Ethics, Aesthetics, Architecture

This is an article from the Architecture Australia archives and may use outdated formatting

Hélène Frichot goes in search of an active ethico-aesthetics for architecture.

The difficult question of ethics is a perennial concern for architects and has contributed to the ways in which architectural problems have been negotiated since the discipline was inaugurated. The ethics I want to discuss here fall outside the comfortable terrain of a ready-made moral code, and the professional regulations that are designed to secure the integrity of the discipline, and respond instead to contingent circumstances and innovative design propositions. I want to advocate for a coalition between ethics and aesthetics – that is, an ethico-aesthetics – to suggest how an ethical approach becomes integral to the creative act of design. Because it is difficult to deal with such questions in the abstract, I will begin with a parable.

There is a fine Australian movie from 1982 called Heatwave, directed by Phillip Noyce and starring Judy Davis and Richard Moir. Davis plays a political activist, and occasional “anarchist”, who is fighting for residents’ rights in a strip of old townhouses in central Sydney that are scheduled for demolition. As the film opens the residents are being forcibly, violently removed from their homes. Moir is the ambitious, talented and visionary architect of the planned redevelopment. His plans are drawn from natural systems and the promises of a new social order. His character is reminiscent of the mythical figure of the heroic architect of the modern movement, at ease making claims about how architecture might contribute to social engineering. In one scene we see him tracing over the outstretched arms of a tree, from which he then generates the structure of his proposal, aptly christened Eden. Perhaps it is the tree of knowledge he is tracing? The architect-aesthete and the radical activist are compulsively drawn toward each other throughout the duration of the film, into an inevitable embrace. When the anarchist asks the aesthete why he does what he does, and why he is not concerned at displacing residents and forcing them from their homes, he explains that if he had not taken on the scheme, someone with less talent would have. All the while things in the world go from bad to worse. People go missing, a colleague of the architect’s is found murdered, and the strip of terrace houses is burnt to the ground following an act of arson. By the end of the film the architect’s visionary plans have been displaced by a more pragmatic, more economic, less elegant and far less environmentally friendly scheme. The conclusion is ambiguous – neither the activist-anarchist nor the aesthete-architect wins the day.

The architect’s confidence with respect to imagining that she contributes to new forms of sociability and future formations of community has been much diminished in the wake of postmodernism. Nevertheless, the discipline of architecture cannot be conceived as autonomous, or outside a sociopolitical order. A return to natural systems has now begun to generate much interest among experimental, so-called digital, architects. Unlike the architect of Heatwave, who mimics the structure of a tree to generate his architecture, experimental architects have moved beyond the mimesis of natural forms and into an examination of the microscopic minutiae of natural processes. These processes, and an emphasis on process over built outcome (a preoccupation that is the legacy of postmodernist mores), are derived from the intersection of biology and the imaging techniques and algorithmic proficiency of contemporary computation. The architect of late has become fascinated by emerging, self-organizing systems that are generated from the “bottom up” or non-hierarchically – for example, the behaviour of swarms, ant nests and even cities that have evolved “organically” over time. These preoccupations also hint at the possibility of new social formations – for example, network culture, interconnectedness at a distance through developing telecommunications, and so forth. My focus here might seem a very small area of current architectural endeavour, but it is particularly instructive. This architectural avant-garde make the most provocative claims for a future architecture – despite remaining somewhat lacking in a visionary political project (unlike their cousins from the early years of the twentieth century). This cutting edge of innovation is one place where an active ethics is most in demand, especially when architects such as the Emergence and Design Group daringly claim that one day soon architecture will respond to life criteria or become manifest as a form of synthetic life in symbiotic exchange with a given environment.

Ethics is regularly conflated with the stipulation of moral principles. Architecture is a practice engaged in a real sphere of action with its own territory, as such an ethics for architecture can be inherently active and situated; it is not prescriptive in the sense of a pre-given moral code. This ethics deals with new problems on a day-to-day basis – design problems for which no precedent necessarily guides the architect. Architectural theorists such as Karsten Harries and philosophers such as the Australian Rosalyn Diprose note that ethics is connected to ethos, or the characteristic mode of being of individuals and communities.1 As Diprose explains, ethics is derived from the Greek word “ethos”, meaning dwelling or habitat. A habitat is that which we articulate through our daily habits in contact with an architectural, built surround: “Habitat encompasses habits, that, as the product of the repetition of bodily activities, make up one’s character, one’s specificity, or what is properly one’s own. To belong to, and project out from an ethos is to take up a position in relation to others.”2 This last step is vital. That is, the projection out from one’s habitual surroundings and everyday habits so as to engage in encounters with others. In this unpredictable sociopolitical domain we also have to negotiate the fact that people arrive from many different positions, habitats and habits, and diverse ethical points of view, to the extent that taking on ethics as a universal moral code or a categorical imperative is simply not feasible. In this assemblage architecture can be seen as that structure which not only frames activities between the public and private domain, but more intimately enters into the mix of bodies, subjects and objects as a body in its own right. As an act of design, its concerns are also aesthetic – it distributes sensible materials so that they have an impact on the inhabitant, whether individual or collective. And this inhabitant is not mute but speaks back, participating in an exchange with architecture. What is drawn to our attention is the profound imbrication between the body and its habits, together with the enclosure that is composed as our architectural surrounds, and finally, the public space into which we project ourselves, and which distributes another scale of architectural materiality. These are all real territories of existence that we grapple with on a daily basis, and we need to be wary of giving priority to any one of these spheres of activity.

Neil Leach, in his essay in the book Architecture and its Ethical Dilemmas, edited by the Cambridge scholar and architect Nicholas Ray, investigates the link between ethics and aesthetics. He broadly defines aesthetics as the process of architectural design. This aesthetics must be considered as distinct from the derogatory use of the term aestheticization, which suggests the gloss of the pretty and the pleasant for its own sake, the result of which, Leach suggests, is the “rinsing of social, political and economic concerns”.3 Central to the architect’s activity is the management of materials and sensible effects, both electronically arrayed and formed through the hands of a maker testing a model or sketch. The architect must take care not to merely aestheticize ethical issues, or make her architecture represent some ethical concern. An aesthetic engagement is inherently concerned with ethics in that it resolves contingent problems, ventures new sociabilities, and even contributes to the formation of new subjectivities, rather than merely attempting to reify some abstract idea of ethics.

The most evident problems with which architecture grapples pertain to issues of homelessness and migration, and environmental challenges, but also the political challenges that follow in the aftermath of the destruction of the built environment and how architecture comes to be co-opted to reframe a nation’s identity. We need only reflect on the transformation of the political world following the attacks on the World Trade Center, New York, September 11, 2001, and the means through which architecture has been used, perhaps irresponsibly, to redress this event. Such crises are not only environmental and political; they also challenge the very identity of the nation state as well as the ethos of the subjectivities of subjects or citizens who are biopolitically organized by the state. In response to such issues, Félix Guattari argues for three ecological registers, or what he calls an “ecosophy”. These are: the environment, social relations, and human subjectivity. We see how the architect of Heatwave is eager to respond to the environment, but is less adept at dealing with social relations. As for his subjectivity, at first it is fixed inside the cliche of the heroic, individualist architect, but gradually he begins to question his position, which allows his subjectivity to adapt and transform.

Contemporary digital architects who promote a new biological paradigm tend to forget both the question of social relations and the new formations of subjectivity, remaining enamoured instead with novel techniques. Guattari also presents what he optimistically calls a new ethico-aesthetic paradigm, one that I have attempted to touch upon here. This is not an entirely novel conjunction. In a sense ethics and aesthetics come into contact whenever modes of artistic creation or design and questions of social relations and components of subjectivity participate in any given problem or project. Following a moral code, whether it is legislated or inscribed by professional practice or naturalized through being embedded in one belief system or another, is not in its own right a challenge. In fact, adhering to some moral code is often habitual, such that we do not pause to consider our actions except to say that something is simply not done, or that some action is inappropriate. The far harder task is grappling with the mobile tactics that have to be provisionally employed through an active ethics. In the creative domain of architecture this ethics is on the ground. It admits the contingency of everyday problems and considers the tripartite concerns of the environment, social relations and new subjectivities, and how these three forces are intimately intermingled.

Dr Hélène Frichot is a senior lecturer in architecture at RMIT University. This essay is partly derived from collaborative research being undertaken with Stephen Loo of the University of South Australia.

1 Rosalyn Diprose, “A ‘Genethics’ that Makes Sense: Take Two” in Margit Shildrick and Roxanne Mykitiuk, eds, Ethics of the Body: Postconventional Challenges (MIT Press, 2005), p. 21.
2 Diprose, p. 238.
3 Neil Leach, “Less Aesthetics, More Ethics” in Nicholas Ray, ed., Architecture and its Ethical Dilemmas (Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 141.



Published online: 1 Nov 2007
Words: Hélène Frichot


Architecture Australia, November 2007

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