Workshop ‘Philosophy & Architecture’

Recently we have become increasingly interested in the exchange between philosophy and architecture, two fields with a remarkably similar agenda and in Eindhoven at least, in close and active partnership. In the exploration of the interaction between philosophy and architecture the traps of grandiloquent bluff and simple nonsense are manifold. That fact encourages us to strive towards a form of dialogue which seeks to make our common ground insightful in a sober and thorough way.

Mankind, its architecture, its utopian desire;
Towards a new encounter of philosophy and architecture


Without exactly being aware of it, western society entered the era of homo ludens. Formerly stable concepts like place or matter, and even concepts like ideology, reality or meaning, are suffering from inflation. An unbound society seems to have come into existence, not guided by facts and science, but dictated, more than anything else, by experience. The promised future of mid 20th century visionary artists like Constant Nieuwenhuis has come true, though with a difference. The reality of homo ludens is more depressing than anticipated – if it is a reality at all. 11/9, amongst other events, has fundamentally questioned the previous self-image. And where are we now?

For some it may seem as if not much has changed since the utopian promises were made. Recent historiographies of modernity testify to their resilience, such as the exhibition and book “Team Ten: In search of a utopia of the present”, recalling the title of another event and publication: “Back from utopia: The challenge of the modern movement”.

It has been argued that architecture mirrors the dwindling attractiveness of the realized utopias. In Koolhaas’ famous “Generic City”, architecture has lost its representative quality, which was preserved in the architectural discourse until the generation of Aldo van Eyck and the others of Team Ten. Architecture even lost notions like identity and meaning, very much in line with the predictions Manfredo Tafuri made in the seventies. The present program of architecture asks for the temporary, fashionable decoration of a world without friction. In addition, many have become critical of any utopian thinking; is it not patronizing and forcing people into forms of life an obedience (as Bataille has argued) – and ultimately based upon fundamentalist ideas?
Yet this critique might only be a transient state, possibly limited to western culture and the areas of its influence. There are also countless initiatives, organisations and foundations that dedicate themselves to new societal ideals, driven by an ethical engagement. And with these developments comes the promise.

Philosophy might help to understand this situation better; it may be asked to comment on the way architecture translates the present social condition, but also our ideals and concerns into its own concepts – or on architecture’s departure from any such ambition. Philosophy’s potential task might go beyond an analytic role: It can reflect upon the way architecture should precede.

Background: two disciplines, one debate

Philosophy and architecture have many themes in common. Ethical, social, and political theories are important issues in both fields. The same is true for aesthetic ideas and conceptions of a good life. It is therefore not surprising that philosophical reflection has shaped architectural practice directly or indirectly (e.g. via political theories). Edifices and city structures often mirror the “master narratives” of their time.
West-European architecture provides ample evidence for this influence. One might think of the the social democratic vision of society that shaped the functionalist design and ideals of production during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Another example can be found in Baroque architecture. Its spatial richness and central focus point clearly reflects the Rationalist metaphysics of a centralized cosmic order as much as the absolutist political theory of its time.

Today the relationship seems less obvious. On the one side, philosophy has increasingly withdrawn from the ambition to provide general answers. The few remaining broad philosophical theories are mostly concerned with critique; they see traditional theories as aiming for the impossible and oppressive in their consequences. In brief, there are few grand philosophical narratives that could serve as a reflexive background for architectural ideas.
Philosophy might be considered to have left the arena of normative claims about shaping by building. But for two reasons the situation is more complex: First, modern architectural discourse is still saturated with philosophical implications and presuppositions. And secondly, the concepts of autonomous subject and fragmented society as much as the critique of ideologies and philosophical fundamentalism are also products of philosophical reflections, possibly contingent ones. Thus philosophy might still, though maybe less directly, determine the architectural discourse.

In order to stimulate a fertile exchange on those lines, the conference will consist of two parts, whereby the first part is meant to raise questions, the second to formulate answers.

  • Mankind, its architecture, its utopian desire – Part I will be a one-day-workshop. Architects, city planners, and people from related disciplines will meet to formulate a number of key-questions of architecture. What are the issues architects expect philosophers to address? The result of this part will serve as a kind of blueprint structure for the second part.
  • Mankind, its architecture, its utopian desire – Part II will be a conference in the fall of 2007. Here, philosophers will react on the issues raised in part I.; we want to find out to what extent philosophers of different background and methodologies still have something to say to architects. We do not so much expect a discussion among philosophers but rather a proper interaction between the two disciplines.

As a sequel, common research projects of architects and philosophers will be initiated in order to work out some of the proposed ideas in more detail. More information on the program of the workshop.

Aim of the workshop

The short workshop on March 29th includes just a small group of people (max. 30), and then follow through with a large scale conference. The point of the workshop is to set up an agenda for the encounter between philosophy and architecture. Its specific purpose is to formulate those questions and problems that would profit from an exchange between the two disciplines. In particular, we think that architects should formulate the questions for philosophers to attempt an answer. For this purpose, we have composed a list of suitable people, mostly active architects, from the Netherlands, Germany and Great Britain for the workshop.

We propose the theme of utopia in order to question the position of architecture and philosophy vis-à-vis each other. Utopia – dead as an ideal, alive as a question – should bring visions of the world and perceptions of architecture in a tense relation. It is debatable whether it is good or even possible to define positive ideals about housing or urban planning in the framework of a utopian vision. It is an open question what utopia is about, but it is interesting to learn what the poetics of utopia (ancient and modern, western and non-western) can teach us. It is beyond doubt, that to posit a form of thought so deeply rooted in mental history and so controversial in its factual geography will make for an intense confrontation between two disciplines that have much content in common, yet are far apart in form.

The proposed conference ‘Man, his architecture, his utopian desire’ aims at shedding light on the complex relation between architecture and philosophy. What is the role philosophy plays and might be able to play for architecture in the future? Can or shall philosophy still provide “utopias”, that is normative ideals as guidelines for our society and its architecture – and can or shall architecture realize any utopias?


The workshop is a joint effort of:

  • Prof. dr. Christian Illies, assistant professor philosophy and ethics TU/e, professor philosophy of culture and technique TU Delft
  • Prof. dr. B.J.F. Colenbrander, professor architectural history and theory TU/e