Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 31, 2000
Richard Hill Designs and Their Consequences: Architecture and Aesthetics Yale University Press, 1999. 288 pp.; 106 b/w ills. Cloth $30.00 (0300079486)

The fall issue of Aesthetics, the newsletter of the American Society for Aesthetics, brought an article by Saul Fisher called “Analytic Philosophy of Architecture: A Course.” Quickly the introductory discussion proceeded to the question: “Why the Philosophy of Architecture?” That question was narrowed: “Why an Analytic Philosophy of Architecture?” Architects in recent years have of course shown quite an extraordinary interest in philosophy. But the analytic philosopher of architecture apparently cannot count on such interest. And yet, the author insisted, professional architects “should take note of what analytic philosophers are saying.” Should they? Professor Fisher’s answer: “The price of avoiding analytic aesthetics is missing out on aesthetics in the dominant tradition of Western philosophical thought, and that seems an unfair cost for nonphilosophers to burden.” I wonder whether the proposed course convinced many architects that they were unfairly deprived of something important. But I also feel that anyone planning to teach such a course should consider making Richard Hill’s Designs and Their Consequences a required text.

Hill makes a point of telling the reader that he is working in the “Anglo-American or analytical stream of philosophical aesthetics.” It provides the book’s three themes, expressed as three questions: one, “What kinds of things are works of art: are they primarily ideas that find homes in physical objects or are they the physical objects themselves?”; two, Is there “a distinctive kind of ‘aesthetic experience’ and, if so,”how does it relate “to our ordinary perception of objects, and our ordinary emotional responses?”; and three, Why are the arts “divided up in a particular way: what gives arts their individuality and what do they have in common?” (x). As the author is aware, such an approach can be challenged. As Hill, following Paul Kristeller, points out, “architecture was the last art to join the ‘modern system of the arts.’” It was d’Alembert who in 1751, in the “Discours Préliminaire” of the Encyclopédie, placed architecture beside the other arts (23). That architecture comes to be considered a fine art just when it becomes modern (24) invites thought, especially so when we recall that this is also the moment when aesthetics is born as a discipline and when art, in what Hegel took to be its highest sense, becomes a thing of the past. The aesthetic approach to art or architecture should not be taken for granted. And that holds doubly for the approach that underlies “analytic aesthetics.”

Take the first question: What kinds of things are works of art? It invites such questions as: where is Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? But is there, or should there be, one answer to such a question? It does invite us to reflect on the difference between, say, sculpture and music, or architecture and poetry. But consider these two claims: “Because I am an architect I do not build” and “Because you do not build, you are not an architect.” Is one of these right, the other wrong? Whatever the answer, it will show where the person answering would like to take architecture. But is there an essence of architecture that prescribes the direction?

Hill’s “short answer” to the question, “On what grounds is architecture construed as an art?” is “Architecture is an art by virtue of being classed among the visual arts” (xi). But if this is a “fact,” this does not mean that it should not be challenged. Could it be that architecture today needs a paradigm shift that calls the approach ruling “analytic aesthetics” into question? Hill is aware that aesthetics “has the reputation of snuffing out the object it studies” (ix). He wants to show the opposite. Such optimism would do well to confront the question Heidegger raises, when he links the rise of aesthetics to the dying of art, or Hegel’s claim that today thought has overtaken the fine arts. This book could be cited as such an overtaking.

I grant that Giorgio Vasari’s thought-provoking proposition that “architecture is an art of design” (19) is, as Hill claims, “important to the history of its development as an art in the Post-Renaissance period” (xiii). But I would not want to say that a design is a work of architecture, would indeed urge that even the material work remains incomplete as long as it is not “performed,” i. e. lived with, although there would be little urgency in such urging. I agree with Hill that sometimes we respond to buildings as members of a class and sometimes as unique works of art. I question, however, his explanation of why Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater is in its very essence such a unique work, while the same could not be said of a copy: “The main reason . . . is that the architect and client wished them to be so, and that this wish became intrinsic to the design process. Individuality thus became a feature of the building, but it is not a visible one” (42). This thoroughly contemporary understanding of the work of architecture invites comparison with Arthur Danto’s discussion of Warhol’s Brillo box. Danto claims that the question: Why is Warhol’s Brillo-box art while that in the supermarket is not? could no longer be answered by an appeal to the visible, but required philosophy. But this claim conflicts with another that Danto, agreeing with Hegel, makes: that successful art effectively embodies a spiritual content. Such art has to incarnate spirit in matter. I would make the same claim for successful architecture.

The second part of Hill’s book focuses on architectural experience, as the focus shifts from the designing architect to the spectator, where Hill seeks to “disengage the idea of architectural seeing from ideas about the practical use of buildings” (67). Challenging modernists such as Sigfried Giedion, he insists on the “constancy of our perception of real objects, the importance of our knowledge of them as whole objects and the primacy of vision over the other senses” (xv). There is little to surprise the reader in Hill’s discussion of what it is to experience a building. Nor, given the aesthetic approach adopted here—where Hill is explicit about his indebtedness to Roger Scruton—is one surprised that he should claim that the “essential feature” of the aesthetic experience of architecture is “that the imagination puts a quite un-realistic construction on something that we perceive” (87). But Scruton’s “basic distinction between realistic and nonrealistic seeing” (99) is anything but unproblematic and Hill has to work hard to hold on to it, in the face of the many questions that he himself raises. The clumsiness of a statement such as “we can see a building or part of a building realistically, but we can see it as being in an unrealistic state, and it is this unrealistic state that comprises the meaning of what we see” (133) invites us to reconsider the conceptual machinery borrowed from Scruton.

Architecture has often been distinguished from the other arts by its usefulness. This raises the question of how to understand the connection between its usefulness and its aesthetic appeal, and invites an exploration of the “link between the practical complexity of ordinary life and the special complexity of works of art;” that is, a search for “a deep connection between usefulness and aesthetics” (190). “The aspiration to forge compelling links between usefulness and design via the medium of the design process is, very broadly conceived, the grand theme of modern architecture” (177)—Hill calls it the “sustaining outlook of modernism in architecture” (178). Not surprisingly, Kant’s discussion of architecture in The Critique of Judgment proves too sketchy and superficial to forge that link. And I agree with Hill that “the issue is not whether an aspect of the design is a good solution to a particular use problem, but simply whether this is a good design, from the point of view of usefulness” (207). But this leaves the nature of the link to be forged quite obscure. “The sustaining outlook,” Hill insists, “wishes to find aesthetic significance in the relationship between the design of the building and the actual human demands, needs, and wants out of which it arose” (212). But just what does “aesthetic” now mean? Hill is right to point out that the sustaining outlook behind modern architecture was anything but “resolutely utilitarian” (228), but at the end of the book the nature of the desired link remains quite obscure. As he admits: “The fact that usefulness is fundamental to architecture does not mean that its relationship to aesthetics is simple” (xviii). Indeed not. Sympathetic as I am with the direction in which the author would lead us, I have a great many questions about the route he would have us take, among them the questions with which I began.

Karsten Harries
Yale University.