An Exegesis of Architecture: sin, redemption, responsibility, by Matt Litvack

When humankind judges history to be the result of human agency rather than divine or cosmological pre-destination, from the perspective of the West’s Judeo-Christian inheritance, an overwhelming sense of guilt or sin for the tragedies of human history is encountered. Psychologically, this might result in the denial of guilt, agency, and human-made history. Denial as repression results in the dislocation of guilt into a positive quest. When architects deliberately seek out the traditional mythological and biblical tropes of sin–identified by Paul Ricoeur as stain, deviation, and burden–in wild gardens, disorienting circulation, and crushing monumentality, we might say they are engaged in a denial of human agency and human-made history. Such an example is supported by postmodern architects who, through pastiched historicism, fully deny historical change and technology as human-made.

However, feeling guilty for the tragedies of history might also result in an incorporation of this guilt into a striving for redemption. When architects employ the traditional metaphors of redemption—removing of the stain, the straight path, lifting of the burden—seeking out purity and cleanliness, clarity, and weightlessness, we might say they are engaged in incorporating and thereby relieving their guilt by posing history as an extension of the contemporary will. Thus, the modernist architect proclaims all history as having led to her/his moment, and therefore not relevant to her/his future will which seeks only to glorify the most current, and even future, technologies. I sustain the above argument through an exegesis of key modern and postmodern architectural history and theory texts.

But, if we acknowledge that history exists and that history is not our extension into the past but rather that we are grounded in history–in other words, that history is the medium we exist within–then we need not either repress or relieve history, as if it were taken on all of a sudden, but rather should respond to history or take responsibility for history, cheerfully considering the cultural connections which make clear that we live within history. Through an interpretation of the work of the contemporary practice of Caruso St. John, based in London, I consider the ways in which an ethical responsibility toward history might be articulated.

Matt Litvack, McGill University, CA

Harvard Citation Guide: Litvack, M. (2012) An Exegesis of Architecture: sin, redemption, responsibility, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 13 May 2012, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

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].

Whatever happened to ‘Lefebvrean architecture’?, by Richard Bower

Architecture is (arguably) defined by its relationship with wider social, economic and philosophical ideas and theories; from the advent of modernism through to post-modern/structural/colonial theories. At their most demonstratively provocative / powerful / disruptive, theoretical discourse is used to underpin architectural movements through the objectification / abstraction of an idea or even a theoretician (i.e. Deleuzian architecture) and the mis-translation of theory (metaphysical / social / cultural) into a fetishism of marketable aesthetics.

Yet whilst these reductive occurrences might be equally critiqued as frustrating, mis-guided or ironic, they do pose a provocative question; why do some theories become economic and aesthetic idols, and others do not?

In political and economic contexts that aren’t / weren’t (yet) defined by Lefebvre’s ‘abstract space’ of economic and exchange value structures, development practitioners such as Turner and Hamdi have explored an opportunity to re-interpret the purpose of architecture through an engagement with ideas of periphery and ‘the outsider’. Without an explicitly hegemonic political and socio-economic projection of aesthetics and values, architecture is / was able to engage with contexts and perceptions of ‘the other’ – in terms of the relative value of aesthetics, architectural built form, people and cultural contexts respectively. This (re)interpretation of space implicitly runs counter to the same social, economic and political machinations that Lefebvre’s discourse sought to expose and critique.

Based on this analysis, I contend that the principles of development practices suggest an architecture that can be conceived, perceived (and practiced) as a verb, whilst in mainstream architectural practice (and education) it endures as only a noun – an aestheticised object of exchange. In our (supposedly) developed post-industrial societies, the hegemony of ‘abstract space’ and its fragmented perceptions / projections of space and value has made the appropriation of differential spaces and aesthetics a historical platitude and not the simple, everyday reality or aspiration for life that it can / must be.

I contend that the work of Turner can be considered dialectically as a practical exploration of the ideas of Lefebvre and his critique of economic and political structures of space. Similarly, Hamdi’s work reflects aspects of Massey’s discourse on the implications of multiplicity and specificity in a global context.

In contrast to Deleuzian (and other) architectural movements, the ethical emphasis of Turner and Hamdi’s architecture and discourse induce an appropriation, and subsequently an aesthetic of space that is inherently outside architectural control and authorship.

And yet, given the documented socio-economic success of both Turner and Hamdi’s work respectively, and the theoretical and ethical links that can be drawn to the work of the theoretical paradigms of Lefebvre and Massey, why is it that such an architecture remains marginalized as merely an idea for the ‘developing world’?

Richard Bower, University of Plymouth, UK

Harvard Citation Guide: Bower, R. (2012) Whatever happened to ‘Lefebvrean architecture’?, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 13 May 2012, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

Animate Ornaments and Illuminating Asides in the Art of Building: how experience impacts the aesthetics of architecture, by Lisa Landrum

This paper shows how a certain assertion and aside in Alberti’s Art of Building presents ethos (in the sense of appropriate conduct or cultural practice) as a kind of lively ornament integral to aesthetics. Following an analysis of the key passages, this paper demonstrates how such lively or animate ornaments fit into Alberti’s complex notion of beauty. Finally, by engaging select examples of public spaces, this paper reveals how Alberti’s aside on ornament can help present-day architects to envision ethics as both the root and fruit of aesthetics—as both the basis and benefit of good design. My proposed paper commences in this way:

In the midst of the thirteenth chapter of the seventh book on the Art of Building, Alberti makes a provocative assertion regarding ornament. Alberti sets up this assertion by having previously described the many ornaments belonging to a column (7.6-9); by having established the column as principal ornament to a temple (6.13); and by having designated the temple as the greatest ornament to a city (7.3). One can already discern the nested and contingent nature of this topic. Having discussed these and other fixed ornaments relating to a city’s temple, Alberti then shifts his discourse to the ritual practices performed in a temple, asserting:

There are other sorts of ornaments also, not fixed, which serve to adorn and grace the sacrifice; and others of the same nature that embellish the temple itself, the direction of which belongs likewise to the architect (7.13, Leoni Translation).

What sort of unfixed ornaments did Alberti have in mind? A few lines later he tells us: the majestic charm of aromatic light emanating from well-disposed candelabras would adorn and grace both the rite of sacrifice and the temple (7.13). In this image one can recognize the unfixed quality, or subtle activity, of candle wax and flame, and further appreciate how such animating ornaments would positively embellish life at the temple. Yet, this charming image takes on broader significance by the way Alberti presents it. For, in between his assertion that there are sorts of ornaments that are “not fixed” (non stabilia) and his splendid example of illumination, Alberti interrupts himself with a puzzling aside. “It has been a question—”, he asks us again to consider:

—which is the most beautiful sight: a large square full of youth employed about their several sports; or a sea full of ships; or a field with a victorious army drawn out on it; or a senate-house full of venerable magistrates; or a temple illuminated with a great number of cheerful lights (7.13 Leoni Translation)?

This complementary series of images serves in part to amplify the luminous ornament that Alberti, in the end, recommends for the temple. But this rhetorical detour offers more than amplification, since with it Alberti gathers a series of analogous ornaments that are in some ways comparable to the many charming lights: sporting youths, sailing ships, parading armies, and venerable magistrates. Are we to infer that these vital agents, or cultural agencies (sporting, sailing, parading and deliberating), are ornaments of the same unfixed sort as illumination by candlelight? Are we, further, to suppose that the anticipation and consideration of such ornaments “belongs likewise to the architect”? This paper argues that indeed we should.

Lisa Landrum, University of Manitoba, CA

Harvard Citation Guide: Landrum, L. (2012) Animate Ornaments and Illuminating Asides in the Art of Building: how experience impacts the aesthetics of architecture, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 13 May 2012, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

Assembling an armature for Ubuntu: an architecture for “the people”, by Nic Coetzer

Culturally significant architecture in post‐apartheid South Africa is neither radical nor groundbreaking. Nor is it, apart from occasional nods toward Norberg‐Schulz and phenomenology, particularly theoretically driven. It certainly does not have ‘space’ or ‘form’ as its ambition. Rather than being concerned with the discipline and history of architecture itself, its focus is, quite simply, people. This is hardly surprising. Apartheid, as a policy and an ideology, was primarily focused on dehumanising its subjects – which the post‐apartheid policy of ubuntu aims to put right. Since the highly politicised 1980s, architects have been trying to use their designs to reconstruct broken people and broken environments, to provide ‘dignified places’ – to solve the problems of apartheid through the very physicality of architecture. It is an architecture of restitution, an armature for ubuntu, and it locates itself in the tradition of ‘soft modernism’, from Aalto through Alexander to Van Eyck.

Is it possible, 20 years since the ‘end’ of apartheid, to be critical of this mode of cultural production? Is it fair to question why a land of radicals has not produced a radical architecture? Certainly, at the theoretical level, we need to be aware of the homology between apartheid’s use of modernism in instrumentalising its policy of a ‘separate development’ and the use of ‘soft‐modernism’ in an attempt to ameliorate the devastating effects of that policy – effective or not, they are both examples of social‐spatial engineering. But can a sharper critique be made through analysis of particular ‘against apartheid’ buildings?

Taking the idea of ‘armature’ as its starting point, this paper will examine recurring models, types and systems in recent South African architecture that, in serving ‘the people’, place limits on architecture and its possibilities. The predominance of ergonomics as the starting point of design – of understanding people as generic models rather than unique individuals – has unsettling resonances with apartheid policies. The idea of ‘armature’ will also illustrate how a moral voice limits the use of architecture’s resources and establishes the tectonic rather than the spatial as the default mode of architectural production. Again, this understanding of architecture as the deployment of a system of ready‐made structural components has disturbing resonances with the totalising system of apartheid itself. In the ‘bare bones’ method of the tectonic approach – where architecture is the armature that people ‘round off’ and ‘thicken out’ through their bodies – architecture becomes strangely self‐effacing and at times wholly absent, its leading exponents actively championing the erasure of its unique value. By assembling architecture through the components of the generic, the model, the modular, the ergonomic – another iteration of the tectonic strategy – rather than the particular, the unusual, the unique, we lose sight of the libidinal potential of architecture for both its subjects and its objects and limit architecture’s potential to transcend the known and the now.

Nic Coetzer, University of Cape Town, ZA

Harvard Citation Guide: Coetzer, N. (2012) Assembling an armature for Ubuntu: an architecture for “the people”, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 13 May 2012, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

In Search of Architectural Ethics: “Quand on n’a pas de caractère, il faut bien se donner une méthode”*, by Martin Düchs

The question what it needs to be a morally good architect is a question that already Vitruvius – widely seen as the first architectural theoretician – tried to answer in his writings dating from the first century before christ; and the question of morality in architecture has been an important one in architectural theory ever since then. Nevertheless moral aspects of architecture have been the subject of scientific ethical scrutiny only on rare occasions. In general one could state, that moral philosophers have forgotten about architecture and architects and architectural theoreticians did not make use of the means and models of ethics as the relevant scientific discipline. So one cannot talk about there being any architectural ethics or any relevant tradition of scientific ethical deliberations on architecture. But the question what it needs to be a morally good architect is in the 21st century with its social and environmental problems probably more relevant than ever. And at the same time our moral intuitions are getting less certain in a globalized and secularized world with its manifold economic, political, social, cultural and environmental conflicts.

An important reason for the lacking of architectural ethics might be the character of architecture itself as a discipline that contains elements from art, engineering, social sciences, economics etc. This makes it difficult to “apply” any existing ethical theory to the discipline. But instead of looking at the discipline, the moral philosopher could take a look to the practical work of an architect and compare it to other disciplines. Thereby he might find similarities to other professions.

In my paper I would like to suggest an analogy between the work of an architect and a physician.
This might sound somewhat surprising, but a closer look at both professions shows that there are some significant structural similarities, that seem to be worth thinking about. With this analogy as a starting point I would like to go even further and suggest that the area of biomedical ethics could be a field from which architectural ethics could learn and draw benefits. Thereby moral problems in architecture can – of course – not be discussed directly within normal biomedical ethics. But structural models and probably also methods could be adopted to architecture.

Concluding the paper I would like to suggest that one of – mainly within a context of biomedical ethics eveloped – ethical models that could be suitable for architecture is the so called principlismas it was developed by Beauchamp and Childress (1st ed. 1977 / 6th ed. 2009) over the last three decades.

References: * “When one has no character one has to apply a method.” (Albert Camus: The Fall) Camus (2008/[1956], p. 15), Paris: Gallimard Beauchamp and Childress (6th ed. 2009), New York: Oxford University Press

Martin Düchs, Technical University Munich & Munich School of Philosophy, DE

Harvard Citation Guide: Düchs, M. (2012) In Search of Architectural Ethics: “Quand on n’a pas de caractère, il faut bien se donner une méthode”, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 13 May 2012, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

On Environmentally-Responsive Design: a Début de Siècle meta-ethics, by Iradj Moeini

Our resources are running out, so the argument has been going in recent times. We are consuming too much material and energy, urbanising too much of our planet, and pumping too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for the planet Earth to cope with. This must come under control before it is too late, and that means urgently. Action is required by, among others, those involved in making built environments, to cut waste and pollution emitted from their products, and there appears to be enough evidence to marginalise the sceptics and justify urgent action. This call for action is backed in the construction-related professions by strings of targets, mandates and legislation aiming at cutting CO2 emissions and reducing waste etc. which position environmental ethics closer to sets of legal requirements: something not dissimilar in nature to standard codes of professional conduct. Whilst this institutionalisation of environmentally responsive design ethics has a role to play in maintaining environmental standards above certain levels, it also indicates that environmentalism’s stance is now beyond dispute, and that its associated values are more real than those of other ideologically-driven value systems in architectural design.

The assumption of environmentalism’s central role in good architecture has its parallels in the role ascribed to engineering, and later technology in a wider sense, in various periods during the 19th and 20th century in that engineering and technology too were seen as capable of stripping architecture of its redundant historic and stylistic residues. It followed that architectural design is a problem-solving exercise of an engineering nature and this is what, back to our times, can distinguish the ‘non-ideological’, factual environmental values from the more ideologically charged ethical ones. This, in turn raises again the question of whether the ethical is more closely associated with a commitment to fulfil the brief or to rethink it: a question whose answer is probably the former when it comes to regularised environmental requirements. This paper recognises the relevance of regulating environmental standards but argues that not coupled with visions of a sustainable life in the wider sense, environmental design ethics is in danger of being reduced to just another engineering problem to be solved, albeit by new specialists, and not—as some indications might suggest—the overarching design ethics of our time.

S. H. Iradj Moeini, Bartlett, UK

Harvard Citation Guide: Moeini, I. (2012) On Environmentally-Responsive Design: a Début de Siècle meta-ethics, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 13 May 2012, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].