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Harry Drummond builds a case.
What is the meaning of life? Does God exist? How ought I treat another person? What are the conditions of knowledge acquisition? Engaging, fundamental, and worthy – these sorts of questions are the typical buildings blocks of conversation when a philosopher is asked ‘What do you do?’. What is the nature of building? How can a building influence my life? In what style should we build? These are not the sort of questions it is worth placing money on hearing in the same situation.
Yet the philosophy of architecture has attracted some high-profile philosophers. Martin Heidegger, for example, delivered a lecture entitled ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’, which proposed the ability of buildings to disclose new worlds to a person (or to Dasein, to use his term). Likewise, the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, who was appointed Chair of the UK’s ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful’ commission striving against architectural ugliness and failure, devoted an entire tome to the Aesthetics of Architecture (1979). Other prolific architecturally-inclined philosophers include Professor Andy Hamilton at Durham University, Gordon Graham of Princeton, and the late Norwegian architect Christian Norberg-Schulz. Given all this intellectual fire-power, why then is it that the philosophy of architecture does not appear alongside epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics in the centre of our philosophical discourse?
One reason might be that it is a derivative topic within aesthetics. This makes a difference for two reasons. Firstly, being a topic-within-a-topic in philosophy makes it extra difficult to make headlines. Secondly, we aestheticians remain, rather unfortunately, near the bottom end of the philosophical hierarchy. In addition, architecture seemingly does not warrant the philosophical attention we give to other areas. It’s a case of asymmetry. As I noted, the apparent worthiness and fundamentality of the questions involved in other fields of philosophical debate far surpass that of the questions of building. Much more attractive, both for the general public and, significantly, for research councils (which decide whose research to fund), are answers to whether we can obtain truth, or whether time really exists – as opposed to questions of, say, how a building contributes to my sense of community.
So, why should we care about the philosophy of architecture?
The most significant reasons arise from an identification of one of the characteristics of architecture that Scruton gives in his aforementioned book. Architecture is the most public of the arts. Buildings are entities we come across everyday. This is especially important when architecture is also fundamentally and irrevocably publicly heteronomous, meaning, it must answer to the taste of the ordinary person in the street. Furthermore, unlike music, painting, sculpture, and film, architecture cannot be considered socially autonomous, that is to say, distanced from its social function. Whilst these other arts have developed from and transcended their social roots, as say, accompaniments to religious ceremonies, displays of wealth on the staircase of one’s mansion, or popular diversions, architecture is necessarily social. This is in two senses. There is, of course, the sense that architecture needs to be nice to look at (this references the public heteronomy I mentioned). Secondly, there is the fact that buildings must facilitate some goings-on: you need to be able to do stuff in them. Architecture, furthermore, is entirely intersubjective in its nature. Any building entails our relationship with others, insofar as it was designed by someone else, built by someone else, is occupied by someone else, or is destroyed by someone else. It is increasingly important to us that we have buildings that satisfy both our needs and our perceptual wants.
There are numerous narratives within architecture that need to be explored philosophically. We come across questions of purpose: why did the architect build it in this way and not that? Or questions of ethics: how should I act given what occurred in this building before its use by me? Can you morally turn an abattoir into a vegan restaurant (or vice versa), for example? Questions in the intersubjective realm include: given how this building came about, the preceding narratives, its location and facilitation of function both inside and out, how does this building contribute to my sense of being-with-others?
The Shard, London Bridge. Can you see the point?
Shard from the sky garden 2015 © Colin / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0
Moreover, the philosophy of architecture enables us to gain insights into other fields of inquiry, and it is notable in discussions within aesthetics in its use as an illustration. Prof Andrea Sauchelli presents an exceptionally interesting conundrum for those involved in the debate surrounding the notion of functional beauty, for example. Reacting against Kant’s notion of ‘dependent beauty’ – wherein one takes into account the purpose and/or concept that the artefact falls under in one’s consideration of its aesthetic value – functional beauty considers whether we should pay attention to something’s function in evaluations of the aesthetic. Sauchelli applies this to architecture. Specifically, in ‘Functional Beauty, Architecture, And Morality: A Beautiful Konzentrationslager?’ (The Philosophical Quarterly, 2012), he discusses the questions of whether a concentration camp can be architecturally beautiful. As evil as their function was, some concentration camps probably fulfilled this evil function better. So they propose a dilemma, as well as an extreme illustration, as to how we should weigh the concept of function in our aesthetic judgments.
Sauchelli’s question also shows the importance of the moral debate in aesthetics: that is, how far should one take moral considerations into account in aesthetic evaluations, if at all? To me it’s clear that the function that was facilitated by the concentration camps should strongly detract from our aesthetic praise of them as architectural manifestations. Does this lead to an impasse for the strict formalists or autonomists, and anti-moralists in general, about art?
Significant, too, are the implications all this has on the repurposing or destruction of buildings. When I wrote the first draft of this article, I was sat at my desk in a study room of an accommodation block repurposed from an old psychiatric hospital. What ways should I act in this building to pay respect to those who may have suffered here? Is it even right to repurpose the building to the function it facilitates now?
This again plucks upon the narrative that continuously unfolds within architecture. When we build, we must pay respect to those who occupied that site before us. The Mayor of Durham, for example, refused the covering up of Victorian beams on the outside of some buildings in the town centre simply due to the fact that these old beams stand as a reflection of the city’s history.
The main thing to take from this article, then, is that as well as its utility in other fields of inquiry, the philosophy of architecture has direct impact on our day-to-day living. Insofar as architecture is a utilised public art, narrowing down what exactly it is we should be praising and promoting aesthetically about architecture, and what we should be criticising, is crucial for our existence. This is especially relevant when it comes to cases like Scruton’s appointment as the Chair of the Building Better, Building Beautiful commission. Scruton endorsed a strict anti-modernism about architecture, and his wrath towards modernism also encompassed architectural movements such as Neo-futurism and Postmodernism – the skylines of which he dismissed as ‘landscapes of litter’. If a philosopher is to have a say on what buildings are next brought into public use, a clear assessment of their architectural aesthetics is crucial.
As well as raising questions in both moral philosophy and the philosophy of architecture’s parent field, aesthetics, there are deeper considerations to be taken into account when discussing architecture. Most fundamentally, given that it is in architectural products that we pursue most of our projects – work, relaxation, study, entertainment – architecture is one of the most important phenomena for disclosing the nature of the human subject. Architecture’s intersubjective character dives into the nature of our existence.
It is my hope that the philosophy of architecture will become a more prominent field of thought. To start, this should be in the aesthetic realm. Architecture doesn’t possess the autonomy often bestowed upon, and heralded within, other artforms. Nonetheless, it can be beautiful. In this sense, it is the only art that overcomes heteronomous (that is constraining) determinations to obtain the same aesthetic and artistic value of other arts. Surely such a unique autonomy – autonomy from the other arts – is worth exploring. Additionally, given its ability to disclose our natures (as already identified by Heidegger and Norberg-Schulz), I hope that one day the philosophy of architecture can become a seriously interdisciplinary field of intellectual inquiry.
That being said, if you ever meet me and ask what I do, I do not expect you to follow up my answer with, “Ah! A philosophy student! So tell me how the Shard influences our existence…?”
© Harry Drummond 2022
Harry Drummond is a PhD researcher at the University of Liverpool and co-editor of the journal Debates in Aesthetics.