Call for Session at the 72nd Annual International Conference of the Society of Architectural Historians

In their quest to locate historical meaning in architectural form, designers and scholars have long assigned moral positions to buildings. Whole styles, such as the Gothic or the Baroque, have been charged with dishonesty, while specific buildings have also been publically indicted for perceived vices. Ornament has been accused of intractable criminality, while its absence has been derided as puritanical.

The problems of linking human morality and architecture are inseparable from questions of culpability and victimhood, and thus produce a series of seemingly intractable questions: if a building is “evil,” whose fault is it? How, precisely, can architecture cause suffering? Can a depraved architect design a good building for an awful client? Can a morally corrupt building or space be redeemed? What happens when a good building turns bad—when new information comes to light, or old information acquires new meaning? This last question is of particular relevance in the present, as people of conscience grapple with the histories of exploitation woven throughout our built environment.

We invite papers that critically explore the problem of moral failure in architecture around the world, particularly its reception by individuals, the public, governments, scholars, and design professionals. There are many potentially productive angles from which to address this topic, ranging from studies of specific buildings that are demolished or shunned due to their associations with moral catastrophe, to the apologetic interpretation of the work of architects known for personal moral failure. Studies of built or unbuilt works tied to the fictional narratives of literature or film are also very welcome, as they offer rare glimpses of buildings that are deliberately crafted to convey moral failure, and can thus shed a great deal of light on the ways that people have viewed, and continue to view, the ethics of architecture in the real world.

Session Co-Chairs: Nathaniel Walker, The College of Charleston, and Peter Sealy, University of Toronto