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Sod the ethics, celebrate the genius - Le Corbusier Debate at the Barbican


The Barbican’s Le Corbusier debate was less about ethics than architecture’s genius virus, says Jay Merrick

‘Can Good Design Change the World?’, 9 April, Ethics in Architecture: The Corbusian Legacy, Barbican Centre, London. www.barbican.org.uk

A debate conflating Le Corbusier with world-saving design and ethics is inherently problematic, because one has first to assume that the Bakelite-spectacled chimera designed with an ethically open-handed appreciation of ideas and lives very different to his own. Unfazed by the challenge, Sean Griffiths of FAT, architectural historian Charles Jencks, Winy Maas of MVRDV, Cameron Sinclair co-founder of Architecture for Humanity and Fabian Hecker of Zaha Hadid Architects got down to it, with the BBC’s Razia Iqbal in the chair.

Charles Jencks set the tone: Corb was ‘the Barack Obama of architecture’: a charismatic convincer, the greatest architect of the 20th century, whose legacy was manifest in the ‘cosmic’ poetics of buildings like the Unité d’Habitation (1952) and Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp (1954). Cosmic, therefore ineffable, so never mind the Plan Voisin or letters to his chum, Benito Mussolini.

The allure of an architectural voice in the wilderness duly turned the Barbican Hall into a Polemics-R-Us showroom whose only electrifying moment, greeted with cheering, came when Cameron Sinclair declared that to ask Zaha Hadid to speak on ethics in architecture would be like ‘expecting Robert Mugabe to talk about human rights.’

Cameron Sinclair declared that to ask Zaha Hadid to speak on ethics in architecture would be like ‘expecting Robert Mugabe to talk about human rights.’


None of the six speakers gave a personal definition of ethics in relation to architecture, and one of them, Fabian Hecker of Zaha Hadid, did not once utter the words ‘ethics’ or ‘people’. He admitted: ‘We’re not really interested in the polemics of it.’ FAT’s Sean Griffiths did refer to ethics, saying that he paid his staff as much as he could, and didn’t make them work until 2am. Ethics and architecture were separate, argued Griffiths, because architecture was a singular demonstration of art whose original motives would always be lost in overlays of other uses and ‘transitory moral meanings’. Consider the apparent ethical beauty of the baroque, he mused, ‘inspired by violent imperialism, a dark, bloody and amoral side of history.’ But non-violent artistic superiority was fine: ‘Architecture with a capital A is important,’ he said. ‘I don’t think Borromini was lacking in arrogance.’

Architecture, said Jencks, had addressed morality since Vitruvius and Alberti – and economic and environmental crises might re-moralise it, though Cameron Sinclair said the dominance of rolling-news formats created, and then quickly dissolved, ethical concern. One of Jencks’ supporting images – a strip of portraits coalescing the faces of Koolhaas, Herzog and the French footballer, Zidane – revealed fundamentally ‘angry and unhappy’ people who were lionised and highly influential; or as influential as they could be when only 1 per cent of the world’s buildings are designed by architects, and a third of all buildings were crude copies of designed precedents. Winy Maas deplored the lack of manifestos and fearlessly ‘wrong’ architecture that could then be criticised.

Ultimately, the panellists recalled ‘the pale unsatisfied ones’ in WB Yeats’ poem, The Magi (1914). The star they followed had dimmed and architecture’s 21st century Magi can no longer await a second coming of meaning from the author of Vers Une Architecture (1923). Cameron Sinclair may champion design as ‘the ultimate renewable resource’, but the Barbican event left one wondering what rough architectural beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem – or Delhi, or São Paulo, or Royal Tunbridge Wells – to be born. What do Corb’s cosmic poetics mean now?

Resume: Architecture and ethics remain uncomfortable bedfellows


Readers' comments (2)

  • Disagree. Winy Maas offered a clear definition
    and way forward for ethics in architecture. Despite, Charles Jencks interesting observations but ultimately cynical view - that ethics in architecture is never more than the ‘grubby’ business of architects trying to get work, or, Sean Griffiths concern that we will just start imposing taste (again). Winy showed projects which often highlight the absurdity of the brief, critiquing large scale farming or inadequate post-Katrina defences, which Charles Jencks stated were not architecture but rather perhaps ‘pre-architecture’. If this work is pre-architecture, in it’s commitment to taking always the widest view and refusing to be limited by small scale projects into small scale thinking, maybe its time our profession decided to expand rather than facilitate the diminution of its influence as every fresh wave of project managers and technicians seems so to do. Winy Maas version of ethical practice entails insistence on working at the large even visionary scale. That's what I understood.

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  • Is that Mr Toad sitting to the left of Charles Jencks ? No, it super intellectual heavy-weight Seany 'Sock to 'em Griffiths of Fashion Art Radical Taste (FART)

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