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Philosophy Shorts

Philosophers on Buildings

by Matt Qvortrup

Pop songs are usually about variations on the theme of love. ‘More songs about Buildings and Food’ was the title of a 1978 album by the rock band Talking Heads. It was about all the things rock stars normally don’t sing about. Philosophers, likewise, tend to have a narrow focus on epistemology, metaphysics and trifles like the meaning of life. But occasionally great minds stray from their turf and write about other matters, for example buildings (Martin Heidegger), food (Hobbes), tomato juice (Robert Nozick), and the weather (Lucretius and Aristotle). This series of Shorts is about these unfamiliar themes; about the things philosophers also write about.

The English have always been a very practical lot. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was a case in point. “Houses are built to live in and not to look on,” he wrote in an essay devoted to the subject, On Buildings. The same pragmatic sentiment was evident when Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) wrote about buildings in A Vindication of the Rights of Women. The ur-feminist would not have had a lot of time for the ubiquitous DIY programmes that fill up fill up our television screens: “Whatever appearance the house and garden may make on children they do not enjoy either” (p.87).

That the continental philosophers, from Descartes to Heidegger and Wittgenstein, held a different view, is almost to be expected. G.W.F Hegel (1770-1831) took the antithetical perspective that ‘architecture is fine art’. He even went on, in a highly metaphysical tone, to note that a “building is the first to open the way for the adequate actuality of the god” (Aesthetics: Lecture on Fine Arts, p.84).

René Descartes (1596-1650) was a bit more down to earth when he wrote about houses, though he too had strong views. “Buildings undertaken and completed by a single architect,” wrote the French rationalist, “are usually more beautiful and better ordered than those that have several draftsmen” (Discourse on Method, p.35).

The three-bedroom cabin designed and built by Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) was in its own way ‘beautiful’. Die Hütte in the Black Forrest is now open to the public. It’s an aesthetically pleasing sanctuary for thinking, though it lacks the comforts that were standard even in the 1920s. Heidegger the master-builder reflected existentially, “The thinking about building does not presume to discover architectural ideas, let alone to give rules for building.” No. He went on, “this venture in thought does not view building as an art or a technique of construction; rather it traces building back into that domain to which everything that is belongs. We ask: ‘what is it to dwell?’” (Poetry, Language, Thought, p.141).

Heidegger was not the only philosopher to dabble in a bit of building. He may not have many philosophical similarities with Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), but the two philosophers, who were born in the same year, shared one passion: architecture. Wittgenstein spent most of his academic life in England and was instrumental in the analytical turn in philosophy, but when writing about buildings, he sounded more like a continental metaphysician. “Architecture,” he wrote, “immortalizes and glorifies something. Hence there can be no architecture where there is nothing to glorify” (Culture and Value, p.133).

Evidently Wittgenstein must have believed that there was something to glorify, for the philosopher designed a house for his sister which still stands in Kundmanngaße in Vienna. Alas, his sister hated the building and never lived there. Interestingly, Wittgenstein, who was never entirely comfortable with the epithet ‘philosopher’, was listed in the Vienna City Directory as “Dr L. Wittgenstein, architect.”

© Prof. Matt Qvortrup 2020

Matt Qvortrup is Professor of Political Science at Coventry University

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