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].