Morality & Architecture

The curious separation between an era’s design legacy and any concomitant judgment of its moral legacy deserves exploration; Why and when does morality affect our understanding, appreciation and admiration for design and architecture?

Buildings, and perhaps all design, can be read on many levels but, most fundamentally, they can be understood reductively as independent form/space or as an idea existing in an informative context. These contexts can be urban, spatial, functional, technological, programmatic, social, economic, historical, etc., but the degree to which we value, or even acknowledge, these contexts is neither uniform nor even handed.

We seem to rightly shun some design (e.g., Fascist, Stalinist, Dissolute, or the Architecture of Oppression) but conveniently omit those we would rather not judge on those standards. This interesting dualism raises questions about the nature of critical thinking and about the place of discourse in the architectural and design panorama. Rome is layered with ethical quandaries, each with a corresponding architectural and design catalog: we embrace Bernini’s St. Peters piazza yet dismiss Mussolini’s attempts to elaborate on that bombast. We adore the Campidoglio yet abhor the Vittorio Emanuel monument nearby. It is not simply the architecture we are responding to, but the entire historical context of their design and/or creation.

We ascribe the failure of some design to the failure of morals, yet we ignore the same ethical conditions for what we admire. There are echoes, of course, in the current landscape of emerging nations as proving grounds for the newest architecture. Is it only a screenwriter’s conceit that Albert Speer, Jr. planned the recent Beijing Olympics parks? Are the Arab Emirates to be politically exonerated on architecturally progressive grounds? This is, I suspect, not a simple moral lapse, but something more interesting, more deeply seated and more nuanced.

To understand and shape the world the human brain, uniquely among all species, promotes dualism. We can understand both the physical (exterior, visible, corporeal) and the intentional (interior, emotive, psychological, motivational) sides of animate objects to the point that we often ascribe this dualism to animate and inanimate objects alike. This dualistic tendency is neither accidental, nor is it necessarily learned.

The brain is physically structured in hemispheres and, as a gross simplification, the left dominates in narrative-based manipulation, the right manages the spatial/visual information. The left brain excels at exactitude and logic where the right plays in intuitive, projective territory. Janus-like, the left brain looks backward, the right brain forward. Together they permit an appreciation of form endowed with idea. This interplay, and the ability to understand the inside and the outside of things, may be how we create visual art which can be seen as greater than pure form, but not simply rational or narrative based.

The existence of a real (neural) separation between these spheres of thinking may be critical in the human ability to separate the appreciation of form and its meaning or context. Is there a relationship between our uniquely human brain/mind and the blind spot we sometimes exhibit when creating complex judgments about some of the most revered artifacts of civilization?

I am interested not in judging our lapses, but in an understanding of how we see and how we evaluate the artificial environment. And a chance to re-evaluate, and perhaps to resurrect, some set of disparaged or disputed moments in the history of design is a way of understanding and informing the present.