Constructing Culture

Architecture’s ambiguity – caught between ‘mere’ construction and artistic practice – raises questions about the relevance of its cultural dimension. Hannah Arendt’s philosophical writings argue architecture establishes a stable world in which political life can unfold


o put architecture forward as a cultural practice is to state the obvious. Nevertheless, such a statement often lacks depth and understanding, specifically when ‘culture’ is understood to be the feature that distinguishes architecture, on the one hand, from ‘mere’ building on the other: between ‘artistic’ and ‘full-service’ approaches.1 This is a quite inadequate understanding of architecture and culture: it limits culture to the arts and thus suggests that architecture is only a cultural phenomenon when it reaches beyond the everyday practices of construction and joins forces with other fields of the arts. The idea is fuelled by a focus on buildings, models, drawings, oeuvres, and so on that are shown and discussed in museums, galleries, magazines and websites. To be published or made public appears, in this reading, to be the primary measure of cultural value.

This might be an exaggeration, however the ambivalent understanding of architecture by architects and the public is generally accepted. Most professionals within the field understand their position as a balancing act between functionality and service on the one hand and artistic, cultural and innovative ambitions on the other. As Kenneth Frampton remarks in his article ‘The Status of Man and the Status of his Objects’, even the Oxford English Dictionary provides two definitions. The first definition is architecture as ‘the art or science of constructing edifices for human use’ and the second is architecture as ‘the action and process of building’.2 Intuitively, the former is understood as the cultural perspective linked to the inherent knowledge and history of the profession. After all, the use of the word ‘edifice’ suggests large and stately, even monumental buildings. The latter definition emphasises the art of construction, in which, strictly speaking, architects are not necessary. It is embedded in (local) traditions and approaches. Both definitions have a history within the field. Frampton emphasises two key moments. The first moment was in the Renaissance, in relation to the architect Filippo Brunelleschi who built the dome of the cathedral of Florence. Brunelleschi saw himself as the designer, distinct from the craftsman ‘on the ground’. He expected craftsmen only to execute and develop what was already known. This would allow him, as architect, to be able to challenge and develop new ideas.3 The second moment Frampton puts forward is the Enlightenment. A remarkable distinction between ‘engineering’ and ‘architecture’ appears during the Enlightenment, which crystallises in the different schools of architecture that were constituted during this period. At the various royal academies for the arts and the sciences, graduates studied architecture, which meant that they ‘were to dedicate themselves solely to the “what”, that is the reification of public structures commissioned by the State’. Engineering graduates on the other hand, studying at, for instance, the École des Ponts et Chaussées, ‘were to concern themselves largely with the “how”.’4 Both moments fuelled the Romantic idea of the architect as a ‘genius’: a person uniquely gifted with imagination and creativity, distinct from the masses. One of the reasons for the development of the architectural field as a separate practical versus artistic profession comes about because of the growth of cities and the increasing complexity of building tasks and contexts throughout modernity. However, this argument is too programmatic and too pragmatic for the purposes of the task at hand – that of developing a more profound and convincing understanding of architecture as a cultural praxis. On this question, Frampton takes up the challenge:

Whether architecture, as opposed to building, will ever be able to return to the representation of collective value is a moot point. At all events its representative role would have to be contingent on the establishment of a public realm in the political sense.5

Art regularly is the starting point for investigating the phenomenon of culture. The artwork itself, however, is only a small part of a wider range of cultural objects. It is important to emphasise this wider context in order to understand even everyday constructions as cultural objects. Architecture is a cultural praxis that intertwines artistic ambitions with the everyday condition. Even the simplest and most modest constructions are important culturally. As Hannah Arendt argues in her well-known 1958 book The Human Condition, and later specifically investigates in essays on the relevance of culture with respect to her understanding of politics, everyday objects convey public significance.6 From such a reading of cultural objects, we also can develop a perspective on the artistic aspects and aims of the profession, a perspective that will reveal political importance.

At work

It is too easy to dismiss Frampton’s pessimistic question as nostalgic. On the contrary, the intriguing combination of collective value, representation, public realm and politics urges investigation of his perspective. This pessimism seems to be aroused by the distinction between mere building and architecture. Frampton parallels the distinction with another discrepancy drawn by Arendt in The Human Condition. She distinguishes between different ‘activities’ of the human being: labour, work and action. The first corresponds to biological life, the human body, growth and decay. It is linked to the effort ‘to stay alive’. Work, on the other hand, is connected to the human artifice. Work creates an artificial, sustainable ‘world of things’ within which human life can develop. Action depends upon human plurality: since human beings are plural, action (and speech) is needed. Action is the basis of political life.7 Understanding building as the need for shelter, and thus as a mere biological requirement, related to the category of labour, seems obvious and follows on from Frampton’s assumption. However, this interpretation overlooks what actually is distinctive about Arendt’s categorisation: the durability of that which is produced. The product of labour is a consumer good that has a very short lifespan. Bread, for instance, needs to be consumed quickly otherwise it will spoil. Action has no permanence of its own, although re-action and inter-action can have enormous impact. Action takes place directly among humans, without the intercession of things or matter. It needs to be heard and seen by others and therefore is bound to the public realm; it doesn’t produce tangible results itself unless it is recorded in stories, reports, novels, films, and so forth. Action, in other words, depends upon human artifice, which is actually the product of ‘work’, in order to be reified as permanent. The distinctive characteristic of the products produced by ‘work’ is their inherent durability. They outlive the producer.8 Architecture thus by definition, ranging from project inception to the design of representative buildings, belongs to the category of work – architects produce objects that last. The threefold distinction Arendt emphasises in everyday life is, of course, exaggerated since architecture surely cannot be limited to only one perspective. It addresses aspects that belong to the categories of labour and action as well. The category of ‘work’ helps to bring the artistic aspects of the profession and the ‘mere building’ perspective together in a cultural perspective, one that in turn challenges them politically.

The challenge of culture: world-making

The distinctive aspect of the category of work thus is the durability of its product a durability which for Arendt is a prerequisite for political action. Human life, according to Arendt, is only possible through the transformation of the ‘earth’ into a world. ‘The world,’ Arendt writes, ‘is not identical with the earth or with nature, as the limited space for the movement of men and the general condition of organic life. It is related, rather, to the human artefact, the fabrication of human hands, as well as to affairs which go on among those who inhabit the man-made world together.’9 She builds this distinction between earth and world upon the work of the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, whose lectures she followed during her studies in Marburg. One of the main assumptions of Heidegger’s philosophy is the human being as a being ‘thrown’ into a world of objects, relationships, function networks and facts.10 According to Heidegger, over time the human being submerges into these circumstances, if not even loses oneself. Only through withdrawal from this world of facticity, claims, affects, and immediate urgencies; only in solitude can being reach authenticity.11 It is precisely at this point that Arendt counters Heidegger. She rejects the withdrawal from the world, a movement she even renders impossible. ‘No human life,’ she writes, ‘not even the life of the hermit in nature’s wilderness, is possible without a world which directly or indirectly testifies to the presence of other human beings.’12

Arendt, in turn, values the world positively as the space in which we appear to our peers as acting and speaking human beings among others, where we can be seen and heard through action and speech. Unlike Heidegger’s instrumental approach to the world, for Arendt action and speech is always interaction with the world and our peers. It is the world that brings us together, not only with our contemporaries but also with our predecessors and forebears. It is in respect to the transformation of the earth into a durable world that Arendt comes up with the notion of culture.13 ‘The earthly home,’ she writes, ‘becomes a world only when objects as a whole are produced and organized in such a way that they may withstand the consumptive life-process of human beings living among them – and may outlive human beings, who are mortal. We speak of culture only where this outliving is assured.’14 For Arendt, all culture starts with ‘world-making’.15

The word culture actually stems from the Roman word colere: ‘to cultivate, to dwell, to take care, to tend, and preserve’.16 This somehow suggests an attitude of loving care for the things that surround us, both in regard to the natural environment as well as the cultural artefacts from the past. Arendt is quick to bring the Greek position to the fore. The Greeks were themselves mostly aligned to the production of artefacts, a production that inherently meant the application of power and knowledge in order to disturb, violate and even tear down natural processes.17 Both perspectives belong together: turning the earth into a world needs the Greek power coupled with the Romans’ care for what is already there. Culture is production and preservation. It is what is already there and what we add to this world of things. It embraces the existing and aims for innovation and improvement. Both aspects of culture come together in the human being, as Arendt writes, ‘insofar as he is not only a producing but also a political being’.18 In politics, preservation and action, tenderness and the capacity to initiate come together.

Arendt continues to develop this startling insight further: ‘As such, he needs to be able to depend on production, so that it may provide lasting shelter for acting and speaking in their transience – and for the perishability of mortal life in its perishability. Politics is thus in need of culture, and acting is in need of production for the purpose of stability.’19 In other words, since political action is characterised by frailty, the world needs to be stable in order to give room to the instability and unpredictability of human interactions. This challenge of culture – providing stability in order to create room for political life – is bound to all worldly objects, but the artwork makes a difference. Although worldly objects resist somehow the consuming life-processes, and therefore outlast their creator, they in the end are use-objects – means to another end – and thus will wear out over time; will change slightly in appearance and quality. Artworks, on the contrary, are an end in themselves and therefore potentially immortal.20

The challenge of culture: common sense

Besides its potential immortality, the artistic and aesthetic aspects of the artwork challenges everyday objects as cultural objects in a political perspective too. Like politics, artworks depend on public spaces. Works of art and political actions need to be seen and heard in order to achieve their reality and gain recognition. This only can be achieved in a shared culture, a common world, in which public space is not an amalgam of double Dutch voices. In agreement with the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, Arendt presupposes the existence of a common sense rooted in the human community – in Latin the sensus communis, literally the sense that is commonly owned or ‘community sense’.21 This sensus communis appears through the development of what Kant calls taste: the knowledge beyond the human capacity to judge or to differentiate between good and less good. ‘Taste decides among qualities,’ Arendt writes, ‘and can fully develop only where a sense of quality – the ability to discern evidence of the beautiful – is generally present. Once that is the case, it is solely up to taste, with its ever-active judgment of things in the world, to establish boundaries and provide a human meaning for the cultural realm.’22 Whereas Kant introduces taste with respect to aesthetical judgement, Arendt understands this as political judgement, not depending upon the knowledge of truth but upon the capacity to convince. Taste depends on the ability to judge from different perspectives, which is only possible on the basis of a sensus communis. The capacity to judge can only exist and is fed in the public sphere where people appear to each other and where the things can be seen and understood from different perspectives.23 The close relationship between political and aesthetic judgement stimulates the evocative aspects of the works of art. The loss of taste as a shared capacity in society diminishes the ability to judge aesthetically and politically. Art, in other words, educates the human being to be a citizen.

The Greek approach to culture actually emphasises this educative aspect. It evokes the Roman approach of tenderness. Art transcends and incites the established and known societal structures and constructions and explores the thresholds of human creativity. Art, in the Greek sense, needs to experiment, reflect and unmask, stimulate, inspire and imagine, open up new perspectives, without losing the ability to communicate with the public. Art educates the public to look from different viewpoints.24 The crucial perspective on the arts and culture that the Greek approach offers us is this aim of evocation, communication and education of the human being into a citizen. Culture in the broadest sense refines and enhances our personal taste. It educates us to distinguish between the good and the less good, helps us to think from different perspectives, moulds our capacity to judge, which is not only important with respect to the evaluation of the artwork but also a crucial political capacity.

The capacity of architecture

How do these challenges relate to the field of architecture? Although Arendt studies cultural objects and artworks, she does not discuss architecture’s capacity to literally construct this ‘world of things’. She solely focuses on the aspects of durability in respect to cultural objects or to the presumed aim of beauty beyond works of art – and in both lines of thought architecture of course does not differ from other cultural objects. In her work Arendt thus puts forward the work of art as the ultimate cultural object. That might be true because of its potential immortality, but these works of art need to be protected carefully while simultaneously being enjoyed by the public. Since they are stored ‘in sacred places – temples and churches – or entrusted to the care of museums and preservationists’,25 one needs to go there and spend some effort in order to see and experience them. Architecture’s capacity is that it is all around us. Architecture is the context of daily life from which we cannot withdraw. Therefore, we might conclude that architecture has the distinctive capacity to connect both aspects in an immediate and sensuous way. No other work, not even the artwork, places us so directly and so experientially in a relationship with our fellow human beings, the generations of the past and those that follow us. The city in this respect is the most prominent and permanent assembly of the production of things: streets, squares, parks, landscapes, buildings, interiors, and so on, survive ages; they even give room to change in use and context, and are able to transform within their own limits. And, even more, there is no other cultural artefact that influences and establishes so extensively the everyday human and their particular experiences and therewith, also, the cultural and moral horizon of a community.

One might conclude that the political challenge of architecture is to establish everyday spaces that enable political life, establishing a world that is characterised by a longue durée. That seems obvious, since this longue durée is an inherent aspect of architecture. But, as Arendt already describes in her writings produced toward the end of the 1950s, consumer society is a serious threat, affecting the lifespan of cultural objects and, therefore, also the capacity to create a common world.26 Frampton’s question as to whether architecture ‘ever [will] be able to return to the representation of collective value’ in order to set up a shared public realm echoes here, since architecture evidently has been affected by consumerism as well, at least because it becomes tangible in the continuous production of images within its field that are disseminated to the public. Architectural consumption is affected by the emergence of a range of websites and social media that need to publish new projects, renderings and diagrams, not just day by day, but even hour by hour, to attract visitors and advertisements. This creates a specific architectural public desiring the constant consumption of architecture. In other words, architecture has turned into entertainment; it creates objects of consumption that obscure the establishment of a new political realm. The aim of consumption and an emphasis on economic profits and benefits turns architecture into a means to another end in the short term, beyond functional and programmatic issues. Most clear is the eagerness to understand architecture as part of the ‘creative industries’ discourse that, through the writings of the economist Richard Florida and others,27 has become a specific economic narrative. Such framing of the profession of course influences the economic life cycle of buildings and designs and also affects contemporary architectural design approaches.

The increasing impact of consumer society upon architecture seems to deepen the gap between ‘artistic’ aspects of architecture and everyday practices. The demands of consumer society also enhance aspects of originality and creativity as key drivers in processes of distinction and branding. Immediate resistance to the effects of consumerism can be traced in the renewed interest in craftsmanship, as comes to the fore in the writings of Richard Sennett – a former student of Arendt. Sennett’s The Craftsman reveals glimpses of new developments in contemporary architecture that emphasise the specificity of architectural experience.28

Instead of focusing on Arendt’s category of action, which is the proper category of political life, it is through the activity of work that the political relevance of architecture as a cultural practice comes to the fore. The cultural challenge of the field, as it is unfolded through this investigation, is that of closing the gap between the artistic and the mere building approaches. A too harsh distinction blurs the understanding of the everyday built environment as not only culturally relevant but also politically important. Every building does form spaces that enable political life through enhancing the sensus communis. The importance of this becomes evident even more with the realisation that Arendt does not emphasise this as a matter of intellectual rhetoric, but urges the five bodily senses as the key to sensus communis.29 The world, this commonly owned world, is not a matter of objects and relationships that surrounds us, but of sensuous and immediate experiences through which reality is revealed. The sensus communis, she writes, ‘alone deserves credit for the fact that our private and “subjective” five senses and their data are fitted to a non-subjective, “objectively” common world that we may share and evaluate together with others’.30 We might add that no other cultural object influences the five bodily senses so extensively and continuously as architecture. This surely is not only the capacity of outstanding edifices that deliver representational spaces and constructions that somehow bind together human communities, but is also the task and capacity of every building and construction, since they create the everyday environment. Architecture as a cultural praxis is politically relevant through the apprehension of reality, in which the five bodily senses simultaneously are addressed. Returning to Frampton, architecture in other words will only ‘be able to return to the representation of collective value’ when it embraces this sensuous character of building, since only through this more engaged and purposeful level of manifestation will architecture contribute to the permanence of the world and to the education of the citizen. Arendt’s notion of ‘work’ helps to understand how architecture as a cultural practice enables political life through its durability and spatial, aesthetic and sensuous experience. The main task of architecture as a cultural practice, therefore, is to understand every construction in the light of society and culture, in which purely functional and economic considerations are relevant but not decisive.31 ‘Without, however, the beauty of cultural things and without the radiant splendour in which a politically articulated permanence and a potential imperishability of the world manifest themselves, the political as a whole could not last.’32

The main task of architecture as a cultural practice, therefore, is to understand every construction in the light of society and culture, in which purely functional and economic considerations are relevant but not decisive