Pseuds’ Skyscraper

Mark Lilla

  • The Ethical Function of Architecture by Karsten Harries
    MIT, 414 pp, £29.95, January 1997, ISBN 0 262 08252 7

My architecture is about presence and absence.’ The lecture hall at the American Academy in Rome was dark and on the projection screen before us was an image of jagged fields of colour. The speaker, a black-clad young architect from New York, was delivering his Fellow’s Lecture. Since most of the previous lectures had been given by historians occupied with mapping the drainage ditches of ancient Pompeii or cataloguing the patronage of Renaissance door jambs, his rambling ‘deconstructivist’ reflections on modern buildings brought a nervous titter from the unknowing audience. Only after the Derridian cloud evaporated and the speaker turned to his own work did the listeners feel themselves back on terra cognita. This ‘work’, as it turned out, consisted of a few modest apartment conversions in Manhattan, and slides of these evoked many polite questions about the placement of sinks and who paid for the wainscoting.

This scene, which I witnessed around ten years ago, was my first encounter with theory envy among the architectural classes. Its sources are hardly a mystery. One is that so many young people receive architectural training today and so few have the opportunity to build anything more significant than an anonymous office block or house, whose form will be determined almost entirely by the technological constraints of mass-produced materials and conveniences (elevator, climate control), and by the political constraints of planning and safety codes. The turn to theory is at least in part a way of compensating for a felt disappearance of authentic architectural practice.

That is the push. The pull is that architects trained since the Modernist dispensation have come to think of themselves as artists and have adopted the rhetorical modes of the modern art movement, including the aesthetico-political manifesto in which EVERYTHING IS EXPLAINED and EVERYTHING IS SET RIGHT. Architects adore writing manifestos, the bigger the better, and even seem to buy and read them, if we are to judge by the number crowding the bookstore shelves. (In America, at least, they count as tax-deductible professional expenses.) A generation or two ago, these prophetic works were written in the language of the Futurists and the Bauhaus; today they tend towards that of the post-structuralist academy. The (translated) writings of Jacques Derrida have spawned their own architectural sub-literature and are even responsible for a few buildings erected by his followers Peter Eisenman and Bernard Tschumi, gurus of the mercifully short-lived ‘deconstructivist’ movement. But half-digested French philosophy is not the only vogue in architectural theory today. I once attended a lecture on Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp by an English professor teaching architecture at Harvard, who had two slide projectors going simultaneously: one with views of the church, the other with individual sentences culled from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. His remarks were incomprehensible to me, but the perfectly clad and coiffed students took it all in, scribbling away furiously in perfect notebooks with perfect pens.

Architectural theory is now a vast enterprise, not a small pseuds’ corner like academic literary theory, but a veritable pseuds’ skyscraper. It is inhabited by many shameless hucksters who, to put the matter plainly, are unlearned, confused, self-indulgent, false, childish, suffer from illusions of grandeur and don’t write too good. Which, to be fair, doesn’t distinguish them from many of their colleagues down the hall. But the harm they do is real and appalling – less because they transform what is built out there (no one has that power today) than because they help to perpetuate the dreamy art-school atmosphere of architectural schools and stand in the way of serious reflection about the sorry state of our buildings and our cities.

If there is any hope of raising the tone of architectural theory, it resides outside the architecture schools and the self-satisfied circle of globe-trotting famous architects who pass themselves off as thinkers. What is to be wished is that sober amateurs with rigorous intellectual standards and a love of architecture take up the task. That this is actually possible has been demonstrated once again by Karsten Harries, professor of philosophy at Yale. Harries is a unusual figure in architectural theory, a trained philosopher who has written illuminating and influential articles on aesthetics and German thought, and a connoisseur of buildings whose works include an analysis of rococo style in Bavaria (The Bavarian Rococo Church, 1983). He is a leading proponent of serious Heideggerianism, who through thick and thin has maintained that in certain fundamental philosophical matters Heidegger was simply right. (About why Heidegger was wrong about others – notably politics and technology – Harries has also written persuasively.) His first book, The Meaning of Modern Art, laid out his Heideggerian position with respect to modern art, and to judge by his latest work this position has undergone no major changes.

Even if one does not share Harries’s conviction that Heidegger’s thought can help orient our own reflections about architecture, there is much to be learned from the case he makes for it. The book’s first half, which is critical, is particularly illuminating. In Harries’s view, building in the modern age (and not just Modernist architecture) has been based from the start on a mistakenly ‘aesthetic’ conception of buildings that treats them as autonomous objects to be appreciated apart from their symbolic and practical functions. This is a very old charge, but Harries gives it an interesting twist by focusing, as in his rococo book, on the ambiguous place of ornament in modern architectural theory and practice. He is certainly correct to say that ornament has never found its home in aesthetic theory, and may be right in attributing this to ornament’s resistance to romantic notions of artistic creation and contemplation. Adolf Loos may have expressed something highly characteristic of modern thought, and not just of Modernist aesthetics, when he declared ornament to be a ‘crime’. Taking up ideas first developed in the earlier book, Harries here makes a helpful distinction between ornament as an organic language expressing cultural symbols, and decoration, which is merely applied to a functional object. The rejection of ornament by Modernist architects, who saw in it only dispensable decoration, led to a severing of the connection between built form and what Harries calls the ethos of society. Modernist dogmas about functionalism have long been abandoned, but, as Harries sees it, the Post-Modern celebration of disorder, cacophony and arbitrary symbols, from Venturi to Eisenman, only compounded the Modernist error and further obscured the essential link between architecture and social life.

In the book’s second half Harries attempts to explain what he means by architecture’s ‘essence’, and to do this he draws directly on Heidegger. Readers unfamiliar with Heidegger’s writings, especially the essay ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’, may find these pages difficult, but they can be confident that they are authentically Heideggerian in inspiration, unfiltered by Parisian salon chat. Harries understands Heidegger to be an essentialist in aesthetic matters, as in much else. What that means for architecture is that, if building is to have an essence, it must arise out of deeper human relations within what Heidegger called ‘the fourfold’: earth, sky, mortals and the gods. If architecture has lost its way, if we have ceased to build well, it is because we have forgotten how to dwell in these essential relations.

Harries believes this account of our relation to our environment to be true, and to permit a diagnosis of the way we build now. But as in his other writings on Heidegger, he is also wary of the illiberal purposes to which such notions can be put, and distances himself in no uncertain terms from Heidegger’s apocalyptic anti-Modernism. Philosophically and aesthetically, Harries is a Heideggerian; politically, he appears to be a moderate liberal living at peace with the modern technological world. Where that leaves architecture is the puzzle.

Harries has tried to sketch out how architecture might recover its essence within the social and technological constraints of modernity. The difficulties are enormous and I doubt whether even sympathetic readers will find Harries’s line of argument convincing. He begins with the assumption that once, long ago, buildings were not just decorated sheds but ‘re-presented’ society to itself as a symbol. Cathedrals, on Harries’s understanding, did just that, linking medieval men simultaneously to heaven, earth and each other. He recognises that this is no longer the case, for which he blames ‘modern reason’, and would like to see architecture take back its original task. The problem is that the society that architecture once ‘re-presented’ no longer exists, so the question is whether it can ‘re-present’ the new one. He writes that ‘pure reason has shown itself incapable of discovering the true ends of human actions’ and that ‘such discovery requires the aid of myth.’ This being the case, ‘building has to assume a mythopoetic – and that means inevitably also a public and political – function.’ His architectural candidates for reviving that ancient function in modern society are theatres and public monuments.

This proposal is disappointing, and not simply because it is banal. It never seems to occur to Harries that modern society is not ‘re-presented’ in modern architecture for the simple reason that it is unre-presentable. That, indeed, was the point, or at least the result, of the revolution in modern politics. Cathedrals, sceptres, the ‘king’s two bodies’ could all re-present medieval society because it was less complex and had a few, very strong centres of authority that could be recognisably symbolised. Representation was corporate, not individual. Modern bourgeois society is liberal, individualistic and in constant movement; there are still centres of authority and meaning but they are diverse, countervailing and weak compared to the old ones, and the pantheon of symbols re-presenting them has itself become a spectacle. Complexity is modern society’s ‘essence’, and its strength. Granted, complexity may also be a weakness, but it is a fact, which means that the age of representational architecture is over – unless, of course, modernity itself is abandoned, a Heideggerian option Harries rejects.

The end of Gesamtgesellschaft means the end of architecture as Gesamtkunstwerk. But to admit that is to admit the force of the question Harries has posed in this important book, even if we reject the answers he offers. What does the nature of modern society imply about the task of building for our time? To ponder this problem we would be wise to abandon the depths of Heideggerian ontology and return to the modest but potentially more fruitful discipline Aristotle called political science.