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The Aesthetic Legitimacy of Architecture

In architecture schools variants of the following dialogue is commonly rehearsed.

Student:  The form of my architecture will be such and such. The form I have chosen was inspired from my perception of the such and such quality.

Professor:  The form you have chosen is not ambitious enough. Your architecture could have been more responsive in such and such way. I suggest you experiment with such and such from.

Student (behind the professor’s back): Architecture is just so subjective. I should have made up a better justification for my design.  I if had another tutor I am sure they would have liked my style.

The prevalent view is that architecture creation is, to use a cliché term, subjective. Subjectivism or relativism is a concept within the philosophy of postmodernism, which purports the absence of a definable absolute or standard. Furthermore, it is commonly used to negate a particular opinion, in defence of one’s own. Subjectivism implies that architectural style is arbitrary and therefore also the very act of pursuing an architectural aesthetic or style. If a subjective view of architecture is adopted the discipline is therefore rendered baseless, without legitimacy, as the line ‘anything goes’ goes!

The dilemma of this stance within architecture is that it introduces two conflicting demands, on one hand the architect is compelled to produce an original piece of work while on the other hand one needs to seek legitimacy for it. Furthermore, it opens up further questions, such as the very definition of architecture and thus the foundation of its legitimacy.

As the student of architecture enters professional practice, they again are faced with the same predicament of justifying, thus legitimatising one’s creation to the client and the public.  It is not just students today which have faced the quandary of aesthetic preference. It is an issue which has plagued architecture since the Renaissance[1].

The progression of western architectural styles since the Renaissance has been driven by reactionary opinions on a particular aesthetic. As an architect, aesthetic preference and the notion of “style”, however groundless the driving rules were, provided a pseudo framework for assessing architecture and thus a pseudo legitimacy. For instance an architect devoted to modernism would use Le Corbusier’s five principles of Architecture as a guide, if not a rule, as well as adopting the mantra of social progression.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, however, the architectural profession has attempted to negate the subjective notion of “a style” and put in place a rationale to legitimise their works[2].  The modernist movement pioneered by the writing of Adolf Loos “Ornament and Crime” and Le Corbusier’s manifesto “Towards a New Architecture”, advocated for the elimination of references to past styles. The rational logic used to justify this new epoch in architecture was one based using the principles of industrial efficiency and modern technology for the improvement of society[3]. However the failure of modernist ideals, its fate sealed in demolition of the Pruitt Igoe housing estate[4], demonstrated the hollowness of these claims.

“Instead of providing worthy goals and ideals, the belief in the necessity and the transformative effects of modernism turned out mainly to legitimize only another set of aesthetic preferences[5]”

As critic Virginia Postrel claims, the belief that modernists held of abolishing the notion of style became hypocritical in its own right.

“Modern design was once a value-laden signal- a sign of ideology. Now it’s just a style, one of the many forms of artistic expression[6]”  

After the death of the modernist philosophy, architecture could no longer claim any moral high ground, subsequently turning to post modernism to fill the ontologically void. Under the postmodernist philosophy the architecture discipline became more egocentric than ever, and the only emphasis was to “get it right for me”[7]. In the words of Bernard Tschumi it does not matter which logic you use to rationalise your design concept anymore, as long as there is a logic.

“Architecture is the materialisation of a concept. It is always very much about logic, as well as the simplicity and the clarity of the expression[8]

Post modernism may have appeared to have finally rendered the dilemma of style redundant. As long as a rationale could be provided, any architecture would be legitimate.  However, it is a fallacy to conclude that the architectural dilemma of style has been solved in the postmodern age. In truth postmodernist philosophy has permitted the spawning of an infinite number of styles. Any person now has the authority to conjure any framework to justify a design, in other words a personal manifesto or style.  Hence we are brought back, full circle, to the architectural dilemma of aesthetic legitimacy which has plagued the student and has ontologically undermined the very discipline. There appears to be an unresolved paradox with the logic of postmodern philosophy.

To engage with the issue of aesthetic legitimacy in architecture, the matter cannot be approached purely from the question of ‘style’. In “The Ethics of Authenticity” the philosopher Charles Taylor offers an argument against the postmodern view of relativism, and provides a philosophical basis in the search of aesthetic legitimacy in architecture.

The root of the dilemma of legitimacy in architecture arises from what Taylor coins “the culture of authenticity”- a term he uses to describe the state of modern society, where uttermost value is placed on leading authentically defined lives, achieved through self fulfilment and free choice.

To highlight how the philosophical dogma of relativism self destructs Taylor introduces the concept of the horizon of significance. A horizon of significance is a notion that there exists a hierarchy in the inherent value and meaning of things[9]. In a pre secular age many if not all cultures believed in an absolute and cosmic order of the world, which provided a source of legitimacy. It provided a referential point for humanity to define what was considered important or even sacred. For instance the basis of western morality was derived from Christianic roots. In relation to architecture, divine proportions (again believed to be transcended from the Greek understanding of the godly) provided an absolute standard of beauty and were the foundations of classical architecture.

With the establishment of such a concept, it can be argued that any personal claim with legitimacy cannot be made without reference to a horizon of significance. To illustrate this point Charles Taylor provides an example.

“I may be the only person with exactly 3,732 hairs on my head, or be exactly the same height as some tree on the Siberian plain, but so what? If I begin to say that I define myself by my ability to articulate important truth, or play the Hammerklavier like no one else, or revive the traditions of my ancestors, then we are in the domain of recognizable self definitions. The difference is plain. We understand right away that the latter properties have human significance, or can easily be seen by people to have this, whereas the former do not[10].”

Clearly, just because an architect creates a form out of personal whim, does not it itself make it valid.

“It follows that one of the things we can’t do, if we are to define ourselves significantly, is suppress or deny the horizons against which things take on significance for us[11].

However the contemporary zeitgeist of relativism erases these notions of a horizon of significance by the affirmation of free choice as the only thing that matters.

“In stressing the legitimacy of choice between certain options, we very often find yourself depriving the options of their significance[12].”

If one affirms the freedom of choice as the only ultimate value, the implication is the collapse of a horizon of significance and thus the very backdrop the claim of free choice can hold any legitimacy.  What is the result is the flatting and trivialisation of the world and a philosophically contradictory dogma[13].Charles Taylor makes another important distinction regarding self referentiality and the creation of art. In architecture schools great emphasis is placed on originality based on personal intuition- this is seen as authentic which in itself commands legitimacy.  However, the notion of authenticity must be dissected into two different aspects, one concerning the manner and matter of the act[14]. Manner refers to the self consciousness of how it is contrived and matter refers to meaning given to such intention. It follows that true authenticity arises when the manner and matter of the work is not self referential.

Using this framework, it can be elaborated how manner and matter of the act is critical in defining authenticity which provides aesthetic legitimacy. There are four types of actions which can be identified; 1) the instrumental act 2) symbolic act 3) gestural act and 4) ritual act[15].

The instrumental act is just means to the end and is always directed at the final result. In this case both the manner and matter are self referential. For example take the goal of becoming wealthy. The manner is self referential as the endeavour of how one could go about becoming wealthy is self contrived. One could start a business, rob a bank or run a scam.  The matter of such an act is also self referential (the intention of gaining money for oneself).

A symbolic act can also been seen as a means to an end, which emphasises the final result. The ultimate goal of a symbolic act is to communicate (even impose) a set of ideas or values onto another party. However, in this case only the manner is self referential. A common example is the architectonic device. Take this case; an architect is commissioned to commemorate a war.   The manner by which the architecture is designed is self referential, as there are multiple means by which one could symbolise such an event. The matter or meaning of the act, to commemorate, is clearly not self referential.

A gestural act is when the manner and matter are non self referential. However in the manner of a gestural action there contains a personal element which is significant.

“A gesture is always somebody’s gesture. It is not ‘naked’; it always relates to an already given form[16]

Take the gesture of the handshake. It can be analysed that the manner of the action is non self referential. The handshake is a universally recognised action within western culture, which takes on a particular form. It is not a convention which one formulates personally. If one was to completely break with convention, and formulate a personal ‘handshake’, the manner of such an act would become self-referential and no longer be understood. It is however wrong to conclude that there is only one correct way of performing the handshake. There are clearly many variants which are produced with a lack of self consciousness. The matter of the gesture is also non self referential as is meaning significance cannot be attributed to the individual.

On another level is the ritual act. As with the gesture, manner and matter are both non self referential.  The distinguishing factor, however is that the manner of a ritual is devoid of any personal element. The manner of a ritual involves the precise execution of a series of actions proscribed by a set of rules.  Any deviance from this set of rules nullifies the significance of the ritual. Furthermore the meaning of why such rules apply has been forgotten and thus transcends time.

“Since these rites are empty in a certain sense, you cannot account for them personally, nor can they be interpreted appropriated. Participating in a ritual dissolves everything personal[17].”

 Using authenticity as the criteria for aesthetic legitimacy, it can be concluded that Gothic architecture is paramount in that respect. The construction of a Gothic Cathedral was a gestural act.  In terms of matter, the Gothic Cathedral cannot be viewed it terms of utility, nor a symbolic building that simply references and glorifies God. Its function is to serve the religion Christianity; however it embodies meaning beyond its purpose- that of religious devotion[18]. The meaning was not imposed by the architect or even by the architecture, as it was universally recognised within society at the time. In that sense its conception cannot be seen as the means to an end, and is either instrumental or symbolic. Just like the gesture, the Gothic Cathedral itself is of significant meaning.

the transcendental character of medieval religious architecture was given a special form in the Gothic church[19]

The manner or the conception of the Gothic cathedral is also externally referential. The major architectonic intent of Gothic architecture was derived from a theological source. The element that propelled the development of Gothic architecture was the need to maximise light into the structure. This principle of light infiltration was based on theological statements attributed to Dionysius Areopagite, which stated that a closer the understanding of God could be achieved through the light of objects[20].Interpreting this, theologian Abbot Suger, the founding patron of Gothic Architecture, believed in the godly nature of stained glass and promoted its use in St Denis[21].

All structural elements of Gothic architecture are subordinate to the aim of maximising the glazing of stain glass.  The form of the Gothic Cathedral is evidently not based on arbitrary artistic intent but grounded in the laws of physics. The groined vault is one of many architectonic features which characterises Gothic architecture, transferring loads of the stone roof to four corners. This liberated the walls from their function as load bearing elements and enabled the adornment of shear stain glass windows. Furthermore the groined vault enabled the spanning of nonrectangular spaces[22]. Another significant characteristic of Gothic architecture was the flying buttress. The deployment of the flying buttress can also be attributed to minimising the load transfer onto the walls as cathedrals increased in proportions.

Just like a gesture, the conception of a Gothic cathedral requires a personal element, that of the architect. Although it can be seen that the form of the Gothic cathedral evolves over time, these changes in form are never referenced back to the architect. From St Denis, the first Gothic cathedral constructed in 1135, several innovations occurred between 1160 to 1170[23]. The triforium passage was introduced and allowed the wall to be treated as a skeletal structure[24]. The second change was the hollowing of masonry walls with glass windows. These innovations were adopted in the Abbey of Saint- Remi[25].The most evident advancement was the introduction of the flying buttress first deployed at Notre Dame in Paris[26]. The varying forms of the Gothic cathedral seen throughout its evolution can be linked to the variants of the handshake. Although altered by an individual, they remain non-self referential.

The architecture of Peter Eisenman, who has proclaimed to have solved the dilemma of legitimacy in the contemporary era can also analysed and tested through this framework. Eisenman explicitly states in his essay “The End of the Classical, The End of the Beginning, the End of the End” that architecture since the renaissance has been just a series of representations (or fictions), with borrowed meanings derived from classical architecture. In this sense he argues that since the values of modern architecture are externally referenced, they are but reflections of an irrelevant history, value system and/or reason.

“the meaning of a Romanesque or gothic cathedral was in itself, it was de facto. Renaissance buildings on the other
hand- and all the buildings after that pretended to be architecture- received their value by presenting an already valued architecture, by being simulacra of antique buildings, they were de juie[27]”

In order for architecture to have meaning in of itself and retain true legitimacy, which is timeless, he asserts that there must be an independent discourse of architecture which is free from externally imposed values. Architectural meaning thus must be generated from within the discipline.

The logic Eisenman uses to give legitimacy to his architecture is a monological and relativistic one and can be simply stated as this; the form should be arbitrary contrived in an arbitrary process and thus no one meaning can be implanted and no one meaning can ever be implied. As the value of the building is not attributed to any external reference, it cannot be grounded in an irrelevant past and thus its legitimacy lies in its timelessness. The Wexner Center of the Arts is emblematic of his attempt at applying this rhetoric.

Eisenman attempts to realise this logic in 3 primary ways 1) to subvert the very notion of a finished architecture by implying the structure is a continual process, 2) by devoiding it of any dialectical relationship and 3) by abolishing understood architectonic notions. The intention of the architecture is to eliminate any sense of a reference point.

One of the defining elements of the Wexner Center, viewed externally is the scaffolding grid. The main intention of the structure was to challenge the fundamental function of architecture which is that of shelter. As the function of the building is rejected it could not be architecture.

 ‘Thus, a major part of the project is not a building itself, but a ‘non-building’. Scaffolding traditionally is the most impermanent part of a building. It is put up to build, repair or demolish buildings, but it never shelters. Thus, the primary symbolization of a visual arts center which is traditionally that of a shelter of art, is not figured in this case. For although this building shelters, it does not symbolize that function.[28]

The intent of such an act was to render the meaning of the final result (an art gallery) meaningless. Like a gesture, Eisenman attempts to place meaning on the act rather than emphasis on the final result. It is evident that Eisenman undermines his own logic by the very use of the scaffolding grid. It functions as a symbolic act to communicate a value- that of a ‘non- building’. Unlike the gesture where the meaning of the act is implicitly and universally known (within a culture) and cannot be attributed to personally, the meaning of the Wexner Center (which is to have no meaning as architecture) is generated by Eisenman himself. The matter of the architecture is therefore self referential.

Secondly another means by which Eisenman tries to achieve legitimacy was to devoid the architecture of any dialectical relationship between it and the author. Two intersecting grid systems, one derived from the urban layout and the other from the University’s own arrangement, formed the basis of the organisational scheme. The intersection of these girds it is claimed, results in an arbitrariness of form, which undermines their original authorship and intent.

“… the superposition of two scaled grids was registered on crucial points to determine overlaps, strange disjunctions and arbitrary figures in order to produce latent figuration and new meanings without conscious motivation. The arbitrary, undecidable and nonexplicit sign system thus generated contradicts the traditional one-to-one relationship between structure, form, function and meaning that characterises architecture as a strong form discipline”[29].

 Again Eisenman’s intent in creating an arbitrary form can be seen as the attempted emulation of a gesture, by nullifying the self referential manner of how the act was conceived. However, intent of arbitrariness does not imply the nullification of self referential authorship. The original self consciousness remains.

Thirdly, by subverting understood architectonic notions the architect tries to prevent the imposition of external values. The infamous hanging “column”, placed by the entrance is a prime example. The significance of the column has historically been given due to its function. By placing a redundant “column” Eisenman is claiming that its significance does not have to be linked to any preconceived notions. This act is the ultimate physical expression of a relativistic philosophy. However it achieves the opposite to its intention. In order to undermine the significance of the column, Eisenman is in fact acknowledging its implicit value- that of support- and the notion of a horizon of significance. A claim of subversion against something cannot be made if the significance of that thing is not recognised. The legitimacy of the column as an architectonic device is in fact strengthened. The act is therefore self defeating.

The architecture of the Wexner Center, in contradiction to what it claims, does not hold any aesthetic legitimacy. The architecture is self referential in the manner of its conception and in the matter of what it expresses. It is an instrumental act which was a means to an ends- which was to convey the thoughts of Peter Eisenman.

With the decline of religion, tradition and culture due to a relativistic attitude with modern society, the horizons of significance are indeed becoming narrower and narrower. Despite Eisenman’s attempt at seeking an aesthetic legitimacy like that of the Gothic cathedral, an architecture that is truly aesthetically legitimate may never be developed again. With economic, political and business interests to navigate the architecture created today will always be self-referential to some extent. For an aesthetically legitimate architecture we may have to venture to the few, if any, remaining cultures untouched by the instrumental mindset in this increasingly anthropomorphic centred world.



[1] Grook, J, 1987, The Dilemma of Style- Architectural ideas from the picturesque to the post modern, John Murray Ltd, London .pp 11  

[2] Spector, T, J 2011, ‘Architecture and the Ethics of Authenticity’. The Journal of Aesthetic Education, vol 45, no 4. pp 24

[3] Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture (London: Architectural Press, 1946): 269-289

[4] Moore, R, 2012, “Pruitt-Igoe: death of the American urban dream” viewed 12 November 2012 <>

[5] Spector, T, J 2011, ‘Architecture and the Ethics of Authenticity’. The Journal of Aesthetic Education, vol 45, no 4. pp 24

[6] Spector, T, J 2011, ‘Architecture and the Ethics of Authenticity’. The Journal of Aesthetic Education, vol 45, no 4. pp 24

[7] Spector, T, J 2011, ‘Architecture and the Ethics of Authenticity’. The Journal of Aesthetic Education, vol 45, no 4. pp 24

[8] Bernard Tschumi

[9] Taylor, Charles, 1991, The Ethics of Authenticity, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. pp 34

[10] Taylor, Charles, 1991, The Ethics of Authenticity, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. pp 36

[11] Taylor, Charles, 1991, The Ethics of Authenticity, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. pp 37

[12] Taylor, Charles, 1991, The Ethics of Authenticity, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. pp 37

[13] Taylor, Charles, 1991, The Ethics of Authenticity, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. pp 68

[14]Taylor, Charles, 1991, The Ethics of Authenticity, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. pp 82

[15] Verschaffel, B, J 1993, Architecture is (as) a gesture – on ‘authenticity’ as an architectural criterion’ , Heynen (ED.), Wonen tussen gemeenplaats en poezie. no. 10, 1993, pp. 69

[16] Verschaffel, B, J 1993, Architecture is (as) a guesture – on ‘authenticity’ as an architectural criterion’ , Heynen (ED.), Wonen tussen gemeenplaats en poezie. no. 10, 1993, pp. 69

[17] Verschaffel, B, J 1993, Architecture is (as) a guesture – on ‘authenticity’ as an architectural criterion’ , Heynen (ED.), Wonen tussen gemeenplaats en poezie. no. 10, 1993, pp. 69

[18] Frankl, P, Grossley, P, 2000, Gothic Architecture, Yale University Press, New Haven and London. pp. 269

[19] Branner, R, 1961, Gothic Architecture, George Braziller, New York pp 10

[20] Branner, R, 1961, Gothic Architecture, George Braziller, New York pp 21

[21] Branner, R, 1961, Gothic Architecture, George Braziller, New York pp 21

[22] Branner, R, 1961, Gothic Architecture, George Braziller, New York pp 21

[23] Branner, R, 1961, Gothic Architecture, George Braziller, New York pp 26

[24] Branner, R, 1961, Gothic Architecture, George Braziller, New York pp 26

[25] Branner, R, 1961, Gothic Architecture, George Braziller, New York pp 26

[26] Branner, R, 1961, Gothic Architecture, George Braziller, New York pp 27

[27] Eisenman, Peter. “The End of the Classical: The End of the Beginning, the End of the End.” Perspecta: Yale School of Architecture, Vol. 21. 1984. pp. 159.

[28] Peter Eisenman

[29] Noever, P, 2004, Peter Eisenman, Hatje Cantz Verlag, Germany