Philosophical Movements and Ideas in Architecture

As a field that engages multiple disciplines, philosophy of architecture can be aligned with currents of inquiry seen across the humanities. Before Pevsner penned his 1949 editorial in Architectural Review and to a greater extent since the 1960’s, architectural theory has provided a philosophical gloss for architectural criticism, design practices and education. Much of what counts as scholarship on architecture has come to resemble a history of philosophical ideas. The changeable terrain and contingencies of practice have resulted in a continuing critical reappraisal of the discipline’s terms, and intellectual and aesthetic traditions (including the Vitruvian triad and its legacy). Theory has been informed to a large extent by continental European philosophy. Movements such as German idealism, phenomenology, structuralism and post-structuralism, the Frankfurt School, neo-Marxism, psychoanalytic theory, and feminist and deconstruction (literary) theory have found an audience among architectural historians, theorists and practitioners at the “cutting edge” of design.

Arguably, the autonomy of architecture, like other creative arts (for example, film), is made questionable by what some have described as the indeterminate, mixed or “hybrid” character of the discipline and by the critical writing architecture attracts. This includes theory that treats creative disciplines as primarily demonstrative of philosophical truths, rather than productive of ethical insights into the human condition. In his effort to provide a more comprehensive account of the field, Andrew Benjamin, who has written extensively on architecture and the continental tradition, proposes to “think the particularity of the architectural” and devise a uniquely “architectural philosophy” (2000, vii).

Whether Benjamin’s undertaking, or any other, has provided the kind of framework for the philosophy of architecture that Pevsner desired, is open to question. Much depends on how “philosophy” is itself understood and where one stands in relation to history, theory, or practice. Adopting an “honorific” conception of philosophy, for instance, privileges its modes of interrogation as the means to clarify and adjudicate claims of truth arising in these areas. Another view, common in schools of architecture and shared by practitioners seeking intellectual rigor for their work, requires that a “philosophy”—guiding principles or a theoretical exegesis—accompany each design project.

a. Idealism and Architectural History

Idealism, specifically the movement with origins in late 18th and early 19th century German philosophy and bearing the imprimatur of Kant and especially Hegel, is significant for treating works of architecture as objects of our consciousness, their meaning and value being variable, though ultimately determined by the mind’s responsiveness to the material world. As McQuillan points out in his article on German Idealism, the movement is remarkable for its systematic treatment of several philosophical disciplines, including aesthetics, to which one can add art history which followed as a recognizable discipline later.

Architectural history is largely an offshoot of art history. German idealist historians writing in the mid- to late 19th and early 20th centuries (Schnaase, Semper, Wölfflin and Warburg and others; see Podro 1982) contributed much to the formation of art and architectural canons. Critical historiography on architecture developed alongside Hegelian notions of Zeitgeist (the spirit of the age manifest in art forms) and Weltanschauung (the notion that art represents a people’s worldview). Philosophical debate on the nature of architecture was given impetus by comparative analyses fostered by this tradition and the view that saw art forms categorised according to their purported capacities to manifest universal truths.

The influence of Hegel and idealism can be seen in Pevsner’s writing on the origins of the modern movement, notably in Pioneers of the Modern Movement (1936). In this seminal text, developments in architectural form manifest an emerging functionalist aesthetic and spirit indicative of the modern age. There is a strong sense of historical determinism behind this movement. Hence, in Pioneers there is dramatic language of “stages being set,” of heroic architects “appearing on the scene” and of designs “ahead of their time” (122, 132, 136). Historical determinism imposes a particular challenge to expectations for an architect’s autonomous control of a work and the capacity of a cohort of avant garde architects to initiate a new direction for contemporary design. Idealism’s legacy is perhaps best seen in its contribution to subsequent philosophical movements (like Husserl’s phenomenological idealism) and in the broad expectation that art and architecture contribute to understanding the historical moment.

b. Phenomenology and Architectural Experience

The particular nature and significance of architecture has often been discussed in terms of ways that buildings (or some of them anyway) can be experienced. Among philosophers and architectural theorists and designers, there is the broad expectation that different types of buildings, and public and private spaces, engage human perceptions and feelings in ways that both shape and are shaped by patterns of human behaviour and self-consciousness. There is a corresponding and overlapping set of interests, expressed within and outside the academy, questioning how cities allow for distinctive forms of “urban experience” or how certain kinds of public or monumental architecture or “heritage” precincts make for an experience of history that is distinctive, stimulating, and productive of good citizenship. Social, political and ethical contexts for architecture and urban design are raised by such studies as well as others.

From the perspective of moral philosophy, a subset of aesthetic concerns focuses specifically on what an “aesthetic experience” of buildings might be as a means of grounding claims of value. For instance, Michael Mitias (1999) proposes that an “adequate analysis” of the experience of architecture is possible and this is the “safest road” to a reasoned understanding of what architecture is about, for evaluating it and for finding principles of education in architectural aesthetics. He questions:

Under what theoretical and perceptual conditions it is possible to experience, appreciate and evaluate a building as an architectural integrity, in its own terms, without appealing to, or relying on, an external or implied philosophical, ideological, political, or social agenda? (61)

Thoughts on what an experience of architecture may be, acquire greater conceptual rigour in the context of phenomenology. This has been understood as either a disciplinary field in philosophy alongside other studies like ontology and epistemology, logic and ethics, or as a more specific movement in the history of philosophical ideas informed by, among others, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Gaston Bachelard. Phenomenology studies the “appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience or the ways we experience things, [and] thus the meaning things have in our experience” (Smith 2003). When studying buildings, particularly for their existential and transcendental value, the phenomenologist emphasises the subject, subjective or first person view of architecture as a condition of conscious awareness. In the work of Christian Norberg-Schulz (1980 [1979]), phenomenology is concerned with the concept of the “genius-loci” whereby the distinctive character or spirit of a place is reinforced by patterns of human settlement and acts of building and dwelling. Urban form, architecture and contrived landscapes that aim at “place-making” elicit a similar concept.

Phenomenology is an influential movement in architectural theory, though its interpretation and application is far from univocal. Its proponents vary in their commitment to its key terms and thinkers, and take its applications and implications (tendencies like transcendentalism or existentialism) in different directions. For Alberto Perez-Gomez (1983), for instance, transcendental phenomenology informs a particular perspective on modernism, supporting the contrast of creative “poiesis” and meaning, on the one hand, and architecture’s representation as plans and drawings—along with its rationalised construction and role as consumerist object—on the other. Theorists who contribute to this and parallel lines of thinking include Juhani Pallasmaa, Dalibor Vesely and Karsten Harries. Architectural practitioners like Steven Holl and Peter Zumthor cite the influence of phenomenology upon their designs.

Phenomenology is influential on architecture, though it provides no clear and categorical definition of architecture. This is partly because there are social grounds for experiencing buildings and semantic considerations that characterise architectural aesthetics according to cultural differences, including discriminations between “high” and “low” art. Whether the function of buildings makes for a different kind of experience from the pleasure derived from their beauty or perception of any likely “architectural integrity” they may have is also at issue. So too is the possibility there are conditions that make for an experience of “bad” architecture. Consider whether places like detention centres can be improved by designing with the genius-loci in mind.

c. Structuralism and Meaning

 Widely attributed to the pioneering work of Ferdinand de Saussure, structuralism was a movement introduced into a number of academic disciplines in the 1950s and 60s. It was an outgrowth of interests in linguistics, semiotics, and allied studies of language. It was influential in anthropology, with work by Claude Lévi-Strauss. Structuralism’s subsequent appeal for architectural theorists was largely due to its promise of a more philosophical, systematic or “scientific” framework for what had long been presupposed (some believe since the Renaissance; others since Vitruvius) that architecture was akin to language and that, like written text, architectural form exhibited a grammar-like structure for conveying meaning. According to this reasoning, material details (classical orders, ornament, and so forth) of buildings or series of building facades, are conceived as metonymic wholes, possessing semantic content and conceivably ethical worth (valence) for communicating meanings and values within social formations and from one generation to the next. Victor Hugo more or less espoused the idea in Notre-Dame de Paris where he bemoaned the arrival of the printing press and cheaply reproduced books. He counterpoised the fluidity and unreliability of the written word with the heyday of architecture in the form of the gothic cathedral on which he believed meanings were artistically manifest in stone—thus acquiring greater permanency and social relevance.

Linguistic structuralism promised not so much a philosophy of architecture; rather, it required that study of architectural aesthetics conform to the model and ideal of language and adhere to what amounts to an empiricist conception of knowledge. Structuralism’s methods worked to establish a fundamental opposition between (i) architectural form and function—privileging the communicative capacity of architectural aesthetics over a building’s other performative roles (as structure, shelter, or its function as a commodity, and so forth)—and (ii) between architectural form as a category of signifiers, and a largely pre-existing context of potentially meaningful artifacts, signified entities or referents.

Accordingly, Umberto Eco (1968) effectively recast the Vitruvian terms of form and function as elements in a culturally-grounded system of architectural signification, thereby denying the precedence and determining influence the modernists gave to one term over the other:

In other words, the principle that form follows function might be restated: the form of the object must, besides making the function possible denote that function clearly enough to make it practicable as well as desirable [emphasis in original], clearly enough to dispose one to the actions through which it would be fulfilled. (186)

Eco moves to distinguish between primary (denotative) and secondary (connotative) functions, neither more important than the other, but each dependent upon the other to form a “semiotic mechanism” (188). Hence, the form of either a barn or a church allows them to function as habitable spaces of a kind (their primary function) and these forms denote this purpose. Their doors “tell” us there is space inside; their windows “tell” us there is light with which to see and so forth. The combination and arrangement of building details work alongside cultural codes to connote (their secondary function) that the first building type, the barn, is just that, merely a building, while the second possesses architectural significance. Roland Barthes complicates the idea that architectural signs are composed by the one-to-one correspondence between signifiers and signifieds. In “Semiology and the Urban” (1971) he emphasizes the transience of urban life so that meanings are not fixed by such a correlation, but temporary and mobile.

Among architectural theorists and practitioners, renewed emphasis in the 1970s and early 80s on the meaningful interpretation of architectural and urban typologies (the classification and comparison of the formal and visual characteristics of building types and urban forms) reinforced the linguistic model. Reyner Banham (in Baird and Jencks, 1969, 101) rejected the move, believing that arguments in support of architectural semantics were merely promoting a new ideology of monumentality in the service of social elites rather than a more rational formalism and egalitarian (that is, functionalist) approach to design. Contributions to the debate over meaning versus functionalism in architecture were published in the first book in English on the subject, Meaning in Architecture (Baird and Jencks, 1969). Additional titles promoting the language of architecture appeared in quick succession, including Venturi, Brown & Izenour (1972) and Jencks (1977). Arguably, Banham’s functionalism and egalitarianism were pushed aside in preference for the stylistic eclecticism and populism allowed for in these books.

Borrowing from Noam Chomsky’s linguistics, Peter Eisenman began a series of experimental projects in the 1970s. These were primarily small houses designed with highly complex forms and models resembling abstract geometric compositions. Though the projects were often accompanied by equally complex theoretical exegeses, Eisenman nonetheless believed that his viewers were able to understand their meaning as they were purportedly derived from the same linguistic and syntactical structures used to express everyday thoughts. The architect-theoretician tried to relate formalism and linguistics logically, distinguishing between meanings that were semantic and those that were syntactical or integral to architecture’s coherence as an object. For Eisenman, formalism was the displacement of the semantic content of a design with the syntactic. The promise of freedom attributed to this displacement underscored Eisenman’s desire to create architecture that was autonomous and free from external constraints arising from pre-established meaning and practical necessity. His view of the “paradoxical nature” of architecture prefigured his subsequent interests in deconstruction and theories of conceptual and “cardboard” (unbuilt) architecture. This includes architectural drawings and plans for projects that may never be built or could not be built.

Structuralism is largely appraised today for the movements that followed and perhaps were reactions to it, variously assembled under the banners of “postmodernism” or “post-structuralism.” Its demise was perhaps due in part to the cumbersome vocabulary developed to describe systems of signification (de Saussure’s terms of and distinction between langue and parole, the division of “signs” into “signifiers” and “signifieds,” Eco’s denotative and connotative functions, and so forth). Questions also arise about the reality behind these terms and equally obscure concepts like Eisenman’s “wellness.” While the vocabulary and concepts might provide the theorist with a framework for describing architectural meanings, they are also largely a-historical and overly formulaic. Structuralism leaves us with the question of whether the so-called “paradoxical nature” of architecture as a system of signification can be reconciled with its determination by, and determining influence on, power and politics.

i. Postmodernism

Drawing on heterogeneous writing, principally by Jean-François Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard, and popularized by architect-critics Charles Jencks and Charles Moore, the underlying aims, scope, and methods of postmodernism are subject to considerable debate and contestation (Habermas 1982; Jameson 1991). Defying easy description, Hal Foster, in The Anti-Aesthetic (1983), nonetheless identifies two distinct and opposing strains of thought behind postmodernism’s claims. Together, they account for the equally imprecise and ambivalent position of the movement in the history of ideas about architecture.

One the one hand, postmodernism was a reactionary movement; it encouraged opposition to certainties that grounded modernism and modern architecture; it challenged the idea that social progress was adjunct to rational design, for instance, or that building form was relatable to function in a pre-determined way or that any epistemology like semiotics could fully encompass the fluidity, ambiguity and impermanence of meaning. This variant of postmodernism accepted the status quo and rejected, notably in work by Jencks and Moore, the “high art” status of International modernism. It embraced populism based on architectural aesthetics characterized by historicist motifs and bricolage. On the other hand, postmodernism can be seen as a critical stance towards modernism that sought to reappraise its claims to truth, as well as reinforcing, perhaps indirectly, the semiotician’s undertaking to provide a more thorough account of architectural meaning.

Along with joining the chorus of scholars asking “What was postmodernism?” it is worth standing back from the particular claims of its leading figures and examining how philosophical movements such as this have engaged “the question of history” (Attridge and others 1987) and utilize (or eschew) forms of historical investigation to produce insightful architectural criticism or novel design styles. One can investigate how philosophical concepts are appropriated and possibly misinterpreted by practitioners when the practical demands of clients and corporate patrons intercede or architectural media weighs in with a market for design novelty and appealing visual imagery.

d. Post-structuralism and Power

Post-structuralism is another interdisciplinary movement that emerged in the 1970s and 80s as an extension and critique of structuralism. Its multiple strains are no more easily characterized than postmodernism. Post-structuralism is associated with writing by Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Gilles Deleuze and other continental philosophers. Derrida’s work on deconstruction further popularized textual analyses for studies in the arts and humanities. Inspiring much architectural criticism and coinciding with highly publicized projects like Bernard Tschumi’s competition winning scheme for Parc de la Villette in Paris (1982) and Zaha Hadid’s unrealized design for Hong Kong’s Peak Club (1983), deconstruction encouraged further unpacking of modernism’s traditions, particularly functionalism. It promised designers a new generative grammar based on the ambiguity, fragmentation, and collision of architectural elements in which systems of representation and habitation were recognized as fluid and contingent. However, the popular reception of deconstruction as an exciting new architectural style may have overshadowed the movement’s critical impetus to firmly position language and meaning within a social matrix. This was enlivened by the dialectic of presence and absence whereby humankind retained a measure of freedom to shape its own identity.

Foucault’s work on knowledge and power develops a key theme of post-structuralism, though he does this in a distinctive (and, for some, idiosyncratic) way using methods that challenge conventional boundaries between modes of philosophical, historical and material analyses. The uneven reception of his oeuvre among architectural historians and theorists is perhaps due to the relatively few works containing explicit references to architecture or architects. Foucault’s analysis of the Panopticon prison in Discipline and Punish (1975) is well known and inspired many studies of space, knowledge and power in the context of disciplinary society.

In one frequently cited interview, Foucault (1982) left his readers with no doubt about the limited agency architectural greats like Le Corbusier or everyday practitioners have in shaping this milieu. It is one where social engineering results not from forms that follow functions (or vice versa) but from techniques of power that engage multiple levels of human experience (material, conceptual and authoritative, and possibly others):

After all, the architect has no power over me. If I want to tear down or change a house he built for me, put up new partitions, add a chimney, the architect has no control. So the architect should be placed in another category—which is not to say that he is not totally foreign to the organization, the implementation, and all the techniques of power that are exercised in a society. I would say that one must take him—his mentality, his attitude—into account as well as his projects, in order to understand a certain number of the techniques of power that are invested in architecture, but he is not comparable to a doctor, a priest, a psychiatrist, or a prison warden. (247-48)

Other works by Foucault have a bearing on philosophy of architecture. In an early work, The Order of Things (1966), for instance, Foucault adopted a quasi-structuralist approach to write an “archaeology of human reason” (also the subtitle of the book). Amongst other tasks he locates movements like phenomenology in a historical framework punctuated by ruptures in the representational structures or “epistemes” of Western discourse. Normally, the disciplines of ontology and epistemology would provide methods for this or similar analyses, but Foucault adopted a more radical approach; after all ontology and epistemology were themselves forms of philosophical inquiry with histories of their own and were already complicit in shoring up the phenomenologist’s claims to truth. His ambition, to stand apart from philosophy in order to see its deepest workings, made for a story of changing relations between signs and the things they came to signify. It was a history where new objects of knowledge appear, and old ones were lost. This allowed for concepts like “life,” “labor,” and “language” to emerge; to provide new foundations for sciences (biology, economics, and linguistics) to be formed, and to describe the human condition. On Foucault’s account, these terms helped shape a distinctly modern framework for an understanding of humanity and, arguably, the built environment and architecture as well.

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