Architecture without Aesthetics
Both authorship and aesthetics have long over-determined architectural scholarship, yoking it to elite arenas where aesthetic choices are possible and individuals have the freedom to make them. Design monographs and other writing dedicated to the individual careers of renowned architects, their prominent commissions, their eminent clientéle, and elaborate designs fill our library book shelves. They inspire architecture students to pursue ever more inventive applications of sophisticated aesthetics. But they also reinforce and magnify the cultural capital of what is, in fact, a financially precarious profession. By focusing on the profession’s aesthetic choices and favoring unique artifacts that are custom made for individual tastes, the scholarship serves to maintain profession’s social prestige.
Given this dynamic, how do we carve a space within the scholarship for the materialities and social practices of other topics and perspectives such as uneven development, poverty, or displacement; for ways of looking at or thinking about architecture as shaped by the many other forces beyond social privilege and aesthetics? The study of vernacular architecture has, over decades, gnawed away at this association between architecture and wealth, finding multiple ways to emphasize aspects other than aesthetics by dignifying collective, ordinary, and craft-based methods for shaping the built environments. Labor and industrial histories have focused on construction processes and cultures as the context for building production so that non-elite actors might temporarily take center stage. Other psycho-social studies on how we inhabit our environment have raised multivalent intersectional insights on gender, sexuality, race, class, etc. Immigrant architectures have highlighted the fragile spatial and material conditions experienced by displaced persons. The ephemeral architecture of borderlands, displaced persons camps, and post-war environments is a more recent concern. There are many interdisciplinary entry points for spatial politics.
Despite these various ways by which the field has been expanded and the considerable labor of those who took up the challenge and pointed out that the discipline’s presumed universality masks a post-industrial, Eurocentric, and masculinized perspective, there is still considerable skepticism regarding an architecture without, or at least that de-emphasizes, aesthetics. It seems these various aspects of architecture cannot be dignified without reference to aesthetic criteria—for creating, interpreting, or measuring their materialities. Such prejudices still shape the expectations of our institutions, scholarly practice, and publication cultures, particularly in parts of the world (such as Asia and Australia) where designers train as architectural historians and teach across both areas. Our academic programs are designed to satisfy the requirements of professional accreditation and are subject to peer review by statutory bodies. These in turn are focused on a range of competencies for the successful delivery of quality, built works. Although no longer pariahs, those of us who don’t focus on the aesthetic and specialised preferences of the profession are seen as eccentrics.
Must the social responsibility of architecture always be secondary to aesthetics? Can my research on those who are constrained by systems of oppression (such as prisoners, indigenous communities, internees, migrant workers and refugees), but who adapt and modify the environments they inhabit ever really interest more than a few architects? My work on the civil war that consumed Sri Lanka for several decades, in particular, brings these questions into focus (figure 1). The precarious materialities of an impoverished, war-torn environment casts aesthetic criteria as irrelevant on many registers, not least as indulgences of those inoculated from social responsibility. Geographers, political historians, and sociologists appear more sensitized to the forms of social abjection experienced by war-displaced communities and are ready to lend their expertise. Architects by contrast seem comparatively ill-equipped to intervene in processes like post-war resettlement, even when they want to at a time when accommodating displaced persons is a pervasive global concern. Displaced persons value pragmatic considerations more than aesthetics, and homes built by stakeholders without architectural intervention appear more resilient and meaningful than those designed by professionals (figure 2).
In part, this gap between the social and aesthetic is a legacy of how architectural scholars have approached aesthetic theories and professional practices in the past, mainly in European contexts. There are limits to the applicability of Western perspectives, and while “southern theories” of race and exclusion have had less traction in our discipline than in other branches of the humanities, these too are often limited by their focus on East-West dialectics over more urgent, local or global asymmetries. A related issue is that many architectural scholars work in relation to a specific national or ethno-cultural perspective. We treat nation-state boundaries as the physical limits of our research. This unwittingly supports the embedded statism of institutional research cultures that are governed by competitive funding cycles linked to state agencies and risks reproducing racialized identity politics. Such politics marginalizes the kinds of issues and people I write about (figures 3 and 4). And then there is the most fundamental problem of all: aesthetic value. Of being trained to look for, appreciate, and enjoy those aspects of human endeavor that rise above everyday banality. Even those of us who question aesthetic value may secretly indulge and reflexively align with form—a contradictory tendency that sharpens our eccentricities. This is especially true for those of us whose training in professional programs preceded our careers as scholars. But nearly all architectural scholars lead something of this double life. We look to exhibitions, image heavy publications, and visual media to disseminate our findings.
Can there be an architecture without aesthetics? If we fail to value aesthetic criteria, authorship, or product quality, do we need to be located in some other, more socially oriented discipline? Do we become scholars on the borderline, perpetual emigrants, with one foot in architecture and the other poised to enter another’s territory? Does this unhomely predicament sharpen our understanding of our discipline’s limits?
I don’t have answers to these questions. At times I work hard to make my research aesthetically relevant and at other times I travel far from it. Diasporic alignments across multiple disciplines, in fact, sustain me. Over the years I have begun to identify with the marginal sensibilities of those whose histories I find fascinating. While I may dream of being better placed in my discipline’s implicit hierarchy, I take pleasure in mediating an architecture without aesthetics.