Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
The moral of the storey
Elizabeth Farrelly, Elizabeth Farrelly is an urban consultant and writer.
Glenn Murcutt won’t design a detention centre, but somebody has to. Elizabeth Farrelly wonders whether great buildings need sound ethical foundations.
Recent news that Anca Petrescu, architect of Nicolae Ceausescu’s monstrous lair in Bucharest, the Casei Republicii, is to return and finish the job came hard on the heels of Philip Ruddock’s announcement of a design competition for Australian detention centres. And while the conjunction may be a little unfair, both stories raise thorny issues for architecture, issues that its thinkers and practitioners habitually avoid.
For much of the past two centuries, ethical considerations were seen as core architectural territory, generating passionate and colourful debate. Now, though, there is no obvious answer to the question; what is the role of morality in architecture? Does it, in fact, have one?
When today’s architect lifts her pencil, mouse or phone, is there a moral imperative operating, independent of design, money and planning constraints?
Regarding the details of its detention centres competition, Ruddock’s Detention Infrastructure Group in Canberra is understandably cagey. Defensive, even. The minister’s press release avowed an intention to “advance the quality and style of detention facilities in Australia”.
What, though, might the four short-listed entrants be asked to design? Who will judge, and on what criteria? What, indeed, might a winning scheme offer? Impeccably proportioned plastic windows? Solar-powered lip-sewing carrels? Postmodern razor wire?
Architecture is about ideas. Ideas that somehow translate an understanding of human existence into three-dimensional form. Ideas that dignify human existence. Its moral content, if such there is, must inhere either in the architect’s mode of practice or in the forms themselves.
The former category is the ground of traditional professional ethics. Even there, though, things get muddy. Architects, unlike lawyers and doctors, have no hallowed precept on which to rely, no Hippocratic oath. On the contrary, it is easy to argue that architects should vet their clients that Albert Speer, for example, should never have lent himself to Hitler’s mania precisely because of architecture’s capacity for eloquence in service of a cause.
But how far might such a policy be carried? Consider again the detention centre question. Some architects, no doubt, support the government stance; many do not. Glenn Murcutt, for example, has declared himself so “disgusted” by government policy on the issue that “I nearly go berserk”.
Should such an architect, invited (hypothetically) to participate in such a competition, opt in, in the hope of improving an egregious situation, or out, keeping his conscience dry?
These high-drama situations turn up the contrast; in ordinary contexts the question fogs up more quickly still. Should the everyday architect feel obliged to scrutinise and approve his clients’ business dealings before accepting a commission?
Murcutt admires the well-known British architect Ted Cullinan, who declined major commissions from a huge IT company because its involvement in defence systems clashed with his pacifist views. But while Murcutt himself “wouldn’t have a bar of” designing detention facilities in Australia, he recognises that a strictly purist approach to one’s clients’ wealth sources could prove mildly suicidal.
Deleting every Palm Beach QC, rich from keeping sleazebags at liberty plus, of course, the sleazebags themselves might not leave a lot of names on an architect’s client list.
These days, too, full-blooded paying clients are sufficiently thin on the ground to ensure that few architects do much picking and choosing. Even those who claim the luxury of sacking the occasional client tend to do so for personal reasons (“the man’s a pig, a bully, a cretin”) rather than strictly ethical ones.
Then again, had such clean-wealth expectations been in place at the time, Michelangelo would never have worked for the Medicis. Never worked at all, very likely.
Professionally, there are statutory prohibitions on fraud, collusion and insanity, as well as a code of professional conduct, imposed by the Institute of Architects, but not onerous in its requirements. The few specific no-nos discourage filching another architect’s job and criticising other architects and the institute itself.
So much for professional ethics, then. What about the moral qualities of buildings themselves? Sounds daft, put like that, but for centuries architects and theorists have seen moral purpose in built form.
Architectural Modernism as far back, arguably, as the Renaissance was a broad and varied faith united behind an unambiguous wagon-train of moral purpose which saw angels and devils not only in a building’s interpretation of function, or “program”, but also in its compositional aesthetic. When Mies van der Rohe so famously quipped “God is in the details”, he wasn’t talking metaphor.
The first, functional view holds that built form can influence behaviour in positive ways hence, presumably, Ruddock’s craving for a better “quality and style” of detention centre. The second, more fundamental equation of architecture with morality sees meaning in the forms themselves. Both views merit examination.
A generation or so ago, the first perspective was almost universal. Thus, in 1971, Peter Collins (from McGill University in Canada) could confidently write: “The arts of the surgeon, the architect and the lawyer have at least one life-enhancing quality in common: they are all necessary humanitarian skills, performed
in the service of specific social ideals.”
As Modernism waned through the 1980s and ’90s, the desperation to believe in the social purpose and effectiveness of the profession became all the more pronounced.
In Britain such thinking surfaced in the work, for instance, of sociologist Alice Coleman, who blamed the Brixton riots on the Brixton slums, and Prince Charles, who, in a long and lachrymose fit of “when men were men” nostalgia, established a proselytising school of architecture and a thatch-and-picket model village that looked like an escapee from the set of Wallace & Gromit.
But wishing architecture was socially progressive did not make it so. There is, it might be argued, a middle ground where architecture may improve or exacerbate a given situation. The welcomingly domestic doctor’s surgery, for example, or the grey and treeless housing estate. And, as every retail designer knows, there are rules to arrange colour, light and consumables to produce in most humans a Pavlovian “buy now” response.
In the end, most of those involved had to admit that social problems usually have social causes. People do not riot simply because they live five, or even 20, storeys off the ground. Children do not turn delinquent because their mothers cannot call them from the kitchen window as they play as a casual glance at middle-class life in Berlin, Chicago, Vancouver, New York, Hong Kong or even Sydney clearly shows.
Nor do people stop rioting, wife-beating or shooting up because they have nice homes to go to. Such ideas, based on “giving people what they want”, flounder into the swampy and paternalistic territory of community consultation, and beg the obvious rejoinder that “what people want” is what they buy. Market knows best.
Which brings us to the United States where, as you might expect, the after-Modernism movement was rather more private-sector, though no less naive. There it produced cute little clapboard communities such as the picturesque Seaside in Florida, designed by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk with input from a Prince of Wales favourite, Leon Krier. This was followed up with the happy pretence that the enclave’s low crime rate was causally linked to its architecture, rather than to the smuggling of a WASP-nest onto the Florida panhandle, about as far from anything resembling mass social problems
as it is possible to get.
As the Village Voice critic Michael Sorkin has pointed out, New Urbanism “overestimates architecture’s power to influence behaviour” even more dramatically, if anything, than the Modernist tyranny it overthrew. New Urbanist towns, despite a rhetoric of pluralism, tolerance and individual freedom, are “underpinned by a labyrinth of restrictive covenants, building regulations … codes of behaviour and engineered demographic sterility”.
This has done nothing to prevent its recognition, by architects and developers alike, as the next thing in spin. And although the New Urbanism has yet to surface explicitly in Australia, our continuing wave of gated and covenanted urban communities looks little different on the ground. “Dull as the suburbs,” says Sorkin, “but lacking their vivid underlying pathology, New Urbanism is becoming the acceptable face of sprawl.”
What, then, of the view that form itself has meaning and, therefore, inherent moral capacity? This idea has been around for some time, gaining particular currency in 19th-century England with the so-called Battle of the Styles, or Classicism versus Gothic. The resulting detente assigned the Gothic (sinewy and soaring heavenwards) to loftier functions such as schools, churches and courts of law, leaving Classicism for mundane uses such as post offices and banks (see Martin Place).
Resoundingly reviled by the Romantic critic John Ruskin as “base, unnatural, unfruitful, unenjoyable and impious … lifeless, unprofitable and unChristian”, Classicism was also worse unEnglish; an early international style.
So the Gothic, aspirational as well as inspirational, became politically correct, and somewhat left of centre, while Classicism’s fall from grace was only exacerbated by its subsequent links with Hitler, Mussolini and other assorted tyrants not least, of course, Ceausescu.
At the same time, Classicism had its defenders, including the right-wing mystic philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who saw its primitivism as the essence of democracy, nobility and higher thought.
Modernism, after Ruskin’s lead, pursued “honesty” as prime archi-virtue, baring whatever was bareable structure, material, services in this cause. But are bones more honest than skin? Is blood more honest than muscle, and muscle than fat? For some reason the modern movement, despite being architecture’s most intellectual moment, accepted unexamined two seminal ideas: that form expressed meaning, and that the underlayer is inherently truer than its cover. Modernism went to its (admittedly exaggerated) death without once recognising the relative nature of form.
Take Frank Lloyd Wright’s “prairie style” houses, for example, whose emphatic horizontality is commonly seen to represent freedom and democracy, but could just as easily symbolise the levelling effect of totalitarianism. Decoration, similarly, was decried by one Modernist as a sign of terminal moral weakness but applauded by Postmodernists as magnanimous and humanistic it was clear that any mating between meaning and form is strictly seasonal.
Yet still they argue, wanting needing, perhaps to see meaning where there is none. Yale professor Karsten Harries, for example, wrote in 1997: “While the horizontal not only suggests comfort or an indefinite beyond, full of the promise of as yet unknown opportunities, but also hints at surrender, at sleep and rest, at death and disintegration, the vertical is assertive … Firmly planted in a landscape, towers establish centres, wrest place from space, reach up to heaven.”
Even if, for the sake of argument, we swallow that much, what of more complex and expressionist forms, like Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiralling Guggenheim Museum in New York, Joern Utzon’s Opera House or Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao? Can we wrest anything more from their complexity than flirtatious ambiguity? What, exactly, does their expressionism express?
Again, the ship of meaning founders on the rock of subjectivity. What some read as Gehry’s joyous confirmation of freedom and creative vigour strikes others as wilful, decadent and narcissistic.
So where does all this leave the hapless Ruddock? We may never know for sure, since the results of his so-called “design competition”, to be judged any minute, will remain unpublished, along with the brief, the budget, the judges and their criteria. They’re looking, says detention infrastructure honcho Michael Robinson, for environmental friendliness, “high levels of amenity” and “great ideas” not including opening the gates.
But they won’t find great ideas in that neck of the woods. (Would they know them, indeed, if they did?) Already, the tender has been let, and although there’s no budget yet, nor any design, construction of the Christmas Island detention centre, the first of four, will be complete by the end of September.
Designed in six weeks, built in 20: whatever it takes, really. Ethics don’t come into it.
Illustration: Andrew Joyner