Living Urbanism

Stones for the Glass House by Scott Ford by Matthew John Lambert
July 2, 2009, 9:41 PM
Filed under: Living Urbanism Images, Volume 002 | Tags: , ,


The purpose of the art of architecture, of architecture as high art, has been to provide us with symbols of the nature and reality of the state- that is to say, of the established order of things that has been made to stand… and that, by standing and enduring, affords us the legal and ethical frame of reference within which we manage to lead more or less civilized lives. Norris Kelly Smith (Smith 1980)

Located in the clearing of a well-manicured wood in New Canaan, Connecticut is a transparent glass and steel-frame box, paradigmatic for the extent to which it expresses the aesthetic ideals of modern art and architecture. Built in 1947, Philip Johnson’s “Glass House” is the abstraction of a house to its reductive limit. Indeed, it is a house built for one. In its solitary location and characteristic transparency, the design is entirely self conscious to expose nearly all of its contents to view. The only work of art hanging in the spare interior is Poussin’s Burial of Phocion. Phocion, “The Good”, as he was known in ancient Athens for his virtue and frugality, was condemned to death for his defense of the city and its citizens against the barbarians. It is fitting, thus, that this temple of modern art contains a depiction of the death of The Good and the demise of the polis; for modern art, along with science, arose with the demise of a culture rooted in sacred order and Aristotelian virtue ethics. To this cultural crisis, Reiff offers the provocative charge, “Confronted with a picture gallery as the new center of self-worship, civilized men must become anti-art, in the hope of shifting attention toward modalities of worship wholly other than that of self.” (Reiff 10, 1987) As a picture gallery of self-worship, the “Glass House” represents the fragile, temporal and isolated state of a culture unmoored from sacred order and authority. Indeed, it is at the end of the line of civilization and the options, as Reiff suggests, are either to continue into the entropic wilderness of social atomization, or to return to the city to draw upon the durable, collective wisdom of the centuries for a communal expression of The Good. If civilization is to be redeemed, and art to regain its ethical role, it will be through the restoration of a shared conception of human flourishing.

The plight of the modern self can be understood, in part, in relief against the conception of its predecessor, the traditional self. The traditional understanding of human nature, expressed in the Aristotelian conception of human flourishing, is ‘the life of moral and intellectual virtue lived in community with others.’ Implicit in Aristotle’s observation that, “Man is, by nature, a political animal,” is the conception of an essential and communal human nature. “All being,” as Clarke notes, “…is by its very nature as being dyadic, with an ‘introverted,’ or in-itself dimension, as substance, and an ‘extroverted’ or towards-others dimension, as related through actions….To be is to be substance in relation.” (Vitz XXI). The traditional self is thus understood, both by its communal role and in relation to its potential, its telos. The notion of a telos entails a vertical order of being, in which some states of being are ‘higher’ or closer to the conception of the good than others. This hierarchical order, the sacred order, is defined by Reiff as the ‘vertical in authority’ in which authority is understood to be, “an order or accredited facts and corresponding beliefs in their commanding truths, by which life is conducted within the range of that authority.” (Reiff 249, 1991) Authority, therefore, is inextricably linked to the concept of traditional ethics, the study of the means by which man can move toward his telos. MacIntyre observes:

Ethics therefore in this view presupposes some account of potentiality and act, some account of the essence of man as a rational animal, and above all some account of the human telos. The precepts which enjoin the various virtues and prohibit the vices which are their counterparts instruct us how to move from potentiality to act, how to realize our true nature and to reach our true end. (MacIntyre 53)

Culture is the rich matrix of vertical authority and horizontal relationships in which the traditional self is anchored. “For according to that tradition,” MacIntyre states, “to be a man is to fill a set of roles each of which has its own point and purpose: member of a family, citizen, soldier, philosopher, servant of God.” (MacIntyre 59). This matrix of culture provides an ethical framework that includes the principles and boundaries of the telos. According to Rieff, culture’s role is to, “…communicate ideas, setting as internalities those distinctions between right actions and wrong that unite men and permit them the fundamental pleasure of agreement.” (Reiff 4, 1987). A culture of ethics cannot be understood in the absence of community and a telos and therefore the fulfillment of the pre-modern self is achieved through community. Moreover, “Culture”, as Rieff states, “is another name for a design of motives directing the self outward, toward those communal purposes in which alone the self can be realized and satisfied.” (ibid)

If traditional culture is a matrix of authority and ethical activity, the modern self is the stippled plane of autonomy, independence and isolation. The modern self is assumed to be a self-created product of the will that is notably ‘self’-conscious and indebted to reason for its formation (Vitz). The origins of the modern self lie in the fragmentation of moral discourse that occurred in the Enlightenment Project, through which philosophers sought to provide a rational vindication for morality separate from theology. As MacIntyre documents, the philosophical, political and religious events of the Enlightenment are interrelated and the joint challenges of the Reformation and Newtonian science initiated an inquiry in moral discourse that had fundamentally reoriented the self by separating the means of social order from their teleological ends.  MacIntyre states, “The self had been liberated from all those outmoded forms of social organization which had imprisoned it simultaneously within a belief in a theistic and teleological world order and within those hierarchical structures which attempted to legitimate themselves as part of such a world order.” (MacIntyre 60)  The self had been freed from the traditional cultural matrix of relationships and hierarchical order.

As a result, MacIntyre states, “there is one hand, a certain context for morality: a set of injunctions deprived of their teleological context. There is on the other hand, a certain view of untutored-human-nature-as-it-is.” (MacIntyre 55) Whereas ethical reason once provided instruction to the pre-modern self for how to realize one’s telos, the modern self is without such a reasonable guide to the Good. Absent of sacred order, modern reason surrenders its most important role, the recognition of essential knowledge and the kinetic transition from potential to act. It is now limited to the contingent knowledge of facts and mathematical relationships. (MacIntyre 54). Further, there is a fundamental mismatch in the remaining elements of the Enlightenment moral discourse, the moral injunctions without their teleological content, and the view of untutored-human-nature-as-it-is. An observation of untutored-human-nature-as-it-is is unlikely to reveal the behavioral rationale for the moral injunctions, which are rational only when understood as teleological. Thus, MacIntyre concludes, the Enlightenment Project inevitably fails and there is no rational conception of morality outside of sacred order.

The inconclusive vacuum of the Enlightenment yielded a wholly alternative theory of moral discourse that plays a central role in the conception of the modern self. Nietzsche observed that if there is no rational basis of morality, then it is the will, rather than reason, that is the basis of morality.  MacIntyre summarizes Nietzsche’s central thesis, “…that all rational vindications of morality manifestly fail and that therefore belief in the tenets of morality needs to be explained in terms of a set of rationalizations which conceal the fundamentally non-rational phenomena of the will.” (MacIntyre 117). In Nietschian moral discourse, morality is subjective and thus the modern self is “free” to exercise its will to power to live life on its own terms.

allegory of good governmentThe subjective morality subverts any shared notion of authority, teleology or human nature. The will is thus exercised in opposition to- or defined against– communal culture and morality and consequently, modern society merits the individual on the basis of innovation and self-expression in the departure from traditional norms and forms. There is no rational morality to which one can make ethical claims and judgments. MacIntyre deems this characteristic of the modern age as ‘emotivism,’ “the doctrine that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character.” (MacIntyre 12). Emotivism demolishes the foundations of culture by democratizing authority through the subjective evaluation of moral claims. Rieff notes the atavistic nature of modern culture, describing it thus as, “The systematic hunting down of all settled convictions represents the anti-cultural predicate upon which modern personality is being reorganized…” (Reiff 13, 1987)

It comes as no surprise that the inherently violent conditions of Nietschian moral discourse have had an adverse impact on the human condition. Corresponding to the perceived increase of freedom and autonomy in modernity is a characteristic anomie, anxiety and isolation for the modern self that arise with the recognition that, in Victor Frankl’s words, “self-actualization is not possible without self-transcendence.” That is, human potential cannot fully be achieved apart from community. It is to address this void, that Reiff assigns the ‘anti-religions’ of modern art and science which, “[aim] to confirm us in our devastating illusions of individuality and freedom.” (Reiff 10, 1987)

Modern art and architecture suffer with the modern self. Held to no standards by which to be judged, aimed toward no ideal to be achieved, ignorant to the best achievements of collective civilization, the anti-religions reveal the inherent limitations of emotivism. The anti-religions, thus relived of the duty of ethical reasoning and guided by the anti-cultural predicate, rely upon the emotions and the appetites for subjective self-validation. The emphasis on instincts over reason celebrates mediocrity over cultural achievement, and indeed by definition there is no shared recognition of ‘best’ in emotive culture. “The would be instinctual Everyman and his girl-friend are the enlightened ones now…” (Reiff 20, 1987) This emphasis on instinct partially explains the tendency of modernists to champion the work of vernacular craftsmen over that of the classical masters.

Burial_of_PhocionCompelled to innovate, the modern artist is limited to his/her own imagination. The modern denial of traditional authority removes an entire dimension from the pallet available to modern artists and architects.  As Vincent Scully has observed, “Human beings experience all works of visual art in two different but inextricably interrelated ways: empathetically and by association. We feel them in both our bodies and in terms of whatever our culture has taught us. Modernism at its purest fundamentally wanted to eliminate the cultural signs if possible – hence abstraction.” (Scully 225). The spare construction of Johnson’s “Glass House” illustrates the aim to shed any cultural associations that would, by definition, make communal references to betray the unique example of the “House”.  Further, the Glass House, as with much modern art and architecture, is entirely regressive. Its form, however abstracted, alludes to a historical reference point, available at least to the artist, yet the act of abstraction limits what cultural content, if any, can be shared with the future. Kelly’s comment above suggests that art and architecture, through their embodiment of the laws and norms of a culture, play an operative role in tradition as a cultural ark, a durable witness to future generations. The temporal character of modern architecture, suggested by insubstantial construction methods and materials, reveals another attribute of the modern self. It is in denial of death or any concept of the afterlife. Indeed, the solitude and anomie are amplified by the perceived isolation in life and in death.

By abstracting these cultural associations, modern art and architecture thus become entirely self-referential statements about the artist or designer who created them. They are the material of the anti-religion of self-worship. Collect as many of them as one would like, but the aggregate will likely be as uninformative as the single example, about the specific place, people and purpose they were built to serve. Moreover, the self-referential features often fail to engage surrounding neighbors and urban context, to say nothing of the particular meaning of any one place. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, to mention another paradigmatic piece of modern art and architecture, represents the culture of Bilbao perhaps as much as the “Glass House” does of Connecticut. Indeed, if it were not for the difference in scale, the two could exchange locations. They share in the universality of ‘uniqueness’. In a similar manner, the modern self is a ‘man without a country’, bereft of the roots of a traditional culture to inform his person, his communal role, his vocation. The generic quality of American suburban sprawl represents, on a larger scale, the implications of the transient modern self on the formal order.

In contrast, traditional architecture, as with the traditional self, is conceived in terms of community, not only in the present, but of all time, past, present and future. They are citizens in Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead.” In the Aristotelian teleological cultural framework, institutions exist to represent the law, which itself represents the timeless character ideal of the human telos. Reiff states,

To adjust the expression of impulses to the controlling paragon, or character ideal, defines the primary process in the shaping of our inherited culture; the arts and sciences define the secondary process, in which exemplary modes of action are extended further, into a central moralizing experience, thus transforming individual into institutional action.” (Reiff 16, 1987)

Traditional art and architecture are two such institutions that serve a didactic, poetic role in addition to their formal purpose, and in so doing are entirely oriented on the community rather than the self.  The Western classical canon of architecture, with a meaningful grammar, syntax and rhetoric, represents a formal language that has been in use for several thousand years to express a building’s role in the sacred order of the community. Indeed, through its horizontal relationships with surrounding context and an engagement with the vertical of authority, traditional buildings participate in the cultural matrix much the same manner as the traditional self.

The relationship between traditional architecture, the polis and sacred order is wonderfully illustrated by the fourteenth century frescos of Ambrogio Lorenzetti in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico, often collectively referred to as the “Allegory of Good and Bad Government.” The frescos are located on the walls of the Sala di Nove, the principal meeting room for the Siena’s chief magistrates, and serve the purpose to explicitly recall the role of authority, the moral boundaries of right and wrong, and the social and formal implications of “Good”, or virtuous, and “Bad”, governance. In the “Allegory of Good Government”, all of the participating members have a hand on a golden rope, which threads itself through the composition to represent comprehensive participation in the network of authority.  The Palazzo Pubblicco, itself, in its siting, massing, and architectural character communicates its role in the hierarchy of sacred order. It is the focal point of the Campo, the principal gathering space of the community, and it is linked to the Cathedral, the local seat of sacred authority, through one privileged processional route. Commenting on the frescoes, Scully summarizes the relationship between architecture and community:

All human communities involve an intense interplay between the individual and the law. Without the law there is no peace in the community and no freedom for the individual to live without fear. Architecture is the perfect image of that state of affairs…Architecture is fundamentally a matter not of individual buildings but of shaping the community, and that, as in Paris, Uruk, or Siena, is done by the law. (Scully 229 )

In traditional moral discourse, it is the law, as it represents the character ideal, which integrates and organizes the community into a community with a common view toward the ends, or telos, of human life and the means, or virtue ethics, through which human potential can be realized toward that end. Thus, traditional art and architecture are restorative in their role of reinforcing the sacred order to give purpose and meaning to life.

The Glass House is now a museum and within fifty years it will begin to disintegrate. It is difficult to tell whether the House or the culture it represents will last longer. Indeed, House has already required a significant rehabilitation. With such minimal structure, the building has little defense against the elements. In its design, the traditional solutions for shedding water, resisting gravity, and providing shelter were abstracted away in favor of making an innovative statement about subverting the old order with art. When the gaskets fail, the glass breaks and the beams begin to rust, it is not difficult to imagine the Glass House as ruins. Even if the building is attentively maintained to its original design specifications, with the replacement of sealants here, and a new window there, the building does not stand much of a chance to last against the adversity of natural elements. The modern self is in a similar predicament, precariously poised on the brink of social and psychological disintegration. Modern “self-help”, drawing upon self-focused solutions, cannot escape the framework of the modern problem to provide a cure. What we need, therefore, are stones for the Glass House. For, if as the assorted pieces of the House fail, they were replaced with more durable, natural materials such as stone and heavy timber, the Glass House, like a Japanese temple, may last into eternity. Then again, in so doing, it would just be a house.


MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press. 1984.

Rieff, Philip. Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1987.

Rieff, Philip. Jonathon Imber, ed. The Feeling Intellect. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1991.

Smith, Norris Kelly. Stuart Cohen and Stanley Tigerman eds. “Crisis in Jerusalem.” The Chicago Tribune Competition, Late Entries, Vol. II. New York: Rizzoli Press. 1980

Scully, Vincent. “Afterword,” The New Urbanism: Toward and Architecture of Community. New York: McGraw Hill, Inc. 1994.

Vitz, Paul C. “The Problemmatic Self.”

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