aesthetic problems are linked in such a way that ideally they must be resolved at one and the same time—even in the absence of any unique solution. Insofar as architecture (or the architect) does not have resources for dealing with the moral issues it fails as architecture. Lagueux’s claim is that, unlike the case of medicine, the architect qua architect requires ethical training because they cannot practice architecture without it. He does not also claim that architecture is unique in this respect as against all the other arts (for example cinematography), in that it alone has ethical and aesthetic issues intrinsically linked. In any case, even if one denies that Lagueux’s claim is universally true, one might accept it as characteristic of architecture.

Since Lagueux sees aesthetics and ethics as intrinsically connected in architecture in a way they are not in other disciplines, architecture for Lagueux is characterized by the way it presents the practitioner with ethical problems linked to aesthetic onesFor example, the placement of windows and doors in a building should be done in such a way that it satisfies both aesthetic considerations like pleasing views, as well as ethical ones such as due concern for neighbors’ privacy. A more complex example would be designing a public atrium as part for a corporate complex where due consideration is given on the one hand to its utility as public accessible space—responding to the needs, desires and values of those who inhabit and traverse the space—and on the other to perhaps the conflicting concerns, or incommensurate values, of those inhabiting neighboring work environments. A more abstract case yet might be the construction of a public space—a park or a square—designed to be aesthetically pleasing but also, by means of its design, to promote certain civic and democratic values.

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