Sharing Sense: or, how ethics can be the subject matter of architectural aesthetics, by David Leatherbarrow

Posing a productive question about ethics and aesthetics in architecture is no easy matter, for these subjects raise whole clusters of problems, not simple or single questions. These complexities were apparent two millennia ago when the terms were first introduced. As in most types of business, moral issues rarely obtrude themselves into the contemporary practice of architecture, for it has been absorbed into a broader framework of technological thought and production, a kind of thought that emancipates design from place and practical purpose. Despite these tendencies, one occasionally senses that there may still be some shared background for judgments about what makes a building good, even beautiful. This background is not so much what each of us might state as our values, but a historically constituted and forceful ethos that shows itself now and again in both the settings of everyday life and works of art. Shared sense is key for that is what distinguishes ethical understanding from the various kinds of technical knowledge possessed by individuals. Architects know how to design, carpenters to construct. A living ethos is something different, neither taught nor possessed individually, but inherited in a given culture, modified slowly, and often taken for granted. Thus, there is a tension between the comparatively stable and shared ground of ethical sense and productive and relatively autonomous character of technical production. Negotiating this tension is the real work of design.

David Leatherbarrow, University of Pennsylvania, USA

Harvard Citation Guide: Leatherbarrow, L. (2012) Sharing Sense: or, how ethics can be the subject matter of architectural aesthetics, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 18 Dec 2012, Available at: [Accessed: 18 Dec 2012].

Monism and Pluralism in the Philosophy of Architecture, by Paul Guyer

The history of modern aesthetics has been marked by a tension between a monistic, essentially cognitivist or intellectualist view of the importance of aesthetic experience, and more pluralistic views, which allow room for the free play of emotions and imagination as well as for the possibility of knowledge through art. Architecture would seem to be a poor candidate for a strictly intellectualist approach, but in the nineteenth century some of the best-known aesthetic theories, the German Idealist theories of Hegel and Schopenhauer, took precisely such an approach. I argue that the pluralistic approach of John Ruskin’s Seven Lamps of Architecture, in spite of some antiquarian elements in that work, offer a far better model for contemporary thinking about the pleasures of architecture.

Paul Guyer, Brown University, USA

Harvard Citation Guide: Guyer, P. (2012) Monism and Pluralism in the Philosophy of Architecture, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 20 Nov 2012, Available at: [Accessed: 20 Nov 2012].

Re-making the Matterhorn, by Andrew Ballantyne

This paper is concerned with the cultural appropriation of landscape, and uses the example of the Matterhorn to show how a natural formation can become a cultural entity, and how the patterns of thought that are invested in it can be invested equally in built works. The examples of appropriation move from Michael Frayn’s treatment of the Matterhorn in his novel Sweet Dreams, and Walt Disney’s rebuilding of it in Disneyland, to John Ruskin’s analysis of the Matterhorn in volume 4 of Modern Painters. For Ruskin the landscape and the close observation of geological features had a moral aspect, and that fusion of Interactions is repeated in Deleuze and Guattari’s “Geology of Morals”. The upheavals in geological strata that produce mountains have a parallel in the upheavals of social strata in other events, which are related not just as metaphor but because there are real forces at work that can be described in the same terms. Architects can draw on the same abstract machines, at a more modest scale but with the aim of giving expression to quasi-geological forces. When this happens the resulting designs are not necessarily polished and beautiful, but they can have a raw power and grandeur that comes from their truth-telling and vitality.

Andrew Ballantyne, Newcastle University, UK

Harvard Citation Guide: Ballantyne, A. (2012) Re-making the Matterhorn, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 13 Nov 2012, Available at: [Accessed: 13 Nov 2012].

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].

Perfectionism and the Built Environment, by Rita Risser

Perfectionism is the view that there are objectively better and worse ways for humans to live. Further, we ought to identify these objective goods and implement them in bringing about the best life for humans. Perfectionism is generally constructive. However, it is also criticized for being utopian and at times paternalistic. I argue that despite its flaws, a moderate perfectionism is our best bet for a good built environment.

The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC) is often considered to be the wellspring of perfectionist philosophy. Firstly, Aristotle is a eudaimonist, one who holds that happiness is the highest of all goods. The good life is a happy life. But this is a truism. We are still left with the question: what makes for happiness? Here Aristotle’s answer is perfectionist. He proposes that we humans are distinctively rational and moral creatures. Happiness comes about by perfecting and acting in accordance with our rational and moral nature. Importantly, for Aristotle a good life is one wherein we are actually able to perfect and act in accordance with our nature. Therefore the good life requires a certain social and political infrastructure, as well, some add, it requires a certain physical infrastructure. Starting with the Greeks, through the Enlightenment, notably in Rousseau, up the present day, for example in the work of Lewis Mumford, the argument is made that for better or worse the built environment shapes human nature and values. It behooves those interested in the good life to identify and manage the influences of the built environment on the lives of its inhabitants.

Two questions arise for perfectionism and the built environment. The first is focused on human perfection. It asks how the environment either contributes to or detracts from the project of human perfection. A second question looks at the perfection of the environment itself. It asks what are the typical and distinctive features of the built environment, and how are they perfected? In other words, how do we build an objectively good environment? I shall focus on the second question, however, it will turn out that the interplay of human perfection and the environment will be a relevant consideration in what makes for a good built environment. In particular I shall consider how civic deliberation contributes to both human perfection and a good environment.

An obstacle for perfectionism about the environment is that its claim for objectivity can be difficult to substantiate and to implement. Despite such obstacles, there is an indelible perfectionist streak to our thinking about the environment. For example, contemporary urban design and planning proceed on the assumption that there are better and worse cities. They are not mere accidents; they are distinctive social and aesthetic structures with their own set of organizing principles. A good city is one that functions well city. A skeptic about perfectionism doubts the possibility of identifying how either humans or environments, as a rule, turn out to be better or worse. I, however, shall argue for a moderate perfectionism about the environment.

Rita Risser, University of British Columbia, CA

Harvard Citation Guide: Risser, R. (2012) Perfectionism and the Built Environment, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 06 May 2012, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

Ethics Versus Aesthetics: Stanley Tigerman, by Emmanuel Petit

One of the intellectual stimuli of architectural postmodernism was the interest in the notion of the “other”; the attentiveness to, and inclusiveness of “externalities” to the modernist, aesthetic credo generated a new culture of dialogue and ethics in architecture. I will discuss how postmodern Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman sought to reintroduce the factor of human interaction into architecture.

Tigerman constructed himself as the “architect of ethics” in opposition to the “aestheticist” Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. As such, Tigerman liked to think of his own position in architecture as analogous to the place Kierkegaard occupied in philosophy: What Kierkegaard was to Hegel, Tigerman thought he could represent in relation to Mies. In a sense, Hegel and Mies both attempted to “systematize” existence through their respective sterile metaphysics, which was in the service of a universal welt- or zeitgeist. Kierkegaard and Tigerman, by contrast, insisted on the importance of an ethical perspective as well as the subjective freedom associated with it.

While Tigerman has the classical credentials to master the subject of architecture–having studied under Louis Kahn and Paul Rudolph–his “subject” never ceased to be the human being, while architecture was, for him, a sort of stage or dramatic space within which to choreograph the dialogues and encounters between men. His long-lasting friendship with the late dean of The Cooper Union School of Architecture, John Hejduk, was largely based on this common interest. Tigerman’s focus on the exchange between “subjects” is the reason he keeps being drawn to ethical philosophy and the theories of dialogism, from Aristotle to Kierkegaard, and from Emmanuel Lévinas to Martin Buber. Buber was particularly relevant to Tigerman, as he maintained that the genuine meeting between I and Thou could not be premeditated (or “composed”), but that it was utterly serendipitous and, hence, revelatory. In a sense, the sublime spontaneity and transience of the principle of “dialogue” as described by Buber, has been at odds with the tradition of architectural production, where thorough planning, notation, and representation preceded the actualization of the project. Tigerman translated Buber’s observation into a critique of aestheticism of modern architecture.

Two of Tigerman’s architectural projects are particularly relevant in this context, and will be used to show the translation of his ethical approach into built architecture: the Daisy House in Porter, Indiana, from 1976-78, and a project for apartment buildings in Belgrade in former Yugoslavia.

Emmanuel Petit, Yale University, USA

Harvard Citation Guide: Petit, E. (2012) Ethics Versus Aesthetics: Stanley Tigerman, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 06 May 2012, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

Kant on Dwelling, by David Wang

This essay derives an explication of “dwelling” from Kant’s Critical Philosophy, drawing from The Critique of Judgment (1790), but also calling on the critiques of Pure Reason (1781) and Practical Reason (1788).

Here is the reason why this effort is needful: Since the 1970s “dwelling” has emerged as an important topic in the architectural literature. Why this is so must be a subject for another essay. But that this is so call for an assessment of how dwelling is generally understood by the architectural audience, which is this: dwelling can be defined as a phenomenologically pleasurable sense of attachment to certain physical environments – what the architectural theorist Christian Norberg-Schulz characterizes as a sense of “having a small chosen world of our own.” Norberg-Schulz made the implicit contentment in such a condition an explicit goal of explication, largely indexing such contentment to empirical architectural typologies (e.g., house, institution, settlement). The problem with this approach is the underlying positivist assumption that certain physical patterns and forms just will result in experiences of dwelling. It doesn’t explain what some people dwell contentedly while others do not, given the same physical environment(s). And yet the Norberg-Schulzian approach to dwelling is widely accepted by architects.

I offer a more flexible explication via Kant’s system: I propose that the pleasurable subjective state called dwelling can be more robustly derived from Kant’s formulations for aesthetic and teleological judgment in combination. As Rudolf Makkreel has noted, within the complex interplay of these two kinds of reflective judgment is located not only (what Kant calls) a feeling of life, but also aesthetic creativity. I show that both are key to a Kantian derivation of dwelling.

David Wang, Washington State University, USA

Harvard Citation Guide: Wang, D. (2012) Kant on Dwelling, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 06 May 2012, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].