Is there room for ethics in architecture?

Caught between the worlds of fine art and functionalism, architects struggle to make sense of their role in our daily lives. Should they be more concerned with tough-minded sociological solutions or with a higher aesthetic goal?
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Tomorrow night at the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba), the Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas will stand before his peers and a scattering of inquisitive outsiders and plead for a return to a particular rigour in architecture. What he's after is less aesthetics and more ethics as the cornerstone of architectural expression.

Tomorrow night at the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba), the Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas will stand before his peers and a scattering of inquisitive outsiders and plead for a return to a particular rigour in architecture. What he's after is less aesthetics and more ethics as the cornerstone of architectural expression.

But it's hard to make safe sense of such a sensibility. Why less of one quality and more of the other? Why not both, in spades - and can they be separated, anyway? Fuksas' message, which underpinned the Venice Biennale's architectural exhibition, is, of course, deliberately overstated and designed to provoke debate. And it will, because it always has; because there are those who will insist that truth is beauty, and others who find truth in the best of all humanely functional worlds.

It's certainly a magical mystery tour of a subject. Rifling through the pages of Berthold Lubetkin's letters and his scuffed black Silvine refill pads at the archive desk of the Riba is to sample the complexity, contradiction and occasional battiness of the search for an ethics-led approach to architecture. It was Lubetkin who designed that pristine icon of ethical modernism, High Point, in North Hill, Highgate; an apartment block fit for Gestetner's blue-collared heroes to live in, which in due course became chic pads for a quite different type of person.

A letter from the influential architect Denys Lasdun to Lubetkin in 1982 sets out the kind of thinking that, 50 years earlier, had powered the first groundswells of modernist architecture in Britain - a creed, at first glance, low in saturated fat-heads and high in polyglot unsaturated ethics.

Quoting Nietzsche, Lasdun wrote: "What is the beauty of a building to us today? The same thing as the beautiful face of a mindless woman: something mask-like." Lasdun adds: "And in the case of postmodernism, not even a beautiful face. Of course, reason must underpin our actions as architects, but you need something else as well - the tertium quid?"

It sounds like tough talk, but the argument does ship water. If beauty is not the key issue, why should "ugly" postmodernism be a concern to Lasdun? And if reason is the vital basic ingredient to design, what is this mysterious third thing hovering on the edge of understanding - this "something else"?

Lubetkin wrote that "the most mindless architecture has specific historical cause and consequences. At the time when society forges ahead in periods of social advance, its architecture projects upon nature a confident sense of unity and order aiming at noble simplicity and a calm, unaffected grandeur".

It was a different story in times of crisis: "We lose the source of purpose as well as the capacity for renewal. We find no courage to live or die. The present is unbearable, the future is unthinkable... we are seeking solace in sensitive eclecticism."

Social advance, sense of unity, noble simplicity - here, apparently, is a worthily ethical Muzak for architects to work to, in a Workers' Playtime world. But Lubetkin's considered words had a flipside, a maelstrom of conflicting and unresolved ideas which surfaced regularly.

A compulsive jotter of thoughts and quotes, he talked in one of his 1914 notebooks (spelling and punctuation were presumably "sensitive" irrelevancies in that dark year), of "hideous face of reality, art that stuns if it cannot edify... deceit,vanity, spineless sellout, carnage, stench, ditches... objects for subjects, not subjects for objects... thinking is dangerous since it leads to error... all problems have been solved but the solutions remain problematic... Anarchitect".

And as for aesthetics, here Lubetkin reached for his Colt. "As a part of ideology art is not an aloof, detached aesthetic experience, a free creation of mind independent of social realities," he scribbled, "but a tool not only reflecting metafore but shaping man's outlook."

It seems that one man's ethics may be another's hand-me-down prosthetic: is ethical architecture something to be spooned out by nanny-whips whose superior wisdom must be taken for granted? And isn't there a distinctly controlling, intellectually presumptuous ring to the assumption that artists, including architects, might be unaware of social reality as part of that total organism, existence?

Charles Holden, the Riba's Gold Medallist in 1936, was less afraid of aesthetic content in designs that were otherwise heavy with his brand of ethics. "My studies and my inclination," he said after receiving British architecture's greatest award, "led me to feel that somewhere behind the façade there was to be found an architecture as real and as purposeful as life itself."

He warned against style as a basis for design. Style, he said, should "arise out of a particular problem and the capacity of the architect to give visual aesthetic quality to the solution. That which is merely style and which has not its roots in service I would ignore whether it be ancient or modern... conscientious service, ranking equally with the service of food and clothing, neither more nor less - that may seem a plebeian approach but it kept me from overweening pride or swelled head and, I hope, from artistic snobbery".

Holden thought of himself as a functionalist and in 1931 wrote with some prescience that "buildings should express function" and that in seeking to deliver "the same sort of service as the farmer and the baker" architects should simply consider the fitness-for-purpose of their designs.

And yet even Holden could not deny the existence of the "something else" that Lasdun used as his get-out clause decades later, the mystery ingredient that was beyond the force-fields of either ethical or aesthetic considerations. In 1905, Holden wondered why architects should live in such "perpetual rebellion" with the present; and he advised them to "throw off your arts and crafty prettinesses and exaggerated techniques; behind and beyond them all lies the one that I love". The only thing that could be called architecture was the "aboriginal force in any building".

But whatever it's called, what is it - and does it depend on the wilful and self-conscious injection of aesthetics or ethics into a design? In 1843, the architect John Woody Papworth was in no doubt that a judiciously applied sensual content was the crucial dollop in the alembic of creation. "If beauty be the assemblage of graces, then the philosophical definition of beauty would be fitness, harmony and character; each of which is only a phase of what we understand by the word Propriety."

And he added: "The consequence in architecture of this passion for change is the existence of a double beauty in the Art: one, the sensuous beauty of the Painter; the other, the mental beauty of the architect."

However Fuksas treats the question at the Riba tomorrow, there remains the lingering feeling that there can be no sensible separation of ethics and aesthetics in design. Will Alsop is an obvious current example of this combination, an artist whose buildings are densely and even wildly "aesthetic", yet which are typically developed via wide-angled professional and public consultations.

What would Fuksas have to say of Zaha Hadid, part of whose architectural intention is to produce new aesthetics to change the way people think and behave? What are the ethical rights and wrongs of human behaviour in our information- and target-rich world? If Norman Foster's Canary Wharf Underground station were markedly less beautiful, would the atmosphere in the commercial catacombs of Canada Square be even more pinch-faced than it already is? There must still be some mileage in Edward Cullinan's comment that architecture must contain "invention or newness, or seeking after specialness for the specialness of situations or places".

Architects should take chances with both ethics and aesthetics. Lubetkin noted that thinking is dangerous, since it leads to error, but the reverse makes much more obvious sense: error is not intractably dangerous, because it leads to thinking. And as for Friedrich ("Every Aphorism a Winner") Nietzsche, was he quite sure that beautiful women are invariably mindless, mask-faced bints?


Massimiliano Fuksas speaks on 'Less Aesthetics, More Ethics' at the Riba, London, Tuesday. Tickets from 020-7307 3699