The Visibility of Architecture, by Ed Winters

“The weight of a bone-handled knife

signifies more in human life

than our aesthetics ever can.”

So we are counselled by Derek Mahon, in his poem ‘New Space’, from his latest collection, An Autumn Wind.[1] Mahon takes up the everyday, the overlooked, in a poetic refusal to accept the loftier claims of theory. The lines direct us toward aesthetic sensitivity rather than intellectual knowledge. The caution is worth heeding; but I feel that I want to engage Mahon, to try to persuade him that the significance of the weight is itself part of our aesthetics; and that it is our aesthetics that has either fallen under attack from theorists of literature, fine art and architecture or has become confused in the artistic imagination with just such theory.

Aesthetics, I believe, should turn us toward sensitivity rather than theoretical knowledge; and so it points in a different direction to that of theory. Theory, unlike aesthetics, attempts to drive art in its various practices. Practices in turn adapt themselves to the theories that Mahon is anxious to resist.

During conversation with Bruce McLean, then Professor of Fine Art at The Slade School in London, he made the claim that we are now in a ‘post theory culture’ in which studio artists no longer look to theory. If aesthetics is equated (or rather conflated) with art theory, it comes under attack on two fronts: It comes under attack from theorists, for whom the purpose of theory is to drive art forward. And it comes under attack from those who would resist theory and who think of aesthetics as just more theory.

In this paper I shall try to make a space for aesthetics in the discourses concerning art in general; and then say something about the place of aesthetics in the discourse engaging architecture.


[1] Derek Mahon, An Autumn Wind, Co. Meath: The Gallery Press, 2010.

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