What is architecture?, by Carolyn Fahey

Sometimes I wonder whether we in the architecture profession and academe do not forget about some of the presuppositions our discipline depends on. There are many of these. Say that architecture is to have certain identifiable qualities that could say be incorporated into a design pedagogy: space, order, composition, etc. Although interesting topics to explore, this is not my interest in this short post. My interest rather relates to a much more deeply rooted issue. It relates to our claim on architecture.

It is fascinating to me that we can claim that we know what architecture is – that it is some sort of shared concept despite its esoteric qualities. Like the debates that have been raging for sometime in art, it is not clear that we do in fact know what it is. If this is the case, then it seems necessary – even imperative – that those responsible for this discipline seriously consider sustained introspection.

In response to what I would identify as a disciplinary need, I wonder to what extent we presuppose the physical qualities of building we count as architecture. Is architecture necessarily something physical? Must some image of architecture be manifest in-built form for there to be architecture? Clearly in the case of the newly developed field of computer architecture, there is not anything physical which amounts to there being ‘architecture’ but rather a system of organization that everyone involved in agrees to either openly or passively. Could this not also be the case for the ancient discipline of building?

I do not mean to say that building is not there; that it is not tangible or otherwise physical. I mean to say, that what we take to be architecture might be understood as nothing more than a particular image of building which can only be found in certain elevated kinds of building. If this is the case, it seems that there is no such thing as architecture. There is building and then there is building elevated by theory and history to a point of exaltation. There is architecture.

This point of elevation is evident in looking to the etymology of the words vernacular and architecture. The word vernacular is the building of the slaves whereas architecture proper is the building of the masters (and one might add for the masters). There are no doubt clear political and social hierarchies active in defining what is and is not vernacular. Nevertheless, my interest is mere existence of this hierarchy and its claim on building, not its individual character amongst different groups or during different time periods. I will leave that for others to grapple with.

This master-level class, if I dare say, is capable of elevating building to an emperor-like status. The Villa Savoye is an instance of this phenomenon. The Villa Savoye (Figure 1) is normally heralded as encapsulating the design principles of (in)famous artist/architect Le Corbusier. But what about this building is remarkable? What about this building makes it architecture? The use of pilotis? Of horizontal windows? Quite possibly, or at least this is what the discourse tells us. Yet I wonder whether there is something more going on here. Why is it that we celebrate – glorify – this particular building and its use of pilotis and horizontal windows as Modernity’s best representation?

Figure 1: View of stairway in the Villa Savoye.

Why does this building capture what architecture is for Modernists and as well as what it is for postmodernists? It seems to me that the myth surrounding this building – the myth that social prescription via machine-like building was desirable – was broken. The entire Modern oeuvre was broken. A clear instance of this demystification is found in Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction published some fifty years after the completion of Le Corbusier’s masterpiece. In my mind, Venturi acted as the man who pointed out the emperor (the building, in this case the Villa Savoye) was not wearing his clothes. He contested the near dogmatism of the Modern claim thus undermining its hold. This did not necessarily take the emperor, as it were, from his position but took from him the fascination and gravitas granted him by his new clothes.

Figure 2: Illustration by Vilhelm Pedersen, Hans Christian Andersen’s first illustrator of The Emperor’s New Clothes (1837).



Arnold, D. and Ballantyne, A. (eds.) (2004) Architecture as Experience: Radical change in spatial practice. New York: Routledge.

Ballantyne, A. (ed.) (2002) What is Architecture? New York: Routledge.

Cavell, S. (1979) The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tilghman, B. (2006) Reflections on Aesthetic Judgment and Other Essays. Hampshire: Ashgate.

Wittgenstein, L. (1953) Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.



Figure 1: (2009) Architypes.  Available at: http://architypes.net/ (Accessed: 10 December).

Figure 2: (2009) Vilhelm Pederson Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Emperor’s_New_Clothes (Accessed: 10 December).


Harvard Citation Guide: Fahey, C. (2009) What is Architecture?, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 09 Dec 2010, Available at: https://isparchitecture.wordpress.com. [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

6 thoughts on “What is architecture?, by Carolyn Fahey

  1. I found your post interesting. It seems like you are touching on similar ideas as John Haldane particularly with your reference to the emperor. Haldane wrote, “metaphysical theism and the foundationalist projects of Cartesian and Kantian rationalism have all failed and no other ‘meta-narrative’ is available. Thus we should recognize that appeals to reason are usually veiled exercises of power, and appreciate that all that remains is the ironic affirmation of ideas and images that are without any means of validation.”

    • Yes, I would say so. Haldane really gets to the root of the problem in that quotation. Nevertheless, these are fascinating ways of thinking and goes against much of maintstream thought in the discipline. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Have you ever considered adding more videos to your blog posts to keep the readers more entertained? I just read through the entire article of yours and it was quite good but since I’m more of a visual learner, I found that to be more helpful.

    Keep up the great works guys! I’ve added you guys to my blogroll. This is a great article thanks for sharing this informative information. I plan on visiting your blog regularly for the latest posts.

    • Thanks for your suggestion. We have thought about using media on the blog and maybe will give it a bit more thought given your request. Though, given the that the purpose of this blog is to bring philosophical clarity to architecture through language, I would imagine that a more varied media use would threaten to do the opposite of that. Although, it could very well be useful in certain instances.

      Thanks again for your comment. It is great to hear that there are some that appreciate our work.

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