On Honesty in Architecture

Piran Days of Architecture |Avditorij Portorož Slovenia, November 26th 2022


Today I won’t be speaking directly about my work, as I will be focusing on the theme of this
conference – honest architecture, or as I will rather address it – honesty in architecture – which is not an easy task for several reasons. Firstly, I am a philosopher talking about architecture, which is a position, starting from the outside, far from the profession and its daily routine. From this position, it is quite easy to fall into the trap of oversimplification on the one side, or of arrogance of the theory of philosophy on the other, as the latter strives to understand everything from an abstract, distant standpoint. Namely, the arrogance of philosophy, which has this tendency to tell everyone and every profession what to think and how to subsequently operate, is one of the oldest and least hidden secrets of philosophy. I need to stress I will present just a speculative attempt to delineate the meaning of honesty in architecture.

The conceptual frame of this conference, prepared by Mojca Gregorski, is honest architecture and its possible meanings as authenticity of good architecture in our society. Questions that arise from the topic of honest architecture were connected in her text with narrativity, the material expression, the purpose of buildings and the interpretation of historical levels. The concept of the conference stresses the importance of honesty in architecture, independent from politics, capital and global trends.

I will try to approach and understand the theme of honesty in architecture from 2 different
positions. The first comes out of philosophy, the other from architectural theory. I will try to show a correlation between the two at the end of my talk.

Let me start with philosophy. It is rather interesting that such widely used mundane terms like
honest and honesty are rarely present in philosophical discussions. Nevertheless, I would say that when we talk about honesty, we are asking ourselves, what is to be honest and with whom should we be honest. The dictionary definition of ‘honest’ involves being truthful and legitimate, as well as genuine and real, humble and plain. Honest can also significate respectable and reputable, worth of praise, marked by integrity. To be honest is closely connected with the par of legality and legitimacy, which is a much broader presented theme in philosophy. What is certain, is that when we talk about honesty, when we talk about honesty, we do so from the very centre of ethics. Explicitly, honesty and the question of how to be honest is always connected with moral, ethical questions that arise when an individual, a group, an organisation is active in creating and exposing any subject within the framework of society.

The Scottish philosopher, economist and historian David Hume, who lived during the
Enlightenment period of the 18th century, is one of the few philosophers who discussed honesty in his work. He connected honesty with justice and injustice, and further on with equity. Hume wondered where honesty comes from – is it something given to human on a natural basis or is it acquired? In other words, is honesty something we are born with, or do we become honest through time?

He wrote, and I quote: “the sense of justice and injustice is not deriv’d from nature, but arises
artificially … from education, and human conventions.” For Hume justice, as well as equity, is
therefore an artificial, not a natural virtue. For him, the same is true for honesty: honesty is a
human-made virtue. When Hume explains the origin of honesty, he writes that a social convention created honesty with respect to property at the very beginning of all human communities. As humans, we are inclined to give and to obtain property for ourselves and our loved ones. Hence, there has been a need for honesty to appear at the very founding of any community, which represents a concept that is crucial for human’s survival from the mere beginning. Namely, if people were forced to be honest and to keep to their own property and not to steal from others, a large group of people could live together in peace. For Hume, it is only when people behave honestly that a community can flourish in symbioses, as one’s property is preserved within a group of other honest individuals. The same community, which abides by honesty, can then form a more complex society. This might be a first, very traditional definition of honesty: people need to be honest with respect to property in order to form a community.

Property is in many ways connected to architecture. And whenever we have property – especially in large accumulations, as it evolves within communities, or states – we are in the vicinity of the topic of power. The urge to have power over other people is one of the oldest there is: whenever we talk about a community, we talk about power. And of course, of abuses of power. I would like to bring to your attention a book I edited last year: On Power in Architecture (O oblasti v arhitekturi), which discusses the intersection between power and architecture from different philosophical perspectives. The book opens with a statement claiming that architecture has always been a decisive manifestation of power. Philosophers, theorists of architecture, and historians, are proposing here manifold approaches to reflect on the seemingly evident connection between architecture and power. The book explores architecture predominantly as a social art with an important social dimension, but also affects the life of an individual. Architecture is not only a battleground where power takes place, but also an open front of internal tensions, where ethics is at stake in our time of neoliberalism and perpetual crises. Namely, when we talk about architecture and power, as well as architecture and society, ethics is a crucial term to address.

After this short detour, I would like to move to the 2 nd possible approach when it comes to talking about honesty in architecture, starting with the various changes within architecture expressed in architectural theory. Explicitly, I would like to propose a hypothesis for discussion. My thesis is as follows: Whenever a broad discussion about honesty in architecture has been posed, a significant break with the past in architecture has been initiated. I would like to claim that these changes were not just a matter of material honesty in architecture, which is a widely accepted argument, but that when a significant rapture appeared in architecture, this was predominantly a reflection of societal changes. Architecture changed significantly when society changed: it reflected those systematic changes within society.

I would like to claim this is evident on several layers within architectural theory. For this instance, I will touch briefly upon 5 architectural periods that are High Renaissance, Neoclassicism, Modernism, Postmodernism and Contemporaneity.

High Renaissance brought a major wave of change into architecture. As Fredric Jameson wrote in his book Singular Modernity, the main aim of the Renaissance was to break with its past 1 , that is with the Middle Ages, and to present a new source of knowledge and culture, the Antiquity. What could then be understood as honest architecture? Explicitly, to take the knowledge of Roman architecture, its vocabulary, and define it anew, propose a new cannon of classical architecture. This was done in the books of Alberti, Serlio and Palladio and numerous others, and with architecture and its innovations in the works of Bramante, Brunaleschi, Alberti and several others. The vocabulary of classical architecture, which was researched in detail, has launched new standards, new concepts, a new architecture, that represented a new model for a different society of the time. To be honest in architecture during the time of the Renaissance was to use this new cannon of
classical architecture and its elements.

With the Enlightenment, this approach and vocabulary shifted significantly. The theretofore unity, which had been ensured by the Absolute and to which architecture responded with a homogenous use of classical architecture, disintegrated into several segments. Various authors doubted the elements of classical architecture and thereby triggered a small revolution. In Nouveau Traité de Toute l’Architecture (1706), Cordemoy developed an analysis of the orders of columns and advocated a discontinuation of their ornamental use or “architecture in relief”. At the height of Rococo, he argued for architecture without ornaments and became one of the first opponent of ornament in architecture. His work strongly influenced jesuit Laugier, who published on the cover of the famous Essei sur l’architecture (1753) 3 an image of a “primitive hut”, where four trunks support a rustically styled roof. For him, the primitive hut was a merger of culture and nature where humans find shelter. The French jesuit posited a rational prototype for the use of columns that was not part of the established doctrine. He even suggested the removal of all walls, which he thought should be replaced by columns. He thereby heralded architectural modernism and the construction of skeleton buildings. Architecture, applying the notion of reason during the period of the Enlightenment, changed significantly.

Prior to modernity, John Ruskin wrote in The Seven Lamps of Architecture that when applying a
material honestly, a building becomes more beautiful, and that using a dishonest material can be misinterpreted by the people experiencing the building, and can cause misunderstanding of the architecture. Modernist architecture altered further on the language of classical architecture. Emphasising abstraction, transparency and technology, this architecture influentially advocated for a “break” with classical architecture. The pioneers of modernist architecture promoted a new architecture, which would be in line with the spirit of modern times, modern cities and of a modern way of living. Adolph Loose in his essay Ornament and Crime advocated that architecture and the materials used should express simplicity and honesty. Le Corbusier advocated that architecture needs to reflect the “new spirit” if it wanted to represent the society and the individual of the time. He promoted this new notion in magazines as the Espirit Noveau, or ground-breaking books as Vers un Architecture. In Germany, important movements, like the Deutsche Werkbund or Bauhaus, raised and devoted to the same task: to bring architecture to a fundamental change.

When Modernism came to a close in architecture half a century later and the era of
Postmodernism started, books as Learning from Las Vegas by Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour, stressed the importance of symbolism in architecture. In a time of globalisation and multinational capital, commercial strips raised globally and were described as “The Great Proletarian Cultural Locomotive”. Those urban changes anticipated in many ways the neoliberal situation we have been living in since the 70s, and once again introduced changes.

What about today? Our contemporary time is marked by a period of crises, which may result in
the possible extinction of life on Earth. A long lasting Cartesian paradigm, combined with the
neoliberalism of the last 50 years, which is centered exactly on property and its excess as the added value, brought us to the explicit environmental and ecological crises. As we heard at recent conferences, such as the ECLAS and LINA conference in Ljubljana, by speakers Lučka Kajfež Bogataj and Janez Potočnik, we urgently need an action for degrowth, as the neoliberal notion of constant growth has brought us where we are. While IPPC reports the need to act to diminish the impact of climate change, the study of the University of Leeds highlights the excess of all planetary boundaries of our western society, and shows we need to look at the natural sources in a broader perspective: it is not enough to diminish CO2 level. We need a complete change, to reduce the use of natural resources significantly. As a society, we need to evolve from the neoliberal paradigm and as well as from the traditional relations to property, as understood by Hume, in order to regenerate.

Contemporary architecture and urbanism have an important role in all of this. Solutions should be applied on a micro and macro level, on the level of buildings, but also on the level of urbanism and infrastructure. The publication of ARUP, Designing for Planetary Boundary Cities, available for free online, tackles explicitly the topic of planetary boundaries and architecture. But, we should also ask ourself, if do we really need more infrastructure, more resources to build it? Some estimates are saying that in Europe, 50% of all cities will shrink in the next 30 years, leaving a lot of unused building behind. The scenarios of the United Nations for population growth shows a decline of some 40 million Europeans in the next 30 years, although the world population will grow. This might suggest that in Europe we already have enough buildings we will need in the future. Architecture might consider radical ideas as not to build anymore and the introduction of bans for demolishing existing buildings. An approach, that used to be drastic, but seems it will become our realty, is not
to use any natural resources, to reuse, to share and adapt.

In my opinion, for it to be honest in this day and age, architecture should address the
environmental crises we face and search for tangible solutions. In our society, which is traversed by hedonism and permissiveness, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the Anthropocene and increasingly severe environmental crises and determined by neoliberalism and the fantasmagoria of media management, architecture needs to strive for degrowth.

To conclude: from a historical viewpoint, honesty in architecture could be understood as a response to the urgencies and necessities of a certain time. These responses changed architecture fundamentally. Staring from the Renaissance, when the key necessity was the Break with the Middle Ages, to Neoclassicism, when the main theme was reason, to modernism and its technology, to postmodernism and its symbolism, the key question for our time is the ecological crisis. I would suggest that honest architecture is the architecture that answers to the essential, key questions of its society. In our contemporary time, without an environmental agenda, architecture cannot tackle the main issues we face and can therefore not operate honesty. Architecture needs to be honest to nature, not to be honest to property.

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