An Architecture of True Ideas, by Kevin Barden

“As regards a true idea, we have shown that it is simple or compounded of simple ideas; that it shows how and why something is or has been made; and that its subjective effects in the soul correspond to the actual reality of its object” (Spinoza, 30)

Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677) wrote these words in the treatise On the Improvement of the Understanding, published posthumously in 1677. The essay proposes a two-part methodology for understanding the world, addressing the issues of happiness, perception, memory and understanding. At the crux of the first portion lies the distinction of true ideas from false and fictitious ideas. He argues that understanding the world through true ideas ultimately leads one’s mind to a greater understanding regarding “the origin and source of the whole of nature” (Spinoza, 15).

Spinoza writes about ideas and understanding from a holistic perspective. In the excerpt above, three criteria are associated with true ideas. The first calls for simplicity; the second indicates a necessity in showing a clear and honest delineation of cause and effect; and the third denotes the importance for a spiritual connection between subjective perception and objective reality. What are the architectural implications of this definition? Can these three criteria become building blocks for a greater understanding of architecture? Furthermore, can they lead to better design and therefore, better architecture?

This paper addresses three buildings as case studies; Temple E in Selinunte, Sicily as described by Vitruvius (c. 80-c. 15 BC); Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona by Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959); and the Wood Atelier in Haldenstein, Switzerland by Peter Zumthor (1943- ). Analyzing each building in terms of site, material, form, texts, and first-hand experiences, a clear argument is established for the embodiment of good architecture through the lens of true ideas.

Recognizing the distinct ideologies, appearances, and functions of each building, the strength of this analysis illustrates how and why good architecture is deeply indebted to the execution of its idea. When current trends in architecture often over-value the appearance of a building, it is important to ground these subjective perceptions with objective reality through an understanding of how and why a building exists.

Spinoza, Benedict de (transl. R. H. M. Elwes). Ethics and on the Improvement of the Understanding. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2005.

Kevin Barden, Feldman Architecture, UK

Harvard Citation Guide: Barden, K. (2012) An Architecture of True Ideas, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 06 May 2012, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

One thought on “An Architecture of True Ideas, by Kevin Barden

  1. Frank Lloyd Wright is a perfect example of an architect / artist/ engineer/builder whose work is timeless and defies trends. I have visited Taliesan west in Scottsdale as well as his other projects in the Chicago Oak Park district. Even though Wright was an excentric with an oversized ego, his work contains a certain timeless humility and sobriety . I guess that the spirituality of his spaces derive from the clever use of light and a great observation of the natural shelters created by Nature.
    Why is it that there are so few Frank Lloyd Wrights today? Today’s more technocratic /engineering approach probably explains some of it but then FLW was an engineer also. FLW was involved in all the steps of his creations unlike today’s segmented team approach to architecture where we tell architects to only focus on one aspect toilets,windows, floor coverings and in the end often the space is nice but it is without soul, without grandeur and filled with tons of toxic /synthetic materials.
    Also, there is little re-use or use of materials on the site which are swiftly carried away. FLW incorporated the boulders he found on the site. It shows us his sensitivity and his pragmatism many years before any talk of LEEDS buildings.

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