Architecture’s Obligation to the Common Good

by C.W. Westfall

Architecture is less important as a fine art than as a civic art.1 As a fine art, a building gives fame to its designer and pleasure to those who appreciate it. As a civic art, it honors the art of architecture, while serving and representing the purposes of individuals bound together into a political community that assists all of its members in seeking to perfect their nature. A fine arts culture seeks ever-changing exhibitions of buildings; a civic culture builds cities. The one spurns tradition; the other embeds architecture within a tradition. In the one, architects reject the past and build only for the present; in the other, they reach into the past to serve the present and future. The one is modernism; the other is the “other modern.”2

For nearly a century, the word modernism has described the latest fashions in architecture. Until recently, its products constituted a tiny minority of what is built. Modernist designs are meant to be fashionable but not popular, as José Ortega y Gasset noted more than a half century ago when he identified the modernists as the avant-garde whose art “helps the elite to recognize themselves and one another in the drab mass of society and to learn their mission which consists in being new and holding their own against the many.”3
In its early career in post-World War I central Europe, modernism was allied with revolutionary social programs, but in this country it became simply the anti-traditional aesthetic choice of the cultural elite. Today, modernists design audacious cultural buildings, “first class” commercial structures and upper-class, urban high-rise apartments, while modernism’s shabby derivatives show up in public buildings and its detritus creeps outward from towns and cities along the commercial strip. The result is a schizophrenia in which modernism is, at the same time, a badge of an elite avant-garde and evidence of the efficiency and economy that the “drab mass of society” seek when shopping. Meanwhile, the individuals denigrated as the “drab mass” eagerly buy the houses, debased versions of various traditional American houses, sprawling beyond our towns and cities, whose possession authenticates their residents as Americans.
Modernism was supposed to have sent traditional architecture onto the dust heap of history by now, but the continued presence and increasing vigor of other modern practice belies that program. Modernism continues to enjoy a very visible success as well. Its singular, if rare, achievements give the pleasurable lilt of incredible novelty, in the same way a magic trick or a circus act does. The other modern also does this, although without magic or circuses, while also offering more. Its pleasures mature into the lasting happiness beauty makes available, beauty as an enduring value, a value sought by a people who also seek justice in their civil affairs and truth in what they know, and in so doing, fulfill their human nature. These people are citizens who traditionally have resided in the urban settings (and their rural hinterlands, but not in the no-man’s-land of suburbia or of modernist urbanism) that buildings and their accompanying open areas make. The city is their natural home, just as it is of the other modern, because the other modern is part of the tradition in which architecture and urbanism are intimately related.
Those who support and practice the other modern are not necessarily consciously aware of the analogy between architecture and urbanism and of their service to the common good and civil justice. The linkage between beauty and justice is a neglected topic now that aesthetics has dismissed beauty and been captured by sensationalism. But if we think about it, we can easily recognize that beauty is a traditional value and that tradition serves our quest for justice. The experience of the past that we call our history and the political theory that has given it order provide both the most useful guide into the unknown future and the surest ballast as we adapt our actions through invention to confront new circumstances. From our civil behavior at neighborhood gatherings to the decisions of the Supreme Court, our knowledge of the past guides our sail-trimming in the present. This political life is founded on certain self-evident truths and on the reasonable operations of authorities who enjoy the consent of the governed as they respond to majority rule and protect minority rights. These are natural law positions, antithetical to those held by an elite seeking “to recognize themselves and one another in the drab mass of society and to learn their mission which consists in being new and holding their own against the many.”
So why does an architecture antithetical to the founding principles of the United States not only survive but prevail among the country’s central commercial and financial institutions, in the popular press, in agencies that commission public buildings of all sorts, and in almost all the schools of architecture? One explanation, the one I will develop here, is found in the acute analysis of what Jacques Ellul a half century ago called the technological society.4 In the technological society, techniques for doing different things have joined with one another to pursue ends that are defined by technique, not by need. Technique’s interest is rationality and efficiency, not human flourishing in the traditional sense. It is a totalizing system that overwhelms other human concerns. Globalization is its present form. Technique has reinforced the distinction between the drab mass of a proletariat and a governing elite, the technicians capable of assuring and increasing the efficiency that is the goal of the technological society. This world makes heroes of starchitects, the artistic technicians of avant-garde architecture, whose buildings belong to the moment, not to extended time and not to a particular place, their designs for China indistinguishable from those for Chicago.

Modernism and the Process of Design

Modernist architecture is the architecture serving and representing the technological society. The key word for the modernist architect is design, which came into English from the Italian disegno. Giorgio Vasari put the word into play when explaining the superiority of the intellectual, rationally based method of Florentine painters over that of the intuitive, visually based Venetians.5 He wrote: “Design is the parent of our three arts, Architecture, Painting, and Sculpture, having its origins in the intellect, . . . [Design] is like a form or idea of all the objects in nature. . . . [D]esign is not other than a visible expression and declaration of our inner conception and of that which others have imagined and given form to in their idea.”6
Vitruvius had said nothing to suggest that painting and architecture, much less sculpture (which he did not mention) shared common principles. Nor did Leon Battista Alberti who, a century before Vasari, wrote treatises on all three arts. The three arts were alike in being based on what one sees and in being important for the meaning they carried and having in common a basis in lineaments (which Vasari would translate as design). But they used lineaments, or design, in distinctly different ways to discharge their principal purpose, which was to convey meaning. Despite their common end, their methods made them more different than alike. Unlike the painter and sculptor who depict things that fall under the eye, the architect brings together fabricated pieces to produce a whole that had no previous existence. The architect, Alberti said, is not to emulate the method of the painter, a point he reinforced by using Vitruvius’ word collocation rather than the word composition, the method of the painter, to label the method of the architect.7
The method of Alberti’s architect applies equally well to buildings and cities, as his architectural treatise makes clear. Bricks, stones or sticks become walls, columns, beams, arches, roofs and so on, and these in turn become buildings. Buildings and other physical things become cities, perhaps Florence or Rome, or Williamsburg or Chicago. The art of man converts nature to culture. Looked at as a composition, the building is an assembly of conventional components composed into a tectonic whole, in which technology puts materials to the service of mankind. Looked at as a part of a city, the building is a conventional component that serves and represents its builders’ civil or religious purposes. According to an important Renaissance topos, the successful architect earns the praise of men and the glory that God confers through Grace by fulfilling his duty to his fellow citizens and to God, which includes honoring the art of architecture.
Vasari ignored the alliance Alberti sought between architecture and a community’s civil and religious aspirations, stressing instead its place among the other arts of design. As things of the intellect related to fantasy and judgment, their value resided in their display of the artist’s invention, which evidenced his genius (ingenio).8 Vasari’s ideas about architecture (and the other arts) parallel Machiavelli’s about politics, although several centuries were required for architecture to reach the pass in which form and content are not only separable but separated.
Vasari unintentionally licensed architecture’s present-day profligacy, but in the interval architecture remained rule-abiding, with an individual’s genius enlivening a building’s design in ways that the rules could not predict. The rules, canons and conventions that tradition transmitted provided identifiable points of reference for assessing the quality and extent of invention. The point is well illustrated in George Hersey’s computer analysis of Palladio’s rules, which reveal that, while the computer is “capable of true Palladianism,” in his actual buildings he “salted his firmest rules with statistically measurable doses of preference.”9 Rules remained authoritative until the Enlightenment undermined them and Romanticism then dismissed them, with individual invention and emotional expression in using traditional forms filling the vacuum.
Modernism took the next step. It cashiered traditional canons and conventions because they inhibited invention, the step that instituted the invention of the never-before-seen as the route to stardom. Abetted by critics and editors, starchitects, each selecting for himself a point of departure, now furnish the designs that their lesser colleagues emulate. Vitruvius’ three conditions of building provide a popular jumping-off point, with Rem Koolhaas working with commodity and Lord Foster with firmness, while Frank Gehry seeks to delight. Others hitch their wagon to modernism’s founding fathers, as Richard Meier does to Le Corbusier. Yet others, for example, Michael Graves, favor an aggressive formalism. In all cases, the greater the distance from tradition and the greater the invention in the design, the greater the acclaim for the building and its designer.
Serving modernism is a process of design meshed with a building process based on technique, within a culture of building in the technological society that integrates the building trades, instruments of finance, commercial interests, laws and ordinances policing real estate development, and the functional and economic interests and aesthetic predilections of clients and patrons. Producing a building hardly differs from producing an automobile or other product of design that the Museum of Modern Art collects, whether the architect is a starchitect, a Pritkzer-Prize wannabe, a local practitioner, a design-build company, a McMansion developer or an undercapitalized good-old boy with a pick-up truck and a dog, although the farther down that hierarchy you go, the more likely traditional forms will find a lodgment.
The process of design is one of discrete steps leading to the finished building, each one the prelude to the next, each occurring in a predetermined sequence, with the various steps undertaken by a series of people, each one an expert in the esoterica of that particular step, a person who is capable of satisfying the criteria that are unique to that step and responsible only for its efficient satisfaction. This process is mapped with a flow chart detailing the sequence, the amount of time for each, its date of completion, the revenue it must produce and the responsibility each party must assume. It begins at A, the client’s brief of budget and program, which leads to B, the architect’s vision, and on to C, the preliminary design, then on to the preliminary cost estimate at D, the only point in the process where, if its outcome is not satisfactory, there can be a reversion and repetition, and on through the many steps in the construction process ending at the finished building.
Consider steps A and B. The greater emphasis the client at step A gives to the building’s function, the more the technological society’s ends of rationality and efficiency determine the outcome. The more the client seeks an example of the art of design, the more he defers to the designer’s vision at step B. The absence of rules leaves the designer open to whatever idiosyncratic process of design he may wish to use, although his work must end at step C, where the corporate building process embedded in the technological society takes over. As Vasari said, the designs of architecture “are composed only of lines, which so far as the architect is concerned, are nothing else than the beginning and the end of his art, for all the rest . . . is merely the work of carvers and masons.”10 Stellar examples of starchitects’ work are rather rare because the demands of the technological society deter clients from using starchitects: they have the reputation of being difficult to work with, their buildings are expensive to build, they often function poorly, and so on. Nevertheless, they get the attention, and thereby they provide the image of current taste that commercial clients think the market wants and public clients think the people want. These clients let the paper of A cover the rock of B and unleash the nearly ubiquitous production of a visually and tectonically deficient modernism.
Modernism is a part of “modern aesthetics [which] stresses the fact that Art cannot be learned, and thus often becomes involved in the curious endeavor to teach the unteachable.”11 Walter Gropius’s arrival at Harvard in 1937 began the rapid replacement of the quite teachable Beaux-Arts system with the Bauhaus system, which also was teachable. It began by systematically voiding the student of his previous knowledge of the world, persuaded him to trust his instincts, and then entrusted him to knowledgeable experts who taught him how to subject materials to the processes necessary to respond to the zeitgeist’s imperatives for socially useful products possessing timely formal qualities. But after modernists abandoned the social programs and immersed themselves in the industrialized, corporate construction processes beginning at step C, that system became irrelevant. Gropius’s pedagogy still survives in a few schools loyal to Bauhaus principles. Many schools simply teach students how to absorb current fashions. But the most prestigious programs “endeavor to teach the unteachable,” following the one rule of the Abbey of Thélème: “Do what thou wilt,” which reduces the design instructor to an enabler of the fantasies of eighteen-year-olds or cocky graduate students. Students are to seek novelty at all costs, or test various current processes until they find one they like; or invent a new design process by adapting an analytical and synthetic process used in some other realm, say, literary criticism, logic, sculpture, spirituality or ecology and applying it to architecture.
In practice, a well-balanced academic program attempts to represent several of these approaches, all with the same message: a building serves the individual’s quest for personal expression rather than the common good. They reject the traditional message that a building’s principal obligation is to serve and represent the purpose for which it is being built and to honor the art of architecture. They teach the young that the architect thrives outside society, as an idiõtes, not as a polites.

The Method of Composition and the Other Modern

“Other modern” architects work with a quite different method, at least to the extent that the current culture of building allows. Its origins are, like that of the modernists’ design process, in the sixteenth-century maturation of fifteenth-century ideas, but it descends not from Vasari’s inclusion of architecture within the arts of design but from developments running back to Bramante’s arrival in Rome in 1499.
This method makes new buildings out of old ones by selecting, transforming and combining conventional components, a method Alberti called collocation and which we can call composition. Like the process of design, the method of composition invents new forms, but they are new forms of familiar components that have been modified to take their place in new versions of conventional compositions. Both ways of proceeding involve inventing and composing, but in different degrees and to different ends. The other modern seeks to show you a new version of something familiar; the modernist seeks to show you something that has never before been seen. The one draws on and renews tradition; the other seeks to annul tradition.
The difference between a process and a method is noteworthy. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that a process is a “continuous action, [a] proceeding,” an “onward movement, progress, projection,” while a method is “a procedure for attaining an object,” a “systematic arrangement, order.” The one is propelled by its own momentum; the other establishes a framework for undertaking a series of steps. We tend to use the two words interchangeably, just as we do the verbs design and compose, often saying design when we mean compose, although we seldom say compose when we mean design, except as an aspect of a design: it is well- or ill-composed.12 These are imprecisions we simply have to live with, just as we do in encountering the words modern, modernism, contemporary and other modern.
Like the modernists’ process of design, the other modern’s method of composition follows a series of discrete steps, each one the prelude to the next, each mappable in a detailed flow chart. But the method of composition calls for flexibility, with each part of each earlier step open to a revision based on what happens in later steps. Designing proceeds construction, but it does not end when construction begins. A leads to B, which leads to C, which might require revising B (and therefore C) before proceeding to D and E which, when reached, might call for rethinking C yet again, and thereby making revisions yet again to D and E before reaching F, a letter that might stand for Final. This is a complex sequence, inefficient by the standards of the technological society, one that requires the control of a single vision and intellect and close collaboration with the client and the “carvers and masons,” but one for which the architect is ultimately responsible.
Vitruvius described this method of composition, and Alberti revised it:

I have often conceived of projects in the mind that seemed quite commendable at the time; but then I translated them into drawings, I found several errors in the very parts that delighted me most, and quite serious ones; again, when I return to drawings, and measure the dimensions, I recognize and lament my carelessness; finally, when I pass from the drawings to the model, I sometimes notice further mistakes in the individual parts, even over the numbers.13

Alberti’s architect had a hand in component fabrication, construction management and construction financing, and earlier, when he played a role in decisions involving politics and urbanism. From start to finish, he worked as a member of a community, like a statesman rather than a freebooter, an individual engaged within a community that builds and governs cities, a polites rather than an idiõtes. He gained fame for his achievements, not merely according to the criteria set forth in the arts of design but, more importantly, for his excellence in contributing to the civil and religious purposes of the community while honoring the art of architecture.

The emphasis of Vasari and his heirs on the architect as a fine artist, whose singular vision determines a building’s design, obscures the architect’s place within a community that shares a culture of building. Brunelleschi certainly deserves the credit for initiating the restoration of the good old way of building, but he did so in league with others, particularly Donatello and Masaccio, and his tutelage quickly transformed architects’ work and patrons’ expectations. The Basilica of Saint Peter dominated Italian architecture for more than a century and involved architects from Bramante to Bernini, with Michelangelo and Borromini in between, each implanting his own vision, but all was executed within the same canonic rules and conventions and in collaboration with strong-willed papal patrons. Closer to home, what person who lacks expert knowledge can tell who did what in producing the nation’s Capitol? Or consider urbanism: the 1909 Burnham and Bennett Plan of Chicago presented only very vague suggestions for the form the dense collection of commercial buildings should take, confident that others who shared a common civic and architectural culture knew how to fill it in with actual buildings.14 Finally, note that the Frick Collection in New York City is the work of a series of like-minded architects: Carrère and Hastings in 1913–14, John Russell Pope in 1931–35 and John Barrington Bayley in 1977.
Ultimately, responsibility for a building’s form runs back to the architect. Architects from Vitruvius to the Driehaus-Prize winners have shared a commitment to adapting traditional canons and conventions to serve the present, using a variety of methods of composition and working within a number of different national building cultures. It used to be easier for architects to do so. A century ago, Daniel Burnham was instrumental in coordinating the practice of an architecture innovating within tradition with a rapidly maturing building culture based on technique. But since then, the alliance of technique and modernism, both of which have origins on the European continent, has produced a building culture, even in America, that is increasingly inhospitable to other moderns.
The roots of the other modern are much deeper than those of either modernism or the technological society. They reach into the traditions that link architecture, urbanism and a commitment to the common good, a combination which in the American setting embeds that trilogy in the natural law basis of the American polity.15 It is exactly here that the only available antidote to technique can be found. Unfortunately, the other modern program, insofar as it has a program, seems to be unaware of this role. The other modern’s recently achieved, admirable successes reside in its carrying on in what Fiske Kimball in 1928 identified as the American “heritage of simplicity and unity of form,” which favors precedents of classical antiquity, the more astringent work of the Renaissance and the buildings of the republic’s Founders.16 In a world that is now increasingly technological and global, it needs to broaden its reach. It could explore the work of early European other moderns such as Otto Wagner and Jose Plecnik, who exploited new, modern materials to enrich and enliven traditional forms and compositions with inventive, visible tectonics, and the work of Lu Yanzhi, who blended Chinese and Western traditions in the few peerless projects he undertook in Nanjing and Guangzhou in his too-short life. It must also continue to seek a broader identity than the one provided by its superb, expensive buildings for rich private clients and the few institutional clients who have a taste for the traditional. Marianne Casuto’s Katrina Cottage and various Hope VI projects hardly make up for the movement’s failure to garner a noticeable share of publicly financed projects, from schools to housing. There is indeed a welcome, increased demand for traditional buildings, but the clients are too often unable to differentiate between the good and the less good, which allows them to fall prey to architects running offices where competence and excellence remain all too rare, a further result of the other modern’s failure to find a foothold in any but a handful of schools of architecture.17
The greatest urgency, however, is not in the formal or tectonic realm but in the civic one. The other modern’s inadequate commitment to the common good has led it to neglect the 2,600-year-old tradition that uses buildings to build, maintain and renovate cities serving citizens. Urban issues are too often left to the New Urbanists, who have assumed leadership in seeking sanity in our city-building practices, but their ambitions are also too limited. They quite admirably focus on the stewardship of the earth and concentrate on the economic injustice of present laws and practices, but like their colleagues in architecture, they fail to seek a larger, more inclusive justice, the justice that allows each individual to fulfill his nature and live noble, justly and well.
Perhaps present circumstances make such ambitions impracticable. Perhaps the New Urbanists who think that it is tactically necessary to live with a rapprochement between modernist architecture and traditional urbanism have it right. And perhaps other modern architects are right that the high-end jobs, more often immersed in the landscape than in the city, will train the cadre of architects who will later push for more. But justice delayed is justice denied. The slave-holding Founders who wrote that all men are created equal penned those words not as an assessment of the present but as a program for the future. Like an America with slavery, the technological society offers a future of efficiency for the elite but not of justice for all. Tradition teaches us to seek a better future, one taking its light from justice and its allied forms of goodness, truth and beauty. Other modern architects, and their allies among the New Urbanists, have brought honor to the art of architecture. Next they need to expand their skills to serve and represent the purposes of a people seeking to enjoy their inalienable rights while fulfilling their complementary civic duties.


1. With pleasure I acknowledge the contribution of discussions with colleagues, particularly Michael Lykoudis, Samir Younés, Lucien Steil, José Cornelio da Silva and Bryan Green.
2. The word traditional might be used instead, but modernism has lumbered the word with too many negative connotations, and using it alone fails to suggest that the other modern embraces a broad range of traditions. The term “other modern” is fleshed out with examples and commentary in a provocative publication, L’altra modernità 1900–2000, ed., Gabriele Tagliaventi, A Vision of Europe, III triennale internazionale di architettura e urbanistica di Bologna (Savona: Dogma, 2000).
3. José Ortega y Gasset, “The Dehumanization of Art,” in The Dehumanization of Art and Other Writings on Art and Culture (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books; 1956), pp. 1–50, pp. 6–7; first published in this country in 1948.
4. Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, trans., John Wilkinson (London: Jonathan Cape, 1965), incorporates the studies of others, such as Lewis Mumford and Sigfried Giedion, and encloses those studies in his more comprehensive view.
5. The Chadwyck-Healey data base of Art Theorists of the Italian Renaissance shows that the word disegno (including the word’s various forms) appears first, and only once, in Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499), then occasionally in Baldassare Castiglione and Sebastiano Serlio, then extensively in Pietro Aretino and pervasively in the mid-century works of Antonio Francesco Doni, Benedetto Varchi, Cosimo Bartoli’s translation of Alberti (disegno translates lineamenta, the practice followed in the modern Italian translation by Giovanni Orlandi; the English translation of Rykwert, et al. uses lineaments), and Giorgio Vasari, in the first, 1551 edition of his Vite.
6. Giorgio Vasari, Le opera, ed., Gaetano Milanesi (Florence: Sansoni, 1973), vol. I; ch. I, pp. 168–69; Vasari on Technique, trans., Louisa S. Maclehose (London: J.M. Dent, 1907), XV, ¶74, p. 206.
7. Our ear is more amenable to using the word composition to refer to the concept, although composition is not the same as collocation. Hence, collocation here will be rendered with the word composition.
8. On matters uniquely architectural as opposed to civil, Vasari deferred to Alberti, explicitly at Milanesi, ed., vol. I, ch. 1, p. 107; trans. ed., ¶1, pp. 25–26; and implicitly, VII, pp. 145–46, in Milanesi, ed., and ¶34, pp. 95–96 in the trans. ed. For more on design, fantasy and judgment, see, inter alia, David Summers, Michelangelo and the Language of Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), passim, esp. pp. 188–89 and 229.
9. George Hersey and Richard Freedman, Possible Palladian Villas, Plus a Few Instructively Impossible Ones (Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT, 1991), pp. 131, 161.
10. “. . . [A]ll’architettura massimamente . . . i disegno . . . non son composti se non di linee;” Milanesi, ed., p. 170; Maclehose, trans., pp. 206–07.
11. Paul Oskar Kristeller, “The Modern System of the Arts,” in Renaissance Thought II (New York: Harper and Row, Harper Torchbooks, 1965), pp. 163–227; 166, an often republished, fundamental essay that has contributed other material to this paragraph.
12. Note, for example, that the title of the recently republished book by John F. Harbeson, first published in 1926, that tutored Americans on the Beaux-Arts method in the twentieth century, is The Study of Architectural Design, introduction by John Blatteau and Sandra L. Tatman (New York and London: W.W. Norton, 2008).
13. Leon Battista Alberti, On the Art of Building in Ten Books, trans., J. Rykwert, N. Leach and R. Travenor (Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT, 1988), bk. IX, ch. x, p. 317.
14. See my pair of articles, “The Classical City, Chicago, and Alfred S. Alschuler,” Threshold: Journal of the School of Architecture, University of Illinois at Chicago, 5/6 (1991), pp. 90–102, which was published in a form lacking my approval and distorting my thought; and a corrective completion, “The Classical American City in Image and in Chicago,” Modulus 23: The Architectural Review at the University of Virginia (1995), pp. 52–71.
15. I offer some thoughts on this topic in “Architecture and Democracy, Democracy and Architecture,” in Democracy and the Arts, ed., A. Melzer, J. Weinberger, M. Zinman, Symposium on Science, Reason, and Modern Democracy, Michigan State University, 1994–95 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1999), pp. 73–91.
16. Fiske Kimball, American Architecture (Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1928), pp. 160–63; 209; who, at 185–6, points out that this American restoration of classicism encouraged a similar “urge to simplicity and clarity of form [that] made itself felt all over the world, particularly among the British” and their commonwealth subjects.
17. See my articles, “The Humanity of Monumental Architecture,” American Arts Quarterly (19:1, 2002), pp. 9–14; and “Why the Orders Belong in Studio,” Journal of Architectural Education (61:4, 2008), pp. 95–107.

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2008, Volume 25, Number 4