Heaven and Earth
Festschrift to Honor Karsten Harries

Vol. 12, No. 1
August 2007


___David Leatherbarrow
  Architecture, Ecology, and Ethics


    Two visions of our common world compete with one another in contemporary architecture. The first assumes that the city or the urban environment presents us with what is common, and commonly held to be good. Contrasting sharply with this notion is the idea that the environment is what we all share, that the natural world is the comprehensive framework of what all people and things hold in common. Behind these visions are two interpretations of human existence; in the first, there is the world-view normally called anthropocentrism (which puts man at the center of things), in the second, biocentrism (which puts man in the context of other living things, as if there were no center but a widely extended range). The conflict between these alternate conceptions takes institutional form in the opposition between individual experience and scientific understanding, still more broadly, between subjectivity and objectivity. In architecture the corresponding distinction would be between art and nature, the first seen as a domain of unpredictability and originality, the second of regularity or law.

Yet, I suspect that anyone who gives this alternative more than a little thought would realize the choice is a false one – at least in our field. In truth, architecture cannot be either artificial or natural because each built work is necessarily both. For this reason, I think, we are compelled to seek ways of avoiding the choice, at least of not being disoriented by it, of not reducing architecture to either, as strident versions of formalism (art for its own sake) and environmentalism so often do. Escaping the alternative is not simple, however, for ways of balancing these two views are far from clear. Nor is it immediately apparent how manifestations of the two – the city and nature – can exist as aspects of one continuum.

Ecology is a word that derives from an ancient Greek term, oikos, which signified the household. The ancient art of economics involved techniques of domestic stewardship. As we know from Xenophon’s famous treatise Oeconomicus, economy of this sort organized a well-run house or farm. That book was essentially a treatise on estate management, ranging over a wide spectrum of topics, such as the arrangement and storage of furnishings and supplies, the hiring of slaves, the cultivation of soils, and the management of one’s family. In short, economics for the Greeks was the discipline that allowed a person or family to keep a well-ordered domicile, given limited means, energy, and time. This usage emerged in English as early as the 15th century and survived intact until the 19th, when the management of the monetary affairs began to dominate economic discussions, and the modern science of economics came into being. Given this long tradition, it would be wrong to conclude that this knowledge only governed the management of the self or individual family, as it does now, for the term oikos also pertained to an individual’s relationships with others. Perhaps that extended range of responsibilities is already apparent in what I’ve said about the management of supplies and servants, or of the building’s alterations for seasonal change. Ancient economics involved good housekeeping for one’s family and for others as both groups existed together in the natural world. To some degree, this is still true today, ecology means participating in the common good of the whole.

The ancient Greeks also had a name for conduct of this sort – I mean the sort of behavior that characterized one’s ways of managing one’s own affairs and interacting with others – and that term was ethos.[1] When hearing that word our tendency these days is to immediate translate it into its English language derivative, ethics, and then assume that the original term meant something like morals or a code of conduct. Ecological ethics, we might assume, would elaborate such a code, as is the case with William McDonough’s manifestoes for ecological architecture, for example. It is true that conduct was signified by the ancient word, but to grasp its real import we need to envisage a more local, particular, or non-normalized sense of behavior than our sense of ethics typically implies; also, one that acknowledges the cultural constitution of patterns of behavior. An adequate translation of the Greek term might be habit of dwelling.

But here, too, we need to beware of uncritical assumptions. Habits of this sort were not only, or not primarily, those that were performed repetitively, even if they were repeated, for that was a secondary or derivative characteristic of the ethical in its original sense. More important than the repetitiveness of habits was their appropriateness. Dwelling practices became habitual because they were most often found to be suitable for the kind of life individuals choose to live in particular circumstances, practices that were proper or suitable in situations that regularly recurred. Here, the accent is on the typicality of the situation, not the repetition of the performance.

Recurring performances or practices are also what architectural design seeks to accommodate. With this observation I do not mean to state anything original or controversial. A basic premise of all that I will say is that architecture gives durable dimension and expression to the typical practices of our lives. In our professional discourse – more or less from antiquity to the present – this principle has been one of the primary aspects of architectural order. From the time of the ancient Greeks to the present architects have developed a fairly refined vocabulary for this condition; think of all the terms that provide shades of meaning for the Latin word decorum and its Greek antecedent prepon.[2] Décor for Vitruvius was the principle by which one could judge that the form of a building was appropriate for its use. But the term also had currency outside our field. In fact, architecture writers seem to have borrowed these words from authors on rhetoric in particular and on the other arts in general. But the term also had currency outside of art, for any thing or any act could be considered with respect to its appropriateness or fit: celebration was an appropriate response to victory, repayment to debt, fabric was a fitting choice for shirts, leather for shoes, and so on. The key was that decisions of suitability were always made concretely, in view of given and particular circumstances. The concept has also survived into modern thought, as I’ve said. Yet today other terms are used with more frequency in architecture, especially the idea of character. Rather than speak of decorum or even of suitability, we say a setting has the right character when its dimensions, forms, and materials are appropriate for a given event or situation.

My purpose in this short study is to suggest that ethos, so defined – and I’ll say a little more about it – is the key to oikos. Rendered in more familiar vocabulary, I want to argue that reflection on dwelling habits will help us discover the real import and applicability of ecological understanding. And I will say more, that attention to the horizon of prosaic affairs, praxis, provides a key to the conflict or alternative to the bio- and anthropocentric worldviews. Perhaps this will be a controversial argument, for much of the current embrace of ecological consciousness suggests otherwise: that awareness of the environment can be used to reorder the ways we live our lives, that ecological consciousness should even determine the character of buildings in the future. I do not want to diminish the importance of this consciousness, only say that the real test of its relevance is its congeniality to matters of ethos.

I’ll proceed with a question: on what basis do we judge the settings in which we live to be appropriate, proper, or fitting? Are determinations of this sort essentially personal? To some degree the answer to this question must be yes. But oikos, as we’ve seen, was a principle of order that pertained to not only the individual but also to the collective. Is this still true, is the good of the community also part of judgments about what is proper in a setting or architectural configuration? If so, would this be an essentially conservative stance, suggesting that the primary task of architecture is to affirm the status quo? Is there not a critical dimension to architecture and to architectural invention? If, in turn, this is so, the first question remains unanswered: by what measure are we able to say this or that construction or invention is appropriate? Certainly, we can turn to other criteria of judgment: aesthetic interests, technical efficiency, or other reasons. While important, for the moment I would like to put these kinds of assessment temporarily out play because I want to focus on the issue of measure itself. Considering this topic broadly, there are two sorts of measure that can and should be distinguished from one another.

First there is a kind of measure that involves conformity to some external standard, some rule or norm that could be applied to a wide range of phenomena or instances.[3] This can be called a standard of relative comparison. Here one may think of a yardstick or a scale of some sort. The fact that any object can be sized with these instruments makes them external to the object being measured.[4] The second kind of measure I have in mind is one that is pertinent only to the phenomena under consideration. If the first was external, this one is an internal sort of measure. Let me turn to the ancient Greeks again. When Plato differentiated two sorts of measure in The Statesman he relied on two different words, metron and metrion; in the first a procedure or instrumentality was brought to the object or event to be measured, in the second a procedure or process was brought to the object by the object itself. I’m sure this seems odd, but it will become clearer if you think of a person’s health. A measure of the first kind is a thermometer. It is brought to the person by a family member or doctor and used to measure temperature. Used once on a son or daughter the parent can use the same instrument on herself. With this usage in mind we can describe the thermometer as an objective measure. The natural sciences, especially in the modern world, rely on these sorts of measure as the basis for their truth claims, as if truth and certainty were the same thing. Returning to medicine, it is also possible, and according to the ancient Hippocratic texts wise to ask the person feeling unwell what she or he believes to be the problem; this is to say, whether he or she feels warm or cold, for example, and how much so. To make this determination the person has to measure him or herself, for the standard against which a person judges his or her current state is the condition in which he or she feels normal or most able to live a desired sort of life. Let me proceed with this distinction. Measure in the first place results from the gathering and ordering of a range of data according to a standard of comparison. In the second, a range of examples is not decisive but the full scope or totality of a person’s actual life. Recalling what I said earlier about oikos as a principle that governed one’s self and one’s relationship to others, I can say that this second sense of measurement also makes determinations in view of the person and the world in which he or she lives. Equilibrium of the individual includes participation in the economy of the whole.

Can we envisage similar sorts of measure in architecture? Are there external and internal measures? I think so and want to suggest that all judgments about appropriateness or suitability are of this second sort. If this can be shown we have, I think, a key to the connection between ethos and oikos, for the matter of limits or suitable measure binds the two together.
hopper.jpg (471128 Byte)
Table for Ladies
Edward Hopper (1930)

To clarify how the internal measure of an architectural setting arises out of typical forms of behavior let me briefly describe a typical urban event. In Edward Hopper’s Table for Ladies (1930) a man and a woman face one another over a table at the edge of a restaurant interior. It appears some wine is on the table, maybe a pot of coffee. There are also several unoccupied tables, a woman dressed in black behind a nearby countertop and register, also a waitress dressed in white reaching into the front window display of fruit, while looking out the window into the street. Neither the pair in conversation nor any of the others is prominent in the interior. Likewise for the architecture, a principle of tacit serviceability governs the elements: the expanse of glass at the front, the wooden cladding that lines the walls all around, the mirrors above the picture rail, the lights hanging from a coffered ceiling, and the grid of black and white floor tiles that covers the floor – all elements give the interior a vivid sense of modest and purposeful urbanity.

If some of what I’ve described seems beyond the interests of the two at the table it is because we tend to think of the situations of our lives, situations such as a meal, as essentially personal. I want to suggest something different; that even the simplest of situations depends on ambient conditions, topography, or extended terrain that is relevant because it is saturated with implications and traces of related human affairs. Such a field or structure has the power to integrate an extended vicinity, in this case an urban location.

The positions and qualities in the architecture I’ve described assume the existence of differences and distances between the setting’s constituent elements. Each position or quality possesses something others nearby lack. This means difference promotes mutuality, or can do, by virtue of reciprocal lack. Now my important point: less light, less transparency, and less width would alter and weaken the operation of this setting, or any other for that matter. Likewise, more of each would disturb the workings of the place, making this interior less like a restaurant than a cafeteria, for example. This “less and more” is what determines the setting’s character.

In view of differences and distances I’ve mentioned, can we not say that such an event has its own internal measure? Here internal means particular not insular, for the dining event depends as much on the street and the kitchen as the table around which the two sit. If we see the table as a setting with a particular character, mood, or style, can we not say that such an ethos measures the right amount of light, materials, and dimensions according to its own standard, as does the health of a person? If so, my suggestion would be that all of the typical and essential events of our lives have an ethos or measure of this sort; for each of them we can be fairly exact about how much light, air, dimension, and material (of one kind or another) is enough, how much is proper to the situation. In the same way we can determine the appropriate permanence of the element or the setting. Such determinations are, I think, a large part of what design projects. Design judgment, then, indicates instances of economy and its opposite, waste.

Does ecology represent an alternative understanding? Perhaps you will have already guessed my answer is no. And I want to say more: ecological understanding in architecture is nothing other than a determination of the more or less of materials, dimensions, and natural phenomena as they are appropriate for the enactment of typical dwelling practices. Again, ethos is the key to oikos. Put differently, and perhaps polemically, policy determinations based on objective measures of too much and too little in the use of resources weaken design by removing it from its essential horizon of reference, the typicalities of human affairs.

Let me conclude by summarizing five points I have tried to make:

1)      the opposition between anthropocentric and biocentric worldviews looses its force when the style and equilibrium of human affairs are seen to require participation in widely ambient phenomena and conditions (the environment – both built and un-built);

2)      human affairs (dwelling situations) have their own measure, the practical economy of which allows for determinations of lack, surplus, and appropriate measure;

3)      the science of ecology is too theoretical, and because of that risks irrelevance unless it incorporates into its horizon of understanding a robust contemporary ethics;

4)      the dependency of the part on the whole inaugurates a spread of mutual involvements that gives to the entire landscape a potential for widespread economy, and

5)      a name for this extended economy of human affairs could be the city, but it could also be ecology, for in the radical order of our lives the two, I think, are really the same.




[1] On this point and many others that follow I am indebted to the now classic study of the relationship between architecture and ethics, Karsten Harries, The Ethical Function of Architecture (Cambridge, Mass., 1997).

[2] Hans Georg Gadamer has addressed this topic in several publications.  Most relevant for the points I’d like to make is The Enigma of Health (Stanford, 1996) where the related issues are discussed under the headings of “appropriateness” or “fittingness” of treatment or therapy. Among the many studies of prepon/decorum in art and architectural theory, most useful I think is Alste Horn-Oncken, Über das Schickliche (Göttingen, 1967).

[3] see Gadamer, The Enigma, 98-99, 108, 132-133; also useful on these points is Werner Marx, Is There a Measure on Earth (Chicago, 1987).  The changing concepts of measure in the history of science are set out in several studies by Stephen Toulmin.

[4] I have discussed this topic at some length in consideration of the role of the “canon” in architectural theory and design; see “Adjusting Architectural Premises,” Practices 5/6 (1997) 174-184.



Vol. 12, No. 1
August 2007