James Marston Fitch and the Ethics of Esthetics
by David G. De Long
James Marston Fitch came to the field of historic preservation as an architect, not as an archeologist, anthropologist, historian, or conservator, although he would come to welcome those and other professionals as partners. He thus came with certain esthetic judgments in place, and he came with a sound knowledge of architectural history. While still practicing in 1933, he recounted how he consulted measured drawings and historic photographs to design houses in five main styles: French, Colonial, Italian, English, and Spanish, writing that he “…was an archaeologically literate eclectic.”1 Even then he showed an interest in truly historic architecture, saying of his well-crafted historic homes that they “…had not the spontaneity, the genuine emotion that makes great works immortal, that makes Mount Vernon as fresh and charming today as it was in 1790;” continuing, he called for a more honest approach: “…it seems to me that we will miss authenticity until we have a style so intimately, so unmistakably ours and none other’s that it will not occur to us to delve in the past.”2
Fitch began writing about esthetics in architecture in the 1950s, about the same time he started teaching at Columbia University, and in formulating his own theory of esthetics he indicated two sources of inspiration: Lewis Mumford and Horatio Greenough. Both linked beauty with function, and both warned against the ever-changing superficialities of fashion. Anticipating preservationists’ need for a more stable determination of esthetic worth than that provided by changing fashions, Fitch echoed Greenough when he wrote about the “…relativity of taste…what one epoch adores, the next will despise.”3 And he expanded upon the essential connection between beauty and function, leading him to link esthetics inextricably with ethics, at least where architecture was concerned: “ethics deals with your reasons for doing something, for acting, and esthetics deals with the consequences of your acts; they are different sides of the same coin.”4
Increasingly he argued that visual criteria alone were insufficient in judging esthetics in architecture:
Most literature on esthetics tends to isolate it from the matrix of experience, to discuss the esthetic process as though it were an abstract problem in logic…. This finds expression in a persistent tendency to discuss art forms and buildings as though they were exclusively visual phenomena. This leads to serious misconceptions as to the actual relationship between the building and its human occupants…. Far from being based narrowly on any single sense of perception like vision, architectural esthetics actually derive from the body’s total response to, and perception of, the environmental conditions which that building affords…. With architecture we are submerged in the experience, whereas the relationship between us and a painting or a symphony is much more one of simple exposure…. To be truly satisfactory, the building must meet all the body’s requirements, for it is not just upon the eye but on the whole person that its impact falls.5
What Fitch accomplished by these means was nothing less than establishing a basis for determining the esthetic worth of a building according to absolute rather than relative values; that is, a reminder that our perception of beauty in architecture depends not on visual qualities alone, but also on our experience of any building in terms of its humane response to our needs and mental well being: how it functions, how it provides for our comfort, how it expresses a logical resolution of structure. In this he was in accord with the Greek origin of the term, meaning of or perceived with the senses—that is, all the senses, not just sight. Far from being a matter of personal choice based on changing fashions, esthetics can again be claimed as a justification for preservation.
When it came to questions of preservation, Fitch obviously recognized other justifications than esthetics alone; in particular, questions of historic significance irrespective of other elements. About the essential role of the architectural historian in preservation, he wrote:
A final requirement…is that he be esthetically mature. Whatever his private convictions, he must bring to the scrutiny of past styles a maximum measure of comprehension, even of compassion….[and an] ability to make…objective analyses, to break down into their component parts the periods of history, to understand the complex technical, esthetic, and cultural forces which acted upon them and gave their art its characteristic form.6
In this regard he offered specific suggestions as to how esthetics should be taken into consideration whatever the rationale:
…the esthetic ambitions of the original designers/owners must be taken into account…. Thus, when monumental, upper-class architecture must be restored, the most suitable cosmetic criteria should be those of the creators, i.e. newness, brightness (of polychromy and gilt) and good housekeeping. The reverse probably applies to most vernacular, peasant, or primitive construction. Although all buildings were at one time new and bright, and the builders probably proud of them in that state, it is doubtful that there were any conscious standards of keeping them that way…. The esthetic criteria for the restoration of folk and vernacular buildings, therefore, should reflect this condition…. For ruins (e.g. abandoned forts, castles, prehistoric sites, etc.), entirely different esthetic criteria should be applied, with the stabilization of above-grade remnants…forming the basic policy.7
So Fitch offers us an invaluable tool for preservation: the tool of esthetics not as relative, but as absolute; esthetics not as a reflection of personal choice, but as generated by ethical concerns for human needs and respect for original esthetic intent. Expanding upon his beliefs, it becomes possible to refute those who marginalize the place of esthetics in such work, for as Fitch defined them esthetics become central to the rational evaluation of design decisions at every level of the field: an ideal guide for preserving, adapting, and adding to historic fabric.Preservation.
About the Author
David G. De Long is Professor Emeritus of Architecture, University of Pennsylvania. He may be contacted at: email@example.com
1. James Marston Fitch, Selected Writings on Architecture, Preservation, and the Built Environment, ed. Martica Sawin (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006), 31, 27.
2. Fitch, Selected Writings, 40.
3. James Marston Fitch, Architecture and the Esthetics of Plenty (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1961), 251-252.
4. Fitch, Selected Writings, 24.
5. Fitch, Selected Writings, 279-280, 284.
6. Fitch, Architecture and the Esthetics of Plenty, 251.
7. Fitch, Selected Writings, 213-214.