Existential Architecture: Being There.
Architecture and Philosophy don’t sit well together. Kant had a bit to say about aesthetics but not much to say about architecture. What little he did you’ll find here. The author of the piece says “Kant is responsible for the notion that architecture should express ideas, and also for competing views on what ideas it should express.” If so, Kant’s got a lot to answer for.
Wittgenstein’s name always gets a mention whenever talk turns to philosophy and architecture – and always in connection with the 1926 Haus Wittgenstein in Vienna, designed by Wittgenstein and architect Paul Engelmann who quietly stepped away from the project once it became obvious Wittgenstein was a nightmare to work with.
One hears the anecdote of Wittgenstein having a ceiling raised by 30mm repeated as an example of his perfectionism. I’d love to know more about this. Raising a ceiling must have meant a whole world of pain for everyone. Was there a fake ceiling in this temple of honesty? Did raising a ceiling mean raising a floor? It’s not the kind of behaviour one would expect of a logical positivist whose every statement requires either empirical or logical verification in order to be cognitively meaningful. Saying “the proportions aren’t perfect!” is neither empirically nor logically verifiable.
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Architects tend to steer well clear of philosophy. And well they might.
- It’s difficult to get your head around it.
- It’s not sexy.
- When you think of Philosophy, you don’t think Money or Art.
- It’s too much trouble.
- Why care about philosophy when entire architectural movements can be built on one or two misappropriations from literature or the world of Art?
- Why even go that far when you can have a healthy cashflow on the basis of statements no more profound than “I like curves”?
Unfortunately, the messy pluralism we have today, isn’t working and the previous post showed that the history of new architectures hates a vacuum. What makes this situation even more unfortunate is that, in the great chain of content provision, we can’t trust the media or architects to give us coherent, or even honest reasons why buildings are the way they are. We’re on our own, mostly in the dark, and need an autonomous basis for judging good vs. bad, truth vs. lies and fact vs. hype. Here’s my best shot.
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Søren Kierkegaard is considered to have been the first existentialist philosopher.
Three of Existentialism’s central ideas are all we need.
#1: Existence is more important than Essence
Individuals are independently-acting, responsible, conscious beings (“existence”) and not what labels, roles, stereotypes, definitions, or other preconceived categories they might fit into (“essence”). So how about this?
A building should be what it is rather than how it might appear to others.
This denounces architectural pretensions of all sorts. It may even denounce all of what’s commonly thought of as architecture.
One innovation here is applying the same requirement of existence over essence to images of buildings yet to be built. This should hopefully check the current imbalance between the design of a building (existence) and the marketing of a building and/or its designers (essence).
Facticity is what a thing is. Much of the facticity of people consists of things they weren’t able to choose but have nevertheless shaped their values. Even so, people are still free to choose how important to them those unchangeable facts are.
This reminds me of the Minimalists deciding that space and light are the essentials of architecture. Says who? One chooses what facts are relevant. One is responsible for one’s own values, regardless of society’s values. This of course, is what the problem always comes down to – what is important? “Which of these many factors am I going to use to determine how this building is going to be? Or shall I just invent some new ones and call it a theme?”
When designing a building, it’s difficult to know what facts are relevant and that need to be acted upon. But some architects manage to get it right and they’re the ones I call misfits.
A building should not deny the facts of its existence.
- Buildings are artificial objects. Any pretensions to having, or to having the appearance of any of the qualities of organic or natural objects is inauthentic. This includes, but is not limited to growth and movement.
- Buildings are static, physical objects. Any pretensions to denying their physicality is inauthentic. This includes, but is not limited to weightlessness, transparency and motion.
- Buildings have a reason for existing. Any pretensions to catering to other reasons is inauthentic. This is the existence–essence conflict.
- Buildings are products of their time and place. In terms of Existentialist Architecture, this means the use of materials and technologies appropriate for a time and place. It does not mean the adoption of whatever stylistic fad is currently circulating as that would be contrary to #1 Existence over Essence.
- Buildings are for humans to use. This means that the indoor environment cannot be ignored.
The role of facticity in relation to authenticity involves letting one’s actual values come into play when making a choice. One takes responsibility for the act of choosing instead of choosing either-or without allowing the options to have different values.
Being inauthentic is to deny one’s factiticy. Being inauthentic is to deny that one has choices that one must take responsibility for. An inauthentic building would result from:
- pretending choices are random or meaningless. This would generate an ad-hoc architecture.
- designing for a theme rather than a project. The project is the facticity.
- Following rules that stipulate how one should think and act instead of thinking and acting.
The concepts of authenticity and its opposite (what Existentialists call “bad faith”) transfer easily to architecture.
A building should not pretend to be something it isn’t.
For a building to appear to have the qualities of something that is not a building (or the building it actually is) is inauthentic. This includes all of the buildings above, as well as all buildings that appear to be from a time they are not.
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These three linked concepts of Existence & Essence, Facticity and Authenticity can be applied as they are to buildings.
- Existence: A building should be what it is rather than what others want it to be.
- Facticity: A building should not deny the facts of its existence.
- Authenticity: A building should not pretend to be something it isn’t.
They are very similar to what I wrote of not long ago as dysfunctionalism.
- All kinds of fake surfaces, proportions, illusions and ornamentation are inauthentic, as well as being wasteful.
- To design a building for its media impact is inauthentic and to give essence priority over existence – as well as being unethical.
- To design a building in denial of its environmental facticity is inauthentic – as well as irresponsible.
- Globalised design agendas and building solutions are denials of facticity just as much as The International Style was.
These three concepts underlying Existential Architecture let us easily identify the diverse varieties of what isn’t Existential Architecture, and let us do it across stylistic, historical and even cultural categories. With #2, environmental determinants are included for the first time as part of a building’s facticity, no more or less important than any other aspect. All Existential Architecture is environmentally-responsive architecture.
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“So show us some Existential Architecture then!”
- All vernacular architecture is Existential Architecture. Wherever it is, vernacular architecture is generated by nothing else but its facticity. It’s what we like about it.
- Existential architecture is industrial buildings. What industrial buildings and vernacular architecture have in common is their direct and immediate response to their respective facticities. We appreciate that they do what they do in the best way they can.
- Existential architecture is any building that is generated from what it does and where it is.
- The buildings of Hannes Meyer and all the other misfits featured in this blog are all Existentialist Architecture in that they don’t waste resources to satisfy external expectations.
- Buildings in extreme environments are all Existentialist Architecture. They do what they do without regard for external perceptions of style or comfort.
- Existential Architecture includes all buildings that make the best use of available resources without regard for external appearances.
- Existential Architecture includes the houses from the golden age of Danish Modernism.
- Existential Architecture is what it is.
You’ve seen these examples before. Existential Architecture is what misfitsarchitecture has been all about. Anti-dysfunctionalism. Another thing all these examples have in common with Existentialism is an essential humanism. Existentialism is about thinking yes, but it’s also about acting, feeling and living human individuals.
In addition to making sense of the present and giving some guidelines for the future. Existential Architecture
- includes the past – no other way of thinking about architecture has ever done this – it’s always been about the new.
- includes climate as circumstances a building must not deny – if it is a building,
- includes indoor environmental control as something a building must not deny – for buildings are there for people.
Existential Architecture is an approach towards being rather than an affected style for show. With no visual style to champion, it is beyond fashion.
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Existentialist philosophy has other concepts. The notion of The Absurd contains the idea that there is no meaning in the world beyond what we give it. This might be relevant to how we construct images of buildings in our minds on the basis of limited information that doesn’t even have to be true. The Other and The Look are also interesting concepts but, frankly, I’m out of my depth. I’m more familiar with Angst and Despair as they’re what I feel a lot of the time about the current state of architecture. Existential Crisis could be what what now passes for architecture is headed for if too many people start to question the foundations for its existence and whether that continued existence has any meaning, purpose, or value.