On Tom Spector’s ‘Architecture and the Public Good’, by Chris Stevens

Though perhaps not obviously so to many of the ISPA blog’s readership, Tom Spector’s post of December 8 is right on target with respect to both (1) ISPA’s main aims, which form an implicit background against which he writes, and (2) the history he describes, of failures in architectural theory and practice, which have produced the sad and problematic state of affairs those aims are intended to remedy.

Here, in shorter form, is that history. There are three missed opportunities for architects to conceive, explicitly, of the practice of architecture in terms of what is typically — and merely implicitly — appealed to in order to justify it, viz., its serving the public good. So these are missed opportunities or failures both to conceive of architecture as serving the public good and, via that first failure, to then also miss the opportunity or fail to in fact serve that good.  (Call ‘the practice of architecture’ PA for short.)

The first opportunity is missed by the modernists who, as the first fairly-large group of architects in history to be free from aristocratic control and other such hindrances to free activity, have the chance to conceive of PA afresh. But they blunder by conceiving of PA as justified by its serving not the public but a mere subset of the public, viz., the blue collar class. The second opportunity is missed by those replacing the modernists after that movement collapses. But the post modernists blunder by conceiving of PA as one activity among others one might take up in the free enterprise spirit according to which self-interest is at the heart of what it means to be a free agent in a democratic state. In line with this history, it is no coincidence that post modernist fancy has more than once been thought the result of a self-serving attitude.

The third opportunity is missed — but not so much really missed as, say, so far woefully under-developed — by those replacing the post modernists as that movement collapses due to its excesses under the weight of worldwide market failure and that failure’s underscoring of the desirability of simplicity, of sustainability, and of, in short, adhering to desiderata consistent with the green imperative. So, to sum up the history, we’ve got architects working before the rise of both large-scale democracies and a reasonably wealthy middle class and therefore serving an aristocracy (or the Church, or the autocratic State, etc.), then the modernists who are not constrained in those ways but serve the wrong interest, then the post modernists who are largely self-serving, and last we reach the present day in which the public interest does indeed begin to be served but is not served as well as it could be. It is not so well served because architects and other thinkers have not done the work needed to explicitly re-conceive of PA in the light of its serving the public good and, in turn, PA is not as effective in serving that good as it could be were it so conceived. Another way to put this problem of inadequate re-conceptualization is to say that the concept of PA is under-developed.

The under-development has at least two facets: (i) lack of the development of a conception of some kind of fit between the aesthetic features yielded by the architect’s adherence to a sustainability imperative on the one hand and, on the other, the set of aesthetic features by which we largely understand the history of architecture; and (ii) lack of development of a conception of the fit between some very common environmentalist conceptions of what nature preservation involves on the one hand and, on the other, PA itself, which would seem prima facie to be inconsistent with preservationism. I.e., with regards (ii), the use of nature as a resource for building materials and building site and building refuse waste dump, etc., and so the very practice which involves all those things and more like them is, at least at first blush, inconsistent with the preservationist agenda which a sustainability-driven PA would otherwise be presumed to serve.

That, then, is the history and the current predicament. Enter the ISPA’s aims. The primary one is to develop and make available to practitioners a consistent, comprehensive conception of PA having, at its core, an explicit account of both the public good and the way in which PA might serve that good.

There are two caveats to make at the outset. The first is a response to the following thought which someone might offer to what I have written so far: architecture has always, at least to some appreciable extent, been conceived of by practitioners as serving the public good, in which case the claim that a re-conceptualization of PA is an important and worthwhile task is an overblown one. The two-part response is this: (a) human agents’ degree of successfulness in meeting their aims is, in all cases but those involving lucky coincidence, limited by the degree of explicitness, clarity, and comprehensiveness with which those aims, and the means necessary for achieving them, are formulated by those agents; (b) so to the extent that practitioners have been or are being successful in serving the public good, an articulation of their formulations of the public good and of the way in which architecture serves that good are recoverable from past document (assuming that formulations have been in some way recorded) or from present inquiry directed at active practitioners; but (c) such delving into past documentation and such inquiry reveals the telling truth that no such articulation is there to be recovered. As Spector puts the point, “events have left the architecture profession’s longstanding official justification in the protection of the public welfare much as it was found: as something of an afterthought which has never been seriously analyzed or argued.” Given an awareness of (a), (b), and (c), we should not be at all surprised by someone’s claiming that architecture has fallen far short of its potential with respect to its serving the public good. The claim is, rather, to be expected.

The second caveat is a response to the following worry, put in the form of a question, which someone might voice when faced with my statement that ‘the ISPA’s primary aim is the development and dissemination to practitioners of a consistent, comprehensive conception of PA having, at its core, an explicit account of both the public good and the way in which PA might serve that good’: but by what right does the ISPA or its members both determine the substantive content of the public good and legislate the proper conduct of practitioners? The response is this: that very question’s being thought, by its poser, to be one legitimately made in the name of a defense of democratic ideals is itself symptomatic of the misunderstanding of the concept of liberal democracy that is a large part of the cause of the current predicament Spector intends to draw our attention to. The misunderstanding of the concept of liberal democracy I refer to involves the notion that the liberal democratic ideal entails a proscription of bringing into the public sphere conceptions of the common good for which one claims an objective status. The familiar colloquial form of this mistaken notion, put in the form of a question, is ‘Who are you to tell me how I ought to live my life?’ Such questions are symptomatic of the fundamental and currently widespread failure to recognize that well-functioning liberal democracies require not a proscription against challenges to various individual conceptions of the good but require, rather, that such challenges exist in wide abundance, in a context of unfettered and exuberant discussion, so that together we might more effectively come to understand what it is that is worth seeking and what ways those worthy things might best be realized.

That is the “vital public realm” of which Spector writes. The importance of its establishment, at least its establishment on a small scale among those working in and theorizing about architecture, should not be underestimated with respect to the probability of architecture’s coming to fulfill its potential with respect to furthering the common good. And to the extent that architecture of particular types might themselves help to bring about a more widespread establishment of such a realm, all of us interested in ISPA’s aim as I have stated it should recognize the importance of our attempt to realize that aim. Architecture can in that sense be thought just the beginning of something far more important.

To conclude by way of a few comments I hope will incite further discussion of these matters, I think it important to mention that though Spector and I agree on the importance of the establishment of such a realm for the health of liberal democracies and the welfare of their citizens, I disagree with his implicit suggestion that Habermas provides a favorable way forward. I disagree because Habermas’ notion of truth as consensus robs us of the fundamental impetus for dialogue, which is not consensus but discovery, through argumentative dialogue, of the truth. So I offer instead J.S. Mill as providing a favorable way forward. Mill believed that the exercise of those freedoms which liberty provides is the most effective means to the discovery and realization of the good for beings like us, beings with particular affective, volitional, and rational capacities. Mill’s utilitarianism has been much maligned and his theory of the liberal state much misunderstood, but they together remain, I think, the most clearly articulated and eloquently defended conception of moral and political life yet offered to us. There is a more important point to consider here, though, than our disagreement about which well-recognized thinker ought to be looked to for developing a theory of architecture and the public good. The more important point is that the flowering of this very disagreement and others like it is something to be welcomed and encouraged rather than discouraged, and it is so not only in the name of potentially furthering the promise of architecture or of liberal democracy but also in the name of furthering the far less involved but still not insignificant aims of the ISPA.

Harvard Citation Guide: Stevens, C. (2010) On Tom Spector’s ‘Architecture and the Public Good’, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 18 Dec 2010, Available at: https://isparchitecture.wordpress.com. [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

Architecture and the Public Good: a work in progress, by Tom Spector

Flier for the seminar this post summarises and responds to.

Architecture was a latecomer to the Enlightenment.

Though repeatedly confronted by the technological, social, and artistic progress unleashed in the eighteenth century and always nominally proclaiming allegiance to the public welfare, the question of who the work of architecture should serve didn’t really get off the ground until the early twentieth century with the full onslaught of Modernism when wide-scale recognition that architecture was severely trailing the times finally culminated in its embrace of all the Enlightenment’s main tenets. Technological progress made possible by emancipation of science, democratization of the client enabled by Kantian morality, artistic freedom of a distinctly aesthetic realm, a cosmopolitan outlook, and a thoroughgoing rejection of the authority of tradition at last came together in one thrilling sweep of the hand. The cresting socialism of the era, in conjunction with modernism in the arts’ traditional disdain of bourgeois values, led, however, to architecture’s early modernists entirely skipping-over the Enlightenment’s bourgeois ideal of serving a legitimated public realm. Instead they directed their vision of social progress toward improving the lot of the proletarian sub-section of society. By the end of the 1970s, when each of modernism’s principles had exposed its dark side and modernism as a moral ideal was roundly repudiated, the opportunity to reconsider the idea of architecture’s directly serving such Enlightenment ends as “progress” or “the public” or “democracy” was this time thwarted by economic and political developments in the West towards a new conservatism in which the public good was seen as best served by the widely spread individual pursuit of personal gain. This cultural revision strongly in favor of private pursuits throughout the Western world was so rapid and so successful that by the late 1980s, no less important a figure than Margaret Thatcher could publicly deny the very existence of such a thing as “society” whose good could be served; thus precluding even from consideration by defining out of existence the entire intermediate category of a “public” existing between individual and state. A new modesty—an inward turn—in architects’ aims predominated. Its pilot organizations sought to legitimate architects’ work through the contribution it makes to the profit motive, but this effort was severely misguided.

Though the recession of 2008 has at least temporarily pulled the rug out from under free enterprise enthusiasts, thus providing an opening for alternate conceptions of the good, architecture’s resurgent moral compass has pointed elsewhere. The sustainability movement is the most prominent example of a perceived moral imperative given forceful public expression by members of the profession. While this initiative portends well for the profession’s engaging significant moral ideals, much work remains to be accomplished regarding just how the sustainability movement is to integrate with mainstream practices due to the uncertainty surrounding how the value of a building’s being sustainable integrates with architecture’s traditional values, as well as the difficulty with which the work of architecture integrates with an environmental ethic deeply critical of such anthropocentric activities as the work of architecture must by necessity be. While the sustainability movement has done much to capture architects’ desire to contribute to the greater good, other obvious opportunities for making social progress, most notably incorporating the lessons of feminism, have yet to make their impact on practice. This omission leaves considerable room for an enlarged ethic. Further cause for hope can be found in examples of functioning public space and in architects engaged in actively promoting the public good. “Architecture for Humanity,” “The One-Percent Solution,” AIA-sponsored urban design charettes and a myriad of small-scale initiatives demonstrate that the idea of serving the greater good lives. But the problem is that these initiatives are exceptional activities; not yet part-and-parcel with what it means to be a practicing architect in contemporary Western society. What is still noticeably lacking is a way of folding an ethical ideal into everyday practice. This was the initial draw of an ethic of public service but events have left the architecture profession’s longstanding official justification in the protection of the public welfare much as it was found: as something of an afterthought which has never been seriously analyzed or argued. It seems evident enough until you begin to examine it.

In fact, it’s an idea that will require considerable renewal to be taken seriously. We in established Western democracies mistakenly treat the idea of the public as self-evidently real, timeless and as roughly synonymous with the state. Philosopher Jurgen Habermas’s Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962) charts its origins in the coffee houses and salons of the eighteenth century as a critical assertion against the prerogatives of church and aristocracy of the rightful, socially beneficial, existence of a self-organized intermediate realm between individual and state that is, in principle, open to all. That such a realm has never been perfectly realized does not blunt the fact that in its day it was a sharp instrument of social criticism. The ideal of a critical public realm has taken so many hits in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries that it is well worth wondering what of the concept, if anything, might remain. Signs of decline to the point of extinction abound: Participatory democracy is so debased by the procedural model in which the prime good of government is noninterference that Sheldon Wolin can warn of the “specter of inverted totalitarianism,” while simultaneously the alarming decline of the informal realm of organizations is exhaustively documented by Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone and in Richard Sennett’s Fall of Public Man (1974) which charts the rising barbarity of today’s “culture of intimacy” which in turn chimes well with Charles Taylor’s diagnosis of the debilitating narcissism of our culture’s “Ethics of Authenticity.” Mike Davis portrays the growing privatization of what used to be considered the public in Evil Paradises. Even Habermas, the public realm’s most formidable proponent, agrees: “Tendencies pointing to the collapse of the public sphere are unmistakable, for while its scope is expanding impressively, its function has become progressively insignificant” (1962: 4). But these trends only make the opportunity to renew our commitment to the public realm and bolster its chances for flourishing all the more urgent. Thus it is worth asking: Can a vital public realm be rescued? If so, what would it look like? The theoretical backbone Habermas provides in his later work will help this reconstruction, but so will that of his critics for here I will have to look beyond the limitations of his somewhat disembodied ethical construct to more spatial conceptions of the modern public, to broader conceptions than Habermas wants to countenance for what constitutes real public discourse, and to architecture itself for examples of public renewal.

By promoting a flourishing public realm both the profession and the work of architecture stand to help insulate themselves from pure commodification in the marketplace by making their roles in democratic self-determination both sophisticated and tangible. We can point to examples both large and small where this already occurs, as well as examples where it is hindered, and suggest strategies for its furtherance. In this way, architects can begin to reconnect their desire to do good in the world with their everyday practices.

Tom Spector, Oklahoma State University, USA


Habermas, J. (1989 [1962]) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society Cambridge: MIT Press.

Putnam, R. (2000) Bowling Alone. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Sennett, R. (1976 [1974]) The Fall of the Public Man. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Harvard Citation Guide: Spector, T. (2010) Architecture and the Public Good: a work in progress, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 08 Dec 2010, Available at: https://isparchitecture.wordpress.com. [Accessed: 01 June 2012].