If we fast-forward this history four hundred years to the 19th century, we would have first to recognize that cities in contemporary liberal democracies are physically shaped by a complex mix of public and private interests that did not exist, or existed in other forms, during the Renaissance. It is, however, still mostly elites who seek out the help of architects to envision and realize their projects and these architects still rely upon the same technology of linear perspective to do so. One of many differences between architectural production during the Renaissance and the 19th century is that during the intervening centuries ordinary citizens gained the right to be protected by the state from some of the consequences of development sponsored by latter day merchant princes. By the 19th century, for example, it was no longer socially acceptable to build using highly flammable materials like thatch which could endanger a whole city. In Britain, and later in North America, the utilitarian
2 See, for example; Heidegger (1977), Winner (1977), and Feenberg (1991).
3 There is not a monolithic interpretation of the history of linear perspective, but Edgerton (1975), Panofsky (1991), and Damisch (1994) generally agree that this technology was "constructed" not "discovered".
"greatest happiness principle" had the effect of suppressing certain individual rights, and thus modifying such normative building practices in favor of public well-being. By the 20th century ordinary citizens had also gained limited rights to make choices that influence public resources by serving on municipal zoning boards, historic preservation commissions and other democratic institutions. The emergence of such institutions, however, did not change the fact that, all things being equal, modern merchant princes, like the executives of WalMart, are economically rewarded for building poorly. In contrast, citizens want developers to build well to protect their own safety and optimize the quality of public life.
Because such fundamental conflict between the interests of development and those of the general public can not be seen in the perspectival pictures of reality created by architects, new laws and institutions were constructed to maintain public health, safety, and welfare. Principal among these was the professional registration of architects in the United States in the late 19th century at about the same time that architecture and engineering became legally distinct disciplines. Architects were then characterized by American lawmakers as a unique class of professional citizens who had accumulated specialized knowledge that might be employed to check the economic interests of development on behalf of the general public. In exchange for professional licensure by the state, which granted professionals a kind of limited monopoly to design public buildings, architects accepted a fiduciary responsibility to guard the public health, safety, and welfare. The result is that modern American architects are now legally and ethically bound to the interests of those who commission their services, and the competing interests of the general public.
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