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Principles for practice

The Ethical Architect: The Dilemma of Contemporary Practice By Tom Spector. Princeton Architectural Press, 2001. 256pp. £17.95

One of the unfortunate linguistic barriers in architectural thought is the perceived opposition between theory and practice. Practice, it follows, is not worth theorising about, and theoretical practice sounds like the sort of thing Kenneth Frampton might write about Peter Eisenman.

In The Ethical Architect, Tom S p e c t o r shows how the complexities of practice can be just as challenging as any of Eisenman's speculations - and arguably more worthwhile.

Drawing on moral philosophy, he shows how this subject might be salvaged from the Part 3 curriculum and made an integral part of architectural theory. In treating everyday dilemmas with serious intellectual intent, he helps to demystify the relationship of architecture to society, shedding light on a darkness colonised by state-sponsored bean counters whose deliberations structure the relationship between architecture and the public good. This is a welcome book.

Spector's aim is 'to take advantage of the fact that moral philosophy has preceded [architects] down many of the avenues of thought that could fruitfully be pursuedà to bring a sense of unified purpose back to architecture'. But as 'moral philosophy has shown little interest in architecture', this calls for some creative interpretation.

Practice, he shows, inevitably gives rise to ethical dilemmas. Contractarian or conflict theories might help to explain them, though the latter, with its roots in the Marxist concept of class conflict, offers less than the former, which derives from Thomas Hobbes; for it was Hobbes' concept of the Commonwealth that helped to set the pattern for professions to become privileged constituents of society.

Architectural theory also raises ethical issues. If the old Vitruvian triad of commodity, firmness and delight irreducible qualities, what arbitrates between them?

Modernism and structural rationalism tended to conflate delight into commodity or firmness respectively, while post-humanism (eg Eisenman) lapses into 'radical subjectivity' and 'buys into humanism after all' when 'seeking justification in some kind of cultural good'. As architecture depends on an intertwining of aesthetics (delight) with more direct social functions, such as usability and safety, it comes to the forefront of contemporary debates about the relationship between beauty and goodness (such as those put by Marcia Eaton, whom Spector cites).

Noting that 'how best to cope with the ethical dimension of architecture has yet to be resolved by the leading architectural theorists', Spector makes a stab with a few case studies. Under the heading 'Utilitas', he considers the ethical dilemmas posed by plans to demolish an unsightly social housing scheme within a national park, concluding that architects stood on the sidelines over an issue which fell precisely in their patch of the relationship between beauty and utility.

In achieving iconic status in architecture, yet being famously unsatisfactory for displaying art, New York's Guggenheim Museum, with which Spector ends his 'Utilitas' chapter, poses problems for which there are no adequate terms of judgement. 'Firmitas' considers the Californian seismic code, highlighting the inevitable dilemmas that any attempt to legislate for minimum or normal building performance will face.

Each of these conclusions is open-ended, suggesting that a framework which permits assessment is preferable to a linear prescription. Such a framework necessarily permits personal judgement, but structures it in a social context. Unsurprisingly, a final chapter on style concludes: 'a vibrant style with which to give form to the values and dilemmas of our culture is the missing element needed for an architecture of unparalleled relevance' - not a million miles from Ruskin's plea in his 'Lamp of Obedience': 'We need some style.'

To some, this demand for a style will seem a weakness. After all, was Modernism not meant to free us from the tyranny of styles?

But Spector has already shown the weakness of Modernism's moral position and his book is a painstaking attempt to suggest how architecture might be theorised as an element within society.

The alternatives - to retreat into the bunkers of either moral superiority (which is demonstrably false) or the subjectivity of post-humanist aesthetics - will leave a vacuum which can only be filled by the banalities of bodies such as the ARB or Treasury bean counters. You have been warned.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher. Tom Spector will be speaking at 'Architecture and Subjective Value II' at the Royal Academy on 9 November. Details 020 7439 7438

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