Notes from Anecdotes on the Relationship between Philosophy and Architecture
I may not write much about architecture anymore, but when I do...
Presented at SCI-Arc on December 15, 2020.
It's a weird distinction: philosophy for architects or, worse, architecture by philosophers. They have a similar, flat taste to “female writer.” You are a good writer because of your writing skills, not your gender; a good architect because of your design skills, not your credentials; and both imply being a capable thinker, which can be enhanced through the study of philosophy—or not at all.
It will always come down to being an artful thinker, so one value of philosophy is to keep that capacity well-honed, but not to provide the practitioner with a mystery bag of arguments to give a project meaning.
[This can be done, but so much bullshit gets into the mix when buildings are dressed up with fancy stories that it's not necessarily something one wants to pursue in practice, nor is philosophy the huge differentiator one might have presumed].
In terms of practice, hearing Liebeskind go on about phenomenology is like seeing a soccer player rolling on the ground after barely being grazed. You know it's bullshit; you understand it's what needs to be done to get that penalty shot, but it is terribly undignified.
The first lesson then, on applying philosophy to architectural practice, is to understand rhetoric. In any line of business, storytelling is important to sales, and philosophy can give one a trove full of templates to a) convince a client you are smarter than them, and affirm authority over a project's design decisions, or b) convince a client that your project, because it's “philosophical,” is a birth canal through which to usher in goodness, beauty, truth into the world. Both work, and can be used, artfully.
But the real use of philosophy as a part of the architect's skillset is not to prepare him to produce ethical, aesthetic or veristic exaltation through building, but to understand rhetoric. It's the self-awareness that comes with not just understanding your design, but also what it is that you are doing to connect it to the real world.
This is a set-up for the philosophy of language: to distinguish content (the building you are designing) from packaging (its rhetoric) as distinct; which might be otherwise confused or rolled into "my project is its rhetorics".
This distinction is made especially unclear in modernist, postmodernist and contemporary education, where a student is made to present their project, assuming it might be somehow inscrutable if left on its own with a jury. The student must be there, because the project and its explanation are an indivisible unit. Philosophy teaches you better.
One of the hard lines from our practice is that if a project requires an explanation panel or a permanent tour guide to make sense of it, it's not a good project. It may be great for a glossy, but it will not cut it in real life.
A good project, to us, is self-evident and self-explanatory. The purpose of a panopticon, seen by aliens centuries after mankind has become extinct, will be clear even in ruins. In contrast, any "decorated shed" will lose its meaning once its "I Am a Monument" sign is taken down.
So lesson #1 from practice is the ability to tell apart design from rhetorics.
Here's lesson #2: understand that there are several concurrent definitions of architecture, which often overlap enough to be (just barely) functional, and sometimes do not intersect at all.
Look around you, at your “built environment”: when you go out for a drive or a walk, how many buildings that you see were designed using the skillset you are taught in architecture school? One? Two? None?
The architecture taught in school is not the architecture that is most required in architectural practice. This is usually reconciled with the notion that there is a sort of banal “architecture” and a higher form of “Architecture” that every building should aspire to, and that should be imbued with meaning or some form of intellectual or aesthetic ardour and sophistication.
For better or worse, 99.9% of architecture isn't Architecture, and often has nothing to do with it. And this is a major issue in the philosophy of language: because we use one word to signify two different things, it’s easy to assume they mean the same. In architecture, we reconcile these empirical differences in meaning by assuming that a certain sort of architecture (A) is inherently higher than another (a)—but this is simply not the case.
If it’s easier to acknowledge the difference between sound and music, scribbles and literature, doodles and painting, it’s because we have different words for them. Now picture Gehry's Disney Concert Hall next to a building done with no intellectual pretences (any of the housing projects around SCI-Arc). What do you call them? One is Architecture and the other is shitty architecture, right? But they are both in the same category. Put one brick on top of the other and you can pass it off as some manner of architecture through mere intent.
Philosophy gives practicing architects the option and tools to go beyond the limitations of our professional language, without confusing architecture with other forms of construction trapped within the same taxonomy.
While there is interest in discerning the advantages of philosophy in building architectural skills, it is equally interesting to point out its disadvantages.
Architecture and philosophy are both careers pursued, in no small part, for reasons of vanity, and this is at the core of their admixture. They are also two careers in which it makes a vast difference to practice them as a business or as a hobby.
The slippery slope involved in marrying philosophy to architecture is to think one elevates the other; the temptation is believing one relies on the other to take it to a more advanced ontological level.
Architecture is seen to have earned its capital "A" when it embodies a philosophical statement; philosophy can trascend the realm of words to become “real,” like Pinnochio, if it transforms into space. This is responsible for horrors in either career track, whether it’s Wittgenstein as architect (with entire books written about “his house”) or buildings justified foremostly as philosophical statements.
Because clients and the general public (who are the ultimate public one needs to convince) hardly ever know anything about architecture, or philosophy, it's easy for the intellectual blade to be quickly blunted to the point of ridicule in the absence of feedback loops.
This may be why it's as important to teach philosophy as it is not to overteach philosophy in architecture.
Let’s return to the analogy of the histrionic soccer player: Russia 2018 was the most important World Cup in recent history because of the VAR (video assisted referee): the establishment finally caught up with technology and pressure built to give greater importance to objective evidence than to subjective perception. Now, if you BS your way to a penalty, it won't be so easy to get away with it. (Though you can try).
This is the covid effect on architecture. It's not going to be as easy to get away with architectural excess anymore, and while storytelling is still going to be a fundamental sales tool, architecture will need to rely on stronger arguments, produced through thinking that is well outside the ken of worn philosophical rhetoric.
Beyond that, what little of worth is to be found in this will be in the philosophy of the design process, and not in the design object itself.
[Coda: the philosophy of the design process—how the sausage is made—should never be shared with the client].
I Am (NOT) A Monument. Isometric drawing. ATMO, 2016.