• Credit: Viktor Koen

Asking an architect to design a safe structure is like asking a chef to cook a safe meal: It is at once a high ethical requirement and a very low expectation. Food and shelter are absolutely essential to human survival. Because of this, their quality (or lack thereof) rises to an ethical concern that society takes seriously, protecting the public from getting sick or injured through a great umbrella of testing, codes, inspectors, and regulated professions.

Currently the legal authority of architects rests with their licensure, just as their moral authority rests on their unified commitment to high professional standards. But what if the raw primal power of aesthetics could trump that of law or ethics? If so, aesthetics may be the key to unlocking the real authority of architects, and therefore of architecture, to shape society.

Aesthetics is not what it used to be. Around the mid-19th century it became associated with ideas of beauty and taste. But this recent definition was a sharp detour away from its foundations in perception, sensing, and understanding. In Greek, it’s aisthethikos, or “pertaining to sense perception,” from aistheta, “perceptible things” and aisthenasthai/aesthesis, “to perceive.” In Latin, it’s percipere, “to seize wholly” or to “see all the way through.”

The philosopher Immanuel Kant saw this definitional detour coming and tried to stop it, from fear of losing a crucial conceptual tool. If, as he believed, an aesthetic experience is simply a perceptible one (just as a medical anesthetic renders us unable to perceive), then to master such a fundamentally human kind of knowledge is to connect to the essence of life in a way that ethics never can. Aesthetics deals with physical truths, while ethics deals with social constructs dependent upon those truths. Peter Zumthor, Hon. FAIA, agrees and has said, “We all experience architecture before we have even heard the word.” Or, as the poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky once said, “Aesthetics is the mother of ethics.”

Nobody chooses a restaurant based on whether the meal will be safe; modern science makes food safety virtually a given. This allows chefs to move beyond the science, beyond the merely ethical and the merely edible, and on to the aesthetically engaging. And as with safe food, there are many actors who contribute to the ethical project of building safe shelter: building officials, licensing agencies, examiners, materials testers, engineers, contractors, and lawyers. Since architects contribute nothing unique to this arena, they should channel their inner chef and seek their competitive advantage with aesthetics—in the timeless sense not merely of beauty, but of profoundly understanding how humans interact with their surroundings.

Ironically, it is in this completely ungovernable, amoral arena of pure design, where nobody else is legally excluded, that they should find almost no competition. Aesthetics is the value architects add—better than anyone else—to safe shelter. Strong ethics can unite the profession, but strong aesthetics will distinguish it.

Furthermore, where ethics is transactional, aesthetics is sensory; and where ethics involves obligation, aesthetics involves instinct. Architecture, therefore, as the mother art, with a scale larger than most any other art, has the raw instinctual power to move people, to direct culture and society more than any moral code ever could—to inspire rather than regulate us toward lives better lived. Architects need only honestly and unabashedly embrace design to assume their natural authority.