There is no doubt that architecture is part of the
culture of a society, a region, a country or an epoch.
There is also no doubt
about there not
being “one” culture but just as many part-, sub-, or particular cultures, as
there are social groups, geographical regions, countries or epochs.
The change of these cultures in the course of
history, equally within a culture and between cultures, takes place all the
time and quite often leads to the simultaneity of dissimilar things.
Intermixings, overlappings, and interpenetrations lead to plural or
multivalent manifestations, but at the same time also again and again to
standardizations, dominances and preferences of cultural phenomena.
Both trends call watchful observers onto the scene
who partly critically, partly apologetically raise their voices and many are
heard in times of general uncertainty by economic or ideological crises.
With these perspectives in mind, the question
concerning “the” construction culture can’t be solved any more in a
normative or at least regulatory way, because the criteria and the knowledge
is lacking which would be adequate for the complex reality (if one doesn’t
like to take refuge to a reductionist rigorism as in the case of the
"guiding culture", traditions, history, reference to locality, aesthetic
models). Therefore I would like to pick out
an aspect of this question, which refers to a conspicuous phenomenon of
contemporary construction culture and which can contribute in combination
with an existing architectural theory to a perspective to define culture in
construction across regional and temporal limits.
It is striking, that in the variety of the
contemporary everyday construction business there are prominent buildings,
which are preferably
designed by always the same illustrious architects – or to phrase it
differently – that for important construction tasks the same international
architects are invited again and again to develop their solutions (e. g. Libeskind, Nouvel, Eisenman, Koolhaas, Gehry, Foster, Hadid). Usually the
tasks in question are of high profile and are often fulfilling a public
function: museums, concert- and theatre buildings, railway stations,
airports, but also shopping malls, office- and residential buildings – which
are all tasks, which in general could also be solved by “normal” architects
from the respective region. Because of the quantitative and also its
ideational size and its public nature, which is vouching for the claim of
exclusiveness, it is justified to talk of buildings of and for high culture,
which are distinguishing themselves from the variety of smaller an more
banal (because less demanding) building tasks of everyday life.
While our architectural everyday culture is
functionally simple, plural, sometimes multicultural, often commercial,
frequently regional, and formally orientated rather superficially on
symbols, our architectural high culture can be considered as artistically
and functionally complex, ideationally charged, and internationally
orientated and achieves thus the status of "symbolic forms" by formal
and succinctness. The history of architecture and construction culture has
been time and again been interpreted by different theoretical perspectives
as the history of the realisation of symbolic forms through architecture
(cf. Dreyer 2003b), and it is obvious that especially the exposed buildings
of political power, religious ideas, and cultural values have been
foregrounded as they are structures by which each respective high culture
expresses and manifests itself. I would like to follow up and subsequently
check my thesis, that also our present international architectural high
culture offers an ensemble of symbolic forms, which represents the spirit of
our time and which is also to be understood in its difficulties and
inconsistency as an expression of a contemporary construction culture (cf.
for the crisis of the representation: Section 3).
We will have to ask, what these symbolic forms of
a contemporary construction culture mean and how they can prompt us to deal
2. Architectural High Culture as a Symbolic
If Hegel describes architecture in his aesthetics
as the prime symbolic art form, he nonetheless regards symbolism as a lesser
form in the artistic expression of ideas, however, after the success of the
concept of the symbol in the 19th century, several approaches to
a theory of symbolic forms have been developed in the 20th
century, which are chiefly applied in the realm of aesthetics and cultural
sciences (cf. Pochat 1983). Following Ernst
Cassirers and Susanne K. Langers philosophy of symbolic forms as well as
being based on other psycho-social applications of these theories, Christian
Norberg-Schulz in his “Logik der Baukunst" (1963/1968) understood
architecture as the central area for the manifestation of “cultural
symbolisation” of a society or epoch.
Norberg-Schulz regards architectural forms and configurations as means by
which cultural objects (e.g. values, ideas, customs and uses, fantasies and
utopias) are symbolically expressed.
These forms can be “a building type, a floor-plan,
a special shape of rooms” (ibid. p. 175), but also partial forms, a
decorative form, a specific material or even the special form of a wall
(ibid. p. 126), in principle therefore all architectural elements ranging
from a detail to an overarching element, as long as they can be perceived
and described with formal succinctness.
It is also true for Norberg-Schulz, as in the
mentioned symbol theories, that symbols must be based on social conventions,
that they consequently can't be arbitrary and that these conventions have to
be public common property (ibid. p. 175). In spite of this conventional
characters of the symbols in general, Norberg-Schulz believes to be
demonstrate with examples of sacral and feudal architecture, that the
architectural symbolic forms have at large a “structural likeness” (ibid. p.
175) to the symbolised objects, which are due to an abstraction from
formerly representational “iconic” signs and which are remains of a
“shorthand structural description” (ibid. p. 175). This is the basis for
their effectiveness and communicative capacity which makes a living culture
possible in the first place.
"Produced by people and of exceedingly practical
nature, construction has the special
ability to show
how cultural values and traditions determine our everyday life.
Only by cultural symbolisation can architecture
show that the everyday has a significance beyond the immediate situation and
that it participates in the cultural and historical continuity" (ibid. p.
As we wouldn't like to measure the complete
construction business of a time or region in terms of this huge demand,
however, we may demand according to Norberg-Schulz "that at least some
construction tasks will include the dimension of cultural symbolisation"
(ibid. p. 128), or respectively we will be allowed to analyse and interpret
prominent buildings or construction complexes of a particular time or region
according to the specified premises with respect to symbolisation and the
meaning of the symbolised cultural objects.
3. Cultural Symbolisation and the Crisis of
As I have remarked already at the beginning, there
is at the moment a small clear-cut group of prominent international
architects who are invited again and again to present their designs for
large-scale architectural projects and who are often designated as winners.
We may assume (and I would like to hold this thesis), that in their designs
a generally intelligible and accepted symbolisation of widely esteemed and
valued cultural objects expresses
itself in its outlines, which is a public common property at least on the
level of the present Euro-American high culture or at least could be so. To
describe, analyse, and interpret the new concert hall of Frank Gehry in Los
Angeles, the Dutch embassy of Rem Koolhaas in Berlin or the master plan for
"Ground Zero" in New York by Daniel Libeskind it requires some abstract
effort (as we can already gather from contributions in appropriate
newspapers and magazines) which shall not be presented here (cf. to an
example in Dreyer 2001), but we may assume that we can demonstrate,
how in each case by very diverse architectural symbolic forms statements
are made on the nature of music (Gehry), on politics and diplomacy (Koolhaas),
and on the national ideology of the U.S.A. (Libeskind) and how culture is
thus architecturally manifested. This shall under no circumstances mean that
the here symbolised cultural objects shall be accepted uncritically and that
the type and form of their symbolisation shall be unquestioningly admired.
Quite on the contrary: only by the materialisation
of such demanding architectural symbolic forms the critical or affirmative
discourse will be enabled,
by which culture comes to life in the first place and may develop further.
Nevertheless, a shadow falls on this picture of a
sound architectural high culture. It has been adequately described
and it is ever topical, that paradigms shift in the course of time (and
sometimes very quickly), which devalues old things and
produces new ones, but which could also lead to
the decay of symbols and their destruction (cf. the controversy around the
planned demolition of the “Palast der Republik" in
With the acceleration of social change also the
cultural change accelerates and its expression in symbolic forms;
internationalisation and globalisation enlarge the horizon enormously and
lead simultaneously to uncertainties of one’s own cultural identity. Thus it
comes to the known antagonistic positions, where some would like as much as
possible to keep and go back to homogeneous, clear-cut, regional cultures
while on the other hand the avant-gardes orient themselves globally and
communicate internationally with always the same symbolic forms of a "new"
architecture. One can talk "about
a general crisis of representation", which concerns all levels of culture
and which has already reached architecture, too (cf. Dreyer 2003a).
This crisis shows itself in the manifestation of
present demanding architecture among others as follows:
symbolic forms of the architectural avant-garde are hermetic and
speculative; they abstain from traditions and reference to locality, the
connection to historical contexts is avoided or if needs be constructed in a
highly artificial way (e. g. Libeskind).
symbolised cultural objects remain indistinct and nebulous, they correspond
to the Zeitgeist in an eclectic way.
What Dieter Claessens says
“reduction of the old symbolic reality" at the end of the 19th century is
also valid here: “As the individually working architect, without properly
realising it, has stepped into the shoes of the theologian – as did the
philosopher, and the physician, and the jurist as a philosopher of law, he
also combines ideas of omnipotence with highly personal philosophies” (Claessens
1984, p. 129; in e.
g. the latest publications of Koolhaas).
general public to which the symbolic forms of this “high-end” architecture
is aimed and which should support it, is on one hand constantly increasing,
mostly because of increasing publicity in mass media, but on the other it is
also decreasing, as there is no general consensus in this wider public any
more, but only heterogeneous individualities, scenes and networks, which
often have nothing to do with each other, but which are highly
differentiated and specialised in their structures (cf. Archplus166/2003 and
Increasingly, the understanding and the interpretation of the architectural
symbols of high culture can only be achieved by insiders, experts and
special institutions like universities and research institutes. We have to
fulfil ever higher demands on knowledge, education, and experience to be
able to contribute in the discourse for and on cultural symbolisation: the
situation of avant-garde architecture resembles that of contemporary music,
which has moved away to the socially and culturally elitist.
The here (only superficially) mentioned symptoms of the crisis are certainly
serious, but could nonetheless be considered positively as a significant
expression of the present condition of architectural symbolic forms in a
specific western high culture.
4. The Discomfort in Culture and Cultural
This dubious condition of our present
architectural high culture could be due to the contradictions on which our
culture is based and which have led Sigmund Freud to his "Unbehagen
in der Kultur"
(1930). All attempts to promote culture by increasing the beauty, order,
logic, and purity of environmental design increase according to Freud the
repressive and aggressive tendencies, which manifest themselves not only in
physical violence, but also in the explosive gestures of received
architectural forms and which can be only seemingly aesthetically
the compulsion to submit under cultural norms is
impressively manifested by architects symbolically and is experienced
lastingly by observers or users. On the
other hand a desire for freedom expresses
itself in the individualistic and hermetic symbolisations, which opposes
norms and power and thus addresses hidden wishes and motives and which thus
makes culture accessible in the first place.
In view of the "chaotic" condition of
architectural vernacular culture one could say that in its contradictory
variety and complexity (cf. Venturi 1966) an anarchic trait is expressed,
which contravenes the symbolic compulsiveness of architectural high culture
and which embodies a primary vital energy; this might not be promoting
culture, but perhaps it is life-supporting.
Helpers with their well meant measures to bridge
or even to resolve this contradiction in our culture should take the advice
of Freud to the heart: "Perhaps we acquaint us with the idea ... that
there are difficulties which are inherent in the
nature of culture and which won’t give way to any attempt of reform." (Freud
1930/1994, p. 80).
The "discomfort in culture" increases if one
thinks of the role which the cultural industry plays in the establishment
of symbolic forms in society, which equally concerns architecture.
By mass publications of exemplary architecture in
newspapers, magazines and TV magazines it contributes significantly to
produce and to deepen a general public and a consensus for the acceptance of
architectural symbolic forms. This is valid
both for the architectural high culture as well as for the everyday culture:
Both spheres dispose of their own media, which only overlap occasionally and
which address different target groups. What
would have to be welcomed actually – the creation of public and consensus by
information and communication – becomes only too easily subject to the
conflicting features of this industry branded by Adorno and Horkheimer:
"Culture is a paradoxical good.
It is so completely exposed to the law of exchange
that it isn't exchanged any more; it thus blindly consumed in usage that one
cannot use it any more. It is therefore
fused with all advertisements" (Horkheimer/Adorno 1947/86, p. 170f), which
means nothing else but the "pure representation of social power" (ibid. p.
172). What is meant by that Adorno
formulates in another place: "The categorical imperative of the cultural
industry, as opposed to the Kantian, has nothing in common any more with
freedom. It says: you shall conform,
without concern to what to conform to; conform to what is anyway, to what
everyone thinks anyhow as a reflex to its power and its omnipresence.
Conformity replaces consciousness by the power of the ideology of the
cultural industry" (Adorno 1967, p. 67).
about culture are
thus reinforced: by the ubiquitous cultural industry (here in form of the
mass media) pressure is exerted both on the level of the high as well as the
vernacular culture which shall lead to conform to the existing, the
established, and the anyway dominant and which rather hinders an active
cultural production and cultural policy.
5. Cultural Production and Cultural Policy as a
With these observations we can once again come
back to the initial question, how our present construction culture in its
contradictory variety can prompt us (practically, theoretical, political) to
deal with it. We shouldn’t be surprised
that the answers also turn out to be contradictory.
The existing international architectural high culture will continue
to produce lavish symbolic forms and refer to its special cultural mandate:
to charge everyday existence with significance.
However, we have to take the advice of Norberg-Schulz:
"Architecture has to serve the desired manifestation of meaning again.
However, these meanings react again upon
architecture itself. By manifesting new
meanings, architecture contributes to cultural development " (Norberg-Schulz
1963/68, p. 128).
If you share the opinion with Freud (and Horkheimer/Adorno and
others), that all culture has an inherent repressive and compulsive trait
(and the higher it is, the more it is so), you then would remain critical to
all attempts to promote culture, be it construction culture, style of home
décor, lifestyle, and always insist that there be areas which resist
cultural formation and standardisation and which claim their right to
independent existence, to experiment,
to deviation, and to difference.
Alfred Lorenzer and Bernhard Görlich have stressed
the political consequences of this attitude: "We have to ... examine
the cultural framework which enables people, despite all concrete hurts they
suffer, to develop nonetheless the need to realise themselves in the
engagement with their world, the others, in personal development, as in the
active readiness to act in solidarity and social
competition." (Lorenzer/Görlich 1994, p. 80). It is natural that this
engagement with the world should also include construction culture, but has
to include also the vital human right for the fulfilment of “wrong needs”
(Adorno 1967, p. 121), even though it might be hard to tolerate at times.
The mixture and variety of cultures is a chance to
make life richer, more meaningful, and more pleasurable.
With Freud, once again, we have to be reminded
"that there are difficulties which are inherent in the nature of culture and
which won't give way to any attempt of reform" (cf.
A good educational and cultural policy should support and promote all areas,
high culture, vernacular culture, and alternative culture and seek to
establish a sound balance between them.
The main emphasis could shift from one side to the
other: without this change and exchange culture would stiffen and dilapidate
to an empty ritual.