<< The Body Politic

NEW Policy Brief: Architects and Citizenship

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

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In the latest addition to “The Professions and Civic Culture” series, Williams College professor of art history Michael J. Lewis discusses the idea of “architectural citizenship” and the role architects play in American civic life. According to Lewis, the making of any building is a social act that stakes a claim on finite resources of land and space and that can enhance the value of the buildings around it or diminish it. Only the most solitary and remote building is without implications for society.

From the essay:

Here are three conceptions of the architect, as mutually exclusive as can be. According to venerable Vitruvius, whose Ten Books of Architecture is the only treatise on the subject to survive from classical antiquity, it is the architect who gives tangible form to the history, traditions, and “moral philosophy” of his civilization. To Richard Morris Hunt, the elegant virtuoso of Gilded Age mansions, the architect is a mere employee, duty-bound to gratify his client’s whims and wishes. But to Howard Roark, the fictional subject of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, the architect is an existential hero whose buildings belong to him and not his clients and who would even dynamite his own work if its integrity of vision was violated. In all of literature there is no more arresting portrayal of the architect: the exalted form-giver who recognizes no law but his own titanic force of will.

All these outrageously contradictory portraits are equally valid—such is the paradox of the architectural profession. It is indeed true that the architect is the advocate of the client who engages him, whose best interests he represents as would a doctor or lawyer. And it is just as true that every building is an individual artistic statement. Just as a handwritten signature is the work of a single human hand, so the contours, masses, and volumes of a building must be shaped by a controlling artistic intelligence; it cannot help but express the personality of its creator, although few are as arrogant as Roark. And yet Vitruvius too is correct to recognize that architecture has a civic dimension, that it is the essential civic art. “Moral philosophy” is not out of place in an architect’s tool kit if one recognizes how profoundly the spaces and facades of buildings affect our public life.

Read the whole thing.