The Ethics of Aesthetics

by Alan Mee

“It is my job to create universes…I have a secret love of chaos. There should be more of it. Do not believe -and I am dead serious when I say this – do not assume that order and stability are always good, in a society or in a universe”.[i]

No, not Rem himself, but the opening quotation chosen by him for the current retrospective exhibition at the Barbican, on the truly staggering output of OMA. In breadth and extent, as well as quality and overall geographical reach, there’s really nothing to touch this global spatial production machine, which originated in Holland.

One comes away quite shellshocked and overwhelmed, and if there’s any brain space left to review the prodigious heap of other OMA publications, books and graphical documents in the reception area, there must be an impression of a Spatial Superman forming, with a race of avid followers towing along behind, testing, thinking, sweating, making, making, making.

Then professional jealousy creeps in, as it would have to do, for any other designer visitor. Who could not be jealous of an operation which has re-invented the Map (and flag) of Europe, written key texts on urbanism and architecture, designed so many buildings of global significance, and still has a big order book of things to deliver and work on ?

But is it all a just spatial practice ?

On reflection, this is the key question which arises. When anything is possible, and clients and budgets invite the most preposterous of formal gymnastics and shape throwing, is there a need for a moral or ethical self-control button ?

The entry statement seems to suggest that there’s a justification being offered for what we are about to see, as if he knows how bold he has been. The problem is not just him, but also the armies of keen followers (and countries, and cultures, and clients) who are being set a poor example of vomiting creativity without a moral core.

Much much closer to home and us, (though not totally disconnected) the RIAI Conference 2011, in Carlow, was dominated by issues of ethical relevance. One session involved a very near miss between those in the room who are undercutting fees, and some of those most affected. Another had the Minister for Education describing the ethical aspects of locating schools on outskirts of towns, thereby sentencing generations of children to car based transport, the social segregation from the street, and ultimately, unsustainable ways to be. (Is it possible to do ethical mapping of our spatially chaotic condition ? ) Kenneth Frampton seemed to be updating critical regionalism with an ethical turn, locally inspired and modest architecture, with resonance in cultural terms. Conor Skehan exploded a few verbal devices as usual, predicting impending radical change in the very definition of the professional, and suggesting the Institute needs to re-examine itself and its position as regards broader types of architectural practice and membership.

The contractual and working conditions of young graduates were described by delegates and students as leaving lots to be desired, and the Director reminded the audience that the Institute and other authorities cannot act unless someone puts a head above the parapet to report those who may be acting unlawfully and unethically.

The question developing of course was ; What would a future more ethical model for the practice and culture of design in Ireland look like ? With our recent absences of monitoring of regulation, our neo-liberal models for urban form, which are unsustainable, spatially unjust, and economically self defeating, what have we learned ?

What would design output of an ethical cultural shift be ? Less construction ? Is it possible our current obsession with training ‘projective design’ architects towards more inclusion for the assessment / evaluative architects, those trained to make analysis and quality judgements, on whether something should be protected, adapted, demolished, extended, etc, without also having to produce more superfluous space ?

Imagine if our culture and designed environment became associated with ethical practices, in the processes as well as the output ? Maybe an island where positive cultural change can happen quickly could appear, as we re-invent ourselves with new priorities, linking theory on fairness and spatial justice to how we work, how we look, how we appear, and how we think.

[i] Dick, Philip K, (1978),‘How to build a universe that doesn’t fall apart two days later’.


This Article appeared in Architecture Ireland Issue 259

24. November 2011 by admin
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