1. The Danger

Theme of this conference is "architecture as an aesthetic practice, or rather praxis" – where the organizers’ choice of the word "Praxis" raises questions that I want to address in this lecture. Is this title meant to say more than: architecture should not be reduced to the practice of building, that it must be understood as an art, as the art of building? Art here means more than a trained capacity for making something, lays claim to beauty and creativity. To be sure, when we hear the word Praxis we tend to think of something else, perhaps of a lawyer or a doctor. I was reminded of Kant’s essay "Über den Gemeinspruch: Das mag in der Theorie richtig sein, taugt aber nicht für die Praxis." As is to be expected, Kant rejects what this common saying claims: according to him, theory and practice must agree. Here practice means acting in the world. Not that all such activity can be considered a practice, as Kant here understands it, but only activity that, governed by certain general principles, realizes some purpose.1 Practice, so understood, is purposive, is therefore not autotelic, as aesthetics, including that of Kant, has long demanded of the beautiful.

But what then could "aesthetic practice" mean? How is aesthetic" to be understood here? The question is underscored by Kant’s, later often repeated, determination of the beautiful as object of an entirely disinterested satisfaction, where Kant understands interest as that satisfaction which attends our thoughts of the existence of some object.2 Interest is thus always bound to reality, to a reality that it does not want to leave alone, but seeks to change. Practice presupposes interest. But when understood as object of an entirely disinterested satisfaction the beautiful loses this relation to reality, presents itself rather as beautiful illusion. This distance from reality, which aesthetics has demanded over and over of a truly aesthetic attitude, does not agree well with what we generally mean by practice.

The expression "aesthetic practice (or praxis)" points thus to the antithetical character of all art, which as art is indeed necessarily also a practice,3 but in pursuit of a disinterested satisfaction, promises a happiness that is incompatible with what we ordinarily mean by practice. Such happiness stands, as Adorno says, beyond practice (or, to use his term, Praxis). "The power of negativity in the work of art, measures," according to Adorno, "the abyss between praxis and happiness."4 And it would seem that what is here said of the work of art, holds especially for architecture that deserves to be called an art. The essence of such architecture should then be sought in its ability to tear open the abyss that separates our everyday practices from a longed for or dreamed of happiness that separates everyday praxis from utopia.

So understood, the title of this conference promises a return to the theme of a symposium that took place here in Cottbus five years ago. The topic then was "architecture between art and everyday." Are we then asked to reflect once more about this "between," which haunts the expression "aesthetic praxis"? Seemingly effortlessly the German Baukunst bridges what Adorno would have us understand as an abyss. This bridging raises questions: is art even capable of building such a bridge? Does it not belong too much to just one side? Does such bridging not betray that power of negativity that, according to Adorno, determines the work of art in its very essence? Is the beautiful, understood as object of an entirely disinterested satisfaction, not essentially uninhabitable, useless? It thus is hardly surprising that aesthetics should have understood architecture again and again as the stepchild of art, as a Cinderella, who has to make herself common, has to sell herself to the world, has to embrace it, and so betray her own essence.

But such an embrace endangers not only art, but also the world. For a first pointer, here a story from the Old Testament that some years ago I heard Professor Friedrich Weinreb tell us as his contribution to a conversation about "technology and reality." He spoke of Adam; of Cain and his descendants; of Lamech and his two wives, Adah, who bore him children, and Zillah, who, to preserve her beauty, was not to bear children and yet bore Lamech a son, Thubalkain, forger of weapons, in whom the race of Cain completed itself in the seventh generation.

But what does this story have to do with our theme: architecture as an aesthetic practice"? I shall not attempt to interpret the story, but only to respond to something I heard in, perhaps into, that story. The theme of this symposium invites us to connect the ever-wandering Cain, who precisely because of this is said to have built the first city, with architecture and beyond that with technology, which promises security for an ever-insecure humanity. Thubalkain would then figure a potentiation and completion of our technological age.

But what is such a comparison to teach us? Part of our spiritual situation is an uneasiness that questions presuppositions that have shaped our culture, a suspicion that we have taken a wrong turn and lost our sense of direction and are now drifting towards the self-destruction of this technological world. Many today have come to question the power that science and technology have given us. Such suspicion has invited dreams of an aesthetic practice that would restore to images and stories the power to shape our life world, that would allow them to regain their former ethical function, dreams of beauty embracing and transforming reality. Architecture would then be a privileged vehicle for such an embrace.

Thoughts of such dreams led me to prick my ears when I heard of the barren Zillah, who, pretty as a picture, to preserve her beauty was supposed to remain childless and yet embraced Lamech and bore him Thubalkain, who was to destroy the race of Cain in its origin. It was a case of mistaken identity: guiding his blind father’s arrow to what he mistook to be a horned animal, he caused him instead to kill the horned Cain, the cursed progenitor of this cursed race, destroying it in its origin. Our topic caused me to hear this as follows: a barren beauty, meant to keep its distance from reality – and does such distance not belong to the very essence of beauty? – loses this distance, embraces the technological world, and thereby precipitates the threatening disaster?

How then do Lamech and Zillah, technology and beauty belong together? As Adorno knew so well, part of our technological world is the distance that separates the aesthetic sphere from what we take to be reality. That sphere offers us refuge from a world that is all too much with us. But part of that world is also a dissatisfaction with that very distance, is the dangerous dream of beauty embracing technology, ushering in a new reality principle, thus wonderfully transforming our world: dream of a return of myth in the age of technology, myth of the 20th and now the 21st century. I shall have to return to that dream.


2. The Egyptian Model

In the invitation to this conference "‘praxis’ and ‘poiesis’ of architecture" were mentioned as its central theme. This formulation let me hear the word praxis in a different key. Praxis and poiesis are not exactly at home in our everyday language. Poiesis lets us think of the Greeks, also of Heidegger, who again and again would have us think in Greek and who owed much to Aristotle.5 And where Aristotle has most to say about poiesis, namely in his Poetics, he also speaks of praxis. But how did the Greeks understand these terms? And how does architecture relate to them?

One might think that the same abyss opens up between poiesis and praxis that separates art from the everyday and its activity. But poiesis should not be understood here simply as art, or, more narrowly, as poetry. And still less does praxis mean what it is likely to suggest to us, or what it meant to Kant. Here the beginning of the Poetics: "I propose to speak not only of the poetical in general, but also of its species and their respective capacities, of how myths must be joined if the poiesis is to be beautiful" (1447 a 10-11). Poiesis thus can, but does not have to be beautiful. Poiesis here means not just art or poetry, but all production, for example a craft that gives some material a definite form. In Plato’s Symposium poiesis thus names every process that brings something into being (205b-c). Art is poiesis in this sense, but so is every craft; and so is nature – think of a flowering rose. Nature or phusis is indeed, as Heidegger points out, poiesis "in the highest sense."6 What distinguishes art and craft from such poiesis is that their work presupposes an intention, some understanding of the end such work is meant to serve. Such poiesis Aristotle calls techne. Like all craft, art, too, is techne in that sense, presupposes something like an intention and invites us to ask for the point of such work, the logos governing it.

What then is the end of art, where Aristotle is thinking first of all of poetry? The just cited first sentence of the Poetics gives a first answer: the end of art is beauty. But only the right joining of pregiven material results in beauty. Aristotle thus links the beauty of poiesis to a joining of myths. These provide the poet with the necessary material, where Aristotle is thinking first of all of tragedy. "Myths" here mean something like narratives concerning gods, humans, and the powers of nature.

The sentence that follows determines the goal of such poiesis further as mimesis of a praxis, which raises the question of whether and if so how mimesis and beauty are compatible, a question that was to occupy Plato. Should beauty embrace reality and thus transform it? Or should it keep its distance from reality, only mirror it? — the mirror a Platonic image for a mimetic art.

Aristotle speaks of a mimesis of a praxis. Praxis here has an ethical significance. "In as much as those who are engaged in mimesis, represent those who realize a praxis, it follows necessarily that they are either virtuous or wicked — since the ethical properties seem to reduce to this primary distinction, which divides all of mankind when there is a question of character" (1448 a1-5). The poetic configuring of myths aims thus at the representation of human beings engaged in some praxis and lets us see its ethical significance. Poiesis, understood as mimesis of a praxis, always has also an ethical function.

Combining these two determinations, we can thus understand poiesis or poetry here as the beautiful representation of a praxis, that is to say, not just as a mirroring, but also as a configuring of the pre-given material that imposes on it some sort of order. Aristotle is thinking here not just of what we ordinarily mean by poetry, but also of music, dance, painting, and sculpture. All these Aristotle takes to be mimetic arts. Only architecture is not mentioned in the Poetics. This lets us wonder whether it cannot be understood in this way, whether it stands in a different relationship to reality.

This is in fact seems to be the case. Like Plato before him, Aristotle understands architecture not as a techne mimetike, but as a techne architektonike.7 Such an architectonic techne is also capable of producing something beautiful, may indeed do so in a more profound sense than her mimetic sister. Just because of this, Plato gives such a techne a higher rank.8 Here too the creation of beauty means something like configuring some pre-given material in such a way that it forms a well-ordered whole. What is ordered is now no longer a mirroring of the reality in which we live, but this reality itself. Beauty here embraces reality, where order, symmetry, and limitation are part of this concept of beauty and where Plato and Aristotle think of the beautiful as so perfect in itself that it deserves to be called divine. Think of a beautiful human being, or a house, or a city that presents itself to us as a well ordered whole. Plato and Aristotle were well aware of the ethical function of such an ordering, which assigns to everything under its sway its proper place. This ethical function is especially evident when it is human praxis that is thus ordered, where what Plato had in mind was not so much art as politics. He was thinking of the state as the work of an aesthetic praxis. In the thirties not only Heidegger was to pick up that thought.

Beauty meant order to the Greeks, especially geometric order. In the Philebus Plato thus places the beauty of straight lines and circles, of geometrical solids and figures that can be produced only with the aid of ruler, compass, and turning lathe, above everything mimesis can furnish; also above the transitory, often haphazard beauties of nature (Philebus, 51c-d). And thus he also demands pure colors — think of black and white, blue, read, and yellow — prefers them to a broken blue-green or gold-brown that reminds us of ever changing nature. Such techne architektonike serves a spirit that is truly at home only in a mathematically ordered whole and for that reason attempts to bring our all too messy world closer to this ideal. Plato is thinking here first of all of music and rhythmic dance. But he found his best model in the strictly ordered, seemingly timeless art of the Egyptians, which met all attempts at innovation with hostility. One only had to visit Egyptian paintings and sculptures in their place, suggests the Athenian in the Laws, to become convinced that in10, 000 years nothing essential had changed in Egypt, for him a token of the divine origin of such art (656d-657a). Ernst Bloch, thinking of Hegel more than of Plato, called Egypt "the utopia: death-crystal." In the pyramid, "expression of the unification of the empire, of the cult of the king as center, Egyptian art culminates, not only as a ceremonial art, but, and related to it, as the art of rigidity and death. … In the fanatic subjection of all Egyptian art to geometry its architectonic utopia finds expression: Death-crystal as the cosmomorphic representation of a premonition of perfection."9

Plato’s Egyptian example brings to mind the warning words of the Platonic Aristophanes in the Symposium: Will human beings who lay claim to a place that belongs alone to the gods, not lose themselves? Will they not become inhuman rather than divine? Thus Plato himself invites us to question his Egyptian example.


3. Poiesis and Praxis

I wanted to speak of poiesis and praxis, but so far I have said little about Aristotelian praxis. Not every action, according to Aristotle, deserves to be called praxis.10 Poiesis, for one, cannot be considered a praxis, because it has its end in the work to be produced. Praxis, properly understood, as Aristotle points out in the Nicomachean Ethics, has its end within itself, using the term thus not at all as Kant did.11 This autotelic character makes Aristotelian praxis rather like a beautiful work of art, as aesthetics would have us understand it. By joining in his mimesis different activities to form a praxis, the poet lets us understands them as parts of a meaningful whole, giving them thereby a higher significance. A successful tragedy has thus beginning, middle, and end, and thus gathers itself into a beautiful whole. Its beauty lights up our lives, lets them appear more meaningful, precisely because, unlike the Aristotelian praxis, they are not easily understood as such beautiful wholes. Isn’t precisely this one way in which art and our everyday life differ? Beauty is to carry into our lives a trace of a more meaningful, happier life, a trace of paradise.

What gathers a work of art into a beautiful whole is some logos descending into the material of the art work, where we may want to speak with Kant of its aesthetic idea or also of its meaning. But where do we find the meaning, the logos that could gather our life into a whole, resembling a work of art? An abyss opens up here that separates not only life from art, but also from Aristotelian praxis, which is similarly said to be self-sufficient, that separates our everyday goal oriented practices, ruled by the need to labor, from that meaningful life of which we dream — an abyss Adorno conjures up over and over again. For that very reason modern life is attended by dreams of beauty embracing life, dreams of a transformation of life into something that would really deserve to be called praxis. Schiller already demands such an embrace. It is this dream of living aesthetically that Kierkegaard, thinking of the German romantics, especially of Friedrich Schlegel, subjected in Either/Or to a devastating immanent critique. As the Platonic model shows, the dream of beauty embracing reality, thus endowing it with meaning, can also be understood in political terms. Nietzsche, for one, thinking of Wagner, understands it that way in The Birth of Tragedy. Once again art is to become myth, granting new meaning to a world now living in the ruins of what once was its ruling value system, a dream that, with an eye on Nietzsche, Jugendstil artists, too, dreamed. And Nietzsche already thought here not just of a resurrection of Greek tragedy, but also of architecture strong enough to found a social praxis, well aware of how difficult it was to reconcile such a praxis with the artistic practices of his and still our day. We lack the great architects.

"The power to build now weakens; the courage to make plans extending to the distant future is discouraged; there begins to be a lack of those with organizational genius — who still dares to undertake works where one would have to reckon with millennia for their completion? That basic faith becomes extinct, which would allow someone to reckon in this fashion, to promise, to anticipate the future in the plan, to offer it as a sacrifice to his plan, the faith namely that the human being has value, meaning only in as much as he is a stone in a great building: for this he has to be first of all firm, must be 'stone,' especially not -- actor! Briefly said -- it will be buried in silence for a long enough time! -- what from now on will not be built, cannot be built, is a society in the old sense of the word; to build this building everything is lacking, first of all the material. All of us are no material for a society: that is a truth whose time has come! It seems to me a matter of indifference that for the time being the most short-sighted, perhaps most honest, at any rate the noisiest kind of human being that exists today, our socialist friends, believe, hope, dream, especially scream and write the very opposite; by now one reads their slogan 'free society' on every table and wall. Free society? Yeah! Yeah! But you know of course, gentlemen, out of what that is built? out of wooden iron! Out of the famous wooden iron! And not even wooden."12

Our freedom and what Nietzsche here calls "a society in the old sense of the word" will not be joined together. Presupposition of such a society is precisely that basic belief that our life has value only when we are able to understand ourselves as part of a more comprehensive whole that assigns us our place. The importance that we have placed on the individual and freedom rules out such a belief. And yet many continue to dream of such a community. Nietzsche, too, dreams not only of the labyrinth, of an architecture that would correspond to our labyrinthine souls, but also of a quite different architecture, dreams of pyramids, of architects that reckon in millennia, dreams with Plato of Egypt. And is it not this dream that has supported all great architecture?

"The most powerful have always inspired the architects; the architect was always under the spell of power. In the building pride, the victory over gravity, the will to power is to become visible; architecture is a kind of power-rhetoric in forms, sometimes persuading, even flattering, sometimes simply commanding. The highest feeling of power and security finds expression in what possesses great style. The power that no longer is in need of proof."13

Such dreams of an architecture of the hardest stone, figuring a similarly constructed society, a society that dispenses with proof, that simply overpowers, is born of a will to power that cannot forgive itself its essential lack of power, cannot accept that all creation, all building, will finally be experienced as arbitrary when it is not experienced as a response to something that claims us and grounds architecture. Without such responsibility aesthetic practice becomes anarchy, freedom arbitrariness.

But a freedom that, divorced from responsibility, degenerates into arbitrary willfulness is hard to bear, becomes a burden. Just this difficult to bear freedom leads to dreams of an architecture of the hardest, heaviest stone, heavy enough to crush all freedom. Hitler once promised to deliver such dreamers from the freedom that weighed on them. "Providence has made it my destiny that I should become the greatest liberator of humanity. I free the human being from the dominion of a spirit that has become its own end, from the dirty and demeaning self-tortures inflicted by a chimera called conscience and morality, and from the claims of a freedom and a personal responsibility that only a very few are up to."14 As the aesthetic practice of many an architecture and art school demonstrated in those years, this was no idle promise. When a Moses lets the people wait for too long, they will always find some Aaron and some golden calf: some simulacrum of community building divinity. Nietzsche’s dream of a community building architecture, of an aesthetic practice so understood, is a dream of architectural practice as the fashioning of some golden calf. The Bauhaus dreamed that dream, as did Heidegger, he too, like Hitler, thinking of the Greek model.


4. Wernigerode for Example

But what are we today to do with Heidegger’s world-establishing temple-work? What is the Poseidon temple at Paestum, what is the cathedral in Bamberg to us? That cathedral may still stand in its old place, but, as Heidegger points out, its world has perished, never to return. We know how difficult it is to reconcile our long fought for freedom, our spiritual and physical mobility with the look of our old cities, which so often still have their center in some church, which helps to give a city its distinctive face. Again and again we have allowed the car to disturb, sometimes to destroy such urban landscapes. Whether we welcome or lament such a development, we have to recognize that in our world, a world shaped by an ever progressing technology, architecture is losing more and more of its former aura, is less and less able to assign us the place that would allow us to feel at home in society and in the world. And can we even lament this loss of place? Do we not have to welcome it as the price that must be paid for progress? Do we not have to welcome it for the sake of our greater mobility, a mobility that is but one expression of a freedom that many have come to consider an inalienable right? How has the airplane, how will the computer transform our sense of space, of proximity and distance? Many a well preserved city, still crowned and gathered into a whole by church or cathedral strikes us today as a museum. To be sure, there will still be cities in the future, more and much larger cities. Mexico City, Tokyo, Los Angeles, and the Ruhr give us some idea of what awaits us. Increasingly cities will become loosely defined conglomerates of often and easily replaced buildings. In such cities architecture becomes at bottom dispensable decoration. What holds them together is their technological infrastructure. There is no trace here of architecture gathering such a city into a meaningful whole. Is such a gathering even desirable? Is it compatible with our modern way of life? The spirit of what awaits us may well be captured by Nietzsche’s description of Venice, cited by Heidegger in a letter to Jaspers: "Together, a hundred deep lonelinesses make up the city of Venice – this is its magic. An image for the human beings of the future."15 Manfredo Tafuri found in Nietzsche’s Venice an image of the city of the future, which he found prefigured by modern day New York. What need is there for architecture in its old sense, for its ethical function, in such a city?

I have spoken of a widespread uneasiness with architecture. In order to bring such uneasiness, which is always attended also by nostalgia, a bit closer, let me show you an image that accompanied an invitation I received not long ago to another symposium. It shows one of those central European towns that have preserved a look that seems out of place in our modern world. As if to underscore this our drawing shows hardly anything that reminds us of our technological age. What was I to do with this picture?

Some of you here may well have recognized and even visited this town. It is Wernigerode, known for its colorful half-timbered houses. We all know the magic of such towns, which present us with a kind of counter-image to the urban or suburban environments more and more of us live in. As not only this picture, but also the way we build today (consider, e. g., our houses) shows: nostalgia, a longing for genuine community and organically grown towns, for sheltering gables, accompanies modern life. Such nostalgia lets us dream of a wedding of the achievements of modernity with not only material, but also spiritual shelters of all sorts.

In our drawing, too, such nostalgia finds its expression. For, if we look closely, what it shows is not an old town as it once was, with half-timbered houses and a playful city-hall, but a careful, and in its care timely, intervention into such a town. The buildings behind the half-timbered house in the front left, the inn Gotisches Haus, are an attempt of the architect Franz Demblin to transform this block of houses, so important to the town’s image, into a modern hotel, with125 rooms. The architect took care that his intervention should not disturb the organic look of this town, so important to its future ability to attract tourists. With its new tower the hotel takes its place besides parish church, city-gate and castle, joins the chorus of the many towers of this city. The small inn that gave its name and is now part of the modern hotel would hardly have dared to assert itself in that way. It knew what was proper. To be sure, the modern hotel, too, wants to be a good neighbor. And yet the fact that it is a hotel, a house for transient visitors, that now decks itself out with a tower invites thought.


5. Interesting Architecture

Decked out with its tower, the hotel Gotisches Haus made me think of one of Nietzsche’s aphorisms.

"On the whole we no longer understand architecture, at least not in the way we understand music. … Originally everything on a Greek or Christian building had a meaning, with an eye to a higher order of things: this aura of an inexhaustible significance surrounded the building like a magical veil. Beauty entered the system only incidentally, without diminishing in any significant way the fundamental sensation of the uncanny sublime of what the proximity of the divine and magic had consecrated; beauty softened at most the terror — but this terror was everywhere the presupposition. What is the beauty of a building to us today? The same as the beautiful face of a woman without spirit: something mask-like."16

Nietzsche is thinking here of the architecture of his time, which so often dressed up aesthetically more or less functional buildings. The aesthetic addendum was supposed to make the building into something more than just a well functioning shed, laid claim to raising it to the level of art, i. e. of architecture. But without an essential relation to the ornament bearer the aesthetic addendum had to remain mask.

The Greek or Christian building of which Nietzsche is here speaking is also a metaphor for the cosmos. On this world building, too, everything once had a meaning. Nature, too has lost much of its former meaning, has become mute. This loss is but the other side of the objectivity demanded by the understanding of reality that is a presupposition of our science and technology. This had to dissolve the bond that once tied beauty to reality. Beauty now becomes a mask placed on a reality that is in its essence mute, architecture understood as an architectonic practice becomes the art of masking buildings.

Something in us resists such a silencing of both nature and architecture. If our science has caused the God-centered edifice that once offered us shelter to fall into ruin, we can yet attempt to make ourselves at home in the remnants left to us, can attempt to find in an art that keeps its distance from reality compensation for what we have lost, to seek refuge in some version of the hotel Gotisches Haus, well equipped, like our hotel with its discotheque, bars, and conference rooms. The afterglow of a world that has perished here casts a last light into our ever less substantial reality.

Postmodern art and architecture, as e. g. Lyotard understands them, may be understood as a critical response to such a decorative understanding of art. "Modern" and "postmodern" should not be understood here are opposites. What is "postmodern" is part of the "modern" and modernity, according to Lyotard, can only be understood in terms of the sublime and that is also to say, in terms of homelessness.17 Lyotard finds the difference in the fact that modern art cannot or rather refuses to rid itself of nostalgia. This leads to ever new attempts to recover for our age the edifying architecture of the past, leads to dreams of Greek temples and Gothic cathedrals, of community gathering squares and fountains shadowed by linden trees, and to attempts to preserve at least something of these dreams, to build, say, a Black Forest house or a Hotel Gotisches Haus. Modernity and Kitsch are neighbors. Uncomfortable with such neighborliness Lyotard distinguishes two variants of modern art, one ruled by melancholy, the other playful, ever in search of novelty. Lyotard places the German expressionists on the one side, Braque and Picasso on the other, Malevich on the one side, the late Lissitzky on the other, on the one side de Chirico, on the other Duchamp.18 And this distinction invites application to architecture: does not Ungers belong on the one side, Gehry on the other?

As we saw, Lyotard appeals to Kant’s concept of the sublime. But Kant connected the sublime with a freedom essentially bound by the moral law. Lyotard lets go of this bond. He lacks Kant’s faith in the binding power of pure practical reason, a faith that Schopenhauer and Nietzsche already had lost. And thus he celebrates novatio, an artistic freedom that again and again will trespass, cross boundaries, set up knew rules, as an increase of being and of joy. So understood, a postmodern aesthetic practice has to call into question an inheritance that, despite the lost center, still promises something like home. Lyotard thus celebrates a freedom that calls into question whatever would assign us our place. But freedom that is not in some way bound by and to reality has to turn into an arbitrary spontaneity. With this the aesthetics of the sublime has to turn into an aesthetics of the interesting. That holds also for architecture. The Portland Building by Michael Graves, celebrated as "the first monument" of a postmodern architecture, is not beautiful, but it is interesting, as the discussion that it provoked proved.19 For this very reason architecture and architect have indeed been trendsetting.


6. Opening a Window for Nature

Just because Lyotard’s turn to the category of the sublime to illuminate the aesthetic practice of our day captures something essential it demands critical consideration. The fact that in the 18th century the category of the sublime should first have taken its place besides that of beautiful, soon to be granted priority, invites us to reflect on the significance of this change in taste. And why did the distinction between these two categories become less and less important in the course of the 19th century? Did the meaning of beauty change? It is indeed possible to distinguish a beauty that comes before the sublime from one that follows it. Bound up with this development is a changed understanding of nature. "Beauty" still lets Kant think first of all not of art, but of nature, still thought by him, as by most Enlightenment thinkers, as creation. In beautiful nature the human spirit feels at home. We experience it as purposive, as meaningful. It lets us think of a god, who created it as our true home. In such beauty, which is most definitely not our creation, all our art has its ground and exemplar. Art may thus not be understood as having its sole ground in the artist’s creativity, but as an interpreting re-presentation of a pre-given beauty that has always already touched the artist. That also holds for architecture: its most fundamental model would then be the divine architecture of the cosmos.

The sublime forbids such an architectonic practice. As Kant puts it, sublime nature is dreadful, chaotic, indifferent to our needs. Sublime nature thus gives us human beings to understand that meaning is not to be found in nature, but only in us. We are not at home in the world. For that very reason Bataille came to understand the cathedral, this image of the cosmos, whose community building power he too had once celebrated, as a prison. Architecture imprisons, he now proclaimed, and for that very reason deserves to be destroyed, even if such destruction should threaten chaos and bestiality. "It is obvious," he thought, "that monuments inspire social good behavior in societies and often even real fear." But even if we admit this, is it also obvious that they therefore deserve to be abolished? Does this society, does the world, suffer from a surfeit of "good behavior"? Ought we, for the sake of greater freedom, let loose the Minotaur? A deep self-hatred betrays itself in such conviction. As Bataille recognized, this animus against the monuments that are said to be our real masters is inevitably also an animus against ourselves: "This is precisely what, in Bataille's view, the mythical figure of Acephalus was intended to show: the only way for man to escape the architectural chain gang is to escape his form, to lose his head. … The image of Acephalus, thus should be seen as a figure of dissemblance, the negative image of an antimonumental madness involved in the dismemberment of 'meaning.' The painter André Masson drew this figure and Bataille wrote an aphorism to go with it: 'Man will escape his head as a convict escapes his prison.'"20 This sense of our essential homelessness in a world that, even though void of meaning, yet fetters us, Lyotard would have us understand as a presupposition of every genuinely modern aesthetic practice. So understood the world becomes that torture chamber Schopenhauer took it to be. If only for a time, beautiful illusion, so he taught, grants us release from such torture.21 So understood beauty does not want to embrace reality, but wants to keep its distance form it. Beautiful illusion is to grant us at least a semblance of that redemption in which we moderns no longer can believe.

The Greeks understood beauty as the goal of eros. They knew about its sensuous-erotic power. Burke still knows about this essential link between Eros and beauty. Schopenhauer dissolves this bond with a vehemence Nietzsche was later to ridicule: "Of few things does Schopenhauer speak with greater assurance than he does of the effect of aesthetic contemplation: he says of it that it counteracts sexual "interestedness," like lupulin and camphor; he never wearies of glorifying this liberation from the "will" as the great merit and utility of the aesthetic condition."22 So understood, modern art promises to lift the burden of reality. That aesthetic practice, so understood, should not quite know what to do with architecture, which remains inescapably tied to reality, is only to be expected.

Nietzsche understood such an art (if we follow Lyotard the only truly timely art) as an art of the evening. Unlike Lyotard he dreamed of a happier, higher art.

"I am told that our art catered to the greedy, insatiable, undisciplined, disgusted, tortured human beings of the present age and placed an image of blessedness, elevation, and worldlessness next to the image of their wastedness: so that for once they might forget and draw breath, perhaps even bring back with them an impetus to flee, to turn their lives around."23

Nietzsche, however, would rather listen to the life- and love-affirming baroque, to Corneille or Madame de Sévigné for example:

"How differently did he and she love reality, not as an expression of a blind and wild ‘will,’ which one curses because one is unable to kill it, but as a place, where greatness and humanity can coexist and where even the strictest rule of forms, subjection to the arbitrary will of some prince or priest can suppress neither pride nor gallantry, neither grace nor the spirit of all individuals, but rather is experienced as a stimulus and spur for the inborn high-spirit and nobility.24

The presupposition of the higher art Nietzsche here envisions is the ability to step out of the Schopenhauerian shadow, is a love of existing. And after the death of God, this has to mean also: presupposed is the affirmation of a reality that no higher meaning illuminates. Such affirmation leads to attempts "To translate human being back into nature; to master those many vain and fanciful interpretations and connotations that have been scrawled over that eternal basic text homo natura."25 What would an architectonic practice look like that attempted to meet Nietzsche’s demand for such a translating practice? Instead of an answer a final pointer.

I have already shown you Frank Gehry's Weisman Museum in Minneapolis as an example of the only mask-like beauty of our architecture lamented by Nietzsche. To understand such a mask as only a mask is to become aware of the loose relationship between ornament and ornament-bearer. This especially at sunset glaringly reflective stained steel architecture is hardly an example of Bloch’s utopian death crystal. And yet, this architecture, too, reminds me of those already cited sentences in Plato’s Philebus, which speak of the timeless beauty of mechanically produced forms. At the same time it lets me wonder: how will this architecture look in ten, in a hundred years? In the face of such crystalline beauty such a question may almost seem inappropriate: what does such architecture have to do with time? But architecture that wants to do justice to the whole human being also has to do justice to death, has to open itself to the earth and to time. And something like such an opening is indeed effected by this museum, although Gehry, as he told me, bears no responsibility for this only provisional side, the face that his museum now turns to the University of Minnesota. The façade’s mask of stainless steel can hardly be seen from here. What speaks to us is rather the contrast between the almost mute rectangle of brick that in modest letters bears the name of the museum, the gray wall beneath, and, still further down, a miniature field of dark earth and what remains of the long harvested corn, its yellowed stalks answering to the yellow of the word CULTIVATE, which draws our attention, as if it were the title of a poem. No doubt, we are to be reminded of the importance the cultivation of corn has for just this state. But we are also reminded of what it means to cultivate a field: to work the earth, even today, when agriculture, too, has become an industry that, like all industry, distances us from the earth. But still we depend on the earth, need to care for the rising corn, in the hope for a good harvest, a harvest that despite all our technology, still remains also a gift. With its backside this museum opens a window to nature. In this way it provides us with a modest pointer. It points towards an architecture that no longer seeks to find in some lifeless utopia something like a redemption from reality, a reality that technology, advertising, and art have almost suffocated with their embrace; points towards an architecture that does not seek either to establish some new reality; but that seeks only to tear open our reality, to open a window in it so that once again we feel that life giving draft that blows through that window, from nature, into our world.


1 Kant, "Über den Gemeinspruch: Das mag in der Theorie richtig sein, taugt aber nicht für die Praxis," A 201.

2 Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft, A 5.

3 Cf. Theodor W. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie, 5th edition, Frankfurt am Main 1981, p. 345.

4 Ibid., p. 26."

5 Cf. Martin Heidegger, "Die Frage nach der Technik," in Die Technik und die Kehre, Pfullingen 1962.

6 Heidegger, Die Frage nach der Technik, p. 11.

7 Grassi, p. 141.

8 Platon, Sophist, 265a, 266c-d.

9 Ernst Bloch, Das Prinzip Hoffnung, Frankfurt am Main 1980, pp. 846-847.

10 Grassi, p. 162-127.

11 Aristoteles, Nicomachean Ethics, 1120a2-6

12 Nietzsche, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, V, 356. Cf. Der Antichrist, 58, "Kritik der Modernität." Götzendämmerung, Streifzüge eines Unzeitgemässen, 39. See also Alfred Baeumler, Nietzsche als Philosoph und Politiker, Leipzig, 1937, p. 113.

13 Götzendämmerung, Streifzüge eines Unzeitgemässen, 11.

14 Hermann Rauschning, Gespräche mit Hitler, cited in Die Bildenden Künste im Dritten Reich. Eine Dokumenttaion von Joseph Wulf, Hamburg 1966, p. 12.

15 Letter to Karl Jaspers of August 12, 1949, in Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers: Briefwechsel 1920-1963, ed. WalterBiemel and Hans Saner, Frankfurt am Main, p. 181.

16 Nietzsche, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches I, 218.

17 Jean-François Lyotard, "Answer to the Question: What is the Postmodern," in The Postmodern Explained, Minneapolis, 1993, p. 10.

18 Ibid., p.13.

19 Cf. Karsten Harries, "Modernity's Bad Conscience," AA Files, 10, 1985, pp. 53-60.

20 Nietzsche, Morgenröthe 3, 191.

21 Ibid.

22 Nietzsche ,Jenseits von Gut und Böse, 230.

23 Nietzsche, Morgenröthe 3, 191.

24 Ibid.

25 Nietzsche ,Jenseits von Gut und Böse, 230.

Vol. 6, No1 ( September 2001)

___Karsten Harries

Architecture as an Aesthetic Praxis?

New Haven