(This is the fourth in a series of posts on the relationship between ethics and aesthetics.)

Hard as it is to believe, it was once thought that architecture had integrity. Not just the architects who practiced their profession with a principled, uncompromising sense of purpose or mission, but buildings themselves. Certainly, the attribution of human qualities to inanimate things like buildings is and always was what the literary critics call a ‘pathetic fallacy.’ A ‘sad moon,’ may work as a metaphor of our own emotions when we, on occasion, look at the moon, but no one would really believe that the moon itself experiences sadness, or anything else. And yet the belief that buildings had an uncompromising, principled reality about them was once widely held. As a student of architecture, nearly fifty years ago, I was taught that all good buildings had, in fact, three integrities, without which they could not be considered architecture.

The first was integrity of function. This meant that a building’s form and spaces had to be be designed to serve their intended purpose. Fifty years ago, everyone knew this meant its form had to accommodate a known building typology: school, hospital, house, museum….all of which had been established by exemplary precedents.

The second was integrity of materials. This meant that a material was always used according to its inherent properties. Wood, for example, was a ‘beautiful’ natural material, so it should never be painted. The same with concrete, even though it was not beautiful or natural, it’s roughness and ugliness were integral with its ‘character.’ So, it should always be left exposed.

The third was integrity of structure. This meant that whatever held a building up had to be clearly visible as part of its form. Structure was not to be disguised or hidden, as in Beaux Arts buildings, burying, say, the steel frame structure of a building in masonry walls to achieve the effect of an ancient Roman or Gothic building. To do that was to betray the reality of the building, to turn it into something false, a lie, a mere stage set—the antithesis of architecture.

This idea holds that a building is—like a human body or a machine—an assemblage of parts having diverse purposes that must be integrated to form a coherent, working whole. In order to be integrated, each of the parts—function, materials, structure—has to be integral within itself, within its own, intrinsic nature, to join coherently with the others. It is rather like the old saying, “Be true to yourself, and you cannot be false to another.” Each part has to have integrity before the whole can have it, too. In this way, architecture is the embodiment of an ethical, as well as aesthetic, ideal.

Such thoughts were once taken very seriously. We still see their residue in the buildings of some prominent architects in the over-60 generation, who grew up with the idea that architecture had integrity. For the generations following them, however, a building’s integrity–or lack of it–is no longer an issue. The idea is, in fact, never mentioned.

Newer ideas hold that a building—like any product of manufacture—is a unit serving a prescribed purpose, within which its constituent parts are entirely subordinate to the whole. This means that the make-up of any part can vary, so long as the integrity of the unit is not violated. Perhaps the better word is efficacy–the effectiveness of the unit. The ease and speed with which the computer can integrate different systems has taken the emphasis off the different parts and placed it on the whole. In a practical as well as philosophical sense, the goal of design today is an overall synthesis of the elements of building—a form—that is achieved not as a result of assembling parts, but established at the beginning of the design process. Architects who work with any 3-D modeling program know that structure and materials are now subordinate to form. When concrete can be easily substituted for steel framing, or plastic for glass, or stressed-skin carbon fiber for riveted aluminum, without sacrificing the coherence of the form, then the lines between the former distinctions are sufficiently blurred to be insignificant.

There is another factor. The global marketing of brand-name consumer goods has coincided with a social trend towards an effacement of differences based on racial, gender, economic and other stereotypes. It has created a new type of diversity based, ironically enough, on sameness. In the products we buy, the places we go, the ideas we have, we all share the same differences. In other words, we can have different designer clothing, or buildings by different well-known architects, but the differences between these brand-name products are not antithetical or opposed, like the old stereotypes (black/white, male/female, gay/straight, socialist/capitalist, modern/classical…), but are only variations on themes and trends dominating the marketplace at the moment. Ethical distinctions (right/wrong, good/bad…), which are seldom marketable themes, have— like integrity—become all but irrelevant.


The Critic gets it (almost) right:

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