Design for Values in Architecture

  • Lara SchrijverEmail author
Living reference work entry


The notion of design for values, or value-sensitive design, is founded on the idea that design principles are related to ethical, moral, social, and political values. In architecture, a general relation between values and design is present throughout the history of the discipline. However, the question then arises which values are related to design principles and how. This chapter examines architecture as a general application domain in which values have been of central concern throughout its history. It departs from the supposition that values are by necessity part of the project of architecture and unravel aspects of these values. These aspects include the distinction between implicit and explicit values, the unexpected effects of design intentions, the distinction between general values and their particular (historical) readings, and perhaps most importantly the life-span of buildings, which often outlasts the value systems they arose from.


Values Ethics of architecture Design for values Architecture and morality 


The notion of design for values , or value-sensitive design, is founded on the idea that design principles are related to ethical, moral, social, and political values. Emerging from pressing concerns on human interaction with technology, particularly in the domain of computer science, value-sensitive design takes human values and interaction with technological systems into account from the initial phase of design. While design for values is a convention that is more widely used in relation to technology and in fields such as industrial design rather than in architecture, one might argue that within architecture, value-sensitive design has been incorporated from its very beginnings. From the first documented reflections on architecture, on its role in and relation to society, human values and human interaction with the designed environment has been a central concern. Or, as Churchill phrased it: “First, we shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us.” While this often used comment appeals to an intuition that our built environment has an influence, the precise nature of this influence is still uncertain. What is the relation between architecture, design values, human interaction, aesthetic principles, and ethical concerns? How do design values or architectural principles give shape to social or moral values? How might buildings embody moral principles, and how precisely are they articulated?

These questions have many extensions, not all of which will be included in this chapter. Instead, the core issues of the entangled relationship between human values, the built environment, and the symbolic ascription of values to buildings will be positioned historically and drawn out to concerns of today. In other words, to what extent does architecture not only reflect our values but also shape our behavior? How has this been seen in the past, and are there significant transformations to be found? In this chapter, architecture is taken as a general case of how values are inscribed in artifacts, how artifacts or buildings are understood to have effects on human behavior, and as such, shape commonly held values.

As such, this chapter will focus on the underlying attribution of social agency to artifacts and position it historically in relation to the hopes we hold for architecture’s influence, both for society and in the sense of cultural production. In other words: what does a building “do” in the sociopolitical domain, and how does it do this? This begs the question of the embodiment of values; it is here assumed that buildings can “possess” or communicate values. This is followed by a historical overview of the social and political values attributed to architecture as a profession and to its built works in the Classical and the Contemporary ages. In this overview, particular attention will be given to a turning point in the nineteenth century, when an explicit social agenda was introduced in architecture in the wake of industrialization and an increasing urbanization.

In order to understand the particular challenges in the domain of architecture, this chapter offers a number of perspectives on how values are embodied within spaces and buildings, and how these values have evolved over time. This also raises the question of our understanding of values incorporated in the built environment, which becomes eminently visible in the written treatises on architecture, which are to some extent at liberty to ruminate on ideal situations. The chapter thus also discusses the distinction between the material reality of what is built and the ideal reality of design intentions, which is traced back to the gap between general value statements and their particular expressions in a specific building for a specific site, client, and context.

The chapter thus traces its path through questions of ethical and aesthetic values (both of which are immanent to architecture) and of their reception – whether the city occupant or the building user is attuned to the values that architects and urban planners inscribe within the spaces they design. Current and recent research on constraints and affordances, on agency and action schemes, and on the tacit knowledge and values embedded in material artifacts stands as the breeding ground for future research in this area.

The concluding section will discuss a number of concerns on value attribution to objects, such as the question of how they influence behavior, whether intentional value inscription can be understood unequivocally, and which consensus may be found. This section thus will situate a number of potential future research questions in the domain of design for values.

Architecture: The Spatial Embodiment of Values

Historically, architecture is understood to embody values on two levels. On the one hand, there is the unconscious embodiment of the accepted values of a society. On the other, there is the intentional inscription of values that the architect or patron believes should be held.

To begin with unconscious values: these are values that over time congeal into spatial “habits,” such as placing the hearth at the center of a home or separating subsidiary circulation routes within a building. In the case of the hearth, there is an identifiable historical core that derives from the traditionally central place of cooking and warmth in a preelectric era. Over time, this kernel of practical concern has accrued the meaning of the warmth of the home, long after the functional necessity of the hearth disappeared. As to circulation routes within a building, there are homes with separate circulation routes that once served to allow invisible access to all spaces for the servants of the household. As such, these routes still bear implications of a class society that remains present in the spatial organization of buildings.

The second approach, in which architecture is deemed to not only encourage preferred behavior but also to shape our underlying value systems, is particularly pronounced in the modern age. As such, it shares features with avant-garde art, which envisioned the possibility of changing collective values through new forms of artistic production. This primarily modern understanding has its roots in the nineteenth century and understands architecture to not only guide our behavior, but in so doing, to shape our values. This forms the heart of nineteenth- and twentieth-century progressive architecture in which urban planning and architecture were seen as a manner to not only improve the built environment but also to encourage preferred forms of behavior. In this approach our buildings “act” and are not mere backdrops that set a scene in which social groups and individual urban occupants can show completely independent behavior. This approach is not generally accepted. There are those who believe buildings do not “act” but simply reflect dominant aesthetic principles or the most functional spatial solutions. There are others who see our buildings as equal partners in the formation of society and contribute fundamentally to how we as a society act. Most people see the merit of both criticisms; the built environment may have some influence on our behavior and values, but this influence is ambiguous. Additionally, it is not precisely determined; human occupants at times will go straight against the grain of the intended or implicit values.

One of the most provocative positions on the effects of the built environment is to treat it as an “agent” itself, following along the lines of actor-network theory. This position is founded on an increasingly strongly articulated hope for the emancipatory influence of architecture in recent history. It is part of a more than century-long development, in which the effects of architecture were envisioned to be extremely far-reaching and as having the potential to reconfigure society through presenting new types of environments. Actor-network theory in some sense tones down this extensive influence by suggesting that our buildings are one of many factors (Till and Schneider 2011). Yet it also accords a level of independent “agency” to the building, suggesting an impact far beyond being a mere backdrop. In other words, buildings do more than just “sit there.” They may influence our moods, our behaviors, and over time indeed even our ideas and values.

As such, our buildings not only embody certain values within their very design, they “enact” or “suggest” certain ways of living – norms we may or may not hold to (van den Hoven 2013). They suggest in their very design certain actions, and as such they may intimate certain behaviors. Yet these are not clean-cut behavioral schemes (Illies and Meijers 2014: 165). As such, architecture operates within a spectrum of values that are embedded within design, yet may or may not have the presumed effect (Gans 1968). This discussion has been perhaps the most prominent concern in the twentieth century, as it ranges between the extremes of architecture’s inability to change people’s lives and at the same time also the knowledge that destructive planning projects can be devastating not only to the environment but also to the sociocultural fabric of a city. While there is growing consensus on the presence of essential values that are communicated within our material objects, it remains difficult to ascertain not only which precise values are communicated, but also how stable these values are.

Moreover, the implicit values may be ambiguous themselves. If a space has very large dimensions, and its effect is to make the occupant feel small, what does this mean in terms of human sensibility? In many churches or institutional buildings, scale is used to create a sense of ‘something bigger,” whether that refers to “God,” “the public domain,” or “authority.” Yet one might also suggest that feeling small may make one feel incapable of making a difference.

At the same time, there may be very small and practical interventions that change how we use a space; a recent experiment encouraged people to take stairs instead of the elevator, simply by introducing yellow lines on the floor aiming at the stairs, gently “nudging” people into more healthy behavior. Should we applaud this experiment and explore how we might more substantially introduce healthy behavior in our buildings? Or does this say little about the values users of buildings hold and only shows how unconsciously they follow spatial triggers?

To understand these implications, we should first trace a path back through modern thinking in architecture. Modern architecture in particular aspired to an explicit influence on our collective values and sees a potential to shape them through aesthetics. This very hope for “social design,” or the influence on the collective through aesthetics, has remained with us since the middle of the nineteenth century.

Articulating Values in Architecture: Writing and Building

Architecture treatises, throughout history, have been a manner for architects to articulate their principles of design and their relation to societal and aesthetic values. Beginning with the earliest known surviving manuscript, The Ten Books of Architecture by Vitruvius, treatises on architecture offer a self-reflection on the role of the architect as well as specifying which fields of education or work might be deemed central to the profession. Although each treatise is the product of a particular individual view on architecture, as a body of knowledge, the treatises offer an overview of societal and disciplinary concerns at particular moments in history. This includes not only the explicit concern for the appropriate composition, form, and aesthetic principles of a building being addressed but also some of the values implicit in these formal expressions. The treatises should be read with the awareness that they were often written by practicing architects who also aimed at legitimizing their own work. Yet within these limitations, they articulate the values at stake at certain historical moments, the aesthetic forms deemed appropriate to architecture in relation to these values, and the individual position of the author.

In essence, it is difficult to speak of architecture without turning to the values embodied within, or at least referred to, as touchstones for the designs provided. While Vitruvius and the Renaissance architect-painter Leon Battista Alberti form the basis of the discipline, it is in the nineteenth century that the sociopolitical and moral values are most brought to the foreground. In particular, Augustus Welby Pugin and John Ruskin make an explicit appeal to morality in their support of Gothic architecture (Pugin 1836; Ruskin 1849; Kruft 1996: 327-329, 331-33). This is to be found throughout many different lines of thought in the nineteenth century. Similarly, ideals of social emancipation and improvement form the core of a number of (semi-)utopian schemes, many of them seeking improvements to the industrial city. For example, Ebenezer Howard’s 1898 scheme for the Garden City limits the size of the city to 32,000, envisioning each garden city as a self-sufficient community. He organizes the city in a compact radical structure around parks and housing, preserving the countryside and limiting commuting time (see Figs. 1 and 2).
Fig. 1

Garden City cover image

Fig. 2

Garden City urban diagram

What these examples share is their support of particular (formal) principles of architecture with ethical arguments. In the case of Ruskin, the Gothic style of architecture was seen to embody the grace of natural growth, elegance of construction, as well as authenticity. Ruskin envisions these abstract moral values as implicitly present in the mode of Gothic construction and suggests that they encourage such values in the beholder. However, legibility is an unresolved issue here. Ruskin’s treatises contribute to a specific reading of Gothic architecture, but the question remains whether this forms the only possible reading. The difficulty in all these positions remains the slippery foundations on which they are built. If one believes that Gothic cathedrals express an incontestably honest form of structural integrity, then one may perhaps follow the line of reasoning to emphasizing particular values. However, it requires an understanding of “honesty” that relates to the structural integrity of Gothic architecture, which then includes nonstructural additions and ornaments, fulfilling either a didactic or an aesthetic function.

As such, the values deemed an integral part of the architectural project are often also circumscribed by the specific debates in architecture and general values used to symbolize them. The very notion of “comfort,” for example, might be interpreted in a markedly different manner, depending on whether one is describing a modernist home or a nineteenth-century interior. The modernist home might be founded more on a sense of airiness, light, and spaciousness – the freedom from clutter as a specific interpretation of “comfort” – while the nineteenth century might be more focused on the interior and on an enclosed intimacy (see Figs. 3 and 4). Moreover, the abstract notion of comfort, even if it could be taken out of a cultural context, might vary greatly in relation to other contextual conditions or depend on whether one addresses it as a technological issue or a design question.
Fig. 3

A nineteenth-century interior

Fig. 4

A modern interior

This is perhaps also why architectural treatises of times long gone continue to be used today. As we study historical styles, it is in writing that a number of the underlying suppositions seem to be more defined. One might speak of social cohesion, but is this exemplified by a building with a courtyard for all inhabitants or rather by an apartment building with a long gallery? As such, the treatises identify and situate commonly held (implicit) values and offer a translation into architectural form. The treatises, in essence, form a translation guide from general values to particular articulations.

Values in Architecture: General and Particular

Throughout architectural treatises as well as project descriptions and critical evaluations of buildings, “big words” recur. Issues such as authenticity, spirit of the age, emancipation, and social progress are set at the center of architectural concerns. These large, encompassing notions suggest that we indeed hold high hopes for what works of architecture may do. Or, as Paul Scheerbart suggests in his manifesto on Glass Architecture: “Our culture is in a sense a product of our architecture. If we wish to raise our culture to a higher level, we are forced for better or for worse to transform our architecture” (Scheerbart 1914: thesis I).

The modernists in particular make use of grand rhetoric, but it is already present in the earlier work of the nineteenth century. As issues of emancipation and social transformation become more central to architectural positions, the actual incorporation of the values identified becomes more visible in particular examples. For example, as modernist architecture aims at improving life for the masses, its aspirations hardly differ from nineteenth-century suggestions that architecture may ennoble or emancipate its inhabitants. At the same time, modern architecture is radically distinct from earlier designs as it makes use of a particular aesthetic founded on industrialism and rationality. For example, the 1926 Frankfurt Kitchen proposed by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky makes use of industrial techniques and insights from Taylorism. The minimal dimensions limit unnecessary movements and make the space cost-efficient to produce. This in turn makes it available to the masses thanks to industrial production. The Frankfurt kitchen thus sets aside traditional values of “warmth” in favor of a modern sense of living, founded on efficiency of movement and a minimum dwelling standard for all.

In other words, modernist architecture reiterated general values of the “spirit of the age” or the “authentic” nature of man. Yet this was in a context of the late nineteenth century, which was marked by the industrial city. As such, concerns such as hygiene, fresh air, and light were substantiated in the clean lines of modernist architecture, a particular translation of “authenticity” as involving no unnecessary ornament. The aim of hygiene was also supported by its surfaces, which were less prone to invisibly collecting dust. The white walls of modernism as such produce corollary effects of requiring cleanliness, which in turn had unforeseen consequences in requiring a heightened attentiveness to the household (Wigley 2001; Lupton 1996).

By and large, it seems to have been the radical aesthetic innovations that most marked the legacy of modernism. Its proposition of a “new” architecture to accompany the spirit of the industrial age hoped to replace existing cultural values with new values envisioned for an era of industrialization. As such, it took a leap away from existing cultural perception and aimed at shaping new meanings. The modernist rhetoric of functionalism intentionally glosses over the cultural, aesthetic, and social connotations of design. While the actual, material transformations to the built environment were often still carefully designed and responsive to their context, modernism as a whole is strongly determined by this rhetoric. John Haldane reflects on this as the loss of a self-evident sense of meaning in architecture, which is replaced by a willful construction of new meanings that is intentionally disconnected from existing cultural values. He suggests that in order to recover the cultural significance of architecture, we might look to the “premodern understanding of architecture as a domain of embodied meanings and values” (Haldane 1999, p. 9). His attempt to mend the divide between aesthetic and ethical functions is built on the proposition that “architecture offers a particularly powerful refutation of the idea that aesthetic value is one thing and practical function another” (Haldane 1999, p. 9). This suggests a general interlacing of aesthetic value and use, intended or actual.

Haldane’s appeal to a premodern understanding directs us to what seems a more self-evident relation between aesthetics and values in Classical and Renaissance architecture. And indeed here one might find that the general values specified in architecture treatises are relatively stable, but they differ in the specific forms they take. Values such as order, symmetry, and eurhythmy all figure in the work of Vitruvius already, yet they take on different forms depending on the time and context. “Order” can be interpreted as a fundamental value of both Classical and Gothic architecture, which however manifest their expression of order in quite different manners. Preferred proportional systems have varied to some degree over time and context, but the principle of proportion has been crucial in most architecture discussions, from Vitruvius to the treatises of the Renaissance and later, to the Modulor by Le Corbusier. “Ornament” is perhaps one of the most explicitly controversial categories since the advent of modernism (Loos 1908). However, even Alberti distinguishes between “mere decoration” and “ornament,” which fulfills an aesthetic or perceptual necessity (Alberti 1452). Ornament is thus a crucial element in architecture, contributing to its aesthetic value. An implication of moral judgment is present in the distinction between frivolous or superficial “mere decoration” and aesthetic necessity. The central role of ornament has been raised again in recent work that explores more extensive possibilities for elaborate and customized ornamentation since the advent of digital fabrication (Spuybroek 2011; Picon 2013).

Similarly, while sociopolitical values in architecture have recurring general themes, they have undergone fundamental transformations in the material forms they take on over time. The very notion of “community,” for example, returns time and again, most prominently in relation to urban compositions and institutional building. The inherent aspiration toward building a sense of community may be embodied in the Greek agora as a space for public discussion. Yet to a modern sensibility, the exclusion of women and slaves from public life seems too restrictive to merit the label “community.” Many urban plans of the early twentieth century such as New Lanark Mills and the Garden City include specifically communal spaces. At the same time, the correlation of these values to a particular aesthetic is often weak. Is “community” best articulated by large public squares or by intimate urban streets? By accessible institutional buildings or by a network of smaller public spaces? Similarly, a shared value of “justice” might lead to Vitruvius’ assertion that a dwelling should reflect the social status of its owner (Vitruvius, 27 BC), while in the postwar welfare state, a similar value might be deemed more adequately articulated in the egalitarian housing blocks of northwestern Europe (Mattsson and Wallenstein 2010, pp. 17–19).

In other words, general value assumptions seem relatively stable throughout fundamental changes of design principles, while the particular are more clear but easily susceptible to changing habits. This may be attributed to the openness of general value assumptions. In contrast, particularly circumscribed values may contain the general appeals but are dependent upon specific understandings of these general notions.

At the same time, if architecture is indeed a domain of embodied meanings and values, it is in the nineteenth century that a great transformation takes place. In Classical architecture, the particular expressions of value are situated within an accepted aesthetic frame (of Classical architecture), and their meanings are in-line with social convention. In the nineteenth century, as the arguments over aesthetic principles are shifted to the domain of morality, a break appears between aesthetic form on the one hand and implicit ethical principles on the other (Watkin 1972).

Morality and Aesthetics: Is the Good Always Beautiful?

The moral values actively presented within architecture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries fulfill three roles within the debates. First, they form a foundation for aesthetic principles. As such, they provide a nonaesthetic argument for principles that might otherwise be deemed as arbitrary or subjective opinions. This is in part correlated to a diversification of aesthetic principles in the nineteenth century. As the language of classical architecture was no longer seen as the only legitimate design principle, fierce, stylistic, and aesthetic debates arose, in which most sought to prove their uncontested legitimacy. Second, moral assertions also provide support for the value of architecture in general. In other words, the practice of architecture is legitimized by its social impact. Finally, they also justify guidelines and building regulations that delineate minimal acceptable standards from the perspective of collectively held values. As such, they circumscribe the maximum constraints or minimum affordances to be incorporated within the architecture, such as accessibility or daylight.

While moral principles are noted in premodern treatises of architecture, they are typically limited to the conduct of the architect. In other words, while the architect could be held responsible for his professional demeanor and his integrity, this in itself was not reflected in the stones of his buildings. At the same time, as Vitruvius argues, this moral conduct is crucial, “for no work can be rightly done without honesty and incorruptibility” (Vitruvius: Bk I, Ch I).

In contrast, it is in the nineteenth century that these moral assertions become attached to architecture itself. Pugin first paved the way for the nonaesthetic valuation of architecture in Contrasts (Kruft 1996, pp. 327–329). To him, Gothic architecture in itself contained spiritual qualities that could be experienced in the light colored by stained glass and in the breathtaking height of the cathedrals. As such, Pugin shifted the perceived value from an aesthetic one to one of propriety to social values, paving the way for an increasingly socially oriented understanding of architecture. Or, as Fil Hearn suggests, Pugin “awakened the notion that good architecture, Gothic or otherwise, could both embody and reinforce social virtue” (Hearn 2003, p. 12).

These developments in the nineteenth century lay the groundwork for what we today see as the main “movement” to enforce particular social values within its designs: early modernism. Modernist architecture positioned social purpose as a central concern, aiming to incorporate particular values such as openness and transparency within the very design and structure of the architecture they built. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the potential for architecture (as indeed, for many of the arts) to transform life was placed at the center of the discipline. The work of Le Corbusier as well as that of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius can hardly be understood without taking into account the impending transformation of society they envisioned through the impact of industrialization and new technologies. Architecture was to be an aid not only in revealing the qualities of this new, clean, rational life but also in shaping it.

In the 1960s, Herbert Gans referred to this as the “fallacy of physical determinism” (Gans 1968). With this phrase, he took to task the many urban and architectural propositions that assumed a behavioral response correlating to the intention of the architect. The phrase itself identifies the remarkable conflation of moral and aesthetic values in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This is a widespread response to societal changes. As social conditions transformed rapidly under the influence of industrialization, the stability of sociopolitical conventions dissipated. The (self-proclaimed) role of the arts in general and architecture in particular became one of providing new meanings in a period of transformation. Groups as diverse as Dada, surrealism, and Russian constructivism set forth artistic principles that were deemed in accordance with new societal values originating from the Machine age. With the advent of modernism, seminal works such as Georg Simmel’s “Metropolis and Mental Life” and Adolf Loos’ “Ornament and Crime” began to define a body of work that interlaced aesthetic and ethical concerns at the outset.

This problem goes to the heart of the issue of values in architecture. Architectural practice makes use of a wide range of value assumptions. This is related to its inherent connection with human concerns, such as spatial use, privacy, domestic comfort, and similar issues. Architecture is after all integrated in a larger sociopolitical context yet also forms the background to the everyday functions of life (Lagueux 2004). It is also embedded within the history of the discipline, in which aesthetic principles and moral concerns are entwined and sometimes used to legitimate design premises. At the same time, the conscious application of aesthetic principles is seen as integral to the character of architecture. As such, the two domains are by definition unalienable from architecture. At the same time, the line between addressing necessary ethical issues and legitimating arbitrary aesthetic preferences is thin. Watkin argues that the treatises on architecture that have introduced particular arguments on morality, be it on the foundations of religion, politics, the Zeitgeist, or technology, have misrepresented architectural arguments by appealing to moral concerns (Watkin 1977, pp. 1–3, 13). As such, they base an individual aesthetic preference on attributions of justness or propriety.

It is clearly not always easy to distinguish between the two categories of evaluation. While the aesthetic appeals mainly to the domain of artistic creation, it is by the necessity-incorporated human occupation that simultaneously delineates a domain of sociopolitical considerations and ethical concerns such as responsibility, security, or community. At the same time, considerations that arise out of architectural traditions and a concern for aesthetic expression have at times also triggered the reconfiguration of accepted values.

In the latter part of the twentieth century, values held high by modernism such as speed, dynamism, and ephemerality were countered by the “grounding” of human life in the built environment. A renewed concern for contextualism arose, as well as the importance of place in the genius loci and ideas of phenomenology (Norberg-Schulz 1979; Pallasmaa 1996). Most of these positions in some manner addressed the alienation triggered by modern architecture. Karsten Harries, for example, argues that the ethical function of architecture is to provide an interpretation of our time in the broad sense of its ethos (Harries 1997, pp. 2–13). In essence, he suggests that a permanent ontological discomfort that arises from the experience of modernity might be alleviated, if the art of architecture were again to engage with the task of providing a home or a place in the world. Harries draws on the work of Heidegger to argue that we should see the function of architecture as extending beyond the modernist, functionalist, or formalist perspectives to encompass a relation to the community and its sociopolitical fabric. This broader understanding continues to underscore the impact and the responsibility of our built environment while again leaving some of the specific articulations of this ethos open to interpretation.

Value Attribution: Conduct or Object?

Building on the proposition that ethical and aesthetic judgments are naturally intertwined in architecture, the attribution of moral values then may also be extended from the conduct of the architect – the main domain of moral values in the treatises of the Renaissance and of Vitruvius – to also being implicitly present in design intentions, and residing within the objects of architecture. This is perhaps still implicit in Alberti’s notion of concinnitas, “appropriateness,” where the aesthetic value of a space is determined by the contextual factors of what it is meant to convey, and is thus delimited by the values of the society it serves. The explicit references to values in Vitruvius and Alberti focus particularly on conduct and such concerns as diligence and incorruptibility. The notion of “doing good work” thus transfers naturally to the work being “good.” In other words, the principle of diligence is founded on an assumption of natural correlation. This assumption functions within a strong aesthetic framework of architecture principles, based on a clearly defined system of composition, proportion, and order.

The severing of a naturalized correlation in the nineteenth century leads to the issues raised by Haldane, when he suggests we redirect our attention to a more self-evident construction of meaning and value. Here, one might take issue with his characterization of modern architecture. In point of fact, the principles of modernist architecture clearly contain a consciousness of these embodied meanings and values. The attempt to transform the behavior and also the value systems of its occupants through architecture is founded on the supposition that the implicit value systems will be incorporated through their spatial presence. This is a noteworthy development in that it inverts an earlier form of transference to its own advantage. As “doing good work” became equated with the work “being good,” thus the inversion was also held to be true. Making architecture that “is good” will encourage those within to “do good” according to the principles implicit in the building.

This argument would have hardly been possible without the nineteenth century treatises that shifted value attribution from the conduct of the architect to the object of architecture. Pugin’s rallying cry to social progress introduced a new spectrum of value judgments, which sees a form of didactic or a formational role for buildings. This is particularly taken up into the architecture debate with John Ruskin’s Seven Lamps of Architecture, in which, for example, he argues by analogy to human behavior that false materials are morally reprehensible. The argument follows along the lines of the “white lie” told to a friend, which then casts doubt upon all previous and future statements (Ruskin 1849, chapter II, section I). Similarly, the effect of wood painted to look like marble or in the case of the British Museum, he addresses, a false granite “is to cast suspicion upon the true stones below, and upon every bit of granite afterwards encountered” (Ruskin 1849, Chap. II, Sect. XVI).

Ruskin categorizes architectural “deceits” in three types: structural, falseness of representation, and machine-made ornament. In the first two categories, the building essentially is seen to tell a lie. The building may appear to be held up by a series of structural columns, which are merely decorative rather than functional. Or, as in the granite of the British Museum, the material is masquerading as something else. In the third category, Ruskin implicitly returns to the mutual relation between object and conduct. In the case of machine-made ornament, the deceit lies less in representation. Rather, it is about the care and individual attention that handmade ornament contains, which a machine-made ornament cannot. This reintegrates object and conduct by seeing them as inseparable.

The object or conduct distinction situates judgment in an opposition between content and form, that is, something with horrific social content cannot be judged on aesthetic merit and vice versa. In architecture this complete severing of the two poses problems, yet a direct correlation equally remains problematic. Returning to the inherent presence of both aesthetic and ethical values within the domain of architecture, more sophisticated interpretations are currently emerging.

Reweaving Values and Forms: Constraints and Affordances

Architecture may be taken as a domain of constraints and affordances that affect behavior but do not determine it. Affordances in architecture may suggest a certain action, a manner of using the space. At the same time, these affordances do not delimit human action to only this intention. In the simplest of terms, a brick wall with a window will likely lead the occupant to enjoy the view from the existing window. Nevertheless, it will not prevent the occupant from deciding to break a hole in the wall to seek out a different view. The existing configuration is relatively guiding, yet not fully deterministic. In this sense, we may see architecture as providing “action schemes,” which tend toward preferred actions but do not inhibit other, less preferred actions (Illies and Meijer 2013). By focusing on these affordances as suggestive but not deterministic, it becomes possible to speak of values intentionally inscribed in the space without implying that these values are legible or indeed the only possible understanding.

To return to the Frankfurt kitchen, for example, the modernist functionalism that informs its design is focused on an efficient and rational use of space. As such, the kitchen is not a place to gather in but rather as a place in which food is prepared in the most efficient possible manner, with the least possible movements. The reduction in space and potential mass production cuts costs, thus making a completely furnished kitchen available to a larger percentage of the population. This offers a higher standard of living for more people, as intended. The limited space available, however, requires a very precise spatial arrangement, making it less readily adaptable to changing conventions or even (ironically) to developing technologies.

In the 1958 film Mon Oncle, Jacques Tati shows what happens when one does not follow the inscribed affordances of the functional modern kitchen. One scene shows him trying to get a water glass out of the cabinet in his sister’s highly modern kitchen. He struggles with the kitchen’s technology, and confronted with the self-opening kitchen cabinets, he drops the pitcher he finds in a cupboard. Fortunately, it simply bounces, offering a new unexpected twist in this representation of the functional environment. In this eminently humorous portrayal of modern life, Tati shows how crucial the understanding of implicit values is and what their unintended effects may be (see Fig. 5).
Fig. 5

Still from Mon Oncle, 1958, Jacques Tati, kitchen scene;

Design for Values in Architecture

Existing Approaches/Tools

As the main body of work that attributes moral values to design or attempts to incorporate values into the design arises from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it is also primarily in these examples that the explicit insertion of social and moral values is to be found. The political drive in the late nineteenth century focused on making more livable cities and on improving dwelling conditions. This was not a luxury, as industrialization had driven a great migration to the cities, resulting in overcrowded dwellings, cramped living conditions, and a lack of proper ventilation. These conditions among others led to the work of Ebenezer Howard in proposing the Garden City as well as Frank Lloyd Wright’s proposal for Broadacre City (Fishman 1982). As mentioned above, the Garden City proposed to limit the size of cities in order to mitigate the combined effects of industrialization and urbanization. The smaller urban centers of the Garden City would combine the amenities of the city center with the pleasures of outdoor living. Likewise, Broadacre City was designed to prevent overcrowding. It consisted of a large grid in which each family unit would occupy a half acre, which was deemed sufficient for sustenance. While the urgency of such societal concerns is immediately evident in light of increasing urbanization (how might we introduce acceptable dwelling spaces in rapidly overcrowding cities?), many of the additional features in these cities included a broad spectrum of values implicated in the design.

Many existing approaches that incorporate values in architectural design respond to similar urgent social concerns. This may include aesthetic concerns such as order, arrangement, proportion, and an overall “pleasing to the eye” appearance of the building. However, since the nineteenth century, the primary focus is on spatial composition as an explicit expression of desirable sociopolitical values. Influencing behavior through space thus underscores the moral values aimed at. Marking out particular gathering spaces, connections, and relations of the individual to the whole is a way of quietly inserting the basic principles of a social community into the very walls of its town.

Moreover, some of the ethical approaches take into account particular situations and historical contexts. If indeed privacy was a central concern to the second half of the twentieth century, the 2001 attack on the towers of the New York World Trade Center introduced a new consciousness of risk and security that pushed certain concerns for privacy to the background. However, as the extent of NSA surveillance is becoming increasingly apparent and the terrorist threat is receding into the background, privacy is again beginning to take center stage.

Comparison/Critical Evaluation

Throughout various design approaches, the incommensurability (or irreconcilability) of intention and reception becomes manifest. They draw attention to the free agents of their occupants, who are indeed influenced by the spaces around them, and draw certain value appraisals from them but are also remarkably resilient in the insertion of their own value systems where the built environment is seen as inadequate or incommensurable. Therefore a certain consciousness of the temporality of these evaluations is helpful – the humility of knowing that what we now know to be true may change as our societies, environments, and insights change. This is the greatest difficulty in arguments on design for values. While it is based on a strong analytical framework, its perspective is often focused primarily on the perspective of design intention or presumed use. The longer horizon of architecture and historical transformations in use, reception or understanding of our buildings, and the values that construct them also shows the unexpected, the innovative, the failure of certain “inevitable’ successes, and the unexpected success of objects that were seen as doomed.

Examples: Values and Transformation Over Time

Architecture has a long history, much of which may be traced back in its documents, its treatises, and its buildings. While we cannot always know for certain which values were predominant in the design process, we can historically evaluate public or critical reception, and we can identify moments of transformation in use or perception. As such, architecture contains a wealth of information for understanding values and design.

In the eighteenth century, French enlightenment architects such as Etienne-Louis Boullée and Claude-Nicolas Ledoux believed that pure and symmetrical geometric forms were the most adequate spatial translation for the emerging values of equality and universal rights. In the early nineteenth century, Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand and Quatremère de Quincy were still hailing principles that could be applied in many different places. They continued to aim at a universal logic of building types and models. In the nineteenth century, Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and John Ruskin viewed the classicist design principles of such architects as oppressive, representing structures of political authority with heavy handed proportions. They sought instead to find a more genuine and individual relation to architecture, aiming at an architecture that was informed by its context (Kruft 1996, pp. 274–287).

The history of architecture offers a number of these examples, in which values once expressed with great conviction in specific built form, later stand symbol for something quite different. In 1933, a group of architects convening regularly with Le Corbusier as one of the key figures, proposed a plan for the functional city. The Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) thus proposed to separate the main features of the chaotic nineteenth-century city into distinct zones; separate dwelling, work, and recreation areas were linked by efficient traffic circulation. The accompanying text, the CIAM charter of Athens, suggested that not only would this rationalized city design be more attuned to a modern way of life but would encourage the city inhabitant to become more rational and efficient in behavior. As many cities were transformed in accordance with the CIAM plans, critics however called attention to the lack of distinction between one city and the next. The grid and the zoning principles, first hailed as perfect for the modern city inhabitant, were now seen as detrimental to the human use of urban space. One of the most broadly known critics of modernist urban planning, journalist Jane Jacobs, went directly against the grain of the functional city by reintroducing the mixed-use neighborhood. In her view, apartments above shops could ensure that there were “eyes on the street”; someone would always be watching activities on the sidewalks and contributing to a sense of security. In addition, this reintroduced the potential of urban vitality through mixed-use, mixed-occupancy neighborhoods (Jacobs 1961, pp. 152–177).

Likewise, the modernist use of the glazed curtain wall was founded on the perception of glass as a material suitable to a new age of cleanliness, technology, and transparency. In the postwar institutional architecture of Europe, large-glazed buildings became common for offices and public institutions, underscoring transparency, both metaphorical and literal. Now, 60 years later, the global concern for dwindling resources “rereads” these buildings as wasteful of the energy they require to heat and cool.

As such, the duration of a building’s life-span forms a different frame for understanding values inscribed in the design. As buildings are not always torn down for a new occupant, a space that has been intended for one type of occupation is often reappropriated quite differently. This requires a multilayered approach to values. There are those intentionally inscribed in design and others that may be added on over the course of a building’s existence.

Open Issues/Future Work

This component of time holds great potential for future work. Architecture, in contrast to many objects of utility, often outlasts the sociopolitical and cultural contexts it is realized in. Does the building of the Bauhaus in Dessau communicate the same radical innovation today than it did upon completion in 1923? One would surmise not, if for no other reason than the widespread distribution of some elements of the Bauhaus principles, whether in the sphere of artistic creation or in the catalogs of Ikea that are now omnipresent. Yet what remains of the Bauhaus is the consistency and strength of its architectural visions, the spacious halls, and the meticulous detailing. Is it comprehensible as a political statement in the context of today? Clearly not in the same depth, but perhaps it hints at its own context and ambitions.

The relation between architecture and social change is broadly supported in the current debate on architecture (see, e.g., the identification of architecture as both index of social change and as technology to deal with that change; Moore and Wilson 2013). While this is broadly held, the interpretations differ vastly, whether tending toward the functional, social, or aesthetic perspective on architecture. Moreover, the contemporary debate shows a rising interest in the role of these material objects and buildings as independent agents (Sennett 2008; Latour 2008; Van Eck 2009; Bierens 2013). Latour suggests a relatively radical understanding of a building as agent, taking the perspective of what the building “does”; “the way it resists attempts at transformation, allows certain visitors’ actions and impedes others, bugs observers, challenges city authorities and mobilizes different communities of actors” (Latour 2008, p. 86). In his work on craftsmanship, Sennett discusses the importance of “resistance” both in shaping an outcome and in forming the skill of the craftsman. Sennett notes, “Just as a carpenter discovers unexpected knots in a piece of wood, a builder will find unforeseen mud beneath a housing site” (Sennett 2008, p. 214). These contextual conditions of resistance “push back” at the craftsman, requiring an adaptation of the initial idea to material reality. Both Sennett and Latour lay a foundation for understanding the process of design and the resulting works of architecture and urbanism as a highly complex set of ideas, decisions, complicities, accidents, and responses to conditions at hand. This situates current work precisely between moral and aesthetic autonomy rather than at either end of the spectrum. Theories on system thinking and ecologies as well as the current turns toward materialism in the humanities take into account a more fundamental agency of material. The question is to what extent we can unravel particular features of these complex material-and-conceptual conditions in order to inform our design fields better.

As such, there is work to be done in the bridging of design thinking and architecture theories. The particular values utilized in everyday practice are to some extent codified in regulations, to some extent unconscious manifestations of cultural presuppositions, and at times are questioned through exploratory designs. It is in this domain that future work could set itself the task to be more precise in identifying general, weakly defined but strongly sensed values and more closely defined values that are easily susceptible to change. Finally, the key lies in the leap between understanding and doing, and how the values, which may be articulated in a design project, drive materializations that then transform the implicit assumptions we have.

In the meantime, seemingly trivial concerns such as floor height or particular proportions may prove to be of unexpected importance in the future. The Modulor, based on the relatively small dimensions of Le Corbusier himself, leads to relatively cramped spaces, in direct contradiction to the rhetoric of light and air he uses (Le Corbusier; Boyer 2012). In a time when northern Europeans are rapidly growing taller, the difficulty of the low door becomes a functional concern beyond the triviality of everyday.

This approach may add a specifically aesthetic perspective to the current work on design for values. As Van der Hoven notes, the work of value-sensitive design approaches the ethical dimension in order to understand more of its implicit assumptions:

In value-sensitive design, the focus is on incorporating moral values into the design of technical artifacts and systems by looking at design from an ethical perspective. It is concerned with the way our acting in accordance with moral values (e.g., freedom, equality, trust, autonomy, privacy, and justice) is facilitated or constrained by technology […]. Value-sensitive design focuses primarily and specifically on values and requirements of moral import. (van den Hoven 2013, p. 137).

Perhaps the rise of interest in the independent “life of things” that is so strongly evident in the art and architecture debates may continue on this trajectory of understanding moral assumptions while at the same time taking into account the multiplicity of interpretations embodied within the artifact.

Van der Hoven notes that ideas about values and morals get designed in. In many cases, these values eventually become codified in regulations, such as those on security and privacy, or minimal adequate living standards for social housing. Van der Hoven distinguishes these frameworks from those of functional import such as efficiency and storage capacity, yet the question might be raised whether moral and functional issues are easily to be distinguished in the built environment. Certainly the accepted insights of the postwar era, particularly those of poststructuralism and related approaches, have revealed a plethora of implicit moral values that are presented under arguments of functional efficacy or historical topicality. Many of these implicit moral values slowly adapt, while the material results of their incorporation in the built environment remain. Yet the reception of these values and our moral assumptions also transform to which the boulevards of Paris stand testimony. While they were originally meant to constraint possible revolutionary uprisings, they are not typically seen as a military intervention, enabling the shooting of cannons and the corralling of people. Their spatial expression – large, wide, spacious boulevards – were meant to underscore the grandeur of these developments, which may still be experienced today, though somewhat attenuated by the intensity of the traffic along them. The rationalization process that led to the scale of the boulevards is now less immediately tangible, being replaced by a more romantic notion of the flaneur wandering along the Paris boulevards.

It is unquestionable that there has been what Van der Hoven identifies as a “design turn” in ethics, making it relevant or significant to ask moral questions about a design. As such, general notions of well-being have been transformed into clearly defined design qualities. At the same time, there are often considerations that come to the fore only after the fact. Some of these issues may initially appear purely functional but as understanding increases become more founded upon moral considerations – take the example of street lighting. For crime prevention, more lighting is better. Electricity usage however becomes an increasing issue in an age of limited resources – so is extensive street lighting in a space not often used then a sign of the wasting of resources and the immorality of wastefulness? The choices then become to either generate electricity in a more sustainable fashion (wind energy, solar energy) or to engage in a new design proposal in which the limitations of resources are incorporated in the design itself.

Before the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a specific understanding of community in Europe was often “designed in,” which had to do with the respectability of institutions. To have a grand building was a symbol for the community as a whole. Yet at the time of the French revolution, this was more likely to be seen as a power-hungry symbol of an institution not supported by the people. As such, future research may find itself facing the challenge of envisioning various potential readings – the multiplicity of interpretations that one might envision and that have an impact on how these projects are seen.

Generating urban scenarios and architectural design projects may aid in sketching a coherent vision of a potential future in which certain values are of central importance. Design for values is a growing field of research, and its insights are rapidly becoming indispensable to the many fields of design, from IT to architecture and urban design. Within this domain, it becomes increasingly important to understand the overall implications of values incorporated in designs. Each future vision springboards from the present, while its future visions, particularly in terms of coherence, inform us about unforeseen possibilities.


Overall, the concern for both the implicit and explicit values in architecture has become more prominent. This may be attributed to the decreased confidence that the values we hold are universal, transferable, or even intersubjective. In the face of the postmodern conviction that individual values may not be subsumed under an overall argument that holds for all, and yet the sense that community is to be valued, treasured, and perhaps even reinforced, the debate on values takes on a new urgency. The importance of community seems accepted again after a period of emphasis on individualism, yet the form it should take is now a concern. All in all, though, each of these arguments and their architectural counterparts continue to demonstrate how fundamentally intertwined our sense of space and architectural design is with the values we understand them to imply.

As such, it is perhaps unsurprising that architecture takes into account – insofar as possible, given the limitations of the unpredictability of the future – “the political and morally relevant effects that designs, built structures, and artifacts may have” (Van der Hoven 2013). “Consciously or unconsciously, deliberately or inadvertently, societies choose structures for technologies that influence how people are going to work, communicate, travel, consume, and so forth over a very long time.” (Winner 1986, pp. 28–29; as quoted in Van der Hoven 2013) – the same can be said for our buildings. One might argue that our buildings are a little less “defined” in the direction of a particular use or goal, but the long-term influence is undeniably present. The office building that is based on an open plan structure may be renovated with interior walls, but the primary structure will remain until the building is demolished to provide space for a new building. This makes post-occupancy evaluation a potential direction for future work, not merely in terms of utility, but also in terms of the full breadth of architectural concerns.

The future is open and interesting. Issues raised by Latour in his critique of science as well as those raised by Sennett in his work on craftsmanship both direct us to the absolute necessity for incorporating values beyond the quantifiable in our reflections on architecture, yet both take into account the unexpected reinterpretations that may take place when faced with the actual, material object of our desires. As such, architecture has a role to play in understanding design for values, and at the same time it has wise lessons to offer for when we take our presumptions of moral values too far.



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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of AntwerpAntwerpBelgium

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