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Left, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire; right, Dancing House, Prague, by Frank Gehry and Vlado Milunić (photo @copy; ccwrks)

Left, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire; right, Dancing House, Prague, by Frank Gehry and Vlado Milunić
(photo © ccwrks)

Thinking of buildings as Beings is fundamentally ethical. Why?

In a recent post on the University of Texas at Austin student-run blog, ISSUE, architect Michael Benedikt, who holds the Hal Box Chair in Urbanism at UT, describes a once-reigning metaphor for architecture, Architecture as Being (as distinct from, for instance, Architecture as Machine or Architecture as Landscape). He writes,

“The Architecture as Being metaphor . . . produced what Geoffrey Scott called ‘the architecture of humanism’ in a 1914 book of the same title. On this metaphor, buildings—or rather works of architecture—have character; they have presence; they have posture. They live and breathe and project attitude. They have rights and stake claims. They have feelings; they have souls.

“And of course they have bodies. Indeed, it is mostly through their bodies—their stances, poses, physiques, and how they look (in both senses)—that buildings tell us what their basic attitudes and feelings are about being in the world, themselves, as Beings. And so we can ask, according to how they’ve been designed and constructed: are they hostile or friendly, confident or shy, honest or disingenuous, generous or miserly, respectful or cheeky, indifferent or eager-to-please? Are they stripped down or adorned, tailored or disheveled? And why? This building might be muscular and articulated; that one soft and smooth; this one might be delicate, that one rugged; this one loved, that one neglected. One building might strain in a perpetually ridiculous posture, the other dance with ease. A third might sit comfortably in its skin, the fourth stand crookedly, as though trying to get out of its clothes…

“It’s all projection, of course, empathy or einfuhlung (as Theodor Lipps called it). But then so too are the other metaphors, with the following difference: thinking of buildings as Beings is fundamentally ethical. Why? Because this is the essential, anti-reductive rule of the ethical life unique to humans: to treat stones like plants, to treat plants like animals, to treat animals like humans; to treat strangers like friends and friends like family; to treat family like your own self and yourself as a sputtering flame of the divine, a bringer of greater life—elevation—to all links in the great chain of Being.”

You can read the full article (which is, itself, winningly brief) in the middle column of this page of the ISSUE blog.


Tim Culvahouse, FAIA

Tim Culvahouse, FAIA, is Editor-in-Chief of the AIA California Council and an architect specializing in the public communication of design ideas through his firm, Culvahouse Consulting.

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  1. avatar
    Mike Malinowski AIA

    Masterful edit of a nicely spun thought exercise. This perspective really ties together a lot of ideas into one tidy package. A building designed to be a friend … yes, I do believe that works for me.

  2. avatar
    douglas wittnebel

    Wonderful and thought provoking article about being, and ties back to how buildings are really alive, and examples of embodied energy…Inspires me to write more, design with understanding, and care more for the buildings within which we operate and exist…

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