Can we imagine an architecture that both is beautiful and contributes to the common good? (1) Given our complex world, burdened by environmental degradation and social inequity, the question of architecture's contribution to humanity's well-being is not an obvious one, but it seems to have an urgency that it lacked during the earlier, more optimistic phases of modernity. Our central modern institutions have become problematic. Democratic national governments act like police states, and corporations operate like pathological criminals. Should architects design comfortable hospitals more concerned with business than with healing, or well-detailed prisons that will never hold the real criminals that destroy the environment or exploit and decimate the economic and social fabric of the world?
I wish to offer some thoughts concerning strategies that might help conceive an appropriate architecture for our world, for a global civilization whose fundamental values and pathologies had their origin in the European industrial and political revolutions of the late eighteenth century. My wager is that architecture has indeed something
specific to contribute. It can embody seduction and compassion, allowing for beauty to coincide with justice and the common good, as has been suggested by Elaine Scarry in her recent book. Yet the terms of this equation have to be understood properly and modulated by a sense of responsibility on the part of the architect that goes far beyond global planning, gestural formal innovations resulting from sophisticated computations, and the notion of merely serving a client through codes of professional deontology. Ethics cannot be tabulated and made into a rigid code--it is not a matter of correct versus incorrect. Equally, relevant beauty cannot be assessed by philosophical logic. Understood as the very possibility of perceptual meaning or sense in architecture, beauty concerns emotion and longing, a seductive and even terrifying quality, destabilizing through its novelty yet recognizable as familiar, and thus capable of bringing about an attunement of human life with cultural and natural orders. In this, it is resonant also with the much later German concept of stimmung, referring to a resonant environment or atmosphere (milieu or ambience would be more appropriate translations), understood in our Western architectural tradition as harmony (see Spizer).
To unpack this hypothesis, I believe we must first recognize the historical complexity of our discipline: both shifting with cultural changes, and in some ways remaining the same. Though the questions are similar, architecture provides diverse answers appropriate to specific times and places. It is naive to identify our shared tradition of architecture with a chronological collection of buildings, understood as useful creations, whose main significance was to delight through more or less irrelevant aesthetic ornament. This definition, associating architecture with the Fine Arts, dates only from the eighteenth century, and hardly does justice to the broad changing historical definitions of the field in human civilization. A few simple examples may shed some light upon this observation. In Ancient Greece, for instance, there was no word for architecture. There was, however, a word to name the architect, meaning in most cases the principal craftsman. The architektons responsibilities included the crafting of defensive weapons, wondrous bronze sculptures, ships, textiles, and some buildings. Yet the architekton was also a dramatic character in the theatre, like Odysseus in the satyr play Cyclops by Euripides, responsible for making possible a cultural order, an original social foundation, often in the absence of a divinity in the plot (see Landrum). During the European Middle Ages, on the other hand, Architectus was a term associated with the Judeo-Christian God as Creator, and sometimes with the bishop or the abbot who may have been the patron of a building enterprise. …