Architecture and the Built Environment as Ethical and Aesthetical Cognitive Process in Complex, by Dario Negueruela

For a long time architecture was conceived, planned and designed under the commands and auspices of great kings, popes, emperors and dictators. Yet we still wonder at their specific beauty, their power, and their capacity to open new aesthetical worlds. However, in our contemporary condition we might follow Aldo Van Eyck’s advice: nowadays, an architect is the ally of Everyman or of no man at all. Under the light of this statement we might begin to consider such previous ways of conducting the architectural professional practice as something belonging to darker ages.

The theory of living systems formulated by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela considers living beings as a complex network that is self referential, self organised and autopoietic, that is, self creating. This definition includes a differentiation of a pattern of relationships and physical structures that embody the pattern through a process of actualization. This process is what they define as cognition. Architecture belongs to that process and it must face up to its ethical dues.

If we are to consider architecture and the built environment as social and cultural productions that belong to the realm of the public sphere, we must then acknowledge them as constituent structures of the cognition process by which society acquires its identity and facilitates concrete new future possibilities. As such, architecture and the built environment play a crucial role in informing, through their configuration, new and becoming patterns of relations, and, therefore, they are ascribed an ethical mandate. The very design and production of the built environment is part of such cognitive process and their inner workings are of special importance for the result. These include the stance of the architect towards the client, the decision making, etc. The design process itself must respond to a democratic scheme if it is to incorporate in detail and efficacy so that new, complex and democratic societies and multitudes (Negri 2004, Virno 2010) may emerge.

Biologists consider that the more complex an organism is, that is, the more intricate and sophisticated its patter of relations is, the more robust and capable to survive and evolve successfully. Our planet is facing a crucial moment in which our civilization is risking even the possibility of survival. Since Lovelock and Margulis proposed the theory of Gaia, the ethical mandate is clear: our cities must articulate solutions so that our shared system is able to survive and evolve. Architecture is involved in this challenge as part of the cognitive process of our societies and this brings forward a necessary change of paradigm in the face of our contemporary condition. Is architecture ready to overcome the age of artistic authorship and engage in a new era of full shared democratic responsibility? This may imply new methods of design that emerge from a shared generative practice and new sensibilities and responsibilities towards what the accepted commission should be. It even may involve a shift in the role of designers, from executors of commissions to providers of solutions in a propositive way, just as O. Bouman points in his Unsolicited Architecture.

Dario Negueruela, Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura de Madrid, ES

Harvard Citation Guide: Negueruela, D. (2012) Architecture and the Built Environment as Ethical and Aesthetical Cognitive Process in Complex, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 06 May 2012, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

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