Sometimes I wonder whether we in the architecture profession and academe do not forget about some of the presuppositions our discipline depends on. There are many of these. Say that architecture is to have certain identifiable qualities that could say be incorporated into a design pedagogy: space, order, composition, etc. Although interesting topics to explore, this is not my interest in this short post. My interest rather relates to a much more deeply rooted issue. It relates to our claim on architecture.
It is fascinating to me that we can claim that we know what architecture is – that it is some sort of shared concept despite its esoteric qualities. Like the debates that have been raging for sometime in art, it is not clear that we do in fact know what it is. If this is the case, then it seems necessary – even imperative – that those responsible for this discipline seriously consider sustained introspection.
In response to what I would identify as a disciplinary need, I wonder to what extent we presuppose the physical qualities of building we count as architecture. Is architecture necessarily something physical? Must some image of architecture be manifest in-built form for there to be architecture? Clearly in the case of the newly developed field of computer architecture, there is not anything physical which amounts to there being ‘architecture’ but rather a system of organization that everyone involved in agrees to either openly or passively. Could this not also be the case for the ancient discipline of building?
I do not mean to say that building is not there; that it is not tangible or otherwise physical. I mean to say, that what we take to be architecture might be understood as nothing more than a particular image of building which can only be found in certain elevated kinds of building. If this is the case, it seems that there is no such thing as architecture. There is building and then there is building elevated by theory and history to a point of exaltation. There is architecture.
This point of elevation is evident in looking to the etymology of the words vernacular and architecture. The word vernacular is the building of the slaves whereas architecture proper is the building of the masters (and one might add for the masters). There are no doubt clear political and social hierarchies active in defining what is and is not vernacular. Nevertheless, my interest is mere existence of this hierarchy and its claim on building, not its individual character amongst different groups or during different time periods. I will leave that for others to grapple with.
This master-level class, if I dare say, is capable of elevating building to an emperor-like status. The Villa Savoye is an instance of this phenomenon. The Villa Savoye (Figure 1) is normally heralded as encapsulating the design principles of (in)famous artist/architect Le Corbusier. But what about this building is remarkable? What about this building makes it architecture? The use of pilotis? Of horizontal windows? Quite possibly, or at least this is what the discourse tells us. Yet I wonder whether there is something more going on here. Why is it that we celebrate – glorify – this particular building and its use of pilotis and horizontal windows as Modernity’s best representation?
Figure 1: View of stairway in the Villa Savoye.
Why does this building capture what architecture is for Modernists and as well as what it is for postmodernists? It seems to me that the myth surrounding this building – the myth that social prescription via machine-like building was desirable – was broken. The entire Modern oeuvre was broken. A clear instance of this demystification is found in Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction published some fifty years after the completion of Le Corbusier’s masterpiece. In my mind, Venturi acted as the man who pointed out the emperor (the building, in this case the Villa Savoye) was not wearing his clothes. He contested the near dogmatism of the Modern claim thus undermining its hold. This did not necessarily take the emperor, as it were, from his position but took from him the fascination and gravitas granted him by his new clothes.
Figure 2: Illustration by Vilhelm Pedersen, Hans Christian Andersen’s first illustrator of The Emperor’s New Clothes (1837).
Arnold, D. and Ballantyne, A. (eds.) (2004) Architecture as Experience: Radical change in spatial practice. New York: Routledge.
Ballantyne, A. (ed.) (2002) What is Architecture? New York: Routledge.
Cavell, S. (1979) The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Tilghman, B. (2006) Reflections on Aesthetic Judgment and Other Essays. Hampshire: Ashgate.
Wittgenstein, L. (1953) Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Figure 1: (2009) Architypes. Available at: http://architypes.net/ (Accessed: 10 December).
Figure 2: (2009) Vilhelm Pederson Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Emperor’s_New_Clothes (Accessed: 10 December).
Harvard Citation Guide: Fahey, C. (2009) What is Architecture?, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 09 Dec 2010, Available at: https://isparchitecture.wordpress.com. [Accessed: 01 June 2012].