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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 provide 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 suggest 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 it 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. 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’.

Which is all fine. In a way. 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, must 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. For my purposes, what is more interesting in Carnap’s essay is what he follows with:

“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 is right. Heidegger takes himself to be 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; an incredible ambition. 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 surprisingly flat footed in the context of the—mostly—spare and measured aesthetic of Heidegger’s prose; I think it reveals a competitive motivation to his project. A big mistake has been made, Heidegger seems to say; it must not only be commented on, it must be reversed.

And so we get to building. There is also wrong thinking—Heidegger comes to say after an interval that includes a world war and the rise and fall of fascism in Germany—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 it seems that to do as they did will be to be as they were, at least to a degree. Yet to do as they did asks 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 real 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 naturally 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 simply 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. (And, if this is what happened, I can see no way to respectably denigrate the motivation of those people: if it seemed good to them to have that end in mind, in a very similar way to how it might seem good to us to have it, then all power to them.)

Heidegger, of course, presents his example and then 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 real role to play here. We can understand the hammer easily enough; the farmhouse is a much 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 attractive—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. It might be better to work forwards: 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); 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? 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 engagement with things of the world is a good, happy and productive thing. But contra Heidegger, we needn’t think that our mindfulness signifies any great truth. Heidegger objects:

“… 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 much 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 big stretch to call into question or demote  all ‘means-end thinking’ (and still more of a stretch to insist that we all pay serious attention to the phenomenologically-grounded world view of one twentieth century writer): it surely depends on the means, and on the end.

Style and politics

Gavin Stamp’s recent death – noted here and here – made me think about something he said when I was a student of his at the Mackintosh School in the early 90s. He showed the class a slide of Paul Troost’s Ehrentempeln and said (words to the effect of): ‘this is compelling architecture; don’t reject it just because it was built by the Nazis’. I want to consider this a bit. Take two statements as follows:

Statement 1

Knowledge of the political beliefs of a building’s patron or of the political system under which the building was commissioned should not inform any value judgement about that building’s architectural style.

Statement 2

In context of a given political system, nothing is to be said about the rightness or wrongness of choosing one building style over another.

Statement 2 looks like a corollary of Statement 1, but is not. And it is false. Where a designer accepts the norms of a political system, he or she (implicitly or explicitly) accepts an obligation to design, by preference, in a certain way, or ways; the menu of styles does not remain open. This may be true even as nothing is said in everyday political conversation, under a certain system, about architectural style, and no laws or guides exist concerning architectural style. Why? The obligation comes about because certain stylistic choices may have consequences which do fall under the scope of political conversation, and which are touched by extant law and guidance. Call these practical consequences. For example, the compositional conventions of a certain style may tend to produce buildings with areas of wall without windows, or with very limited fenestration, affecting enjoyment of the interior, yet occupants may have limited freedom to move to space with better daylight. The style has a practical consequence. And this consequence may conflict with, for instance, a prior political commitment to extend to all persons equal dignity and comfort.

Statement 2 does not follow from Statement 1 because the statements are temporally opposed: Statement 1 is retrospective; it concerns value judgements made about what has already been built; the practical consequences of the designer’s choices are assumed to have been felt, or to (at least) be irretrievable. The viewer assesses the aesthetic value that can be drawn from what now is, in the physical remains; the building is treated as a monument. Statement 2, by contrast, is forward looking. The designer is faced with choices; the practical consequences of those choices may still be felt, or avoided (if negative). The designer should make the right choices.

So, even as we reject Statement 2 – as I feel we should – we are free to accept Statement 1. But should we accept Statement 1? There is strong feeling about certain architectural styles, especially certain derivatives of classical style developed in the 20th century. For example, the recently proposed improvements to Munich’s Haus der Kunst (1933), also designed by Troost for the Nazis, were publicly criticised: the choice to remove trees hiding the main façade was condemned with the implication that the building is considered by some to be beyond enjoyment. Troost’s Ehrentempeln (monuments to Nazis who died violently in a coup attempt; the interior of one of the pair is shown below) were demolished by US forces in 1947.

An instance of a style can be rejected: it seems reasonable to say that the Ehrentempeln – these particular buildings – if kept, would have memorialised that which should not be memorialised. But this does not reject the style. And there are implications for disavowing the style of these structures. Architectural ideas freely cross borders and polities. Compare Asplund’s Woodland Cemetery (below) with Troost’s Ehrentempel.

Beyond the resemblance, if there is a historical connection between the two, it may be traced to Muthesius and Europe-wide efforts to forge effective partnerships between design and industry; in the English Arts & Crafts movement and the similar Deutscher Werkbund (of which Troost was a member). It is surely incoherent to reject an aesthetic where it shows up in a deprecated polity and embrace it where it shows up in a healthy one.





Baugruppen & infra

The organisation responsible for the redevelopment of London’s Olympic park held a public consultation recently – specifically a consultation on a parcel allocated to residential development – so I went along. The offer was a fairly standard mix of private for sale and affordable (i.e. subsidised) housing; no baugruppen in sight. I had a couple of minutes with one of LLDC’s development professionals – at a senior level – and asked about baugruppen. They’re not being considered for any of the Olympic site, and the reason given was that a baugruppe would be making use of new infrastructure (i.e. roads, piped services) while not paying for it. In essence, a free-rider argument. Justifiable? I don’t think so, not without more detail. There are lots of implicit transfers going on in any kind of urban development and quite often private for-profit development benefits without paying. For example, the Docklands Light Railway was upgraded at taxpayer expense in advance of the Olympics. It now serves Westfield Stratford, a major new mall. It’s true that Westfield’s developers paid for some local transport upgrades, but not – as far as I know – any part of the DLR. But perhaps this sort of accounting is always going to be imprecise. Some transfers a city planner will simply allow, with a shrug. For example, the homeowners now living near the location of the planned Northern Line extension into Battersea are likely to benefit from that piece of infrastructure, but no one is going to impose some special tax on them.

My hunch is that the LLDC simply prefers to work with big players; organisations that can be leaned on for some sort of contribution towards something. In that context, would-be baugruppen are just irritating small fry. They could be tolerated – or even welcomed – but no luck this time.

Anyway, the model looks good: