Ethics of Ubu: self-effacement and the architectural task, by Peter Olshavsky

Since the (in)famous staging of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (1896) many artists, writers, and even architects have been drawn to Père Ubu, the play’s ignoble and murderous protagonist. But why would Ubu, a professed representation of “all things grotesque,” be compelling to architects who are ostensibly responsible to the public? A response to this question can be found in two examples where Ubu becomes a lesson in self-effacement and a critique of the architect’s will to secure control and possession.

The first instance is found in the late work of Le Corbusier. Specifically, I will discuss Le Corbusier’s iconography of Ubu in his sculpture and drawings, the architect’s self-identification with Jarry’s character, and what these can tell us about the architect’s role. Eileen Gray, who declared herself an “Ubuist”, articulates the second example. Her position is best fleshed out by looking at her house E.1027. This project, as I will discuss, addresses both physical and imaginative aspects of that can be described as pataphysical. Accordingly, they challenge the architect’s determining will.

To deepen this fundamentally ethical exploration, the avant-garde myth of Ubu Roi’s opening night will be dismantled and his promotion of self-effacement through his theatre techniques and his personal adoption of Ubu in public will be unpacked. A fuller understanding of Ubu reveals a latent ethical stance that is ironically articulated through both engagement and resistance to reified imperatives in both thinking and making. At the same time, it is a critique technology and a deepening of the machine aesthetic beyond visual criteria. In short, the ethics of Ubu is a means of self-effacement that exposes the limits of the architect’s will and points to a crucial aspect to becoming a good architect.

Peter Olshavsky, University of Nebraska – Lincoln, USA

Harvard Citation Guide: Olshavshy, P. (2012) Ethics of Ubu: self-effacement and the architectural task, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 13 May 2012, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

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