January 07, 2004

Morality & Architecture

Vaguely inspired by this post by the always engaging Mind-Numbing, I thought I'd offer, not five books I didn't read last year, but one which I'd like to reread this year. That's David Watkin's Morality and Architecture, which takes a critical look at how architects and architectural theorists and critics have argued that architectural forms are shaped by -- are in fact the answers to -- the needs of society, or of what those needs ought to be. To demur from such certainty, according to some of the grandees Watkin follows, is to be antisocial, unethical, even immoral.

I read the book when I was in college (long before that advent of the Internet), and I confess my architectural knowledge is rather limited, as is my ability to imagine structures on the basis of written descriptions is minimal. Nevertheless, I regarded Watkin's book as being somehow fundamentally important, perhaps for passages like this one:

It seems that no one with a proper training in philosophy, intellectual history, religion, or the social sciences has turned a critical eye on architectural history. Architectural historians have consequently found it easy to fall back on the belief in a unitary, all-pervasive Zeitgeist. One important reason for this is that modern art history began in the nineteenth century as a by-product of history and the philosophy of culture in Germany; the rapid growth of popular Marxist sociology, which has a similar intellectual origin, also played a role. Thus everything is seen as a 'reflection' of something else -- the economic structure, the spirit of the age, the prevailing theology, and so on. There is also an evolutionary assumption that in each epoch a new economic structure or a new Zeitgeist is 'struggling to be born'. It thus becomes the obligation of creative spirits, be they poets, architects, or whatever, to 'express' that new nascent spirit. To express an antiquated Zeitgeist is to be condemned as a poor artist or architect.

But it is man, creative, mysterious, and unpredictable, who is the proper subject of the historian, not the subterranean collective urges of the spirit of the age or of the 'needs' of an as yet non-existant society.

In a dense 115 pages, Watkin traces the former phenomenon through Catholic theology and the Gothic, the monumental architecture of Nazis and Communists (all in Weimar and post-Weimar Germany), English socialism, and much else. An engaging work, to say the least. Perhaps I'll get around to re-reading it in 2004...

Posted by Ideofact at January 7, 2004 11:43 PM

"It thus becomes the obligation of creative spirits, be they poets, architects, or whatever, to 'express' that new nascent spirit. To express an antiquated Zeitgeist is to be condemned as a poor artist or architect."

This reminds me of Schoenberg's boast that he was writing the "music of the future", to which Stravinsky cheekily replied (IIRC), "Others can write the music of the future. I'm writing the music of today."

On a slightly less exalted plane, "Archicteture and Morality" was the title of an album by the early 80s 'New Romantic' group Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.

Posted by: C.Bloggerfeller at January 8, 2004 11:14 AM

I haven't read this book, but it sounds similar to E. Michael Jones' Living Machines: Bauhaus Architecture as Sexual Ideology. I am curious about Watkin's and see how it differs/compliments with Jones'

Posted by: Jonas at January 8, 2004 03:59 PM

C.B. --

First, I'm going to miss your blog terribly, and I hope by hiatus you mean hiatus, and not retirement.

Second, I know the O.M.D. album well -- bought it on vinyl those many years ago (I also had a copy of Organisation -- I think "Enola Gay" was their catchiest song).

I think they even mentioned the Watkin book as the inspiration for the album title.


Jonas --

I haven't read the Jones book; it's possible that Watkin might offer some complementary perspective (it's a book well worth reading, in any event). But Watkin starts with an 1830s architectural critic who argued that Gothic architecture was the perfect form, and even a physical expression of the Catholic creed.

Posted by: Bill at January 8, 2004 10:33 PM