Pleasure! What is it? And what role should it play in our lives?

Two opposing answers have been given throughout history. The first one, let’s call it the Hedonistic interpretation, claims, almost religiously, that pleasure, especially the carnal pleasures, should be the primary objective above any other values guiding our lives. Some high society Romans mastered this philosophy and adopted it into their lifestyles towards the end of the Empire. For many Marxists this represented the decadence caused by unhealthy production systems and unjust class relationships. Interestingly enough, Calvinists, and later Puritans, also blamed pleasure as the antithesis of what we should be doing in this world. Max Weber, in his famous book Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, outlines well how a new wage rationalism dominated Central Europe and gave way to the emergence of capitalism. After all, pleasure is anti-capitalistic; it reduces production time.

The good news is that Hedonistic is not the only interpretation of what pleasure is and what role it should play in our lives. Another interpretation, let’s call it Eudaimonic, focuses on how our ability to sophisticate our pleasures can deepen our existence and be part of our identity and culture. We humans have the unique ability to elevate our sensual abilities to a level of high art, for instance music, that not only gives pleasure but also becomes an expression of our emotional landscape and makes us wiser. This interpretation suggests that the way we learn to take pleasure and deepen our lives becomes a declaration of our cultural identity – or should we say identities, since we live in a multi-cultural world.

What does all this have to do with planning and design?

Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food and Terra Madre, suggests that “pleasure is democratic.” How? Here is an answer: Only those who develop the ability to take pleasure in certain expressions of culture, such as music, dance, the art of cooking, etc., can judge and value these practices and are willing to make decisions about their future. Thus they participate in the democratic argumentation. Without the ability of pleasure there is no motivation for argumentation. In the absence of argumentation there is blind-voting and voting along dogmas, and thus no real democracy, but a shadow of it.

I practice architecture and teach urban planning. One question I ask the class at the beginning of my introductory courses is “why urban planning?” I put all the answers on the blackboard and create a list. In it usually are “efficiency, certainty, sustainability, fairness, procedural fairness (the right and ability to participate in decision making), etc.” After discussing all these complementary and conflicting objectives I emphasize that in a democratic society with a decentralized political system, such as the U.S., urban planners are the facilitators of local democracies. This is not an easy task. It needs unique abilities such as listening, flexible visioning, and accommodative design. Why? Because the local political environment where planners and designers work are full of various conflicting interests. Then there are the particularities of a design context: the site, the surrounding uses, climate, wild life, and other environmental features. This is why planners’ decisions, plans, or designs need to be able to adopt and represent. A successful practitioner first understands, then incorporates different concerns and interests into decision making. Similarly, a successful design accommodates rather than eliminates. Accommodating conflicting design elements may not always be easy, but usually there are synergies between seemingly opposing factors. A strong design is the one that explores and identifies these synergies.

We started talking of pleasure, its connection to democracy, and ended up discussing some design criteria. But how do these connect to each other in daily practice? I will close this essay by giving three examples of how we can evaluate certain decisions through a conceptual framework of pleasure, democracy, and accommodation. These examples don’t necessarily provide conclusions. My hope is that they are controversial enough to instigate more questions and more discussions.

Example 1:

A successful urban space not only accommodates various social groups and multi-cultural expressions, but facilitates their inter-action as well, which encourages a healthy democratic argumentation. This is why an urban fabric that sacrifices public realm in order to achieve efficiency (in providing services) is essentially anti-democratic.

Example 2:

Drinking alcoholic drinks that have evolved through the ages in various culinary traditions can be seen as a cultural manifestation. Limiting production, sale, and consumption of alcoholic beverages, in the name of public safety, is an oppressive policy and actually weakens the participation of those cultural manifestations in the local democracy.

Example 3:

Certain architectural expressions that have evolved over the ages are part of urbanites’ architectural vocabulary. In other words, they are familiar, easy to identify, and with them people feel “at home.” Ignoring these and building completely alien expressions in the name of personal artistic experimentation, alienates many. Such elitist practices weaken the urbanites’ ability to take pleasure through place attachments and diminish their motivation to participate in decision making processes.

By: Korkut Onaran

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