Functionalism & inhabitability

I’ve written here a bit about arguments for tradition in architecture, and also tentatively worked at some strands of current architectural theory. But now I want to sketch out what I think modernism in architecture is. I think modernism has a central concept which is essential to it. Alongside it we can put a number of auxiliary concepts.

In the central concept, modernism calls for both:

  • The embrace of beneficial possibility;


  • The adoption of a revisionist stance; modernism actively seeks change to current practice and attempts the widest survey of possibilities.

There’s a difference between beneficial possibility and novelty. For example, when mathematical knowledge is used only as a route to new architectural form, the situation tends towards that of an appreciation of formal innovation. But modernism is more than this: the adoption of beneficial possibility is consequential. Of course; we want to make buildings that are helpful. Modernism is, at root, a thoroughgoing application of this attitude.

Even if this bare definition is sound—and I hope that it is— it is not in itself all that interesting. Things get more interesting when you start to consider some auxiliaries to the central idea. One auxiliary concept is authenticity. Here, two senses of authenticity are relevant. First, authenticity as an appropriate relationship to cultural practice, present or old. This is the sort of authenticity that writers such as Frampton are concerned with. Second, authenticity as the stripping away of illusion: the determination to strip away or look through comforting surface deceptions; the desire to ‘know the truth, no matter how painful’. The two senses are related: consider the situation where we consciously hold at a certain distance from some traditional practice on the basis that the traditional practice represents something illusionistic, or false.

Another auxiliary concept—and one with strong cultural roots—is functionalism: that is, the idea that built form should obviously reflect or signal some mode of use. This idea has been repeatedly criticised. There are difficulties of implementation: can we be sure that a building feature is sending the right signal? Is the attempt at clear, consistent signalling frustrating optimum building performance (violating the central concept)? And how does the designer cater to a diversity of uses, possibly simultaneous uses? I don’t think that functionalism is retrievable. However, I do think that it can be replaced by a related concept of inhabitability:

Functionalist = a building signals the way in which it is used or occupied, or should be used or occupied;

Inhabitable = a building signals a way (at least one way) in which it could be used or occupied.

I’d suggest that the buildings we consider good tend to demonstrate inhabitability. Modern buildings often do it very well, and better than traditional buildings, although some do it badly, or do it badly in at least some aspects. We like many functionalist buildings not because they are functionalist, but because they are also—albeit accidentally—inhabitable.

For example, Lasdun’s National Theatre building. This is one of very few modern buildings praised by Scruton (in his ‘Aesthetics of Architecture’). The structure is full of obvious terraces and stairways that suggest modes of use or occupation. The user can either see a path to a place they can inhabit (or safely infer that such a place is reachable). The signaling in effect here is not particularly one of convention or cultural inheritance: the user knows how their body works in space; they know how to get from A to B; as a practical matter they can ‘read’ the terrain.

The National Theatre has an analogue in many of Wright’s house projects; again, their inhabitability is obvious. It is not that terracing or stairs are necessary for inhabitability (although they are often effective). Another approach is to use fenestration in a very deliberate way, such that the user can infer—from the outside—a space occupiable by them.

I think inhabitability generalises from townscape; that is, the view that the buildings that make up settlements should be laid out in a way that takes perspectival experience into account. How do you get from here to there? Is it obvious? Is the journey inviting? Some modern projects—the Barbican, for instance—seem to score well on inhabitability but poorly on townscape. And this is why the Barbican divides opinion.

Arguments for tradition in architecture: 3

I wrote earlier about David Watkin’s criticism of Pevsner in ‘Morality & Architecture’. Watkin says much less about another advocate of modernism: Sigfried Giedion. But with Giedion, Watkin’s general thesis—that modernists have all signed up to an unreflective Hegelianism and a ‘belief in progress’—comes closer to the mark. In ‘Space, Time & Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition’ (Harvard, 1941) Giedion does describe a Zeitgeist (and calls it that) and declares his obligation to bring it to light, for general benefit. Still, there is more going on with ‘Space, Time & Architecture’ than you get from Watkin. ‘Morality & Architecture’ promotes the idea of style, where this term is understood as naming collections of building features: patent features that are primarily understood visually, and which tend to be seen in characteristic families or groups. Giedion rejects the term style (and Watkin reacts to this rejection). But why does Giedion reject style?

‘Space, Time & Architecture’ offers, in place of styles, a distinction between what Giedion calls “constituent facts” and “transitory facts”. By ‘facts’, Giedion means the (factual) occurrence of building features; a “constituent fact” is the persistent appearance, over time periods that may be quite extended, of a certain feature. For example, an “undulating wall” is, for Giedion, a constituent fact. Watkin mistakenly thinks Giedion intends by “undulating wall” a modernist stylistic trope and assigns to Giedion a simple preference for it. But Giedion traces his undulating wall from the Italian Baroque (perhaps Borromini’s S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, 1638-41), through “the great dwelling complexes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries” into the present day (of the 1930s-40s); the undulating wall must then be understood as a feature that, if not ‘transcendent’ of style, is at least one that cannot easily be captured within a style definition. A better understanding of Giedion, I think, is that his “constituent fact” is an expression of knowledge how: that is, there is a known way to build curved walls; a geometric understanding, a capacity to make drawings on the basis of that understanding, and finally a capacity to transfer that information for use at full scale by stonemasons (or other fabricators). At one time that knowledge how did not exist, and now it does. This is an achievement; a newly embedded element within our institutions and accepted practices. It is this status of achievement that gives the “constituent fact” its rootedness, or persistence. A “transitory fact”, by contrast, involves no such achievement. The features in play with a “transitory fact” are mundane and no special—or new—knowledge is involved in their application. Giedion’s example is “furniture of the Second Empire in France”, typified by an eclectic re-mixing of classical motifs. The implication is that Second Empire furniture is something that did not happen earlier, but could have happened earlier. At the time that it happens, it is merely a novelty. As such, it may just as easily disappear again.

Giedion’s focus on persistence in ‘Space, Time & Architecture’ is reflected in the subtitle he gives the book: ‘The Growth of a New Tradition’. Some things become established in architecture. Let’s look at another example. Take the conoidal structure that’s hidden inside the dome of Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral. This involved both a geometric and structural innovation. However, Wren himself had a conservative aesthetic. In Parentalia he writes:

“There are only two beautiful Positions of strait Lines, perpendicular and horizontal: this is from Nature, and consequently Necessity, no other than upright being firm. Oblique Positions are Discord to the Eye, unless answered in Pairs, as in the Sides of an equicrural Triangle: therefore Gothick Buttresses are all ill-favoured, and were avoided by the Ancients, and no Roofs almost but spherick raised to be visible.”


“The misapprehending World measures the Excellence of things by their Rarity, or Difficulty of Framing, not by the Concinnity and apt Disposal of Parts to attain their End by a right Line as it were & the Simplest way.”

This, I’d suggest, explains the concealment of the part of the dome of St. Paul’s—the actual masonry shell—that carries the main forces from the cupola: for Wren, it was the right shape (roughly, a revolved catenary) to do the job of carrying imposed loads, but the wrong shape to be seen. It was therefore hidden by a roof structure of a more spherical appearance, executed mostly in timber.

Today, would a conoid still be the wrong shape to be seen? No; but what has made the difference? Giedion says that there is an additional dimension to innovation beyond architectural practice; that is, experiment in visual arts. For Giedion, experiment in fine arts—implicitly, quick experiment, at low cost—allows the application and open exhibition of new construction techniques. There is a gradual evolution of general taste, through new sculpture and painting, and in these changed conditions the new way of building can emerge. To illustrate this further claim, Giedion considers the output of the Swiss engineer and architect Robert Maillart (1872-1940); the twenty-six pages devoted to Maillart constitute one of the most rewarding parts of ‘Space, Time & Architecture’. Maillart’s main contribution, according to Giedion, is to shift the domain of structural analysis from planar elements—beam, column and arch—to surfaces; shells and vaults. This innovation is accompanied by the take up of reinforced concrete as a construction technique, with particular exploration of connection details: just how the steel reinforcement—the component that deals with tension forces—transitions from slab or vault to column is crucial to the realisation of greater plasticity. (Giedion is careful to illustrate these details. They are not incidental: they are part of the knowledge how.) Now vaults and shells—structural surfaces—do predate Maillart: Wren’s conoid is an example. Some of these early (typically masonry) structures even feature tension elements. However, along with his presentation of Maillart, Giedion cites the work of Impressionist and Cubist artists: this body of work—he argues—emphasises surface. In the context of an improved public appreciation of surface, a designer such as Maillart can now propose unornamented, pure forms. The shape of the optimised structural element is now aesthetically sufficient; nothing now needs to be hidden.

Of course, we can dispute this, or some part of it. We can look, for instance, at the French tradition of surface expression in stonemasonry (stereotomy). But still, what Giedion sets out here looks to be some sort of sociological model, or perhaps a kind of anthropology, and his case for acceptance of it is convincing. This is how people act, he says, and here is an example that has happened. Take this example and all of the related activity together, and we have something we have to call a new tradition. It exists. Here, Giedion is in descriptive, rather than normative mode: if he is wrong, it is not because we think we don’t have to do likewise in our own design practice; he is wrong because what he describes simply did not happen (or did not happen like he says) and the tradition does not exist. And it seems obvious to me that he’s not wrong. It is still open to us to go in a different direction, but this is the basis for the departure.

Kevin Roche

Kevin Roche has died at the age of 96. I’ve seen (at least) three of his buildings close up. The Ford Foundation building in New York (close to the United Nations) is well known, and stands out for the sheer volume of unutilised space it contains: a corporate statement of some power. You can see something similar in his headquarters building for the engine manufacturer Cummins, in Columbus, Indiana, which I visited as a teenager, and again in the mid-90s. It’s not just that a big chunk of the site is left empty: that space (plus a rare historic building) is also enclosed with modern colonnading. The enclosure features a well kept lawn. You’d hesitate to have your picnic lunch there, though: there is a strong sense of ownership, and what’s more, Columbus is pretty much a company town: many jobs depend on that lawn owner. Cummins also pays the professional fees for any building project in Columbus, as long as it is designed by an architect it has approved. Still, you can in practice walk on the grass without being shouted at.

The colonnade is light and thoroughly arcadian; it takes fifteen minutes to follow it around the site, an activity which will calm you. Its rectangularity stands in contrast to the irrational looking and excitingly zig-zagged plan of the of the main building.

That main building looks like a three storey structure; in fact it’s a single huge floor with a mezzanine in some areas. The façade just has three linear strips of glass that suggest storeys. In places this pattern is inverted, and the three strips are then (literally) mirrored towards the interior. Good use is made of daylight: a sustainability measure. There is playful use of light, generally, in Roche buildings.

One result of all the volumetric inflation is that a very low density Midwestern town is left feeling urbanised to a greater degree than if the (more often seen) office campus model of blocks set in green sward had been followed. There is parking, but it’s round the back, away from the centre. Employees could walk out for lunch, or to the mall (I don’t know if they do), since the building is absolutely central, and connects directly to the public pavement, via doors. There is a degree of engagement rare in American corporate buildings.

Next door is the Columbus Post Office, also by Roche (or Roche Dinkeloo). It precedes the Cummins building by about a decade. This, too, is inflated to really fill the site. Even the columns are inflated (the photo below suggests there are now cladding problems). On balance, it’s reassuring to see a public building treated this well. A negative reading of the coordinated urban ensemble would be that Cummins has insinuated itself as an institution. The positive reading would be that the town demonstrates public-private cooperation, and there is restraint: things are reasonable.

Architecture school theory: authenticity

The word ‘authenticity’ carries multiple senses. Something that is authentic is true, but not quite in the sense of being a true report or description of something. But like truth as correspondence, authenticity is relational. When something is authentic it is correctly or properly related to other things. A forged or reproduction artwork, for example, is inauthentic in that it does not correctly relate to a known artist; it does come from that artist—in the sense that the artist is still the originator of the composition—but it comes only as a copy. With that said, I’m going to set aside senses of authenticity such as authorial authenticity. Instead, I’ll use the following senses of authenticity:

1. Having truth to experience. Literary modernism tends towards this sense; i.e. the narrative of Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’;
2. Having an appropriate relationship to some culture or practice, recent or old;
3. Being open to the possibilities of the present (or responsive to the challenges of the present) rather than having an appropriate connection to the culture or practices of the present.

The first sense—truth to experience—looks to be something beyond architecture, which—to a first approximation—is mute. There are conventions in architecture: a door will usually be recognised as a door. There are resemblances and historical associations: a pyramid will usually be recognised as Egyptian. And there are—in a certain sense—narratives: a spatial arrangement may be experienced linearly, with one experience giving way to another. But the way we use buildings is distant from the way we use spoken or written language; if we want to refer to something, we generally do not build something.

The third sense—openness to present possibility—is what Pevsner seems to be getting at in ‘Pioneers of the Modern Movement’, although his presentation of the idea is minimal.

It is the second sense of authenticity as I’ve defined it—authenticity as an appropriate relationship to some existing culture or practice—that suffuses Frampton’s influential 1983 essay ‘Towards a Critical Regionalism’. In this essay, Frampton sets out to give parameters to a reformed modernism. The appropriate cultural relationship Frampton has in mind is a complex one:

“[Critical Regionalism] has to ‘deconstruct’ the overall spectrum of world culture which it inevitably inherits; in the second place, it has to achieve, through synthetic contradiction, a manifest critique of universal civilisation.”

In Frampton’s scheme, ‘universal civilisation’ terms a technologically oriented, productive but placeless modernism, while ‘world culture’ names our collective inheritance of region-specific customs and practices. This inheritance is reported on—we all know about it, or can come to know about it—but is essentially localised.

Frampton also defines his reformed modernism against what he sees to be the alternative of ‘Populism’, which works, he says, principally through signs:

“… the primary vehicle of Populism is the communicative or instrumental sign. Such a sign seeks to evoke not a critical perception of reality, but rather the sublimation of a desire for direct experience through the provision of information. Its tactical aim is to attain, as economically as possible, a preconceived level of gratification in behaviouristic terms. In this respect, the strong affinity of Populism for the rhetorical techniques and imagery of advertising is hardly accidental. Unless one guards against such a convergence, one will confuse the resistant capacity of a critical practice with the demagogic tendencies of Populism.”

Frampton’s characterisation of ‘populism’ looks to have Venturi and Scott Brown in its sights. Three decades on, Frampton’s aim here looks off, even as his use of the term ‘populism’ is prescient. What we now see in political populism is a demand not for signs and quotations, but for the full blown restoration of tradition in the built environment; circumscribed, limited tradition; ‘proper buildings’; actual Grecian-style, stone-built structures. Post-modernism is not the current architectural populism, even if we deny to the current architectural populism the authenticity it so clearly wants, and in doing so, call it post-modern.

But my main concern is that Frampton’s formula for authenticity looks undeliverable. He approvingly cites Utzon’s Bagsvaerd church, near Copenhagen (1968). This is a building which combines rectilinear—although interestingly articulated—elevations with a fluid, expressive section. The elevations are said by Frampton to be representative of ‘universal civilization’; i.e. they are simple, economical and repetitive. The precedent for the section is said to be the Chinese pagoda form; the section, then, is here the bearer of ‘world culture’. However, the pagoda form is abstracted; it has something of the shape of the pagoda; it does not ‘quote’ a pagoda. This, for Frampton, is the right sort of response to ‘world culture’. In Frampton’s scheme—if I have it right—‘regional’ only means ‘regional somewhere’, and not necessarily ‘regional here’. And in the drawing from elsewhere, there is to be at the same time an (appropriate) transformation; the regional element is to become something else, even as the spirit of the original (supposedly) remains.

I can see two problems with this. The first problem is that—in the Utzon example, at least—the elements are unrecognisable as what Frampton describes. When I look at photographs of the Bagsvaerd church, I see not a straightforwardly modernist exterior—something representative of ‘universal civilization’—but some sort of modern interpretation of a local vernacular. The exterior includes pitched roof forms (although glazed).

It calls to mind domestic construction, faintly Germanic classical in its proportions. But that could just be me. Nor do I see a Chinese pagoda in the interior. And this, too, could just be me. But it could be you as well. There is a problem of recognisability; the formula aims to deliver a special kind of authenticity, but it is hard to see how this can work if the building user cannot perceive the cultural connection intended. For that user, there is either perhaps no authenticity at all, or else the ‘wrong sort of authenticity’; i.e. a connection is made, a connection with propriety, that could even have been intended, but which was not in fact intended. When I look at pictures of Bagsvaerd, I see something church-like, certainly; something Scandinavian, and—because I’ve seen Aalto—something Aalto-like. To me, Bagsvaerd looks like a (northern European) modern church. And it is one, too. Authentically so. I feel on safe ground with this.

The second problem is that Frampton’s formula seems to rely on judgements of taste. Elements of existing culture are to be abstracted and transformed, and tastefully, not crudely; cutting and pasting is out (or the result is ‘populism’). Now architectural education follows something like a conservatoire model; there is there a cultural transmission, in which architects train their successors to apply (what is considered to be) good taste judgement. As it happens, I think Kenneth Frampton has good taste; I share his appreciation of Utzon, an admirable architect. I enjoy the subtleties of his Bagsvaerd church. In his 1995 book ‘Studies in Tectonic Culture’, Frampton makes an excellent presentation of not only Utzon but also Mies, Kahn, Wright and others; I recommend this book. And I try to have good taste too. But in an architectural theory, an exhortation to exercise good taste judgement—to do things well, with refinement—just won’t bear much weight. Something more categorical is needed, for a theory.

Beyond Frampton, I have to say that I find myself losing faith in the idea of architectural authenticity, at least in its second meaning as I’ve given it. It seems to be a problem concept, one that causes effort and lost sleep, and for not much in return. There are many superficial applications; for instance, the current trend of interiors featuring walls and floors of Delftware.

And authenticity is a notion apparently surrounded by pitfalls. Authenticity is too readily co-opted into grim politics. Frampton has done his part in popularising Heidegger, and Heidegger’s advocacy of architectural tradition is now echoed by the far right; a development not anticipated in architecture schools. There’s more work to be done to secure authenticity for modernism, if it’s wanted there.

Architecture school theory: instrumentality

A repeated message in current architectural writing is to warn against ‘means-end thinking’, or ‘instrumental thinking’. For example, we might decide that we want to live in a home that has a constant temperature of 22 degrees centigrade, or that ‘has a view to the south-east’, and with these ends in mind, we go about arranging them; we find the means, whatever those are. And this—it’s said—is a bad way of doing things. The warning extends to architectural types; to think of whole buildings as objects serving our purposes—a research facility, a learning resource centre, a shopping mall—is also to practice ‘means-end thinking’. The cost—it’s said—is twofold; the resulting construction will not be worthy of its inhabitants, and worse, we risk “spoliation” of the environment. Instead, architects should aim at a simpler, more direct relationship with places, with people and with customs of inhabitation. Not housing, schools, factories, but dwellings, and gathering places of the community. Not needs met, but people addressed—so to speak—‘in their fullest being’ (my phrasing). Here’s an example of the message, from Dalibor Vesely:

“Architecture has probably never abandoned completely its humanistic role, though in modern times this role has mostly been improvised. That approach may no longer suffice in a changing world increasingly dominated by instrumentally oriented expectations. To preserve its primary identity and humanistic role in the future, architecture must establish credentials on the same level of intelligibility as instrumental thinking, while at the same time it must integrate and subordinate the instrumental knowledge and the technical potential of human beings to their praxis. This is, in essence, my aim in broad outline …” (Vesely, ‘Architecture in an Age of Divided Representation’ (2004), p. 5)

We got here, as I hinted at before, via Heidegger. How? Heidegger’s core project is to induct readers into an alternative to the traditions of metaphysics. Most people—and, you’ll be reassured to learn, four out of five living philosophy specialists, by their own self-reports—believe that there is a world of things with independent existence outside of the mind that experiences and recognises these things: this is realism; the world is real. Most people, but not all people. There is an alternate view, which is that the things of experience are things of the mind, and we should be sceptical of the existence of—or at least of the appearance of—what some might take to be a mind-independent world. There are several variations of this line of thinking in philosophy, sometimes termed idealism, or anti-realism, depending on the version, and all of them tending to have a sophistication which I can’t tackle here.

And there are complications. We also like to predicate of objects that we encounter in experience; for example, we say ‘I see the roof is shiny’ or ‘you’ll find the path is bumpy’ in the confidence that many things are shiny or bumpy: that those things are alike in those ways; they have properties. There is then a range of views about what properties are. When we predicate, do we refer to something somehow in the object, to something mental that groups objects together, or do we invoke something we might call a universal; something external to the mind, and whose location cannot be given?

Heidegger’s approach is to say that there is a difference between things existing—mere existence, we might say—and those same things having a certain graspable or connectable kind of being. Things—for Heidegger—have this special kind of being only when experienced by us with purposive engagement; he collectively terms such things ‘equipment’ and describes the special kind of being as ‘readiness-to-hand’ (zuhandenheit). As examples, Heidegger determinedly points to everyday objects, when we use a hammer—when we engage purposively with a hammer—the hammer is ‘equipment’ and has zuhandenheit. As a metaphysical position, this is not realism—in this picture the existence of things is in a certain way conditional on our experiencing them—but it is not idealism either; things retain a mind-independent mere existence. To put this second point in Heidegger’s terms: beyond our engagement with them, things continue to have ‘presence-at-hand’ (vorhandenheit) as things ‘in’ the world (as the desk is ‘in’ the room, and the room is ‘in’ the university). We may still relate to such things that are only ‘present-at-hand’, but our doing so is a sort of reduction; we come to consider such things, in our detachment, as objects, and ourselves as subjects. And when we treat things as ‘present-at-hand’—as only objects of our curiosity—we achieve for ourselves only a less authentic way of being; full authenticity is only found in engagement, in connection with the ‘ready-at-hand’.

The philosopher Rudolf Carnap, in a sharply critical piece of 1932 (‘The Elimination of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of Language’), argues for much tighter control of expression in philosophical writing than he sees in Heidegger (whom he names). For Carnap, a term such as ‘being’, in philosophical writing at least, is to be understood only through its role as an ‘existence quantifier’; a thing x is (or is not)—this is the quantifier—and has property F (or does not have it). Existence is not to be predicated of something; there are not kinds of existence, or kinds of being. My intent is not to try to come to a judgement on this. However, Carnap then says the following:

“The metaphysician believes that he travels in territory in which truth and falsehood are at stake. In reality, however, he has not asserted anything, but only expressed something, like an artist. [But] Lyrical poets … do not try to refute in their poem the statements in a poem by some other lyrical poet.”

And I think the implication of egotism in Heidegger—extreme egotism, even—is right. Heidegger presents himself as getting at something of crucial importance. His metaphysical picture is to give a foundation to sciences: “basic concepts determine the way in which we get an understanding beforehand of the area of subject-matter underlying all the objects a science takes as its theme, and all positive investigation is guided by this understanding”. Indeed, his metaphysics is meant to overturn wrong thinking generally. In a jarring passage in Being and Time he writes (my emphasis):

“It would be unintelligible for Being-in-the-world to remain totally veiled from view, especially since Dasein has at its disposal an understanding of its own Being, no matter how indefinitely this understanding may function. But no sooner was the ‘phenomenon of knowing the world’ grasped than it got interpreted in a ‘superficial’, formal manner. The evidence for this is the procedure (still customary today) of setting up knowing as a ‘relation between subject and Object’—a procedure in which there lurks as much ‘truth’ as vacuity. But subject and Object do not coincide with Dasein and the world.”

The construction “no sooner was … than it got interpreted” (admittedly here in translation) is flat footed in the context of the generally attractive, mystery-unfolding aesthetic of Heidegger’s prose. A big mistake has been made, Heidegger says; it must not only be commented on, it must be reversed. And he is clearly reaching.

And so we get to building. There is also wrong thinking—Heidegger comes to say after an interval that includes, shockingly, his own active involvement in German fascism*—in the way which we build. And there is a better way to build; it can be done, he says:

“Let us think for a while of a farmhouse in the Black Forest, which was built some two hundred years ago by the dwelling of peasants. Here the self-sufficiency of the power to let earth and heaven, divinities and mortals enter in simple oneness into things, ordered the house. It placed the farm on the wind-sheltered mountain slope looking south, among the meadows close to the spring. It gave it the wide overhanging shingle roof whose proper slope bears up under the burden of snow, and which, reaching deep down, shields the chambers against the storms of the long winter nights. It did not forget the altar corner behind the community table; it made room in its chamber for the hallowed places of childbed and the “tree of the dead”—for that is what they call a coffin there: the Totenbaum—and in this way it designed for the different generations under one roof the character of their journey through time. A craft which, itself sprung from dwelling, still uses its tools and frames as things, built the farmhouse.”

By ‘dwelling’ and ‘entering in simple oneness into things’ Heidegger intends his own metaphysic of zuhandenheit: purposive engagement, craft; not our habitual subject-object, or means-end thinking. We may doubt the accuracy of Heidegger’s description; it seems touristic, we may say. What are these houses really like? What has been left out? But it’s the phrase “by the dwelling of peasants” that strikes. Are these real people? Who were they? How does he know of them? What does he know of them? What reports do we have of their thinking? Is the house itself taken to be evidence of that? If not, then what is?


Let’s say that such a house, either as Heidegger describes it, or as we might find one, is evidence of the thinking—of the way of being, to put it in Heidegger’s terms—of its builders. If this is right, then to do as they did will be to be as they were, at least to a degree. Yet to do as they did requires us to take note of features of the house; these gables, those windows, those beams, etc. But which features are the correct ones to take note of? Are we sure that none of what we see was put into place by means-end thinking? The history of Black Forest houses suggests that earlier examples were built with living rooms facing the hillside, and not facing out, over the valley, as we might expect. At some time, a switch was made and later examples do have valley-facing living rooms. But why was this done? Can we be sure that no Black Forest farmers had the thought that it would be nice to look out at the valley and asked themselves what would have to happen to bring that about? I suggest that we cannot.

Heidegger, of course, presents his example and immediately disavows it:

“Our reference to the Black Forest farm in no way means that we should or could go back to building such houses; rather, it illustrates by a dwelling that has been, how it was able to build.”

So what should we build? We stand outside the craft tradition attributed to the Black Forest farmers. What is our own craft tradition supposed to consist of? We will know, Heidegger suggests, if we adopt the metaphysic of zuhandenheit. But note that the farmhouse—Heidegger’s example—now has no role to play. We can understand the hammer easily enough; the farmhouse is a more complex affair. It is probably unsafe to assume that any of its features will guide us; we are instead reliant on first principles: Heidegger’s metaphysics, if we choose to go that way. Some architectural writers seem to work back from ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’—finding the picture there appealing—to some of Heidegger’s other writing, coming to support his normative demand—i.e. we should reduce our tendency to means-end thinking—assigning that demand extra weight ‘because Heidegger’ (i.e. it comes from authority) and only perhaps as a last step internalising a Heideggerian metaphysics. Resilience to the Heidegger mystique is best obtained from working forwards instead. Is Heidegger’s metaphysics convincing to you (is it better than alternatives; is it worse, even, than anything; is it—as Carnap seems to think—somewhere between psychology and fiction); even if it is convincing, does it give any weight at all to Heidegger’s normative demand as applied generally, and if so, what does this mean for building specifically? And note that if you find his metaphysics unconvincing (or just of no moral consequence), it is still open to you, as a designer, to pursue something we could call a ‘mindfulness approach’, or even a ‘psychology of Heidegger’. In this, we would pay careful attention to things of the world on the grounds that (occasional) simple, direct, sensory engagement with things of the world is good, happy and productive. But contra Heidegger, we needn’t think that our mindfulness signifies any great truth. Heidegger anticipates this objection:

“… this characteristic [of zuhandenheit] is not to be understood as merely a way of taking [things], as if we were talking such ‘aspects’ into the ‘entities’ which we proximally encounter, or as if some world-stuff which is proximally present-at-hand in itself were ‘given subjective colouring’ …”

We are not to give things subjective colouring, he says, except that we can; this choice is open to us.

And we can go further, again without internalising any particular metaphysics; we can agree that means-end thinking is often unsatisfactory, and sometimes destructive. Here, though, I think more caution is needed. We do not live and work in a world made only by us, or by those near to us; we live in enormous societies with many technical specialisms. Some of these (many of them, even) apply to building. For example, someone has researched the role of radon gas in health, and found out that it collects in basements, and can be mitigated in a certain way; it is very hard to see the ‘means-end thinking’ that has been done here as anything other than beneficial. Similarly, someone has researched the performance of materials as applied to structures, or to fire resistance, with lessons for the way we build. Beyond individual buildings, someone has researched the effects of certain approaches to town planning, to transport planning, also with lessons for the way we build. Even as we retain traditions—if we retain them—we may choose to modify them: rationally, instrumentally. Or we may choose to abandon them: again, rationally, instrumentally. It is a stretch to call into question or demote  all ‘means-end thinking’ (and still more of a stretch to insist that we all pay attention to the phenomenologically-grounded world view of one writer): it depends on the means, and on the end.

*Heidegger’s anti-Semitism was categorically established in 2014 with the publication of his private journals.

Architecture school theory: introduction

So, what is architecture school theory? Take Scruton’s ‘Aesthetics of Architecture’, which I blogged about earlier. This is a book written by a non-architect, for non-architects (mainly), about architecture. From the perspective of architecture schools, it is almost counter-cultural. How did this happen?

In the UK, Oxford University has no architecture school at all (although Oxford Brookes does). Some schools of architecture are fully independent (the Architectural Association). The school I attended (the Mackintosh) is embedded within of Glasgow School of Art and has only a very slender link to Glasgow University. The state of formal academic writing about architecture reinforces the sense that there is little dialogue between (anglophone) architecture schools and humanities departments. However, some architecture schools produce architectural theory. Overwhelmingly, this draws on a so-called ‘continental’ tradition of philosophy. This is a category that recognises–perhaps tendentiously–an academic fissure that was opened by anglophone philosophers such as Russell and Moore in their rejection of the method of F. H. Bradley and other so-called ‘British idealists’, who themselves identified–more or less–as followers of Hegel. On the far side of this fissure there now also stand French and German writers such as Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Sartre (with Brentano as a common influence); hence the term ‘continental’. These writers share a focus on articulating conscious experience through introspection (‘phenomenology’). They are also ‘system builders’, making efforts to present complete (and therefore lengthy) philosophical descriptions; implicitly the reader is asked to consider the verisimilitude of the picture presented: this itself continues a tradition of Hume, Kant and Hegel, and is an approach mostly rejected on the anglophone (or ‘analytic’) side since Russell. All disputes fade with time; what I think is (slightly) interesting here is that anglophone architectural writers have made no efforts to bridge the gap: they continue on with Heidegger et al.

I suspect that, in part at least, this is because Heidegger himself is one of few philosophers to directly address architecture, mainly via his short essay ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’ (1951) (.pdf). If so, the situation is unflattering to architects, as if writing from other disciplines has to be flagged as ‘about architecture’ in order for architects to think of reading it. What then, should architects read? Architecture is something which people do that affects the world and the people in it. Architectural theory, then, has to be thought of as a guide to action; an answer to the question: what should architects (and planners, and designers) do? In answering this question, ethics and politics are the topics in philosophical writing that theory-minded architects ought to turn to first, with aesthetics following … possibly. These topics are richly represented in the analytic tradition. Introspective explorations of consciousness might feature; on the face of things it is hard to see any specifically architectural application for this line of inquiry. From a scan of the literature, though, you might think that phenomenology was considered to be architecture’s special philosophical complement.


That said, over the next few months I plan to write some posts here on architecture school theory, with the intent of setting out what seems useful in it, and what seems objectionable (or at least questionable). I hope to give a fair representation of it along the way. Or of a slice of it. There are a lot of words out there, and I haven’t decided how best to organise the task: reading everything is not feasible. Most likely, I will take a thematic approach, looking at topics such as representation (architects do drawings!) and what is now often called ‘place’. If there are connections between what is in architecture school theory and some of the advocacy for traditional architecture, or for modernism, I will try to sketch those out as well.

Arguments for tradition in architecture: 2

Watkin’s ‘Morality and Architecture’ (1977) is still fairly well known, although I suspect it’s starting to lose currency. It has been described as a ‘polemic’. Its most favourable reading—its best hope, even—is as a call for some space for the practice of the traditional in architecture, and beyond that, for architectural aesthetics to recover priority. It does not succeed in this.

At the end of his book, Watkin writes: “a historicist emphasis on progress and the necessary superiority of novelty, has come close to undermining, on the one hand, our appreciation of the imaginative genius of the individual and, on the other, the importance of artistic tradition”. The book doesn’t contain much argument. Watkin’s method is to take a succession of writers—Pugin, Viollet-le-Duc, Lethaby, Giedion, Furneaux Jordan, Pevsner—and subject them to a sceptical debunking, generally in the form of ‘… and we see that he too has been captured by the idea of a Zeitgeist’. The book is short, so each of these figures can receive only a short amount of discussion: Pevsner gets the most. Watkin frequently uses not only the term ‘Zeitgeist’ but also the more direct ‘Hegelian’; even so Hegel’s arguments are not presented or explored. Yet with the chutzpah dial at full, Watkin also writes that “no one with a proper training in philosophy, intellectual history, religion, or the social sciences has turned a critical eye on architectural history”. At the same time, Watkin cites Karl Popper (‘The Open Society and its Enemies’ and ‘The Poverty of Historicism’), with apparently no sense that this in itself might be a serious warning off to anyone with “a proper training in philosophy”.

A practicing designer will also find Watkin’s debunking project to be dotted with statements that irritate. For example: “the so-called ‘human needs’ are defined arbitrarily, arrogantly, and with a complete disregard for the importance of tradition as a guide to the architect” (are we allowed to try to define such needs in a better, less arrogant way?), or “in fact [the use of glass] is generally an aesthetic urge disguised as a technological necessity” (why can’t it be both?), or “in itself [structural efficiency] is not particularly interesting except to the specialist or the structural engineer … most people take structural efficiency for granted” (they might take it for granted, but they might also enjoy it).

Watkin’s discussion of Pevsner ought to be the most rewarding part of the book: Watkin was a student of Pevsner, so we can hope to find an unmediated characterisation. Here, a sense of timescale might be helpful. Pevsner’s ‘Pioneers of the Modern Movement’ was published in 1936, when (what we’d most likely call) modern architecture was established as a focus of activity in many countries (except Nazi Germany, where it was subject to official repression) but actual built examples were still comparatively rare. By 1977 (the publication year of ‘Morality and Architecture’) another world war had occurred, many social institutions had been re-ordered, the Marshall Plan had taken effect, extensive physical rebuilding had taken place across Europe, and a number of prominent émigré architects (for instance, Gropius, Mies van der Rohe) had influenced a rapidly expanding American built environment. In 1936, the advocates of modernism—the CIAM architects, for instance—were working to enlarge a cultural space for the practice of modernism. In 1977, Watkin feels able to write as if the practice of modernism in architecture threatens his freedom to enjoy classical architecture. ‘Pioneers …’ and ‘Morality and Architecture’ can be seen as opposed works of advocacy; the one calling for more modernism, the other calling for less of it.

However, Pevsner’s ‘Pioneers …’ is also a history. It is a slim, illustrated book that aims more (much more) at ordering and categorising modern and proto-modern buildings than at explaining or justifying them. We might, of course, object to the way in which the categorisation is done. We might say that a supposed example of proto-modern architecture is not any such thing, nor does it somehow contribute or lead to the development of modern architecture. Watkin does this. But this line of criticism, even if sustainable (and it is not), is fiddling around the edges. It doesn’t abolish the category of modern architecture: that remains. What is Pevsner’s normative argument about it? Pevsner does not give us much. What we find in ‘Pioneers …’ is that Pevsner says that certain features of a building will be sufficient for it to count as ‘valid for our time’: specifically, a stylistic ‘coldness’ and a respect for the ‘anonymity of the client’. By ‘anonymity of the client’, Pevsner seems to mean the opposite of a patronage relationship between client and architect: with a modern building, the architect does not work for the satisfaction of any one individual; instead, he or she aims at collectivity, or universality. The architect does not necessarily know who will inhabit or use a building: the building is—at least to a degree—public. But what does Pevsner mean by ‘coldness’? Again, the word is used against its opposite: ‘warmth’:

“The warmth and directness with which ages of craft and a more personal relation between architect and client endowed buildings of the past may have gone for good. The architect, to represent this century of ours, must be colder …”

But there is no suggestion that the resulting built environment should be one that is stripped of ‘warmth’: implicitly, the result will have both. We are right—Pevsner seems to say—to prefer a world that also has modern architecture compared with a world that excludes or ignores it. It would be a mistake to miss—or fail to live up to—the possibilities and challenges of our era:

“[a] world in which we live and work and which we want to master, a world of science and technology, of speed and danger, of hard struggles and no personal security.”

After writing this, Pevsner continued with his life, as one does. By 1958, he had founded the Victorian Society and had made a major contribution to the Architectural Review’s Townscape campaign, which advocated a humanised modernism with—as Tim Benton writes in his review of Draper’s ‘Reassessing Nikolaus Pevsner’ (2004)—“picturesque asymmetries and a touch of robust popular culture”. But these later activities were in no sense a recantation: in his 1960 revision of ‘Pioneers …’, Pevsner adds:

“… today’s reality, exactly as that of 1914, can find its complete expression only in the style created by the giants of that by now distant past. Society has not changed since, industrialisation has expanded, anonymity of the client has not been overcome, anonymity of architectural design has increased. The whims of individual architects … cannot be accepted as an answer to the serious questions which it is the responsibility of the architect to answer. Whether his answer ought to differ from that of the pioneers of 1914, and in what way it ought to differ, it is not for this book to decide.”

Does Watkin’s charge of historicism then stick? I see nothing in Pevsner that says modern architecture is the necessary outcome of previous development; that a historian of, say, 1851, or even 1909, could (in principle) have foreseen something like Gropius and Meyer’s model factory of 1914. And this is what historicism is (in the Popperian characterisation of it, at least). Pevsner’s historical method appears—by contrast—conventional. To read a building as having a feature that reappears in a later building, possibly transformed, is just to note that the potential for transmission of an idea exists, or existed. A more exact history might confirm (or disconfirm) that this transmission happened: perhaps through documented evidence of a building visit, some correspondence, or some other interaction. The search for exactness extends the same activity. And the activity here isn’t historicism, or prediction; it is just the writing of history, as when Pevsner describes the role of Hermann Muthesius (1861-1927):

“By pronouncing … ideas still unfamiliar in Germany, Muthesius soon became the centre of a group of congenial spirits. Of paramount importance … was Alfred Lichtwark (1852-1914), art historian and director of the Hamburg Gallery … in the lectures which he delivered between 1896 and 1899, and  which are full of praise for England, he pleaded for practical, unadorned furniture … for wide horizontal windows and ‘floods of light’ …”

What, then, should we think about Pevsner’s normative claim: that certain features of buildings are sufficient to make them ‘valid for our time’? He doesn’t justify it: the call for ‘seriousness’; the call for stylistic reflection of public (‘anonymous’) use, of the technological, is best taken as an appeal to our sensibility, aware, as we likely are, of the features and opportunities—and the difficulties—of our own era. Let’s recall Watkin’s task—as I’ve characterised it—of making space for traditional style. Defeating Pevsner’s ‘historicism’ or “the Zeitgeist Pevsner wishes to establish” is redundant to this task: there is nothing to defeat; nothing—in Pevsner—to block stylistic co-existence. Nor does Pevsner’s advocacy, such as it is, prevent designers from assigning priority to aesthetics: on the contrary, Pevsner’s writing readily—if not routinely—turns to a sense of the aesthetic, of the experiential. Of Hoffman’s Palais Stoclet (relevantly, a large private house) he writes:

“[it] is a work of exceedingly spirited composition, its exquisitely spaced openings and light walls are a joy to the eye, and the high uninterrupted window of the staircase is again present; but the artistic attitude is here far from sachlich (rightly, no doubt): a charm and playfulness are expressed in these facades which are alien to most of the outstanding buildings in the new [i.e. modern] style …”

There is an openness to diversity and heterogeneity in Pevsner that Watkin seems to completely miss: in light of this, it is hard to see how Pevsner can be fairly represented as a Philip Johnson figure, working tirelessly to converge creative efforts; to curate a modern future. ‘Morality and Architecture’ is a straw man effort, and a misdirection of energies. There simply is no requirement to move Pevsner out of the way for any traditional or other stylistic revival.

(Above: plan of the Stoclet House, Brussels)