Vol. 6, No1 ( September 2001)
During the last decades, despite controversy, architects of all current fashions and of some of the most marketable theories of architecture have been pursuing vigorously a de-physicalization of architecture.
One might think that the accusation of a de-physicalization of architecture is absurd, as architecture is ’art in stone‘ and art being built and therefore always has to be physically realized and materialized.
However, the inherent architectonic is seen less and less in an inner coherence with its physical reality. Certainly, architectural concepts are supposed to be realized, but more and more the realized, the built is used only as a carrier of ideas, comparable to the paper to write an essay on. The physicality of architecture is reduced to a banal substance, to a neutral background without playing a part in the constitution of architecture as such.
Architectonics as such has turned into an intellectual play with aesthetic languages, with cognitive aesthetic expectations and approaches. Architecture today means a concept and an idea. Architecture is reduced to an intellectual discourse und thus detached from practice.
The building, is used only as a general signal of private philosophies and no longer as sophisticated and charming solution of practical problems, no longer as elaborate order of the real. And so the architect sees himself more and more as a philosopher (at least he has one at hand at all times).
Architectonics exists purely only in drawing, in model or in the professional photography taken shortly before the moving in and the everyday use of the building. Only in this condition, deep frozen for eternity, unspoiled by reality, in the presence of the non-presence, is it seen as architecture as such.
Architectonics has changed the medium and turns into the literature.
Just talking makes architecture, whose adequate acquisition is not seeing or even occupying, but only listening and reading.
The act of de-physicalization is not limited to displacing the construction material from the constitution of architectural ideas. De-physicalization does not only mean that the building materials are unimportant. It means also the denial of any objective and autochthonous quality of things.
Isn’t architecture much more than a personal mental concept, be it of an architect or a philosopher? Isn’t there always a resistance of things against their cognitive image and against subjective will? And isn’t it more than mere resistance? Isn’t a thing always the meeting of its physicality and materialized social structures, its social regulations, its contingent place in history, its functionality. Has a thing not an abundant wealth of meanings and features?
Furthermore, architecture de-physicalizes itself through virtualization.
Why obliterate this, when a thing comes to be architecture?
In ’telecities‘ all over the world the attempt is made to substitute activities performed in personal interaction and presence through virtual and electronic processes (as in the work- and service sector, in communications at work and at home, while shopping and on holiday). The aim is the generation of a ’Global Village‘ (McLuhan), in which a building is not only replaced by the new media, but the users are liberated from any physical limit and from ties to their own biological nature.
The virtual world is abstract, in this constructed world the concrete, the genuine identity are missing. Architecture is without facts, ’genius loci‘, reliability, obligation, memory and history.
The discussion of ’architecture as aesthetic practice‘ is meant to counteract the de-physicalization of architecture and environment, but without heading to the other extreme, a bare positivism and perception of architecture only as a field of skilled use of building materials.
In the history of aesthetics and the theory of art and architecture, as well as in architectural practice there were time and again attempts to put theory on its legs, to integrate aesthetic theory and practice, to join body and brain, producer and user, reality and critique.
Particularly in the 18th and 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century architects, artists, and philosophers tried to integrate art and practice into a ’practical aesthetics‘. They asked what is beauty, harmony and aesthetic order and how do they relate to the everyday; how can they be made practical.
To mention just a few positions: in the middle of the 18th century the German Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, the first philosopher who formulated a first modern ’aesthetics‘, announced to continue, in his second, unfortunately never executed volume, with a ’practical aesthetics’. In England Shaftesbury develops in his book The Moralists a kind of practical aesthetic.
In the 19th century Adam Mueller, a German philosopher taking part in romantic circles, writes a kind of phenomenological oriented practical aesthetics. During the 20th century we see a lot of phenomenological, critical or pragmatic oriented philosophers, trying to develop and explicate practical aesthetics and research on the integration of aesthetics and practice.
In the architecture of the 19th century there is Gottfried Semper, who understood his work as a practical aesthetics, as well as Camillo Sitte (see his preface to Der Städtebau nach seinen künstlerischen Grundsätzen) and his successors Heinrich Maertens and Karl Henrici.
In the 20th century it was the main aim of the ’Moderns’ to inquire the complex of aesthetics and practice and to consider architecture as a field of aesthetic practice.