Emancipating Architecture: Toward a More Serious Aesthetic

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Contemporary architecture has been trivialized spurred on by a profit-driven construction industry on the one hand and aspiring intellectual designers on the other. At a time of increasing social inequality, threats of nuclear proliferation, widespread spiritual and moral fatigue, disintegration of the social nucleus, lifestyle- and environment-dependant illnesses of epidemic proportions, alarming frequency and intensity of natural disasters, terrorism, global warming, deforestation, air pollution, acid rain, ozone depletion, the extinction of species, limited natural resources and a dwindling food supply, architecture has either been absent or responded with inconsequential metaphors.

Trivial Pursuit
Intellectualizing, imagery, and metaphors have been one of architecture’s trivial pursuits that have compromised the profession’s credibility and effectiveness.

For example, over a decade ago Daniel Liebeskind’s metaphor for colliding, collapsing, chaotic architectural expressions was his personal worldview, summed up in uncertainty and mortality. A structure by Frank Gehry, completed in 2004, also appears to be collapsing. But the scary tilted columns and teetering, colliding walls of the Stata at MIT are “a deliberate metaphor for the freedom and daring of the research that’s supposed to occur inside.” Two different decades, different architects, different geographies, different contexts, and vastly different metaphors, yet similar architectural expressions?

Even sincere metaphysical meanings when used as catalyst for design are soon lost, forgotten, or become irrelevant. Either the novelty expires or the intended communication changes over time in ways beyond the designer’s control. I concur with Schuman’s conclusion that “a socially responsible architecture is both compassionate and savvy,” but it cannot be either “through imagery alone” (Schuman 1991).

Another architectural trivial pursuit is the high premium placed on novelty. The need for new and different expressions that correspond to modern life is a dogma left over from Modernism. Colquhoun remarked fittingly that even though many aspects of Modernist theory seem still valid today, much “belongs to the realm of myth, and is impossible to accept at face value. The myth itself has now become history, and demands critical interpretation” (Colquhoun 2002).

Technology has often been cited as the catalyst for design and it has been charged with having fundamentally altered the human condition. But merely external circumstances have changed while significant life events remained the same. I concur with Alex Callinicos who rejects as false “the claim that we are currently experiencing an epochal change in our social life” (Callinicos 1989). Has the mystery of new life or the despair of death been affected by the modern life-style? Has the wonder of childbirth been intensified by a high-tech delivery room? Has a parent’s pride over a child’s first smile or word been lessened by modern communication? Has the mystery of falling in love faded because of technological achievements? Have computers alleviated the pain of hunger? Has television changed our sensory perceptions of a sunset? Clearly, television, cars, computers, and airplanes have significantly influenced modern life, but the feelings of anticipation, excitement, or anxiety remain the same whether we travel by camel or by plane. So if yesterday, today, and tomorrow are not entirely dissimilar, why do we maintain a demand on architecture to find new expressions? In contrast to Immanuel Kant, who viewed space and time as separate, William Blake “more prophetically than Kant, saw both as components of a unity” (Shlain 1991). In reuniting past, present, and future we free architecture from its false obsession for novelty.

While Post-modernists can be credited with shaking off history-phobia and lifting society out of the Modernist’s monotony, it has also belittled the past and the present with facetious improvisations of ancient themes. Instead of reforming architecture towards a more serious aesthetic, Post-modernism did not take its social responsibilities seriously.

One would think that the pessimistic worldview of Deconstructionists would have brought about a reformation in keeping with the solemn issues its proponents focused on. But while darkness, horror, chaos, and derision were enthusiastically embraced as metaphors for cool designs, they did more to embellished architectural magazines than to activate social healing. Alex Callinicos bluntly challenges the “strange mixture of cultural and political pessimism and light-minded playfulness with which—in a more than usually farcical reprise of the apocalyptic mood—much of the contemporary Western intelligentsia apparently intends to greet our own fin de siecle” (Callinicos 1989).

Architecture’s long-standing identity crisis has resulted in more trivial pursuits. Every architect is torn between two concepts: “On the one hand, architecture is seen to consist of unique works of art…. On the other, it is seen as belonging to the public sphere, where private sensibility is under the control of “techniques” in the broadest sense of that word” (Coluhoun 1981). When formalizing its first curriculum, architecture was housed in the Ecole Polytechnique (the school of engineering), which later became the Ecole des Beaux Arts (the Fine Arts program). Contemporary architecture, never sure whether it was an art or a science, favored the arts. Whether expressed in the struggle between the university’s technical teaching staff and the design faculty, or the designer and the production team, there has been an alleged superiority of art over science. It is not surprising, therefore, that architecture has imitated art’s follies.

Two such follies that come to mind are the use of shock-value, and seducing obfuscatory language, which, like lava, pours over and around issues until they are beyond recognition. One artist, for example, stated that his depiction of a cut and bleeding stomach was intended to demystify “the common image of the body experienced as a bastion of individuality.” Hans Hollein admitted that he strives for “ritualistic expression of pure, elemental will and sublime purposelessness” (Ockman 1993).

Granted, there might be artistic and architectural expressions that are misunderstood, but many are, no doubt, a farce. Blessed is he who knows the difference. Albert Einstein concluded, “painting and music have definitely degenerated” (Einstein 1979). Where would he have placed architecture?

Giving architecture’s trivial pursuits legitimacy is Ayn Rand’s selfish, indulgent, bad boy for whom social responsibility is a “wimpish pursuit. After all, it demonstrates caring beyond oneself, which ‘bad boys’ do not do” (Findley 1991). Howard Roark epitomizes the architectural hero as the misunderstood genius who tolerates clients as necessary evils but otherwise must be “left alone” to design monuments to himself (Hill 1991). The Fountainhead is still required reading in most architectural schools, and young graduates continue to fashion their ideas of the profession based on Ms. Rand’s misguided principles.


“Emancipation,” according to Webster’s Dictionary, means to free from bondage or any controlling influence. Architecture has been in bondage to various “borrowed” ideologies and “isms,” and neither defined an identity nor a theory of its own.

Architecture’s Identity
In order for architecture to become emancipated, it needs to establish an identity of its own. Is it an art or a science, a private or public pursuit? In the same way, “it is generally assumed that the art theorist should provide a definition which enables us to distinguish art from non-art” (Dickie and Sclafani 1977); architecture must first define its boundaries.

Hans Hollein sees architecture “transcend its own physicality into a comprehensive and invisible technical environment” (Ockman 1993). Yet Hilde Hynen writes: “Architecture designs dwelling, giving it form; its task is the materialization of the world in which we dwell. It would seem to go without saying that this principle must constitute the vanishing point of architectural discourse” (Hynen 1999). Only through occupiable three-dimensional space can architecture be distinguished from other disciplines. Without functionally imperative space, architecture is not distinguishable from art or philosophy. Considering theoretical investigations or graphic representations without the goal of a physical manifestation, architecture would be identical to referring to drawings of sculptures as sculptures.

If architecture is not art, is it a science? Are art and science really different disciplines or merely complimentary ways of perceiving and processing information? By virtue of combining technical with artistic endeavors, it seems that architecture must be both an art and a science. As such, it is afforded a unique opportunity to explore the world holistically. While science can facilitate the discovery of laws that are universally true, art can imbue architecture with a rich, qualitative perception. Both participate in the interplay between man and nature, one through logical equations, the other through form, verse and rhythm. As old, arbitrary distinctions blur, the need to classify architecture with either art or science dwindles.

Theory of Architecture
Peter Eisenman observed, “Architecture has never had an appropriate theory of Modernism” (Papadakis and Toy 1990). However, he goes on to define theory as “a set of ideas which deals with the intrinsic uncertainty and alienation of the modern condition.” His statement raises four questions:
1. What is a theory?
2. Does Architecture need a theory?
3. Is contemporary society sufficiently described by uncertainty and alienation?
4. How is Architecture to respond to the Modern Condition?

What Is A Theory?
A theory is either a set of rational principles or a body of speculative, abstract thought. However, even a speculative hypothesis must be based on factual analysis. All theory is driven by the establishment of a relationship between facts and based on the interdependence between observation and response. In the absence of these, mere personal conviction governs. This is possibly why, today, the very term theory has come to mean confusion, “vagueness and inconsistency” (Freadman and Miller 1992).

Based upon Harre’s definition (1970), three components of a theory would be:
1. Set of conditional propositions forming a deductive system
2. Set of categorical propositions describing an inner structure and external relations of the model
3. Set of conditional propositions describing a mode of behavior

An analogy to this model might be drawn from the Genesis account of the origin of life, which establishes the set of conditional propositions that form the deductive system. It establishes the authority and therefore a framework for the second component, the set of categorical propositions, which are the Ten Commandments. Moses’ laws describing the mode of behavior represent the third component of conditional propositions.

Does Architecture Need A Theory?
According to Ian Adams, without the framework of a theory “a world that is morally comprehensible…where fact and value form a continuum, where man has a place and a direction” is impossible. This may explain some of today’s deficiencies in architecture. Adams goes on to say: “Values, ideals and prescriptions are not enough; they cannot constitute a world. A theory is needed to hold the structure up” (Adams 1989).


If theory is a set of rational principles or a speculative hypothesis derived from factual analysis it must be based on a model of inquiry by which it establishes facts and their relationship to observation and response. The two dominant methods of inquiry are the humanities and scientific models. Science accepts, as truth, verifiable, predictable, and repeatable data. It requires objectivity, reproducibility, logic, and consistency. The liberal arts, on the other hand, are limited in their inquiry to evaluating and recording observation. To a scientific observer these methods appear unsystematic and erratic, and often they are. Yet, it has been said that, “Einstein’s space is no closer to reality than van Gogh’s sky. The glory of science is not in a truth more absolute than the truth of Bach or Tolstoy” (Koestler 1970). Architecture, the corpus callosum of art and science, should use rigorous quantitative analysis as far as it can go in addition to deep personal sense perceptions as demonstrated by this example:

An apple…may be exhaustively described in a scientific treatise with respect to form and structure, conditions for growth, chemical composition, nutritional values, and so on. Yet, what it can mean to a person is by no means altogether contained in the scientific description. The appearance of a rosy apple with light reflecting from it in a certain way is a theme for a painter or photographer rather than botanist. Its joyful taste after a hot, dry walk or the sight of a laden apple orchard on an autumn afternoon can be elements that add a bit to a poem or story. (Schlegel 1972)

While modern thought and analytical philosophy have tended to overemphasize the logical, scientific responses to life, architecture has sided with the arts and largely disregarded quantifiable properties. In so doing it has often left the realm of verifiable certainty and ventured into speculative, philosophical space. While unequivocal objectivity is a naïve notion (because every observer wears distorted spectacles), a measure of objectivity can be achieved that is higher than what has been tolerated in architecture circles.

Science too has not been spared its follies. After having had considerable success in the physical sciences, where natural laws follow consistent, predictable patterns, scientific investigation attempted to condense complex phenomena with multiple unknown variables into a predictable system, such as in the theory of evolution. It ventured into philosophical space, leaving the realm of verifiable certainty, and in the end was responsible for establishing a philosophy-religion with unyielding dogma. Part of the Modern Dilemma (i.e. a pronounced sense of meaninglessness), may have its root in science’s inadequacies for this role. “Truth is an absolute notion that science, which is not cornered with any such permanency, had better leave alone” (Levy 1932).

How do we then establish truth? Deprived of a metaphysical reference point, uncertainty intrinsically challenges any notion of truth. Uncertainty and truth are mutually exclusive. However, truth is distinct from error and the two are not interchangeable. Truth is neither absolute nor static, but it is not relative either. Water is a liquid, air is a gas. Even though there is gas in water and water in air; and even though gas may turn into liquid or liquid into gas, water remains a liquid and air a gas. Absolute truth, while it might exist, is not attainable. “The intellect is incapable of knowing the supreme Truth; it can only range about seeking Truth, and catching fragmentary representations of it, not the thing itself, and trying to piece them together” (Aurobindo). Yet this should not discourage us from seeking truth since

Human association is dependent on agreement, and the essence of agreement, be it concerned with…rational action, or scientific investigation, is the idea of truth. If this idea is denounced as ideological, we are left, in Nietzsche’s language, with individual quanta of will which, according to the measure of their power, arbitrarily determine what truth is. (Barth 1945)


Beauty has been an out-of-vogue virtue in intellectual architectural circles. According to Bill Beckley, we might blame Wittgenstein’s lecture at Cambridge in the summer of 1938 for beauty’s fall (Beckley 2001). “Dave Hickey attributes beauty’s disappearance to the progressive flattening of picture space” (Beckley 2001). Yet, according to Roger Kimball, a Wall Street Journal critic, “Beauty—not mysticism, not revolution—remains the fundamental touchstone of art…. Nothing, except beauty remains of art, when viewed after its time of novelty has expired” (1990). And the physicist Dirac announced early in this century, before experiments had tested the “highly controversial quantum theory,” that he had “completely accepted the basic equation of the theory” because “he found the equations to be ‘beautiful’ and ‘aesthetically elegant.’” He had “deduced that they were appropriate descriptions of a Nature which was beautiful and (dare I say it?) optimal” (Gale 1979). Also, de Chardin was convinced that “more primordial than any idea, beauty will be manifest as the herald and generator of ideas” (Schlegel 1972).


An architectural theory needs to respond affirmatively on the side of goodness. Art and architecture have been guilty of exacerbating the horrible by magnifying and reflecting it. In acknowledging the power of visualization and imagery to reinforce its focus, we need to direct our attention towards goodness. If we see only horror, we see only one part. But if we see hate and love, horror and courage, death and life, monotony and excitement, alienation and reconciliation, uncertainty and assurance, we experience all in all.

Meister Eckhardt, the medieval mystic asked rhetorically:

When is a man in mere understanding? I answer, “When he sees one thing separate from another.” And when is a man above mere understanding? That I can tell you: “When a man sees All in all, then a man stands beyond mere understanding.” (Leshan 1966)


Goodness, truth, and beauty cannot be defined in today’s relativism. But could we agree that architecture is a social art and science, and as such should seek truth through both, the scientific and humanities models of inquiry; and based on this knowledge establish its own rational set of principles that will advance a more serious aesthetic?

“Architecture now has to make do with left-over spaces that haven’t been snapped up by developers, planners, and financiers, so woe betide us if we fail to make the most of these meager opportunities to show the world what we’re capable of.” (Mario Botta 1997)

This paper was presented at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s triennial Summer Institute, Oxbridge, in the summer of 2005.

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