“As regards a true idea, we have shown that it is simple or compounded of simple ideas; that it shows how and why something is or has been made; and that its subjective effects in the soul correspond to the actual reality of its object” (Spinoza, 30)
Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677) wrote these words in the treatise On the Improvement of the Understanding, published posthumously in 1677. The essay proposes a two-part methodology for understanding the world, addressing the issues of happiness, perception, memory and understanding. At the crux of the first portion lies the distinction of true ideas from false and fictitious ideas. He argues that understanding the world through true ideas ultimately leads one’s mind to a greater understanding regarding “the origin and source of the whole of nature” (Spinoza, 15).
Spinoza writes about ideas and understanding from a holistic perspective. In the excerpt above, three criteria are associated with true ideas. The first calls for simplicity; the second indicates a necessity in showing a clear and honest delineation of cause and effect; and the third denotes the importance for a spiritual connection between subjective perception and objective reality. What are the architectural implications of this definition? Can these three criteria become building blocks for a greater understanding of architecture? Furthermore, can they lead to better design and therefore, better architecture?
This paper addresses three buildings as case studies; Temple E in Selinunte, Sicily as described by Vitruvius (c. 80-c. 15 BC); Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona by Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959); and the Wood Atelier in Haldenstein, Switzerland by Peter Zumthor (1943- ). Analyzing each building in terms of site, material, form, texts, and first-hand experiences, a clear argument is established for the embodiment of good architecture through the lens of true ideas.
Recognizing the distinct ideologies, appearances, and functions of each building, the strength of this analysis illustrates how and why good architecture is deeply indebted to the execution of its idea. When current trends in architecture often over-value the appearance of a building, it is important to ground these subjective perceptions with objective reality through an understanding of how and why a building exists.
Spinoza, Benedict de (transl. R. H. M. Elwes). Ethics and on the Improvement of the Understanding. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2005.
Kevin Barden, Feldman Architecture, UK
Harvard Citation Guide: Barden, K. (2012) An Architecture of True Ideas, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 06 May 2012, Available at: https://isparchitecture.wordpress.com. [Accessed: 01 June 2012].