“In a world laid waste by technique…”: modernity and the problem of ugliness, by David Garrard

Ugliness – the negative pole in aesthetic experience and judgment – has received scant attention from philosophers; a pity, since for better or worse it is just as strong a force in our lives as its positive counterpart. It is a concept that straddles the aesthetic and the ethical domains, and one that plays an especially significant role in our response to architecture. The structure of this concept, its status as a point of intersection for different kinds of value, and its particular place in the discourse of architectural evaluation: these will be the themes of my paper.

The first part will concern the place of ugliness in aesthetic experience, and the reasons for its neglect in mainstream philosophy. I will discuss Kant’s (supposed) rejection of ugliness from the domain of aesthetics, and will offer reasons for seeing painful experience as an essential part of any worthwhile account of the subject. I will argue that ugliness is not merely the privation of beauty, nor yet some kind of conceptual mirror‐image of it, but a phenomenon with its own distinctive logic; I will contrast ‘broad’ and narrow’ conceptions of ugliness, and will also consider experiences such as those of the sublime and the jolie‐laide, whereby ugly‐making qualities become, in a seemingly paradoxical way, aesthetically pleasurable in their own right.

The second part of the paper will relate this discussion specifically to architecture. More than with the products of the other arts, our dislike of a building or man‐made environment is likely to be expressed in terms of ugliness. Formal and programmatic considerations (for example, the three‐dimensionality and non‐representationality of architectural works) play a role in this, but just as important is architecture’s public and political character: the idea of the ugly has, for reasons I will discuss, a particular ability to absorb ethical as well as purely aesthetic concerns. I conclude by asking how far we should expect buildings not to be ugly. Does such a demand simply betray a shallow or reactionary understanding of what architecture is about? Could ugliness be an aesthetic – or even a moral – virtue?

David Garrard, English Heritage, UK


Harvard Citation Guide: Garrard, D. (2012) “In a world laid waste by technique…”: modernity and the problem of ugliness, 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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