architecture : urban : visual culture

What is architecture about?

Sometimes we need to stop and think of what for this huge effort, for whom, why and how do we build? Frans Jeursen Dutch phylosopher, Medievalist and art critic is explicitly searching new ways after post-modernism. He has a far-reaching and deep knowledge,  and a personal library with several thousands of volumes in Amsterdam. He hes been working on his book about historical consciousness since years, but now we asked him to write about architecture. In this text Frans tries to apprehend the essence of architecture through the threads and splits of an exciting fabric of conceptions. The text is not easily readable however it isn't addressed to those who fail after 4000 characters or rush furher.

In a novel I read, the main protagonist tells that when he was in the Far East he saw a blank wall and was immediately overwhelmed by a sensation of pure unadulterated quality. He then understood that the basis of all architecture was that of the primeval experience of a flat water surface put straight up.

This original experience ties in closely with the ancient Greek word  'Arche' embedded in the word architecture. “Arche” means both origin as the place of beginning and the governing and steering principle that remains present in all further development. We therefore flatly reject the common derivation of architecture from the Greek architektoon, archi-tektoon, e.g master- builder and opt for ‘architektoon’ as the movement (tektoon: not meaning “carpenter”) of the principle (arche) By many ancient writers and philosophers up to Hegel, architecture is seen as the historical ‘first’ of all arts. In our view this also means that by its very nature it remains close to the source of all quality. The importance of this can scarcely be overrated, as ancient society can be described as a series of concentric circles expanding from the ultimate invariably religious source of all meaning and value.


Architecture, like in ancient temples and later Christian churches creates and encompasses a space in which something is invited to happen, to come forth into the openness of presence. Architecture then mediates between the numinous that presents itself in the temple or church, the presence of the god, and the surrounding space. As container and hitching post of the divine, architecture erected by humans is double sided and funnels so to speak rings of pure quality outside into the open. Thus it gives reality to the surrounding world by the power of the god and both divine and human dimensions and meaning to it. In the course of the same process human society is built and articulated with its network of ethical values and regulations. In this way sacred architecture generates and is a beacon of all social cohesion, moral unity and civil harmony.

Medieval writers often speak of the land beyond the then known world and imagine that there are countries where loose body parts live and merrily hop around. Here all bonds between constituent parts of a whole, in this case the body, are severed and anything is possible e.g. one part appearing inside another: humans without a head but with a face on their chest. Also the tale of Gilgamesh, the oldest story ever told, explains that moral behavior suddenly disappears beyond the pale of the temple dominated city and people may start killing at random for no other reason than sheer impulse that is no longer controlled, guided and reigned in. It is apparently no coincidence that the word civilization means ‘the ways of the city”. Outside of it and its central sacred architectural core all reality fades away and we enter the land of the mirage and of the devil, which all early Christian monks went to fight in the desert, as far as possible removed from the town.



All this testifies to the vital importance of architecture to our stance in the world and to its being closely entwined with the sources of all ethics, meaning and reality. It also makes clear that a city should have a beating heart that determines its character, its workings and the way people feel about living within its perimeter.

Times have changed. No longer do cathedrals like the giant one in German Cologne, the spires of which still point to the transcendent source of all divine and ensuing human creation ‘morally” dominate our cities. The Renaissance set in and man claimed a central place under the sun at the expense of the deity. To a large degree meaning transformed into just human meaning and palaces and government halls rivaled the cathedral as the center of all vibrant life. What life should amount to could from now on be differently perceived. Plural centers of moral gravitation vied for pre-eminence and complex networks of both social and personal  values were woven by the interference of different expanding circles of meaning embodied by buildings of different symbolic content. Also national and international commerce, at a low ebb since the demise of the Roman Empire sprang up again. Wealth flowed in from any number of colonies and countries city-states and individuals took pride in displaying their might and affluence in architectural splendor. In the United States the core of the state: free enterprise is symbolically embodied in the business skyscrapers of Manhattan and it is therefore no coincidence that the twin towers were chosen as target of attack.


Whatever may have changed not the human tendency to relate the feeling of identity and emotional wellbeing, to a center of meaning expressed in architecture. Rome has its classical forum, Paris its Eiffel tower its Sacre Coeur and its Notre Dame, London Big Ben. Social life centers around and emotionally identifies itself by means of these ‘places of memory”, meaning and history. Even if the exact details of the history clinging to a building are not present in the mind of the nationals looking at it they may still associate with it as a symbol with those aspects of being French, German or British they pride themselves on. This tightens the bonds they feel with others of the same nationality if not ethnicity.  

This all blatantly defies any interpretation of architecture in the sense of functionality and commercial or administrative practicality, yes even as ‘art’ conceived as  ‘beauty”. Beauty as a concept however does seem to appear in the works of the architect Vitruvius from the first century B.C. He belatedly mentions ‘Venustas’ as the third principle according to which a building should be erected, but only after mentioning durability and Utility, or “firmitas” and “utilitas”. Why does “Venustas come in third and what does it mean? Its idiomatic meaning is: loveliness, comeliness, charm, grace and beauty. Vitriuvius elaborates on Venustas telling us that it means ‘”Of grace when the appearance of the work shall be pleasing and elegant, and the scale of the constituent parts is justly calculated for symmetry” and of “eurhythmy, proportion and symmetry”. These qualities have to do with the ordered relationship of parts in a greater, connected whole that define its shape. Vitruvius does not mention this first. Perhaps however as a true practical Roman architect he had already lost touch with the original meaning of Venustas, a term pointing to the inherent divine qualities of the Goddess Venus. To a Greek these would have been paramount.

The Elizabethan writer Sir Henry Wotton (1568-1639) interpreting Vitruvius more than a thousand years later translated Venustas as ‘delight”. Here we see a significant shift from the power and ‘Arche’ of divine properties to the effect ‘Venustas’ has on the spectator. From this point on a reversal took place centering the attention of the architect on the ‘appearance’ of the building he erected rather than on its inner principle. The architect was now ‘facing” his building rather than putting himself in the center of it , no longer feeling the power of the god. Henceforth he stopped looking outward to the surroundings of his creation taking them into consideration in his design and articulating the relationship to its setting in the city. To Sir Thomas Wotton ‘delight’ also embraced the effects of ornament, already defined by Renaissance architect Alberti as ‘auxiliary brightness’ and as an addition and an improvement to beauty but not innate.

We do not contest that city planning strove after the harmonious composition of quarters, but surmise that other considerations than the “Ärche” of architecture took pride of place. Baron Haussmann’s design of the Parisian boulevards to enable the army to move in quickly and easily in case of another revolution originating from the tight network of small streets in the populous center of the city, read:  the lively interacting and integrated social structure, testifies to this.




We may be sure however that the works of an architectural innovator like Le Corbusier, springing from his twisted adoration of capitalism, totally inverted the ‘natural’ order of things when he developed his ‘’radiant City”. Surely to many his buildings and his, by today’s standards substandard, housing for the workers far away from the center of the city to the perimeter were already a marked improvement on dismal and cramped living conditions at the time but still these lighter and more open buildings compromised the original principles of architecture. In a sense Le Corbusier’s plans indirectly confirmed the original Greek vision by purposely removing the workers from the fount of all meaning and values in the center and deleting the ‘street” as an artery of social communication and cohesion. ‘Stacking” the workers in open and controllable blocks, inhibiting social intercourse between the ‘units’ and stressing the healthy presence of nature in the living surroundings all nicely tie in with obstructing and destroying the aforementioned “ways of the city”. This development already heralded the progressing atomizing of society though the initial plan still encompasses a big functional whole, this time that of capitalist production. The industrial division of labor into smaller, in themselves meaningless, units of the production line was mirrored in functionalized buildings with repetitive units designed as ‘machines for living”.

All this meant another shift from content and values to, by now, no longer merely beautiful but purely ‘practical’ form contaminating both and to a further separation of form and content in line with the de-essentializing development already set in by Vitruvius and Wotton. Beauty now lay in the simple mathematical ‘ functions’ extirpating all ‘ superfluous’ non-functional additions like decorations let alone mathematically inadaptable human/divine core-values.

Quality could not and can not now be mathematically defined, as quality is itself that which defines all other things, first of all the harmony and symmetry of logic and mathematics. So quality was abandoned or mistakenly identified with the rigid and sober squares, rectangles, orbs and cubes of modern architecture. Even Plato’s forms. However, were no ‘ functional’ empty hulls but arche-types and Pythagorean numerology only visually and mentally expressed something deeper springing from the ‘music’ of the heavenly spheres.




To this day the city quarter of La Defense in Paris draws large crowds of avid spectators that marvel at its construction. Many of them, not surprisingly, leave the place at nightfall as it makes them feel ill at ease. They would not actually want to live in such surroundings where the only thing that does not fit and seems to be cast out by the design itself is the human presence. This brings us to another perhaps unsuspected aspect of modern architecture; that of presence, pure unadulterated presence so to speak. Humanism brought with it the cult of the individual but also implied an objective and removed attitude towards the world. Truth was no longer directly ‘lived’ but had to be the product of interpretation, gradually developing into interpretations of interpretations losing all direct contact with the content. Cartesian thinking with its stressing of the human will was in its turn misinterpreted as a formalism and the connection between thinking and reality was perceived as created by way of the tiny pineal gland in our skulls. To many thinkers the substance of reality seemed to be getting more and more out of reach at the same time as our mathematical scientific and industrial grasp on it became more and more effective. The individual became paramount as formalized society became functionalized and egoism loosened from all values tied in with society’s atomizing.




The reaction was not long in coming. Architects now focused on separate elements of the city’s unraveling fabric as industrial functionality set within a wider scheme of European logistics and internationalized commerce and trade no longer required a city structure based on centralized and moral human parameters. The city of Barcelona testifies to this development. Its medieval core is surrounded by the vast ‘Eixample’ with its mathematical structure and long boulevards but on the outskirts of it all cohesion and planning gets lost. New city quarters and industrial plants seem to drift loosely and unconnectedly across the countryside. Human atomism fell in with the spur of Renaissance individualism; one building, one creator, one architect. The original Italian spirit of the Condottieri who wanted to make his life into an artwork was strengthened by the longing for lost content. The architect no longer felt himself to be an often anonymous servant to the welfare of the community but saw himself as an artist. Insubstantial formalism being without content now generated an almost unfettered desire for reality and tangible presence in the artworks of architecture.

Here modern art and architecture come together. Artworks now often cannot be understood anymore but radiate an all overpowering presence and reality that can be described as ‘sublime’ defying all interpretative domestication by the puny minds of man. Each in itself a monument to its creator but also to the absence of ‘meaning’ that can only be found in the steadily declining interpretative social networks that ‘lose touch’ with reality. Their tangible and ‘present’ reality as artworks stands in inverse proportion to their being ‘known” and understood and ‘strangeness and being ’out of place’, being decontextualized prevail, inverting the workings of ancient monuments and architecture. Their ‘presence’ immediately affects the human body and our senses and declines to go ‘beyond’ the given to the ‘metaphysical”{ meaning that which goes beyond (meta) ta physika ( the things themselves) towards the hermeneutical and human reflection. Their field is sheer timeless intensity, surface, and not depth that should be penetrated in search for meaning. In this context Jean Luc Nancy speaks of ‘birth, the coming that effaces itself and brings itself back”. It is the surprising ‘suddenness’ of appearing and vanishing without a context and this we hold to be the essence of ‘magic’.



In the 1930-40’s there was a British comic named ‘Mandrake the Magician'. He was able to make things appear out of ‘nothing’ and let them disappear again into it. Modern Art is ‘magical’ in the sense that its ‘presence’ has the same character. Its being ‘substantial’, discontinuous  and ‘intense’ also carries with it the element of esthetic epiphany and ‘violence’ and extreme temporal fragmentation. This had always been counteracted and mitigated by the continuity of interpretation and of a meaning culture, but no more. The unmediated presence of the numinous, however, can drive a man insane, as Heidegger surmises in the case of the poet Hölderlin. It is our view that  modern art also presents (but not interpretatively re-present) the urgent longing for the return of meaning  context and interpretation we already mentioned.

Architecture seems subject to the same, evolving from the ‘strangeness’ of postmodern eclecticism to the sheer frightening bulk of the new Corvin business and shopping quarter in Budapest. Here all human (ad divine) dimensions evaporate. Also the building of a glass and steel colossus next to the Eiffel's Westbahnhof that has ever been a landmark and a monument that ties in with the spirit and the historical interpretative network of the city that is consciously or subconsciously shared by all, testifies to the lack of civic cohesion. The enormous abstract buildings springing up everywhere however show aspects of the ‘moment’ preceding the origin of architecture.




They embody the primeval presence of something ‘other’, not human and unnamable like at the beginning of time. The giant monuments of ancient Mesopotamia, even the tower of Babel, (Babel literally “Bab El” or:  the entrance gate of the godhead) recalled the mountain of creation, first foothold of the numinous in the afterwards humanized world. The Sumerians and Babylonians were quick to humanize the gods they lived among and that only successively became more and more transcendent. At first however their gods were horrifying monsters like the primeval, sublime and ferocious Tiamat that was already there when no place and no name existed, no boundaries, no separation, no unification and certainly no divine order. Tiamat itself , embodying the limitless and dimensionless  ‘substance’ of the universe had to be defeated by a more  ‘human’ god, broken up and divided, into portions, harmoniously distributed and delimited to create a world, a ‘Civitas’, both man and the gods could actually live in and share.

Writers like Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht believe that the substantial is always entwined with the meaningful and never appears without it. In this case he opts for a ‘new’ but also old ‘Aristotelian” unity of meaning and presence evading the distinction between the purely mental and the purely physical, both blended together in unity in the ancient concept of the ‘;sign”. In our view this only evades the problem. ‘Enuma Elish’, the Babylonian story of the creation, however, remains adamant: monsters do not spontaneously generate meaning and a fabric of order but have to be vanquished, constrained by the divine weapon of the ‘Usrat” (or the network of concepts) broken and smitten. Maybe Heidegger was right after all in saying: ’Only a god can save us now”.

Perhaps colossal modern and abstract architecture in this day and age has come full circle to Tiamat and we are at the threshold again, at the dawn of a new ‘Greek” revolution where the divine and the human fused and civilization was born. Who can tell?

Frans Jeursen

Drs. Frans Jeursen is a philosopher, Medievalist and art critic working and living in Amsterdam Holland. His specializations are nineteenth century German Idealism Medieval history of ideas and nineteenth century and modern art. He published many articles and a number of books on art and a series of essays on philosophy in the Tijdschrift voor Historische Wijsbegeerte. After having worked for more than fifteen years as the editor in chief of the Dutch artmagazines 'Kunstwerk' and 'Art-NL" he is now preparing a book dealing with the structure and ramifications of historical consciousness.



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