12 September 2005

morality and aesthetics in architectural form

The following remarks are a response to a post entitled "Why John Ruskin" on a blog by Meaghan Willard, a student at Taliesin.


you are so right in questioning the application of morality to architecture. i've been thinking about this issue for a long time (at least since graduate school in the mid 1980s) and have found that it leads to many contradictions that cannot be entirely resolved logically.

the fundamental problem stems from philosophy itself and the relationship between morality and aesthetics (check with immanuel kant). the general implication of the comments about 'truth to material', 'organic architecture', etc., is that the creation of such architecture is fundamentally a natural process. and that natural creations are inherently superior to man-made creations. that may or may not be true, but is it because natural form is morally superior than human form? i doubt it.

i believe that we have a love of natural form for romantic reasons, not because they're fundamentally more beautiful. certainly people like plato, corbusier, and other rationalists seemed to suggest that only pure, abstract forms were truly beautiful: cube, pyramid, cone, etc. wright suggests the same thing about the superiority of stereometric forms, but draws very different conclusions in the application of this idea.

personally, i find it difficult to think of form as being inherently ethical qua form. the content and interpretation and use of forms, that's where morality begins to play a part.

when it comes to architecture, the strict separation of form and content can be tricky (and at times impossible). a good saint louis example is saarinen's arch. not too many people think about this reference now, but when the design was revealed, there were serious challenges to its form. a similar monumental arch had been proposed under the fascist regime of mussolini. there were many articles and editorials that denounced the design as inherently fascist. others of course insisted that arches have been used for thousands of years and aren't anymore particular to fascism (nazi, etc.), democracy (u.s., france, etc.), imperialism (u.k., roman empire, etc.). the idea was that the form of an arch had no inherent moral/ethical meaning.

there was even a lawsuit challenging saarinen's authorship of the arch design. the suit was eventually rejected.

anyway, i love the architecture of fllw and the arts & crafts in gerneral. i've tried to read and study these works and the ideas behind them to the extent possible. it generally seems that the intellectual concepts are drawn from ruskin and morris.

within ruskin's own writings there are plenty of contradictions, but his fundamental ideas were/are very powerful and persuasive. from our viewpoint today, some of his arguments are almost absurd. however, in the nineteenth century, the battle of styles was at the forefront of every architects' mind. was gothic architecture morally superior to classical architecture? is the difference in the form? or as ruskin argues, i think, in the manner of its production.

he sees classical architecture as based upon slavery and subjugation of the individual. similarly, he sees gothic architecture as superior because it gave expression to the worker who was not required to copy predetermined forms. hmmm. i'm not so sure about this idea. when you apply it to industrial products, as ruskin attempted to do, you run into all kinds of crazy contradictions.

a book that i love that discussed these ideas in some depth is 'the arts and crafts movement' by peter davey. his position is clear. the architects that insisted that all lumber used on a building be sawn by hand and never using a mechanical lumber mill, were 100% wrong. he sees their approach as fundamentally immoral because it created years of back-breaking work where mechanical equipment would've taken care of this production with little problem.

wright gave an early talk on the use of machines in architectural production that was extremely prescient. clearly he valued the individual expression of the artist (esp. if it was him). but he also understood that the use of machinery in the production of lumber and other materials 'should' change the forms that they take. why should the machine be used to try to falsely emulate hand-carving? its not honest. [is it therefor not beautiful? i believe beauty and morality are two separate categories of judgment, as described by kant.]

the ugliness and poor quality of the machine-made products shown in the great exhibition of 1851 at the crystal palace is often cited as the beginning of the backlash against the industrial revolution, particularly with respect to the applied arts. morris, ruskin, and pugin all expressed their outrage at the declining quality of goods and the increasingly monotonous jobs that factory production creates. [k. marx says a few things about this as well, but generally from the political viewpoint, although he discusses the spiritual destruction of the human being through mechanization.]

so then, is international style architecture, as pushed by people like siegfried giedeon ('mechanization takes command' is one of his books), fundamentally anti-humanist? wright seemed to think so, but then he borrowed forms from them when it suited his purposes (in my opinion, i.e., fallingwater, johnson wax).

for a long time, i took this view, associating modernist, white, abstract architecture as fundamentally inhumane and destructive. i could see clearly how it subjugated the personal expression of the individual craftsman and how it destroyed the context, scale, and detail of cities around the world. truthfully, i associated this kind of modernism with the hierarchical, dominating forms of classical architecture. i saw it more from the viewpoint of the monumental, over-bearing aspect of many classical architecture (really roman architecture and much neo-classical architecture). i didn't see any real democratic expression in arches, domes, symmetry, etc.

i personally favored the gothic, the handmade, the romantic. i think in general, wright did too, although its easy to find precedents for many of his works in beaux-arts architecture. for example, in the monumentality of the hollyhock house or the rigid plan of the imperial hotel. these are obvious, but it appears in more subtle/complex ways in the larkin building and the guggenheim.

anyway, i'm definitely rambling. hopefully, i made some kind of coherent comment (or at least provided some interesting bits and pieces).

i'd be interested to know your thoughts and feelings. i don't expect you to have read everything i have. i'd just like to know your point of view as it is . . .

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