The “Architectural Experience” — an essay
Why a philosophical investigation on architecture matters
When looking at buildings in a city or when entering a building it is impossible not to realise that architecture is all around us and that it is significantly different from all the other products of human activity. In fact, the uniqueness of architecture lays in its capacity of combining antithetic elements: theory and practice, beauty and utility, form and function. In this essay I would like to focus my attention on how architecture is linked to aesthetics and, in particular, on how the deep nature of architecture influences and defines the aesthetic experience that we can have when dealing with architectural elements creating a singular experience: the “Architectural Experience”.
In order to explain this idea I am going to try answering the following questions by referring to the thoughts of different architects and philosophers: what architecture really is? What are the values supporting it? Is architecture different from art? If so, in what terms? What do we mean by aesthetic experience? Can architecture give us an aesthetic experience?
Architecture: definition and values. What architecture really is? What are the values supporting it?
Architecture, quoting Vitruvius, is a human activity that “nascitur ex fabrica et ratiocinatione”. In particular it is a discipline that deals with the planning and construction of building that are both useful and beautiful. In fact, it is on one side strongly connected to our welfare, security and comfort and, on the other side, connected to our emotions and need of visual pleasure. Defining architecture is difficult because it has always been present in our history acquiring different characteristics, functions and spatial aspects throughout the various historical periods. One of the most ancient definitions of architecture is that of Vitruvius. According to Vitruvius, architecture is the combination of three main elements: -firmitas (physical stability); -utilitas (utility); -venustas (beauty). An architectural work needs to be stable because without stability it is not safe and does not satisfy one of the primary functions of architecture. Without utility it becomes a form of sculpture and without beauty (as Le Corbusier stated) an architectural work is just a building.
The first examples of architecture as unity of stability, utility and beauty are collective buildings (civil or religious). It is with Ancient Greek temples that we can see a complete structure of values behind a building and not only a functional purpose. These values were functional (linked to human’s needs), symbolic (linked to other realities), holy values (linked to religion), social (linked to the architect and the collectivity) and universal ones. This definition is still used nowadays and has been integrated with other elements over the years.
An example of an extensive definition is that of Austrian architect Sigfried Giedion who in 1970 wrote that architecture is a product deriving from different factors: social, economic, scientific, technical, ethnological. This means that architecture has social, economic, scientific, technical and ethnological values and these values represent its basis.
Beauty and utility, form and function. Is architecture different from art? In what terms?
According to Italian architect Bruno Zevi, the distinctive feature of architecture is the interior space. The presence of a living space is the condicio sine qua non we can talk about architecture. This definition is very logical and strict because it excludes buildings such as Egyptian pyramids or Greek temples.
We can go beyond this definition by stating that a sculpture derives from sculpting and carving (removing materials) while a building derives from building up (adding materials). Anyway, this last definition only works if we compare architecture to sculpture but not to other forms of art such as painting or other forms of visual art.
So, a wider definition could be that of function as the element that enables us to distinguish a building from a sculpture and also from a painting or a piece of music. This definition can be applied even considering different art forms and it is acceptable. A painting has no specific function or utility except that of being beautiful and/or convey ideas or arouse emotions. Even if architecture has the value of utility, it fully maintains the value of beauty and this is what it has in common with all forms of art.
Moreover, if we try to apply Wittgenstein’s definition of art to architecture we see that it is acceptable as a form of art. In fact, Wittgenstein said that there are similarities amongst the different art forms because they are like a family with crisscrossing features and it is not necessary for these art forms to share a single criterion.
In addition we can try to apply the definition of art as significant form by Clive Bell. He stated that: art produces aesthetic emotion in a spectator/listener/reader, the aesthetic emotion is felt in presence of significant form (that is to say that shape, colours, etc. are in relation to one another), all genuine art shares property of significant form (relationship between the parts). Applying this definition to architecture we find out that it is acceptable.
Architecture has always a function and this function is always combined with beauty because of it being a product of human nature and humans need a house that is not merely a shelter or a city that is not only a set of buildings. We are sensitive to beauty and beauty is one of the value that we recognise as fundamental for architecture. So, architecture is a form of art characterised by a strong focus on utility. Being useful does not prevent architecture from being a form of art but it is an additional characteristic.
What do we mean by aesthetic experience?
The aesthetic experience is different from experiencing the ordinary because it has one or more qualities that other experiences don’t have. This experience can be different thanks to the order of the parts (both objective and subjective features) that makes the aesthetics experience a perfected version of the ordinary one, as argued by Beardsley.
Or, as in the impersonal experience described by Stolnitz, thanks to the qualitatively difference of the experience in itself by elimination of personal and practical interests and only perceiving the beauty of the object. Considering Stolnitiz’s theory, architecture cannot give us an aesthetic experience because of its intrinsic property of being useful. Moreover, he states that an aesthetic experience is a qualitatively different experience from the ordinary one while architecture, especially housing, is something we see every day and it is fully part of our daily life.
However, considering Beardshley’s more liberal position, architecture seems to be a mean through which we can have an aesthetic experience. In fact, architecture is by definition based on unity of the parts. Even in neo futuristic buildings with fragmented and multiple perspectives such as the ones designed by world-famous contemporary architect Zaha Hadid we can find a strong coherence of the parts. The coherence of Hadid’s designs was founded in chaos and this is not a paradox. Representing chaos was the basis of her designs, albeit all parts of her works had a specific role in creating a coherent form.
Moreover, if we agree in saying that some portion of the landscapes can be expressive of emotion, why can’t architecture have the same power? Architecture can be expressive even if it is not always an expression of the author’s emotion as it happens with landscapes. This is in part expressed in Budd’s theory on artistic expression and it is deepened by Wollheim. Wollheim thinks that we perceive certain things (i.e. a portion of a landscape) to be expressive of an emotion because we project our own feelings onto that thing and might then perceive it as being expressive of that emotion even if it is not. Whether there is projection or not, an aesthetic experience exists even if the object does not express something specific. The fact that something arouses an emotion in me is sufficient to create an emotional experience, regardless of the way in which these emotions are aroused and this is the case of architecture. So, architecture is a form of art and can offer us an aesthetic experience.
The “Architectural experience”: from contemplation to participation
Art historian Nikolaus Pevsner stated that architecture needs the fusion of three elements in order to reach an aesthetic effect: surfaces, relation between full spaces and empty spaces, decoration; the relation between the different blocks of a building and their volumes; the beauty that comes from arrangement of interiors. So, architecture is a spatial art that can shape surfaces and volumes using the same criteria that painters use. Moreover, architecture is also strongly linked to utility and to feelings and emotions that derive from living a certain space and not only from watching it. This is the main difference between architecture and other forms of visual art.
In addition to the value of function, architecture is different because you can never understand it completely until you live and spend time into the building. Watching its plan or its façade is not enough and only gives a partial impression; we must consider the whole set of an architectural project. The perception of the space is complex and cannot be reduced to vision; that is why, in order to pick the richness of architecture we need to experience it directly. The aesthetic experience with regards to architecture does not arouse from a mere visual impact or a static contemplation of the forms. For example, the Modern Movement shaped the space following precise rules based on utility and function and the aesthetic result derives from the perfect fulfilment of a function.
The “Architectural Experience” is participation. It has the power to involve our body and mind day by day and exalts the exceptionality of our daily actions through its beauty and functionality. As Italian professor Gioconda Cafiero states in her book “Il valore dell’interno tra contemplazione e partecipazione” Western culture is based on dualism and has a problem in accepting a unity of mind and body that is essential to understand how we relate ourselves to architecture. The relation between subject and object is strong and it is possible through the fruition of the object by the subject. So, the value of utility that seemed to be the problem in considering architecture as a form of art shows its importance in the fact that it is a turning point. In fact, it enables us to change how we relate to the work of art from a contemplative behaviour to a participatory one. Architecture has a significance because of my presence into it. My exploration of architecture reinforces its significance and this is possible thanks to function and utility that are les raisons d’être of architecture.
Architecture is the aesthetic and functional expression of an environment, an era, a society. Architecture is unique amongst human expressions and represents the relationship between two polar opposites (beauty and function). These find a complete realisation in three dimensional form in the beauty of the volumes that surround us. This is the “Architectural Experience”.