How does philosophy engage architecture on its own terms (with its own body of knowledge)?, by Philip Plowright

Let us start by saying that pulp-theory in architecture isn’t a problem caused by philosophers. The constant misuse and misinterpretation of philosophical positions adapted as architectural generative devices has to be fully owned by architects. The problem is, architects don’t seem to be able to address the issue. There is a persistent design culture at the core of architecture which seems consistently opposed to both predictive and repeatable effects (i.e. research applied in relevant ways) as well as accepting core responsibilities of the discipline (ethics, fiduciary social responsibility, occupational appropriateness, beauty). Rather, what is valued is originality, uniqueness, novelty, inspiration, and social status through representation (this could be ultimately linked back to Hegel, though). Asking about how philosophy engages architecture in today’s context is like asking what philosophy can do for the fashion industry. That is to say, the foundation of “high culture” in the architectural discipline is founded on unstable territory, linked to the fine arts through what can only be described as status envy which makes the process of the application of philosophy, and then theory, naturally irrelevant through this applicational bias.

When architects do look to philosophy, it is not to value the core knowledge which can be accessed between the two disciplines but to usurp philosophy’s language in order to raise its own cultural value and fend of critique by statements of knowledge-appearance. There are several needs that should be addressed within architecture. For starters, remove philosophy from its close association with theory. These two terms are often used interchangeability within architecture, and neither are understood by practitioners. Theory, freed from this association, can extend into disciplines which are presently ‘second-rate’ in design status – sociology, anthropology, environmental psychology, to name a few. Instead, philosophy needs to be accessed for what it does. Knowing which questions should be addressed to philosophers is the core of the issue. So rather than finding a new system to generate a style, epistemological or ethical questions should be explored as well as questions of value and questions of judgement. Of course, the issue will be when architects don’t get a clear-cut answer (Truth), they will need to learn, instead, to look for one which is relevant and significant in its context.

Harvard Citation Guide: Plowright, P. (2010) How Does Philosophy Engage Architecture on Its Own Terms (with its Own Body of Knowledge)?, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 23 May 2010, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

3 thoughts on “How does philosophy engage architecture on its own terms (with its own body of knowledge)?, by Philip Plowright

  1. Dear Prof. Plowright,

    I am a beginner in architectural philosophy and your post impressed me. I’d like to find out how architectural theories are driven from philosophy. You’ve said: “remove philosophy from its close association with theory.” As I can not grasp its meaning totally, could you please explain it or introduce some references? My aim is to understand the relation between philosophy (generally) and architectural theory.

    Thanks a lot for the post and the whole site. It is enlightening and impressive.

  2. Sarah,

    There is presently, in my opinion, a difficult relationship between philosophy, theory and applications in design. Much of this is due to either 1) a lack of understanding of the difference between theory and philosophy and 2) acquired positions that design is essentially intuitive rather than communicable. The first of these means that most designers don’t understand how philosophy engages the design process and the second means that most designers don’t understand the design process itself. Fun situation, no?

    What I meant about removing philosophy from the close association with theory is that these two elements have different responsibilities and processes. However, they are often used interchangeably. Philosophy generally deals with large, fundamental problems (ethics, beauty, knowledge, reason, existence, etc) which I would hazard to say are not solvable, nor should be solvable. A large slice of philosophy, however, has been involved in the search for certainty. Theory, on the other hand, doesn’t have to be solvable but must be testable and operational. That is, it must make a difference. It is a proposal, a gesture, an instinct which we follow. By the construction of criteria for testability (which doesn’t need to be quantitative but can be qualitative), theory acts on the design process. The way it does this, and possibly the only way, is through methodology.

    This brings us, unfortunately, back to the point which asks the question “what is the process (method) of design and how can theory affect it?” Another question is “does or can philosophy affect the process of design, and is this done in a different way to theory?”. These are questions that I am dealing with at the moment.

  3. What I perceive is that you are looking for “big ideas”. Novice as I am in my credentials, I can make a categorical assessment that philosophy-as-system may yet apply to architecture:

    Modal Realism assesses contexts as knowledge-forms. Thus outside of some great precision, an architectural grid is in some sense a “nominalistic” set of identifiable contingent operators.

    Beyond this, the philosophical qualia or qualification of modal “enactions” can be classified in relation to axiometry as a “design of opposites”. Graphical axiometry in a kind of Cartesian system serves to represent an index of the modal operations in terms of location in a building.

    Simpler forms of graphical axiometry may define for example an extensial-relationship between 2-d hyper-objects and a meta-structural cube or hexagonal space. Such relationships can be drawn in the future for example in relation to the entity-quality of technology or the mechanization (relatively) of a user-space, contextualized in terms of applied dynamism.

    The danger here is that data-forms may become superficial when differentiated from a literature that may be true to psychology.

    Perhaps a “Color-Door” system is applicable in terms of data-objects or standardized iconic displays. This suggests that architecture communicates with philosophy only through psychology, forming a trinity that requires coherent and contingent applicability—e.g. lists-as-functions and also rooms-as-cosms. The application of lists to functions is then what requires architectural skill (what I am saying is that this is true in a Wittgensteinian sense, implicitly as a dynamic system—perhaps the conjunction between architecture and the computer game, not to sound frivolous).

    One concept is that philosophy manifests as a typology in design. For example, the litmus of the presence of philosophy in a building may be the presence of library-like forms. This can be contrasted to the perception that architecture may only be surfaces — e.g. these are not really interchangeable data-objects, but that is the appearance in opposite systems —- philosophy seems to be the “garden” that desires interiors, whereas architecture seems to be the “machine” that desires exteriors. Perhaps something is to be had in the conjunction of garden and machine as data-objects, almost numerologically. What is had most typically is radical conceptualization. It must then be seen that prior examples of theories are incomplete to coherent perspectivism.

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