ON THE PHILOSOPHY OF SPACE

An excerpt from the chapter ‘ON THE PHILOSOPHY OF SPACE’ of the book ‘Public Space. Henri Lefebvre and Beyond’ by Angela D’Ascoli

 

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Change life!’ ‘Change society!’
These precepts mean nothing without the production
of an appropriate space […]
To change life […] we must first change space.
Henri Lefebvre

 

The building–dwelling–thinking conceptual triptych that Martin Heidegger (2000) consecrated in the above-mentioned illustrious conference is by no means unprecedented in modern times. In fact, the practice of dwelling has always represented a subject of considerable debate among human sciences (Cantone and Taddio 2011; Taddio 2012, 2011). Space, in its various acceptations of territory, environment, landscape, urban tissue, city, dwelling, habitat, place, site and so on, has consistently merged different intellectual figures (Baudrillard and Nouvel 2000; Ferraris 2009; Amato and Ferrara 2009; Paquot and Younès 2009). The term ‘architect’ itself, which derives from Latin architectus, contains the Greek words ἀρχή (árche) and τέκτων (técton). Therefore, the architect, literally the ‘chief builder’, revokes the ‘beginning’, the ‘source of action’ from which the philosophical thought originated (Emery 2007; Papi 2001).
In Filosofia e architettura Fulvio Papi (2001) attempts a philosophical reflection on architectural forms starting from two of the major interpreters of modern philosophy, Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. As is known, in his Critique of Pure Reason Kant entitles an essential chapter of the book The Architectonic of Reason. Here, the ‘building’ of reason is assimilated to an architectural artefact for its solidity, balance among the parts and harmony as a whole. According to Kant, works of architecture are useful objects also performing an aesthetic function. On the one hand, they pursue a practical goal fulfilling the criterion of Utility; on the other hand, they are subject to the aesthetic judgement, since buildings are beautiful if capable of arousing the feeling of the Beautiful.

In Hegel’s system, architecture, as an art, is an expression of the Spirit. Its subject is the divine image on which the architectural practice is the means. Hegel’s broadest treatise on architecture is developed in the third part of his Lectures on Aesthetics, consecrated to the examination of the five major arts. Every single art (architecture, sculpture, painting, music and poetry) acts as the sensitive fulfilment of the idea of absolute contained in each epochal truth. They form a progression that goes from architecture, tied to the gravity of the matter, to poetry, the silence of which represents the peak of artistic sensitivity. As Hegel puts it, architecture (which is associated with the system of needs in Philosophy of Right) has become a practice at the service of the bourgeois utility. After the dissolution of the Gothic art, architecture has lost its symbolic value of representation of the divine it held in Egyptian and Greek cultures, and of God’s house it had in the Middle Ages, by being submitted to the middle-class needs.

Because of the rigidity of his conceptual structure, Hegel provides that reductionist reading of architecture doomed to feed the modern prejudice according to which the practice of building precedes that of dwelling – then scattered by Heidegger a century later (Papi 2001).
Among the XX century philosophers dealing with architectural design and mostly influencing professional theory and practice, it is worth mentioning Georg Simmel, Henri Bergson, again Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Walter Benjamin, Gaston Bachelard, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Henri Lefebvre, Jürgen Habermas, Jacques Derrida, Paul Ricoeur, Fulvio Papi himself, Emanuele Severino and Maurizio Ferraris, just to name a few. In the following lines, I will draw a rough outline of some of them.

For Georg Simmel, one of the major interpreters of modernity as well as the first philosopher who showed interest in the urban condition of human being, the image of space is built through the reciprocal action deriving from the process of socialisation. As he puts it, space does not represent a simple Kantian apriori, something to experience. On the contrary, it is ‘the way you experience’, ‘a soul’s activity’, both ‘condition and symbol of human relationships’ (DeSimone 2005: 23). When dealing with the ‘Sociology of the Senses’, the author of Philosophy of Money observes that both proximity and distance are determined by the sensory apparatus since some senses are associating and some others dissociating. The sight performs as the sense of space par excellence.

One of Simmel’s most influential essays regarding ‘existential geography’ is Bridge and Door (Simmel 2012). According to the Berliner, man is the only living being capable of ‘joining and separating’ natural elements. Therefore, bridge and door are the architectural elements symbolising how ‘man is the limited being who has no limit’. More precisely, the bridge achieves the same unification of landscape the eyes bring about in practical reality. In bridges, separation and unification meet in such a way that the first one seems to belong to nature, the second to man. Conversely, in doors both the moments occur as a result of human interventions. Moreover, contrary to the door, for which a considerable difference lies in the way you cross it, in bridges the sense of crossing makes no difference. That is to say, the door represents the limit between finite and infinite, while the bridge establishes a connection between finite with finite, as the earthly life does (Cassani 2014).

Martin Heidegger, according to Papi (2001) the most influential philosopher among architectural theorists, (1) will evoke Simmel’s metaphor a few years later. As is known, in Building, Dwelling, Thinking Heidegger (2000) reflects on the notions of dwelling and building as essential to the spatial experience. More precisely, Heidegger investigates the ‘essence’ of dwelling and the connection between building and dwelling, reaching the conclusion according to which if ‘dwelling is the way in which mortals are on the earth’, the way we live derives from the way we inhabit. On the one hand, inhabiting the world means safeguarding the ‘Fourfold’ (das Geviert), that is, the unity of Earth, sky, gods and mortals. In other words, by inhabiting
the world man internalises the exterior through the double process of space spiritualization and spirit spatialization. On the other hand, building means making people inhabit the world, hence ‘poetically’ commensurating the architectural work with the nature (Emery 2007). Not all the buildings are houses, but all of them belong to the sphere of dwelling. Among them, the bridge is the one that better captures the essence of the dwelling, inasmuch as it connects by producing a ‘place’ which did not exist before. The bridge does not join pre-existing banks along the river. On the contrary, it is crossing the bridge that the banks appear as such (Cassani 2014).

Undoubtedly influenced by Martin Heidegger, Gaston Bachelard has emerged in modern times as the theorist of the XX century scientific revolutions of microphysics shaking the relationship between space and time. However, throughout his scientific work he has never ceased to investigate the imaginative world of forms, movements and matter (essentially, the four elements of fire, water, air and earth). In Le nouvel esprit scientifique, one of his seminal works, before, La Terre et les rêveries du repos and La Poétique de l’espace later, Bachelard attempts to move on from the debate on empiricism and rationalism. He analyses the fundamental relationships existing between man and the world, those of scientific abstraction and poetic rêverie. In both modes of expression, human thought meets the external world that appears in space and obeys to a temporal succession. However, while the scientific abstraction erects a mathematical representation of the object, the poetic image aims at exceeding the dualism between subject and object, inside and outside. Contrary to the geometric world of sciences, the poetic soul allows both to capture the endless dreamlike resonances of the surrounding world and to enrich and appropriate it with emotions, unconscious projections, body and place childhood memory.(2) Through a real ‘polyphilosophy’ (Paquot and Younès 2009) which tries the different problematic approaches of rhetoric, psychoanalysis, phenomenology and ontology, Bachelard attempts to reconcile space and time connecting perception, imagination and memory. However, if Bachelard’s paves the way for a new philosophical language on rêverie, the philosophical-political implications arising from Jacques Derrida’s speculation represent one of the most authentic forms of ‘radicalness’.
For Derrida (2008), nothing is taken for granted since everything is exposed to the dissolution of deconstruction. As a result, the themes of building and dwelling are irrelevant to Derrida’s spatial thought. For him, making architecture means deconstructing space, as it is in the ‘just now’ that the architectural gesture explores its range of possibilities. To surpass the ‘metaphysics of presence’ to which the Western philosophical culture (Heidegger in particular) has bound itself, he aspires to re-examine architecture as the ‘last fortress of metaphysics’. Deconstructing architecture does not mean destroying it. It entails achieving that architecture without project capable of recognising the possibility of the emergence of an enhanced ‘event’ and writing space. To properly understand what the Algerian-born French philosopher means for ‘writing of space’, we have to take a glance to De la grammatologie, one of his first books. Here, Derrida evokes André Leroi-Gourhan’s thesis according to which human evolution is the direct consequence of the techniques man develops to interact with the external environment. Among them, the phonetic-alphabetic writing has exerted a strong influence on the human spatial tradition by denying the spacing experience (espacement), that is, the inborn process of opening to the external world. Therefore, a new system of writing must be accomplished, based on different experiences of spacing and new forms of architecture. In other words, human memory works as a track, an ‘archi-writing’, that is, a kind of pre-given writing that precedes both speech and writing. This native language originates the spacing experience of ipseity, which is later removed by the phonetic-alphabetic writing. Hence, the phonetic-alphabetic writing has to be replaced by a multi-dimensional one, that is, the ‘mythography’, a kind of writing capable of matching both verbal and non-verbal sign systems and exploring new possibilities of
meaning. After all, the spacing experience pertains to everyone (Vitale 2012). During his lecture at the Columbia University in September 1992, Derrida claims that ‘every institution is an architecture’, so ‘willy-nilly, the problem of space and of being inscribed, through the language, in space, makes everyone unconsciously deal with space’ (2008: 157–58, own translation). (3)

As for Michel Foucault, the problem of space assumes biopolitical significance. (4)  According to the ‘archaeologist of knowledge’, space experience occurs through ‘micro powers’. Urban territory represents a privileged domain of life control where spatial transformations run parallel to government techniques. Even though he acknowledges that the practice of architecture has always been connected to political-historical systems, Foucault identifies its radicalization since XVIII century, when the passage from souveraineté to surveillance (terms Foucault himself uses in Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison, 1975) in power occurs (Cantone and Taddio 2011). Since then, cities have become the places of surveillance, control and rationalisation carried out by police. To better describe the profound transformation taking place in the relationship between power and space, Foucault refers to the Panopticon, the prison designed by Bentham in 1791, since it expresses how the perfection of power tends to make its exercise unnecessary. For Foucault, power does not belong to anyone, as it consists of a set of mechanisms and forces running through all human relationships and spatial configurations. As a result, biopolitics represents a ‘polymorph system aiming at ruling both the body and the space’ (5) (Villani 2009: 162, own translation) with the aid of power and knowledge. Within this pervasive hegemonic system, however, the French philosopher identifies the existence of some ‘lines of flights’ acting as ‘powers of subtraction’ from the mechanisms of control. These are what he calls heterotopias, that is, spaces of otherness performing as physical representations or approximations of a utopia, ‘counter-sites’ where existing social and spatial arrangements are ‘represented, contested and inverted’.
In his critical action, Michel Foucault, last author of this short overview, designates the truth as the permanent function of discourse (e.g. in his works Sécurité, Territoire, Population and Naissance de la biopolitique). For him, knowledge plays a pivotal, critical role in the urban space as the instrument of power par excellence. Once again, the interconnection among truth, knowledge and space recurs, bridging philosophical action with design practice, inhabitants and professional experts, to whom both ordinary and extraordinary everyday life belong.

1 Heidegger’s thought represents the starting point of Christian Norbelg-Schulz’s Genius Loci. Paesaggio, Ambiente e Architettura (1979). According to Schulz, the spirit of a place is contained in the essence of the site and architecture has the task of fulfilling it without altering it (Bevilacqua 2010). Therefore, ‘protecting and preserving the genius loci means materializing its essence in new historical contexts’. To this end, stabilitas loci, that is, the essential condition of existence, has to be conciliated with dynamics of change, since ‘the history of a place should be its self-fulfillment’ (Norberg-Schulz 1979: 18, own translation).

2 The poetics of space draws from his personal life experience, memories of the country house where he was born, in Bar-sur-Aube, as well as the place where he lived during his studies, in Dijon. The dwelling, acting as the primary connection with the world, acquires an archetypal, dreamlike, value. However, it only represents one layer of spatial imaginary. Similarly to space, the rêverie is not restricted to present images, but it reactivates ancient archetypal figures by drawing from timeless memories.

3 Original: ‘Ogni istituzione è un’architettura […]. Dunque il problema dello spazio e dell’essere inscritto, attraverso il linguaggio, nello spazio, senza alcuna possibilità di dominare questa situazione, ti costringe a trattare con l’architettura senza che tu ne sia cosciente’ (Derrida 2008: 157–58).

4 It is worth stressing that the goal Derrida strives for is political too. Politics makes deconstruction essential in architecture. For the Algerian philosopher, achieving the new experience of the politician means destructing the old architectural structures supporting the Western political tradition (Vitale 2012).

5 Tiziana Villani defines biopolitcs a ‘sistema polimorfo attraverso il quale si prova a governare il corpo e il territorio’ (Paquot and Younès 2009: 162).