“Down these mean streets a man must go”: ethics in the shadow of aesthetics, by Graham Owen

Writing in the mid-1990s of the effects of the globalized economy upon architecture and urbanism, Rem Koolhaas proposed that:

We realize … that we are now moving into uncharted territory … we are increasingly confronted  with utterly irrational problems, problems that we no longer have the luxury of refusing [1].

Apologists for the Koolhaasian position have often invoked the image of the surfer as a redemption or transcendence of that position’s affiliation with globalized capital, and as an attempt to redirect narratives of architecture’s powerlessness in that context. A “new pragmatism,” in the face of the overwhelming complexity of undecidable outcomes, informs the choice of ride. The surfer, far from being ethically overwhelmed by the inexorable force of events, instead is skillful enough to ride the wave, to use its massive energy and power to enable his or her own (aesthetically spectacular) performance.

The architect’s freedom, thus rationalized, is a freedom for the achievement of aesthetic innovation and interpretation of the cultural context of the times, and in this regard we encounter one of the major contradictions embedded in architecture’s ethics: that it is a profession that, like others, trades upon public respectability and trust, but is at the same time (at its more ambitious levels) an artistic practice and the inheritor of a counterculture ethos. Modernist ideology in particular embraced Baudelaire’s ambition for art to épater le bourgeois: to seek radical change, at least in perception and sensibility, and more ambitiously in the social order itself, catalyzed through artistic acts disruptive of tradition and convention.
Thus architects who whole-heartedly take on this role embrace an ethos of transgression, and a conviction that art, to fully realize this ethos, should be free of moral constraint.

As Nietzsche observed in On the Genealogy of Morals:

What if a symptom of regression were inherent in the ‘good’, likewise a danger, a seduction, a poison, a narcotic, through which the present was possibly living at the expense of the future? … So that precisely morality would be to blame if the highest power and splendor actually possible … was never in fact attained? So that precisely morality was the danger of dangers?

In these reflections on freedom, however, we encounter a second contradiction within the ethics of architecture: that this legacy of avant-gardism and its anti-establishment implications collides with the need to collude with power and capital in order to realize built works of any scale and broad social impact. Confronted with criticism of their engagement with totalitarian regimes, architects practicing globally seek to uphold the conviction that design innovation can catalyze social change, even when, in regimes such as that of China, the evidence continues to suggest otherwise, and that architecture has been co-opted instead as public relations.

“In America,” remarks Steven Holl, “I could never do work like I do here [in China]. We’ve become too backward-looking. In China, they want to make everything look new” [2].

Faced with the inexorable logic of the diminishing-demand curve, architects, like successful Deleuzian outlaws, discover that ethically questionable practice offers unparalleled opportunity for the generation of novel aesthetic products – and roles – promising the reinvigoration of their market share.

[1] Rem Koolhaas, “Understanding the New Urban Condition: the Project on the City”, GSD News, Winter/Spring 1996,
p. 13.
[3] Dorian Davis, “China’s Building Boom Sparks Ethical Debate,” Architectural Record, Vol. 196, No. 7, July 2008, p.

Graham Owen, University of Tulane, USA


Harvard Citation Guide: Owen, G. (2012) “Down these mean streets a man must go”: ethics in the shadow of aesthetics, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 06 May 2012, Available at: https://isparchitecture.wordpress.com. [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

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