The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: an ethico-aesthetic understanding of architecture and environment, by Fran Speed

Within the specialised area of architectural discourse aesthetic concerns still tend to be viewed as concern for the formal, visual or scenic appearance of buildings and landscape. Informed environmental aestheticians contest this limited view by arguing that aesthetic appreciation involves a contextually ‘thick’ kind of information, that is to say, one that involves human experience in its broadest sense.  Nevertheless, the general view among many of these same aestheticians is that while the aesthetic and the ethical are not unconnected areas of value judgment they are distinctly separate and inform our understanding of architecture and environment in distinctly different ways. In contrast to this stance I present the view that not only can the ethical and aesthetic be shown to be connected in a fundamental way but, and more radically, I argue that aesthetic experience can prove instrumental in revealing what is, or is not, of ethical merit. The basis for my argument rests in the consideration of a largely undeveloped, but important, dimension of contextual aesthetic theory.

Although implicit, or assumed, in contextual theory I suggest that it is the dimension of relationship and, in particular, relationship understood as a locus of value in it self that, while largely neglected, offers a useful advance towards understanding what it is that unites the ethical and aesthetic in a fundamental way. Drawing on the philosophy of John Dewey and contemporary philosophers working in the pragmatist tradition I begin by setting out the basis for my argument. In support of the premises established I briefly demonstrate how some, ostensibly, ethical issues can be shown to be aesthetically motivated. I then illustrate how a thing’s aesthetic expression can reveal its ethical merit. The aim here is to illustrate how the dimension of relationship would seem fundamental in guiding both ethical and aesthetic judgment in each case. Finally, I consider the implications of this relational approach for understanding the basis for the aesthetic responses to certain environmental developments that those most affected by it experience. I illustrate how the experience of ‘ugliness’, for example, can be shown to be a response to forms of relationship that are perceived as ethically suspect, for example, when they produce experiences of ‘alienation’, ‘exploitation’ or ‘exclusion’. In light of this view I contend that the experience of ugliness, in whatever shade or hue it is experienced can, as the above expressions imply, be an indication of social injustice or of relationships that are detrimental to social (and ecological) wellbeing. In the current planning process aesthetic objection of this kind tends to be marginalised for want of objective quantification or simply dismissed as subjective, that is to say, as preference for a specific ‘style’ or landscape. I hope that the relational approach presented provides a useful contribution to understanding how aesthetic concern can inform our ethical understanding of architecture and environment.

Fran Speed, Independent Scholar, UK

Harvard Citation Guide: Düchs, M. (2012) The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: an ethico-aesthetic understanding of architecture and environment, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 06 May 2012, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

One thought on “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: an ethico-aesthetic understanding of architecture and environment, by Fran Speed

  1. It might be argued that the ethical returns to the aesthetic whenever geometry is implicated; but this is not to say that there are not higher values that might be produced by the implicit value of a dimensional framework. I would like to say that the dimensional value of things like ethics is qua philosophical, and therefore is not implicated directly in the relationship between architecture and aesthetics. Someone could disagree with me, but it would be on the grounds of “concrete” forms, which themselves have the force to “represent” some philosophy. Consequently, I find that the force of pure philosophy in architecture is an underrated analytic, as soon as it can be called an analytic per se.

    I recommend my upcoming book, “The Dimensional Philosopher’s Toolbox”, for those who are interested in the boundary between ideation and geometrics.

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