Can we imagine an architecture that is both beautiful and contributes to the common good? –In contemporary cultures the stakes are very high. Architects have a vital role to play in the reconciliation of cultural memories with imagination, says Alberto Pérez-Gómez.

Artist Vanessa Baird touching up her wall painting _Light disappears as soon as we close our eyes_. The third painting in this series, commissioned for a government ministry building, was refused because it was claimed to remind ministry staff of the terror bombings 22nd July 2011. Photo: Ellen Lande Gossner-Morgenbladet.

Most crucial to works of architecture in the sense that I evoke is not the capacity to communicate a particular meaning through some formal syntax, but rather the possibility of recognizing ourselves as complete. Our love of beauty is our desire to be whole, beauty transcends the contradiction of necessity and superfluity; it is both necessary for reproduction, and crucial for our spiritual well-being, the defining characteristic of our humanity. Contrary to the view that there exists an irreconcilable contradiction between the poetic imagination and an ethics based on rationality and consensus. It is the lack of imagination that may be at the root of our worse moral failures? Imagination is precisely our capacity for love and compassion, for both “recognizing” and “valorising” the other, for understanding the other as myself, over and above differences of culture and belief. It is both, our capacity for truly free play, and our faculty to make stories and to partake from the language and vision of others.

"Our love of beauty is our desire to be whole."

This is not, however, a plea for unreflective intuitive action, often wrongly associated with the personal imagination. Intuitive production, sometimes called artistic work, can be even dangerous, pretending to be apolitical or unconsciously ideological. Contemporary humanity must assume a great responsibility, for in fact, unlike our ancestors until the seventeenth century, we effectively make history. We have the technological tools to destroy the world, and this not necessarily through war. The technological project goes hand in hand with the self-evidence of human-generated change, a particularity of the Western (originally Christian) project that has become universalized. We don’t share, like our more distant ancestors, a cosmological ground, a perception of the universe as a fundamentally changeless totality, limited and straightforward. Only by grounding the architectural imagination in historical precedent through our words can it realize its capacity to create compassionately and negotiate the nearly infinite possibilities for production, in view of our now real cultural diversity, and the proliferation of instrumental methodologies and computer software, capable of producing endless novelties.

The proposition of architecture

Contemporary philosophers often point out that infinite progress is impossible, the world and its resources are finite and this unmasks a fallacy in "sustainable development:" And yet, to project architecture inherently means to propose, through the imagination, a better future for a society; it is inherently an ethical orientation, a promise, and this should not be equivalent to a mindless search for consumable novelties disconnected from history.
Let me emphasize the crucial role of a theory based on historical interpretation for an ethical practice. This theory is never a methodology or a set of instrumental rules. The architect must act responsibly, and language plays a crucial role, allowing him or her to articulate a position. The word is crucial for architecture – and it has been generally disregarded since the early 19th Century, culminating today in parametricism. The production of precise working drawings and specifications following building codes, potentially actualized through robotic fabrication, is obviously not the end of our social responsibility, and its transparency, operating through mathematical codes, creates a dangerous delusion. While we must grant that words and deeds never fully coincide, this is to be celebrated rather than deplored. This opaqueness of language characterizes the very nature of human communication, never coincidental with the Word of a god for whom to name is to make. Like the making of poetic artefacts, the possession of symbolic, multivocal languages, is among the most precious gifts that makes us human, perhaps more precious than our approximations to an ideal, scientific or mathematical universal language. Spoken languages are natural to man, part of the flesh of the world that includes our embodied consciousness and its environment. As George Steiner has eloquently stated, our over three-and-a-half thousand distinct languages for a single species, often in close proximity to each other and mysteriously diverse, and capable of speaking poetically in ways that always enrich our experience of reality, is the ultimate enigma which no evolutionary theory of man can ever reduce.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi: _Il fuoco fumante_. From the series Le Carceri d’Invenzione, Rome, 1761.Giovanni Battista Piranesi: _Le Pont-levis_. From the series Le Carceri d’Invenzione, Rome, 1761.

No matter what we produce as architects, once the work inhabits the public realm, it is truly beyond our control. An expressed intention can never fully predict the work’s meaning. It is the “others” that decide its destiny and its final significance. Despite this apparent limitation, understanding that there is a phenomenological continuity between thinking and making, between our words, in our particular language, and our deeds, is still our best bet. What we control, and must be accountable for, is our intentions. Despite the usual saying dismissing good intentions in view of “real” deeds, well-grounded intentions are crucial and rare in the modern world, and imply a whole style of thinking and action, a past life and thick network of connections with a culture, far more than what an individual is capable of articulating at the surface of consciousness, or through one particular product. This is the nature of an ethical practice guided by practical philosophy or phronesis, by prudence, in the sense of Aristotle.

"An expressed intention can never fully predict the work’s meaning. It is the others that decide its destiny and its final significance."

Prudence is a rhetorical skill, based on historical understanding, one that has little to do with formal descriptions and stylistic classification. It is essential for the development of a coherent praxis: To articulate a political position with regards to a given task. History in this sense provides guidance, since it engages alien artefacts to tell us their stories through interpretation, one that acknowledges as positive the potential bias implicit in the questions that are crucial for contemporary practice. This is essentially a history for the future, one meant to enhance our vitality and creativity, rather than one that may immobilize us through useless data, an immoderate respect for the old for its own sake, or unattainable idealized models.

Surroundings and survival

The architecture and words that express the praxis of other times and places must be understood in light of relevant contemporary questions. The poetic and critical dimension of architecture, like other relevant artistic products, addresses the questions that truly matter for our humanity in culturally specific terms, revealing an enigma behind everyday events and objects. I am convinced that the stakes for change are very high. Our built environment is pregnant with ambivalent meanings exacerbated by the mock impartiality of technology and of a detached self-referential aesthetics of novelty. Building a neutral or featureless world contributes to our sense of despair and nihilism. Our perception is not passive, it is action, and our consciousness doesn't end inside our skulls. Neurobiologists now affirm that our mental life involves the body and the environment beyond the surface membranes of our organism. We are deeply affected by our environments. Self-referential buildings expressing no more than a marketable style, a technological process, or a single fashionable meaning, play a crucial role in forming, if not increasing, our psychosomatic pathologies and political crises.

"Our perception is not passive, it is action, and our consciousness doesn't end inside our skulls."

We need to question the assumed neutrality of techno-capitalism and the false values that often ground our way of living and producing such as the unceasing pursuit of ever more efficient means while always postponing an accountability of ends. Architects, seeking in their work a coincidence of the good and the beautiful, seeking to reconcile cultural memories with the imagination, should have a vital role to play in the survival of human cultures.

Excerpts from the lecture "Built Upon Love" by Alberto Pérez-Gómez, 2012.