back to WRITINGS
Materialism vs Morality - Part 1
Patrik Schumacher 1997
Lecture delivered at Architectural Association, London as part of the Graduate School Ethics Lecture Series
When - two month ago - I was asked to speak here within the Graduate School Ethics lecture series it
dawned on me that I should use this opportunity to venture across the limit of a purely academic exposition
and - as it were - 'come out' and expose my political and philosophical position to your criticism. In fact
to do anything else at this occasion would have meant a betrayal - or to avoid a moral term here - it would
have meant the effective abandonment of this position and of the project it wants to become.
Some of you might already have witnessed that I am operating from a fairly consolidated theoretical postion,
i.e. Marxism. I would also like to call myself a communist. But what can that mean today practically? I am not
an activist although there still is a number of organised revolutionary marxist groups in Britain and I have
been in loose contact with quite a few of them over the last ten years. (1)
However, I have chosen to focus on trying to build a carrier in architecture, professionally as well
as academically. But in this process I continue to suffer from capitalist class society.(2). Or to put
it positively: I continue to gather and evaluate experience in the light of the marxist hypothesis that
there could be another superior socio-economic and political regime that would allow us to engage and
collaborate in more democratic and more productive relations.
In order to mediate and share here some of the resultant speculations and insights I want to pick up an
initially arbritrary series of issues which seem to fit into a lecture on ethics in architecture, in order to
demonstrate how from a marxist perspective every issue and problem can be driven to expose the political
barrier to its solution.
The first isue I will raise is the question of the disciplinary boundaries in the organisation of knowledge
and professional progress.
This lecture series is one more example for the way in which the AA continues to operate in defiance of what
one might expect to be the limit of the discipline of architecture. Some remarks on the underlying rationality
of such deterritorialization is a necessarry preface to my lecture as it questions not only various
disciplinary boundaries but ventures beyond what you might deem the proper limits of the theoretical and
From an ethics lecture one might here expect reference to particular moral dilemmas the profession sometimes
admits to like the one wether alligeance is owed to the private client or the general public interst, or
questions of moral value as they arise in public projects , in social housing, for instance the dilemma of
catering for of divers ethnicities etc. I maintain that such questions can not be adressed and solved in
isolation but inevitable drive towards general questions of philosophy and ultimately political strategy.
One might point out here that in all professions, disciplines and specialist knowledges the most advanced
proponents in each discipline consistently find themselves rehearsing and potentially challenging philosophy.
Philosophy at it's best is nothing other than the attempt to adress and work through the general questions of
method and purpose which arise in any research or systematic activity. Any innovative and rigorous specialized
inquiry or practise will move beyond provisionally useful but ultimately arbitrary disciplinary boundaries and
tendentially will have to recuperate, synthesize and advance the systematic totality of knowledges,
experiences and practises. And I do link the regressive postmodern ideological abandonment of totalization
to the political hegemony of capital in this period.
The very notion of Architecture versus mere building seems to call for innovation and theoretical grounding:
great architecture was always innovative building and what we call architecture always - since the Renaissance
- comes along with theory, most notably since modernism, post-modernism, deconstructivism etc. That is what we
expect from ourselves as ambitious architects and from architecture versus mere building: that it knows what
it is doing and that it can make an argument for itself. But such arguments have to reach beyond architecture.
Architecture can have no value in itself - that would be fetishism. That means that once you enter
architectural theory you are already on the drift towards deterritorialization and totalization: architecture
and urbanism have been and have to be theorised as facilitating society, the good polis, social progress,
institutional innovation, manifesting contemporary cultural and moral values etc. all of which obviously
transcends the bounds of the expert knowledge required to merely build something.
The exercise and transmission of routine operations within the profession are of course also part of an
architecture school's agenda, and such exercise rests comfortably within the discipline's boundaries. The
rationality of these operations might safely be taken as corroborated by their pervasive survival and
reproduction. When it comes to critique, innovation and the formation of new practises - and the AA as any
academic institution does and should claim such ambitions - a responsible account of these practises has to
transcend the disciplinary realm of specialized professional expertise. In the place of the guarantees of a
corroborated standart practise an anticipatory theoretical speculation is required in order to ascertain,
predict or at least bracket the effect of new architectural repertoires on social relations and the life
process in general. And this would ultimately require architecture, sociology, business organisation, economics
and political theory to be studied in their dialectical relations. But since capitalism atomizes the
relevant decisions, such integrated science has no audience. Such integration already fails relative to the
disciplinary neighbors architecture and urbanism. That disciplinary boundaries might be useful for routine
operations embodying an economy of complexity reduction but are incompatible with innovation and progress can
be seen with regard to the relation between architecture and urbanism. The disciplinary boundary between
architecture and urban planning is obstructing innovation in both disciplines and thus of the rational
developement of the built environment. They exist as two separatly institutionalized practises arresting each
other in mutual deadlock. Whereas urban planning is limiting its options in advance by always already
presupposing the same set of building types as given from outside its domain (office tower,
detached house, ...) as the basis of its planning strategies (zoning laws ect.), architecture in turn finds
its narrow limits in the planners' prescriptions. The two disciplines hold each other back intead of
propelling each others progress. There is only one built environment. But to stop at an integrated
architecture/urbanism would be equally arbitrary. Ultimately the built environment is only one subsystem of
total social material reproduction. Innovative architecture thus requires transdisciplinary theoretical
speculation to assess its possibilities and effects, and to establish a criterion to identify the new as
innovation. Moral questions might arise and in the last analysis a political philosophy seems to be inevitably
The separation of the disciplines of architecture and urbanism is not a theoretical deficiency nor a
mere institutional problem of academia. The politico-economic agents of the respective disciplines are
categorically separated: architecture is private, urbanism is state matter. The categorical dichotomy between
architecture and urbanism, between house and city, is specific to capitalism, where only the unavoidably
collective connecting infrastructures are socialized and democratically planned. All other decisions are
privatized and therefore atomized. The theoretical quest for a comprehensive science of the built environment
faces a political barrier. The revolutionary urbanism of the modern movement was unleashed by the post first
world war social revolutions in Germany and Russia and in as much as it remained unfulfilled it was limited
by the limited and compromised character of the revolution in Germany.
And I want to generalise here and make my first political statement: In the last analysis the solution to
any technical problem also involves the political and is up against a political power structure that
systematically blocks progress. And this is the rationale behind my attempt to push academic into political
discourse. The underlying hypothesis is that - more than ever - the technological, organisational and
cultural resources are in place to construct a higher, more democratic and more productive form of
socio-economic and political organisation beyond capitalist class society and imperialism.
This is acknowledged in the rythm of this lecture which will recursively drive the issues it engages towards
a totalising political statement.
Architecture is usually seen to be concerned with aesthetics rather than ethics. Some remarks on the
relationship of ethics and aestetics might therefore seem as an appropriate way to introduce a lecture on
ethics in an architecture school. Ancient Greek philosophy is said to having naivly identified the good and
the beautiful. In Kant they seem to be strictly set apart and we all know the bad conscience that comes with
the indulgence in pure aesthetics and the pursuit of the beautiful.
Earlier this year I gave a short paper on what I titled "the dialectic of the aesthetic and the pragmatic".
The paper contains what I would call a marxist , i.e. materialist analysis of aesthetic regimes, an analysis
which I would like to extend here also to moral regimes:
"Within a consistently materialist outlook aesthetic regimes have to be analyzed as sublimations of an
underlying performativity. At the root of any style or typology (which goes beyond the drawing board
and effectively shapes the built environment) lies an economic - and I might add here moral - rationality.
The aesthetic judgement of cities and buildings is rational in as much as it operates as an immediate
intuitive appreciation of performativity, shortcircuiting first hand comparative experience or extended
analysis. Aesthetic judgement thus represents an economical substitute for experience. It depends on a
tradition that disseminates accumulated experience via extrinsic and dogmatic rules. This dogmatism is
the virtue as well as the limit of aesthetically condensed intelligence.
For instance: The Vitruvian or Palladian regime of proportions represents a condensation of accumulated
building experience, allowing for the 'blind' design of sound stone-structures. The classical orders are
regulating column-height to width-ratios, spans, foundations, minimum roofangles for drainage etc. The
Palladian rules concerning room proportions guarantee certain standarts of daylighting and air-volume.
Any such rule-system embodies an economy of performance as well as an economy of design effort. Those regimes
participate in a dogmatized science of building.
Over and above these technological principles the aesthetic rules concerning e.g. (Vitruvian) city-layout
or the (Palladian) rules for the suburban villa enshrine and make easily reproducable specific social -
and again I might add here moral - organizations which in turn are easily read off by the trained eye
identifying the (morally) right environment aesthetically. With the developement of society and the
availability of new building technologies (reinforced concrete, steel etc.) and new concepts of human
association the classical aesthetic regime lost its rationality and became a fetter upon the further
developement of the built environment. What once was an accumulated wisdom became an irratioinal prejudice
that had to be battled also on the ideological plane of aesthetic value."
Materialism explicates the seriality of modern housing, urban zoning and the principles of specialisation
evident in functionalist architecture as structural aspects of the socio-economic regime of fordism. It
allows a proper assessment of modernism historical role rather than falling for the ahistorical claim of
its supposed failure in terms of human values. Materialism also furnishes a criterion to identify the role
and rationality of Postmodernism and Deconstructivism within the logic of post-fordist restructuring.
The recent return to minimalism in architecture seems to be a rearguard move as it clings to precisely
those formal orders that the logic of socio-economic and institutional development has identified as its
incarcerating fetters. In a period of crisis and intensified restructuring such (conservative) aesthetic
investment is bound to decline into a stance of defensiveness and self-victimization. This purist sensibility
will suffer and reject all that which becomes operational, vibrant and vital in the current transformations.
Under Capitalism productive relations are still progressing, although far less than what is possible beyond
this political barrier. And the new spatialities of folding which seem to share a vocabulary with the latest
drift in productive relations point in many ways beyond class society: dehierarchization,
deterritorialization, fieldspace, nonlinear and open networks etc.
These remarks are supposed to demonstrate how Materialism offers a criterion to take a postion relative to
various current architectural trends.
So what I am suggesting here is that aesthetic judgement might be reconstructed and redeemed as an
intuitive appreciation of the vital and productive. It also might be said to contain a hidden moral
sentiment. The beauty of Mies's Crown Hall or of Falling Water rests with the fantasies, and anticipations
we project onto the space, it's suggestiveness for the wonderful encounters, collaborations and forms of
human association those spaces allow us to envisage.
But we have to go beyond this edifying moment into a rather less comfortable territory to find out what
stands in the way of those beautiful and ethical anticipations.
If aesthetic sentiment can be recuperated as moral sentiment, moral sentiment itself can not be taken
as god-given, but needs to be rationalised and recuperated within a pragmatist or rather materialist
I could rewrite my paper on the "dialectic of aethetics and pragmatics" as "the dialectic of ethics and
pragmatics".So morality moves from the position of explanans to the position of explanandum and again the
second term - pragmatics - is the stronger term in the dialectical relation. The initial statement therefore
Within a consistently materialist outlook moral regimes have to be analyzed as sublimations of an underlying
performativity. The moral judgement is rational in as much as it operates as an immediate intuitive
appreciation of performativity, shortcircuiting first hand comparative experience or extended analysis.
Moral judgement thus represents an economical substitute for experience. It depends on a tradition that
disseminates accumulated experience via extrinsic and dogmatic rules. This dogmatism is the virtue as well
as the limit of pragmatic intelligence condensed into ethics. With the developement of society and the
availability of new technologies and organisational patterns - the classical moral regime lost its
rationality and became a fetter upon the further developement of the overall forces of production. What
once was an accumulated wisdom became an irrational prejudice that had to be battled also on the ideological
plane of moral value.
In my analysis the status of a whole series of moral values that guide our patterns of behavior today
are exposable as fetters upon production and therefore expose as irrational the capitalist class relations
upon which they depend. The best way to go beyond such a general political declaration might be to analyse
and critique my own immediate political conditions of production, the concrete micro-political relations
under which educational and academic institutions operate today. This might very well be seen as a challenge
to the AA and my own position here. But I also know that the structure of the school is such that it can
not easily be challenged. In all its parts and because it falls into many more or less autonomous parts,
the school can choose to ignore any challenge even in the absence of the intellectual resources to counter
and refute such a challenge. The school does not really exist as a intellectually positioned entity. It
lacks the respective constitutional level. There is no constituted faculty which could formulate a position.
This quality of unchallengeability pertains of course to the institutional structure of the school rather than
to any of its individual members and any criticism of this structure is here made in good faith towards all
its members and the collective in nuce the school might be projected to be or become.
And of course the AA is just one of a consistent type of institutions, like any other university on the one
hand and the art-circus on the other hand, participating in and limited by late capitalist class society
under the spell of imperialism.
The pursuit of rigoros argument is constantly frustrated and alienated by the exchange- and class-relations
through which we are constantly forced to exclude each other from what we are pursuing here in academia as
much as in the profession at large. Secrecy is pervasive and obscurantist publications are nothing but another
form of secrecy. Or call it 'Spectacle'. Any serious contribution perverts into an existential threat for
those who are adressed as much as for those who are trying to offer it. You might not feel this as strongly as
long as you are moving within a consensus or as long as it does not occur to you that you could take those
things you teach or learn or do professionally for real and serious instead of something you are trading
casually as career-building stock. Nevertheless I know you all had at least glimpses of what I am talking
about - of course you have.
To point out that this lecture as much as any other event or articulation in this carrier-building
institution is always already corrupted and alienated from its content appears prima facie as a straight
forward moral condemnation.
Two remarks need to be made here to set the trajectory of the argument:
First: the whole point here is to attempt a materialist reconstruction or supersession of moral judgements.
Each of these reconstructions or interpretations rely on a totalizing science of history. All the obvious
morally revolting aspects of class-society in general and academic careerism in particular, i.e.leadership
being based on property or bureaucratic position, territorialism, pretenciousness, obscuratism, and the
rhetorical sealing of all the cracks and questions etc. because the exchange of contributions is integrated
only through a scamble for priveledge, all these horrors are ultimately institutionally constituted and they
are serious infringements upon production, and this spells their historical dimension. Contemporary moral
judgements are at best intuitive reactions to the immediate social or political barriers of production and
productive progress. But they might also be dogmatic ossifications of practises which are - although at some
stage historically validated - no longer conducive to the developement of industrial civilization. Finally
at worst moral tenets become reactionary defence mechanisms for long since entrenched vested interest.
Second immediate note: The institutional political barriers and limits upon serious communication and with
it those patterns of intercourse which revolt us are also protected by a whole host of moral defenses.
Some of the older moral defenses, traditional moral sentiments like personal loyalty, (to be translated as
"partners in crime defending their vested interests") or reverence to seniority, although they might still
have a waning force, might nevertheless safely assumed to be on the way out. What one rather has to focus on
and challenge are those seemingly modern or rather post-modern values which appear less contentious, even
progressive. Sentiments like the celebration of difference, pluralism, the liberal tolerance that comes
with a half-acknowledged relativism, the value of academic autonomy, the dogmatic or bureaucratic
independence of all teachers, as well as of all students, an institutional culture which allows only an
immanent criticism, the rejection of substantial leadership; the fetishisation of individualism,
individuality and so called personal intellectual or artistic interests; the fetishistic respect for
authorship and the forced invisibility of anonymous collective work etc. etc. All these wonderful moral
values - again: pluralism, tolerance, autonomy, independence, individuality etc. - while participating in
the contradictory fusion of progressive post-fordism and regressive neo-liberalism and - of course - having
to be defended against any looming authoritarianism from above, are to be criticised from below, i.e. from
the vantage point of a radicalised notion of democracy, a notion of democracy that does respect the wholly
arbitrary and crippeling defintion of a public versus a private domain as little as the equally arbitrary
and increasingly ineffectual national definition of the public as the unit of societal self-determination.
Both these limits of the public democratic domain need to be challenged. In their respective moral cloak
- respect for privacy and patriotism, private and national self-determination - those illusions remain
amongst the most powerful ideological bullwarks for class-society and imperialism.
But it seems again that I am jumping to conclusions too quickly introducing notions which today can no longer
be taken for granted as being self-evident.
Therefore let me go back - as it were - and build my argument by picking up the question of morality from
where bourgeois politics and academic discourse has left it.
The question of ethics or morality - how should we live, behave, interact with each other, commit ourselves
to each other etc. - might initially be approached emprically or even on a personal level. It seems as if
through the further questioning of what one finds historically or empirically or even through one's personal
dilemmas one sooner or later feels compelled to enter what one might be inclined to call the plane of
philosophical reflection. For most of us this is tricky territory and it seems as if one would have to rest
with ultimately unaccountable stipulations or beliefs. "That's how I feel, that's who I am." And this is
indeed what a considerable part of the anglo-saxon philosophical tradition in the 20th Century settled for.
Morality and 'ultimate values' are to a large extent seen to be outside of the domain of rational inquiry
and critique. A position which - by the way - rests comfortably with an increasingly privatising society.
This wholly agnostic and defeatist stance results theoretically from the narrow conception and
artificial isolation of the issue and discipline of moral philosophy. From this perspective one
might start to distinguish the various modes of philosophical analysis in respect to the scope of
phenomena that would enter the analysis of morality. A lot of the latter day Oxford Philosophy of Ethics
starts and concludes with the analysis of language use. Some moral philosophies would include references
to biology, or psychology, or the sociology of every day life, some include a certain degree of historical
reflection, or abstract reflections about the liberal democratic state, but ultimately moral philosophy ends
up insisting on its own original turf, formulating abstract and eternal criteria of evaluation:
utilitarianism, contractualism, consequentualism, emotivism etc. According to my previous definition this
is 'philosophy' only by name, a closed off discipline which itself can be brought to task only through a
totalizing philosophy like Marxism.
What would be required here is the systematic historical analysis of socio-economic relations. But within
bourgeois academia such an inquiry is consigned to another department which in turn, as it touches on moral
issues from within its own trajectory, receives abstract and eternal moral truth as bullwark against the
radical thrust of its own rationality. This kind of constriction of reflection to a circumscribed area of
supposed relevance and expertise achieves a conservative mutual deadlock. This is a general hallmark of
bourgeois academic discourse, although one that is being increasingly challenged recently through all sorts
of interdisciplinary researches. But nowhere is the irrationality of these constrictions more evident than
concerning the fundamental question of ethics - how to relate to each other, i.e. how to organize our
materially interdependent lifes. What bourgeois philosophy seems to be lacking is even the inkling that
what is required to answer this question is nothing short of a totalizing science of history that reflects
and reconstructs moral categories and cultural patterns in respect to the evolving conditions of total
social material reproduction on a world scale. As witnessed here in this lecture series three weeks ago,
bourgeois academia thinks it possible to contribute to what it calls 'Political Theory' ahistorically as
well as apolitically, i.e. without any reference to the latest socio-economic and political developements
- post-fordism, neo-liberalism, globalisation, hegemony of international capital over nationally organized
labour etc.- and refusing to draw conclusions in the form of a political position and thus leaving all its
terms for ever indeterminate and undecisive.
But bourgeois society lacks much more than the right insight. It rather has long since become itself an
irredeemable obstacle to the constitution of the transcendental subject that is the democratic discourse
through which alone the necessary theoretical synthesis, this totalizing science of history can emerge.
Within the marxist discourse those incarcerating disciplinary boundaries and the political limits of discourse are materially challenged. The explosion of these limits is one of the founding moments of this radically different intellectual paradigm and practise which crucially fuses theoretical work with concrete political organisational work. The vitality and intellectual breakthrough of this paradigm into which philosophical reflection is transposed and brought to task depends inalienable on its alignment and synthesis with a new political force - the global industrial working class and the hypothesis and promise of international communism. Marx and Engels elaborate the crucial breakthrough towards the science of history in the process of and through their involvement with the organisation of the First International, and their insights could not have come to maturity outside of this engagement.
Once stated it is irresistable and self-evident that philosophy and science can only fulfill their ambition through an alignment with the forces of resistance from the very bottom of society which due to their very position are bound to constitute themselves democratically and can only proliferate through a universalizing movement. What transpires here - despite all the impurities and contradictions that might beset any concrete struggle - is something that indeed was already demonsrated by the dynamic of 18th Century enlightenment: the irresistable epistemological thrust of what Lenin calls the 'universal class'.
In order to mediate these insights for you I might have to go back and take on bourgeois morality and philosophical moral reflection at its most sophisticated, profound and edifying elaboration as it is articulated in the work of Kant.
go to PART 2