Architecture and the Public Good: a work in progress, by Tom Spector

Flier for the seminar this post summarises and responds to.

Architecture was a latecomer to the Enlightenment.

Though repeatedly confronted by the technological, social, and artistic progress unleashed in the eighteenth century and always nominally proclaiming allegiance to the public welfare, the question of who the work of architecture should serve didn’t really get off the ground until the early twentieth century with the full onslaught of Modernism when wide-scale recognition that architecture was severely trailing the times finally culminated in its embrace of all the Enlightenment’s main tenets. Technological progress made possible by emancipation of science, democratization of the client enabled by Kantian morality, artistic freedom of a distinctly aesthetic realm, a cosmopolitan outlook, and a thoroughgoing rejection of the authority of tradition at last came together in one thrilling sweep of the hand. The cresting socialism of the era, in conjunction with modernism in the arts’ traditional disdain of bourgeois values, led, however, to architecture’s early modernists entirely skipping-over the Enlightenment’s bourgeois ideal of serving a legitimated public realm. Instead they directed their vision of social progress toward improving the lot of the proletarian sub-section of society. By the end of the 1970s, when each of modernism’s principles had exposed its dark side and modernism as a moral ideal was roundly repudiated, the opportunity to reconsider the idea of architecture’s directly serving such Enlightenment ends as “progress” or “the public” or “democracy” was this time thwarted by economic and political developments in the West towards a new conservatism in which the public good was seen as best served by the widely spread individual pursuit of personal gain. This cultural revision strongly in favor of private pursuits throughout the Western world was so rapid and so successful that by the late 1980s, no less important a figure than Margaret Thatcher could publicly deny the very existence of such a thing as “society” whose good could be served; thus precluding even from consideration by defining out of existence the entire intermediate category of a “public” existing between individual and state. A new modesty—an inward turn—in architects’ aims predominated. Its pilot organizations sought to legitimate architects’ work through the contribution it makes to the profit motive, but this effort was severely misguided.

Though the recession of 2008 has at least temporarily pulled the rug out from under free enterprise enthusiasts, thus providing an opening for alternate conceptions of the good, architecture’s resurgent moral compass has pointed elsewhere. The sustainability movement is the most prominent example of a perceived moral imperative given forceful public expression by members of the profession. While this initiative portends well for the profession’s engaging significant moral ideals, much work remains to be accomplished regarding just how the sustainability movement is to integrate with mainstream practices due to the uncertainty surrounding how the value of a building’s being sustainable integrates with architecture’s traditional values, as well as the difficulty with which the work of architecture integrates with an environmental ethic deeply critical of such anthropocentric activities as the work of architecture must by necessity be. While the sustainability movement has done much to capture architects’ desire to contribute to the greater good, other obvious opportunities for making social progress, most notably incorporating the lessons of feminism, have yet to make their impact on practice. This omission leaves considerable room for an enlarged ethic. Further cause for hope can be found in examples of functioning public space and in architects engaged in actively promoting the public good. “Architecture for Humanity,” “The One-Percent Solution,” AIA-sponsored urban design charettes and a myriad of small-scale initiatives demonstrate that the idea of serving the greater good lives. But the problem is that these initiatives are exceptional activities; not yet part-and-parcel with what it means to be a practicing architect in contemporary Western society. What is still noticeably lacking is a way of folding an ethical ideal into everyday practice. This was the initial draw of an ethic of public service but events have left the architecture profession’s longstanding official justification in the protection of the public welfare much as it was found: as something of an afterthought which has never been seriously analyzed or argued. It seems evident enough until you begin to examine it.

In fact, it’s an idea that will require considerable renewal to be taken seriously. We in established Western democracies mistakenly treat the idea of the public as self-evidently real, timeless and as roughly synonymous with the state. Philosopher Jurgen Habermas’s Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962) charts its origins in the coffee houses and salons of the eighteenth century as a critical assertion against the prerogatives of church and aristocracy of the rightful, socially beneficial, existence of a self-organized intermediate realm between individual and state that is, in principle, open to all. That such a realm has never been perfectly realized does not blunt the fact that in its day it was a sharp instrument of social criticism. The ideal of a critical public realm has taken so many hits in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries that it is well worth wondering what of the concept, if anything, might remain. Signs of decline to the point of extinction abound: Participatory democracy is so debased by the procedural model in which the prime good of government is noninterference that Sheldon Wolin can warn of the “specter of inverted totalitarianism,” while simultaneously the alarming decline of the informal realm of organizations is exhaustively documented by Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone and in Richard Sennett’s Fall of Public Man (1974) which charts the rising barbarity of today’s “culture of intimacy” which in turn chimes well with Charles Taylor’s diagnosis of the debilitating narcissism of our culture’s “Ethics of Authenticity.” Mike Davis portrays the growing privatization of what used to be considered the public in Evil Paradises. Even Habermas, the public realm’s most formidable proponent, agrees: “Tendencies pointing to the collapse of the public sphere are unmistakable, for while its scope is expanding impressively, its function has become progressively insignificant” (1962: 4). But these trends only make the opportunity to renew our commitment to the public realm and bolster its chances for flourishing all the more urgent. Thus it is worth asking: Can a vital public realm be rescued? If so, what would it look like? The theoretical backbone Habermas provides in his later work will help this reconstruction, but so will that of his critics for here I will have to look beyond the limitations of his somewhat disembodied ethical construct to more spatial conceptions of the modern public, to broader conceptions than Habermas wants to countenance for what constitutes real public discourse, and to architecture itself for examples of public renewal.

By promoting a flourishing public realm both the profession and the work of architecture stand to help insulate themselves from pure commodification in the marketplace by making their roles in democratic self-determination both sophisticated and tangible. We can point to examples both large and small where this already occurs, as well as examples where it is hindered, and suggest strategies for its furtherance. In this way, architects can begin to reconnect their desire to do good in the world with their everyday practices.

Tom Spector, Oklahoma State University, USA


Habermas, J. (1989 [1962]) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society Cambridge: MIT Press.

Putnam, R. (2000) Bowling Alone. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Sennett, R. (1976 [1974]) The Fall of the Public Man. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Harvard Citation Guide: Spector, T. (2010) Architecture and the Public Good: a work in progress, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 08 Dec 2010, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

2 thoughts on “Architecture and the Public Good: a work in progress, by Tom Spector

  1. I have landed here by accident, but I think I understood most of your post and as a matter of fact I simply feel surprised to read that architects ever think about the common good.

    I would have thought that architects, mostly, have to develop connections to get commissions from big public and private organizations. I would have taken for granted that these normally would not have any ideas about aesthetics and art, but would be very sensitive to mass trends and people’s opnions.

    I have often wondered why architects do not have to put their names on the buildings they set up and put the name in a prominent spot where people who live or work in a building will see it every day.

    I have also wondered why people know the name of the guy that designed their scarf or their handbag, and not one in 1000 would know the name of whoever designed the house they live in.

  2. Hi Tom,

    I really enjoyed your post. Thanks for sharing.

    The questions that you raise about architecture’s ethic as well as its wider relationship to society seems to also raise questions about the role of the architect. Specifically I wonder whether the idea of the architect as a grand figure or even simply removed from ordinary and everyday occurances in wider society (i.e. sitting behind a computer drafting 40+ hrs/wk) is to some extent to blame (or more mildly the cause) for the odd relationship of comtemporary architecture to wider society? Interested to hear your thoughts on this.


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