Everyday opinions on architecture, such as 'good', 'bad' or 'crazy', determine whether a building is valued and whether it will remain standing. But what are these moral judgements based on? Doctoral candidate Stefan Koller provides a philosophical basis in his dissertation.

When people talk about the 'ethics' or 'morality' of architecture, they could be referring to anything. To a building, to the architect or even to a project that is in development and behind schedule. Given the fact that judgements take root and can have a decisive impact on a construction project, Koller believes it is high time for the systematic assessment of judgements. "Otherwise, a judgement is superficial and meaningless."

Claims that a building 'increases the well-being of its inhabitants' or 'disfigures the city' cannot always be taken seriously. According to Koller, these claims are not necessarily objectionable, however. Gaining a better understanding of such moralizations requires research. In his research into substantiating moral judgements, he searches for a model focused on buildings and their specific features. The 'Face Value Treatment' model introduced by Koller takes (most) moral statements about buildings literally. By linking the compositional features of buildings to the statements, you can rule out the possibility that the judgement is actually about the architect, builder or user of the building.

He has used historical sources, including Vitruvius, to create his model. This Roman architect used 'strength' (firmitas), 'beauty' (venustras) and utility (utilitas) as normative criteria for judging architecture. According to Vitruvius, beauty is a moral choice, rather than a judgement about external appearances. A building that radiates excessive wealth, for example, represents greed. Koller: "If that is the case, the feeling of proportionality is lost." As the most important value in architecture, firmitas later became the fundamental principle of the 'tectonic tradition'. The opinions on firmitas and venustras, closely linked to functionality, were also expressed in debates about architectural value in the Early Modern period.

What does the 'Face Value Treatment' model tell us when the architecture of, for example, Mies van der Rohe is judged? That his compositional principles are too austere to justify pompous moral value judgements, states Koller. Moreover, his model makes it clear that proportionality depends on the integration into the physical, social and economic context. What can 21st-century architects, architecture critics and students learn from this? Koller: "That good architecture is not possible without ethics."

Published: January 2015