Environmental Aesthetics

EPFL history and theory course AR-505 Modernity, Architecture and the Environment
Architecture Master 1 and 3, 2h weekly × 12 weeks, 2022–present.


Environmentalism is a modernist concern. Its roots go back to Romanticism and the Industrial Revolution, two major manifestations of the rise of capitalism and its contradictions in modern bourgeois society. The turmoils of land enclosure, peasant migration, and rapid urban growth tainted the edifice of Enlightenment reason with a sense of the “tragedy of development.”1 In this new world, Marx observed, “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and humans are at last compelled to face with sober senses their real conditions of life, and their relations to their kind.”2 In other words, orphaned by divine providence, modern individuals struggle with a newfound consciousness over the volatile nature of their environment.
   The so-called “will to architecture” is at the heart of this struggle.3 Architects shape and preserve social memories while giving form to individual and collective desires. The balance between preservation and development is crucial to our discipline because every project is an act of creative destruction. In the face of ecological collapse, this question has become existential but the underlying sentiment is not entirely new. “Modernity is the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent,” said Baudelaire in 1863, with equal enthusiasm and anxiety. Planetary dysphoria, disenchantment with nature, and ecological grief are the latest forms of fear and loathing in the capitalist landscape. Hence, the increasing relevance of environmental history.
   With this in mind, the course maps key moments in the development of environmental aesthetics in architecture over the longue durée, from the beginning of modernism around 1848 to postmodernity. Each class pairs an architect with a concept of environmental mediation. The sequence is organized around four periods: Revolutionary Utopia, Heroic Internationalism, Postwar Welfare, and Neoliberal Disenchantment. From this totality of mediating devices, we unfold a history of the modernist idea of the environment and the landscapes that modernism built. 
   Throughout the course, students are encouraged to consider the following questions: How should architecture reflect society’s relationship to the environment, how should it constitute a critique of that relationship, and how should it predict a collective ideal?

  1. Marshall Berman, “Goethe’s Faust: The Tragedy of Development” in All That is Solid Melts into Air (London: Penguin, 1982), 37-86.
  2. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” in Political Writings Vol. I: The Revolutions of 1848, ed. David Fernbach (London and New York: Verso, 2010), 62–98. My revised translation.
  3. Kojin Karatani, Architecture as Metaphor: Language, Number, Money (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995). Karatani used the concept of “will to architecture” to describe a tension typical of Western culture between making (poiesis or téchne) and becoming, i.e., the will to filter the organic world through rational ideas or forms: “Plato banished poets from his state because they did not understand the products of their own making and as a result would damage language itself. Late eighteenth-century romanticism forever altered the relationship between philosophy and poetry. Romanticism gave a legitimacy to the cognitive drives of the body, to sense, emotion, passion, and so forth, all of which were favored over formal knowledge. Hegel integrated this contradictory relationship between reason and sensuality into his account of Geist, or world spirit, and in the process he aestheticized reason itself. Aesthetics, the name given to this privileging of the cognitive impulses of the body, was understood to mediate between reason and sensuality.”

I. Revolutionary Utopia
   1. Fourier and the Co-op Panopticon
   2. Morris and the Crystal Palace
   3. Geddes and the Valley Section

II. Heroic Internationalism
   4. Wright and the Prairie Bungalow
   5. Taut and the City Crown
   6. Ginzburg and the Social Condenser

III. Postwar Welfare
    7. Smithsons and the Habitat Doorstep
   8. Rossi and the Analogous Type
   9. Siza and the Proletarian Island

IV. Neoliberal Disenchantment
   10. Banham and the Gizmo Bubble
   11. Venturi & Scott Brown and the Bill-ding-board
   12. Koolhaas and the Schizoid Skyscraper