On Tom Spector’s ‘Architecture and the Public Good’, by Chris Stevens

Though perhaps not obviously so to many of the ISPA blog’s readership, Tom Spector’s post of December 8 is right on target with respect to both (1) ISPA’s main aims, which form an implicit background against which he writes, and (2) the history he describes, of failures in architectural theory and practice, which have produced the sad and problematic state of affairs those aims are intended to remedy.

Here, in shorter form, is that history. There are three missed opportunities for architects to conceive, explicitly, of the practice of architecture in terms of what is typically — and merely implicitly — appealed to in order to justify it, viz., its serving the public good. So these are missed opportunities or failures both to conceive of architecture as serving the public good and, via that first failure, to then also miss the opportunity or fail to in fact serve that good.  (Call ‘the practice of architecture’ PA for short.)

The first opportunity is missed by the modernists who, as the first fairly-large group of architects in history to be free from aristocratic control and other such hindrances to free activity, have the chance to conceive of PA afresh. But they blunder by conceiving of PA as justified by its serving not the public but a mere subset of the public, viz., the blue collar class. The second opportunity is missed by those replacing the modernists after that movement collapses. But the post modernists blunder by conceiving of PA as one activity among others one might take up in the free enterprise spirit according to which self-interest is at the heart of what it means to be a free agent in a democratic state. In line with this history, it is no coincidence that post modernist fancy has more than once been thought the result of a self-serving attitude.

The third opportunity is missed — but not so much really missed as, say, so far woefully under-developed — by those replacing the post modernists as that movement collapses due to its excesses under the weight of worldwide market failure and that failure’s underscoring of the desirability of simplicity, of sustainability, and of, in short, adhering to desiderata consistent with the green imperative. So, to sum up the history, we’ve got architects working before the rise of both large-scale democracies and a reasonably wealthy middle class and therefore serving an aristocracy (or the Church, or the autocratic State, etc.), then the modernists who are not constrained in those ways but serve the wrong interest, then the post modernists who are largely self-serving, and last we reach the present day in which the public interest does indeed begin to be served but is not served as well as it could be. It is not so well served because architects and other thinkers have not done the work needed to explicitly re-conceive of PA in the light of its serving the public good and, in turn, PA is not as effective in serving that good as it could be were it so conceived. Another way to put this problem of inadequate re-conceptualization is to say that the concept of PA is under-developed.

The under-development has at least two facets: (i) lack of the development of a conception of some kind of fit between the aesthetic features yielded by the architect’s adherence to a sustainability imperative on the one hand and, on the other, the set of aesthetic features by which we largely understand the history of architecture; and (ii) lack of development of a conception of the fit between some very common environmentalist conceptions of what nature preservation involves on the one hand and, on the other, PA itself, which would seem prima facie to be inconsistent with preservationism. I.e., with regards (ii), the use of nature as a resource for building materials and building site and building refuse waste dump, etc., and so the very practice which involves all those things and more like them is, at least at first blush, inconsistent with the preservationist agenda which a sustainability-driven PA would otherwise be presumed to serve.

That, then, is the history and the current predicament. Enter the ISPA’s aims. The primary one is to develop and make available to practitioners a consistent, comprehensive conception of PA having, at its core, an explicit account of both the public good and the way in which PA might serve that good.

There are two caveats to make at the outset. The first is a response to the following thought which someone might offer to what I have written so far: architecture has always, at least to some appreciable extent, been conceived of by practitioners as serving the public good, in which case the claim that a re-conceptualization of PA is an important and worthwhile task is an overblown one. The two-part response is this: (a) human agents’ degree of successfulness in meeting their aims is, in all cases but those involving lucky coincidence, limited by the degree of explicitness, clarity, and comprehensiveness with which those aims, and the means necessary for achieving them, are formulated by those agents; (b) so to the extent that practitioners have been or are being successful in serving the public good, an articulation of their formulations of the public good and of the way in which architecture serves that good are recoverable from past document (assuming that formulations have been in some way recorded) or from present inquiry directed at active practitioners; but (c) such delving into past documentation and such inquiry reveals the telling truth that no such articulation is there to be recovered. As Spector puts the point, “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.” Given an awareness of (a), (b), and (c), we should not be at all surprised by someone’s claiming that architecture has fallen far short of its potential with respect to its serving the public good. The claim is, rather, to be expected.

The second caveat is a response to the following worry, put in the form of a question, which someone might voice when faced with my statement that ‘the ISPA’s primary aim is the development and dissemination to practitioners of a consistent, comprehensive conception of PA having, at its core, an explicit account of both the public good and the way in which PA might serve that good’: but by what right does the ISPA or its members both determine the substantive content of the public good and legislate the proper conduct of practitioners? The response is this: that very question’s being thought, by its poser, to be one legitimately made in the name of a defense of democratic ideals is itself symptomatic of the misunderstanding of the concept of liberal democracy that is a large part of the cause of the current predicament Spector intends to draw our attention to. The misunderstanding of the concept of liberal democracy I refer to involves the notion that the liberal democratic ideal entails a proscription of bringing into the public sphere conceptions of the common good for which one claims an objective status. The familiar colloquial form of this mistaken notion, put in the form of a question, is ‘Who are you to tell me how I ought to live my life?’ Such questions are symptomatic of the fundamental and currently widespread failure to recognize that well-functioning liberal democracies require not a proscription against challenges to various individual conceptions of the good but require, rather, that such challenges exist in wide abundance, in a context of unfettered and exuberant discussion, so that together we might more effectively come to understand what it is that is worth seeking and what ways those worthy things might best be realized.

That is the “vital public realm” of which Spector writes. The importance of its establishment, at least its establishment on a small scale among those working in and theorizing about architecture, should not be underestimated with respect to the probability of architecture’s coming to fulfill its potential with respect to furthering the common good. And to the extent that architecture of particular types might themselves help to bring about a more widespread establishment of such a realm, all of us interested in ISPA’s aim as I have stated it should recognize the importance of our attempt to realize that aim. Architecture can in that sense be thought just the beginning of something far more important.

To conclude by way of a few comments I hope will incite further discussion of these matters, I think it important to mention that though Spector and I agree on the importance of the establishment of such a realm for the health of liberal democracies and the welfare of their citizens, I disagree with his implicit suggestion that Habermas provides a favorable way forward. I disagree because Habermas’ notion of truth as consensus robs us of the fundamental impetus for dialogue, which is not consensus but discovery, through argumentative dialogue, of the truth. So I offer instead J.S. Mill as providing a favorable way forward. Mill believed that the exercise of those freedoms which liberty provides is the most effective means to the discovery and realization of the good for beings like us, beings with particular affective, volitional, and rational capacities. Mill’s utilitarianism has been much maligned and his theory of the liberal state much misunderstood, but they together remain, I think, the most clearly articulated and eloquently defended conception of moral and political life yet offered to us. There is a more important point to consider here, though, than our disagreement about which well-recognized thinker ought to be looked to for developing a theory of architecture and the public good. The more important point is that the flowering of this very disagreement and others like it is something to be welcomed and encouraged rather than discouraged, and it is so not only in the name of potentially furthering the promise of architecture or of liberal democracy but also in the name of furthering the far less involved but still not insignificant aims of the ISPA.

Harvard Citation Guide: Stevens, C. (2010) On Tom Spector’s ‘Architecture and the Public Good’, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 18 Dec 2010, Available at: https://isparchitecture.wordpress.com. [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

4 thoughts on “On Tom Spector’s ‘Architecture and the Public Good’, by Chris Stevens

  1. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for this post. I agree with much of what you put forward and thought I would just pose one question to you. If architects were free of the limitations of market forces, political agendas, etc. would they be able to conceive of an architecture more fitting or more ideal than what we have now? I am inclined to say no, because I do not view the architect as an inherently elevated member of society and nor do I universally subscribe to the view of the architect as a genius.

    What do you think?


  2. Hi Carolyn, Thanks for the comment. (1) It’s unclear to me, in the context of practical matters of the sort that concern us here at ISPA, what the value is of considering a conditional whose antecedent will in nearly all cases be false. That is, it’s clear that in almost no cases will architects be free in their work to ignore market forces, political agendas, etc. This is because, as you’re no doubt aware, the larger the project — and so the greater the project’s potential for influencing the built environment at large — the greater the extent to which the architect must rely on funding, and so the greater the probability of the product’s features being held hostage to the agenda of the funder. But consider this: a funder may have motives in line with the architect’s. In that case, though the architect is not strictly speaking free from the sort of forces you mention, she is nevertheless free in a different sense. She is free in that her product is as it would have been were she to have been free from such forces. That’s neither good nor bad in itself, since architects can have better or worse goals.

    (2) That brings me to the next part of your comment, the part about genius. I said ‘better or worse goals’. What do I mean by that? I mean that some goals are more fitting than others with respect to the nature of the thing to which those goals pertain. The idea is that a particular thing’s quality can be judged in terms of the extent to which its features mark it out as an instance of its kind. E.g., a car without the features that enable it to transport a person from one place to another is a very poor instance of the type of thing we refer to by the term ‘car’. That is one way to determine quality. It’s a way that relies on a functional definition. And we use that way often in our daily lives. It’s the way in which we make many of the choices we do with regard, e.g., to so many of the purchases we make. We choose one hammer over another because the one we deem better is one that we ascertain better performs the function of nail driving. Balance matters, as does grip friction, head surface, etc. This is all clear and uncontroversial enough, mainly because we already so use the method and because our choices depend on reasons to do with merely instrumental ends, i.e., ends to further and more final ends. By that I mean that we choose based on something’s doing something well, without our having to try to figure out if the final end to which the instrumental end leads is something worth doing or having. Determination of the worth of final ends is much trickier, and unfortunately the determination of a type of thing’s function — a determination we need to make for this method of quality assessment to work — often involves wrestling with arguments about the functions of types. E.g., try to answer this question: ‘What is architecture’s function?’

    It might seem an unanswerable question and so not worth the trouble of dealing with. But the following facts ought to dissuade anyone from coming to that conclusion: (i) behind any intelligible dispute about the worth of some architectural work is either (i-a) a difference in belief about that work’s meeting some function the disputants agree is partly definitive of the kind of architecture which the work is or is intended to be, or (i-b) a difference in belief about the function which ought to be thought definitive of that kind of architecture. In both cases, the notion of function provides the background against which the dispute takes place. Unfortunately, disputants often talk past one another, never to reach understanding much less agreement, because the functions they presume are presumed merely implicitly. (ii) ‘What is architecture’s function?’ is, on the surface, a question about description. I.e., it would appear to ask for a description of the function of architecture in terms of the function of existing architectural works. But of crucial importance in the context of the philosophy of architecture is the deceptive nature of that question, by which I mean that the question, though often appearing in that form, is not a descriptive one with respect to the intention of most who ask it. It is, rather, a normative one. More precisely put, the question at issue is this: ‘What ought we conceive of architecture’s function as being?’ or ‘What ought architecture’s function be?’ That is where the philosophy is. That is where the ethics is. And that is where the aesthetics is, because the aesthetic features of architectural works affect us in various ways, and we can ask ‘In what ways ought we be affected by the buildings and landscapes in which and amongst which we live?’ This brings us to the question of genius. One way to understand that term without bloating its meaning to include whimsical nonsense about the muses and such is like this: a genius is, in part, the person who both understands a type of thing’s function via an insight into its history, and creates a novel instance of that type of thing, the features of which are informed by that insight.

  3. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for your quick and detailed reply. I only have a short response as I am making my way back to the UK. Nevertheless, hope it clarifies something of my rationale for posing the question I did.

    It seems a various points in your post that architects are agents which are better able or better equipped to deal with the problems buildings raise. I agree with this, but only to a certain extent. Architects are of course specialists (or at least we certainly hope they are). BUT …if one were to take the exaggerated but revealing view that an architect is something of a genius (hence the mention of this) the relationship of the architect to wider cultural and society is often compromised (as we can say Modernity exemplifies in certain key instances). The point being that viewing the architect autonomously from culture and society appears to overly elevate the architect’s cultural and societal role. I guess the question better posed is, to what extent is the architect’s specialization good and to what extent is it bad?



  4. I much appreciate Chris Stevens’ comments in December to my blog posting regarding Architecture and the Public Good. In particular, I’d like to add to the discussion where Chris suggests I put down Habermas and pick up John Stuart Mill as a guide and philosophical backbone to this sort of inquiry. His suggestion is based on an interpretation of Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action as robbing truth of its sense of discovery in favor of mere mutual agreement. For those not familiar with Habermas’s theory, Communicative Action is a centerpiece of his work, occupying a two-volume magnum opus by the same title, as well as further elaboration in at least four later works. The central motivation behind the work is to overcome the inherent flaws in an ethics derived from Cartesian subjectivity and therefore outflank, as it were, the poststructural and other antimodernist critics who want to tear down the whole project of modernity in large part precisely because it illicitly puffs up subjectivity into a principle of objectivity. Fair enough, if he can do it, but what Habermas’s critics have concentrated on is not Chris’s objection that agreement is allowed to take the place of truth, but that in order prevent just this eventuality, Habermas has to severely limit what counts for discourse: It can only be conversation between people who bracket whatever socio-economic inequalities they may have with each other in a quest for mutual understanding. Thus, as John B. Thompson and others have complained: What of poetry? What of literature? Aren’t these also legitimate sources of communication? More to the point for us, What of architecture’s ability to communicate societal values and propositions of various sorts? Doesn’t that count? I would not want to disagree with these complaints.
    Despite the fact that the Theory of Communicative Action looms large in Habermas’s work, his contribution to modern thought is so extensive that I actually think this particular aspect of his work is the least interesting and the most tangential to architecture and can therefore be put aside. I both admire and draw inspiration from The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, which provides much food for thought in regards to the public good architecture may serve, and from The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, which dares to defend Enlightenment rationality against its detractors. It seems to me that these treatises can stand alone, with or without the Theory of Communicative Action. Chris, of course, may see matters otherwise. I will look forward to his opinion on the possibility of selective adoption.
    On to his suggestion that John Stuart Mill may provide a good alternative. The audacious thinker John Stuart Mill of On Liberty? Most certainly. The John Stuart Mill who dutifully tries to establish a philosophical grounding for Bentham’s and his father’s Utiliarianism? As the movie character Borat would say, “Not so much.” With Utilitarianism, I would defer to Bernard Williams’ fundamental objection. Williams could never quite understand the logic of how all conceptions of the good could be reduced down to one principle, say, the greatest good for the greatest number, that itself was beyond dispute. How do we know that utility or the greatest good for the greatest number is at the moral headwaters? This is where a final appeal to intuition usually kicks-in. An ultimate appeal to an act of faith wouldn’t be so bad if the moral system weren’t so demanding but Utilitarianism requires quite a lot of people. It requires them to bracket ALL their interests in favor of the common cause to be truly moral. Williams thought that human affairs were considerably messier than this, and not necessarily the worse for it.
    Thanks All for reading and keeping the conversation going.

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