NOBLESSE OBLIGE

[This is the first in a series of posts on the relationships between aesthetics and ethics in architecture.]

The interplay between the ethical aspects of exclusivity and those of ubiquity are operative in a clear way in the case of significant public buildings. Considering, for example, the Seagram Building in New York, the wealth and power of the client are immediately apparent, amply demonstrated by the haughty aloofness of the building’s sober and restrained design, and at the same time the sumptuous costliness of its materials and details. The large open space in front of the building seems almost extravagant, considering the staggering prices of land in midtown Manhattan, and contrasts sharply with its more egregiously commercial neighbors, who have crammed the maximum square-footage of leasable space onto their sites. To the average passerby, the building and its siting have the aesthetics of a civic monument, an architecture that goes far beyond advertising its client, and becomes a kind of gift to the city, a form of noblesse oblige—the obligation the rich and powerful have to the society that made them so—that confirms their superior station. The Seagram Company assumes the aesthetic raiments of government, bestowing on the public space of the street an imposing demonstration of social hierarchy and the ethical relationships of New York’s social classes. The rich give, the poorer receive. The rich are generous—they bestow on the teeming masses beauty, and space for gathering and enjoyment, and ask, in return, what the givers of all gifts ask, appreciation and a kind of fealty that amounts to a confirmation of the social arrangement the gift expresses. “I would rather be respected than loved,” the old saying goes. That is the Seagram Building, in short. Respect is the essence of an ethics based on power and its separateness from more common, and ambiguous, everyday emotions. This is what the aesthetics of its architecture has achieved, in the name of a company that makes and sells everyday liquors and wines and stands for no lofty ideals of public life.

The Seagram building, it is true, is an exception in the realm of commercial office buildings, but only in the extremity of its aesthetical qualities and, accordingly, its ethical implications. Today, all such buildings offer various forms of public plazas and usually street-level spaces for shopping, entertainment, eating… Part of Seagram’s uniqueness is in the austerity of its offerings, its lack of conscious appeal to popular tastes, which characterize most of its building type today. No benches, no quaint lamps, no signs, no color, just hard-edged geometry in unapologetically, elegantly ‘timeless’ materials. The public—the masses—have the rare opportunity to enter the living space of an intellectual and social elite, and to feel the distance, the gulf, really, between. It is not, as it turns out, an alienating experience, but a rather popular one. The majority of people, or so it would seem, enjoy knowing—viscerally feeling—the presence of a higher, to them unattainable but not wholly inaccessible, stratum in the life of the city and its society.

LW

 


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