- Architecture and the Ethics of Authenticity
Architecture and the Ethics of Authenticity
Silos, mills, sheds, and refineries: Across most of Oklahoma’s gently rolling prairie countryside these artistically uninformed structures often provide the only vertical punctuation to a landscape otherwise made of mostly horizontal lines. One of the pleasures of teaching architecture here is to participate in the intellectual progress of students—many of whom hail from rural areas and have traveled little—as they eventually come to regard these structures with much the same admiration expressed for them some eighty years ago by Le Corbusier in his rallying polemic against the arbitrariness of nineteenth-century architecture: Vers Une Architecture.1 Like Le Corbusier, many of my students would have their work emulate these structures’ unselfconscious formal muscularity, frank materiality, and technological pragmatism—aesthetic qualities that emerge indirectly from having only usefulness in mind. Most students would gladly trade in whatever cultural élan they gain along the way in studio, during summer semesters in Europe, or in architectural history class for the ability to create work with such qualities, and I wouldn’t disagree with them.
The yearnings of today’s students to capture the authority of unselfconscious design emerge from a different, and more radical, sense of the arbitrary than Le Corbusier confronted. In place of what in hindsight appears to be the relatively narrow problem of the arbitrariness of the prevailing style and the backwardness of taste, they experience aesthetic pursuit itself as arbitrary. When pushed to answer: “Why this form? Why this material?” Le Corbusier would have cited the pressing, inescapably rational logic of contemporary technology, industrial production, and the Zeitgeist coalescing to not merely permit, but to require, a modern approach to architecture. [End Page 23] Though architects found these ideas to be adequately motivating for many years, these justifications eventually proved to be hollow. Instead of providing worthy goals and ideals, the belief in the necessity and the transformative effects of modernism turned out mainly to legitimize only another set of aesthetic preferences. As culture critic Virginia Postrel heralds with undisguised pleasure, “Modern design was once a value-laden signal—a sign of ideology. Now it’s just a style, one of many possible forms of personal aesthetic expression.”2 All that is left after giving up on the quest to “get it right” in the metaphysically and ontologically strong sense is to “get it right—for me.” Although aesthetic pursuit is still considered an important facet of a fully human existence, it is primarily as a form of individual pleasure taking and self-discovery, not as a vehicle for societal improvement.
Since aesthetic preference can no longer find cover behind such notions as progress or advancing human solidarity, to express oneself aesthetically these days is to be utterly exposed. This more radical sense of the arbitrariness of aesthetic preference has, of course, occurred within the context of the demise of positivism in all the arts: The idea of aesthetic progress has become sheer naïveté, vanity, nostalgia, or all three. We can no longer count on necessary beginning points, nor on convergence toward important ends. Movement occurs, surely, but it is rudderless at the same time it is willful. Arthur Danto perfectly diagnoses this radical sense of the arbitrary: “It is part of what defines contemporary art that the art of the past is available for such use as artists care to give it. What is not available to them is the spirit in which the art was made.”3 The safest response to the challenge “Why this form?” is “Why not? Do you have something better?” The Corbusian reply, “Because it is the correct form,”4 can no longer be given.
What remains after draining off a sense of common purpose and direction in one’s artistic work is that the expression of aesthetic vision through the art objects one creates for public display, if the object is truly the result of personal vision instead of the deliberate repackaging of popular taste, must ultimately be an attempt to advance one’s will. Form can no longer be good because it is heading us in the right direction, but only because...