On the Ruins of Babel

On the Ruins of Babel: Architectural Metaphor in German Thought

Daniel L. Purdy
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 328
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt7zh96
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  • Book Info
    On the Ruins of Babel
    Book Description:

    The eighteenth century struggled to define architecture as either an art or a science-the image of the architect as a grand figure who synthesizes all other disciplines within a single master plan emerged from this discourse. Immanuel Kant and Johann Wolfgang Goethe described the architect as their equal, a genius with godlike creativity. For writers from Descartes to Freud, architectural reasoning provided a method for critically examining consciousness. The architect, as philosophers liked to think of him, was obligated by the design and construction process to mediate between the abstract and the actual.

    In On the Ruins of Babel, Daniel Purdy traces this notion back to its wellspring. He surveys the volatile state of architectural theory in the Enlightenment, brought on by the newly emerged scientific critiques of Renaissance cosmology, then shows how German writers redeployed Renaissance terminology so that "harmony," "unity," "synthesis," "foundation," and "orderliness" became states of consciousness, rather than terms used to describe the built world. Purdy's distinctly new interpretation of German theory reveals how metaphors constitute interior life as an architectural space to be designed, constructed, renovated, or demolished. He elucidates the close affinity between Hegel's Romantic aesthetic of space and Daniel Libeskind's deconstruction of monumental architecture in Berlin's Jewish Museum.

    Through a careful reading of Walter Benjamin's writing on architecture as myth, Purdy details how classical architecture shaped Benjamin's modernist interpretations of urban life, particularly his elaboration on Freud's archaeology of the unconscious. Benjamin's essays on dreams and architecture turn the individualist sensibility of the Enlightenment into a collective and mythic identification between humans and buildings.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6005-0
    Subjects: History, Philosophy, Architecture and Architectural History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-13)

    The compact between buildings and their inhabitants has long been ruled by the fantasy that houses have, at least on an abstract level, the formal appearance of human beings. The classical tradition, defined by Vitruvius and elaborated from the Renaissance onward, stressed the comparison in order to establish a canon of beauty in buildings and bodies—both were meant to be smooth, symmetrical, and balanced in their proportions and the distribution of their working parts. Modern, industrial buildings do not always adhere to this ancient canon, for today the bond between buildings and humans has become even more complex, often...

  5. 1 The Decline of the Classical Orders
    (pp. 14-28)

    Architecture’s place among the fine arts came undone at the end of the seventeenth century. First in France, and then across Europe, critics began to wonder whether architecture was still related to painting and sculpture, the two genres traditionally most closely associated with grand buildings, or whether it should be counted as a technological field, imbued more with the lessons of mathematics and engineering. This uncertainty had been initiated in Paris by a skeptical review of Renaissance theories of beauty in building. In 1683 Claude Perrault’s careful reading of the classical treatises questioned whether the proportions of the columnal orders—...

  6. 2 Science or Art? Architecture’s Place within the Disciplines
    (pp. 29-52)

    By the second half of the eighteenth century the decline of Vitruvian convention had become an urgent topic. The extravagant ornamentation on the facades of princely buildings, styles we would today call baroque and rococo, were debated in aesthetic terms, but with a clear understanding that, given the monarchical state’s reliance on ostentatious displays of its overwhelming power, more was at stake. To question the grandiose appearance of princely edifices was to indirectly challenge the existing political order. As architecture became a subject for the wider public sphere, the broad spectrum of people excluded from the inner life of the...

  7. 3 Architecture in Kant’s Thought: The Metaphor’s Genealogy
    (pp. 53-106)

    The Tower of Babel figures in Western philosophy as the first metaphysical interpretation of architecture. However, the legend has not always been understood as a cautionary tale, as it commonly is today. In the early modern period, the tale was not understood always in terms of punishment so much as an affirmation of the correspondence between grand architecture and monarchical authority. Ulrike Wegener argues that Pieter Bruegel’s paintings (in Vienna and Rotterdam) of the Tower, for all its detailed representation of construction techniques, ultimately glorified the project as one worthy of a great ruler.¹ Indeed, this baroque adaptation of the...

  8. 4 How Much Architecture Is in Kant’s Architectonic of Pure Reason?
    (pp. 107-145)

    Kant defines the architectonic as the art of philosophical systems.¹ Classical architectural theory, we will show in this chapter, provided Kant with a precise terminology to depict that thought that organizes experience. Unlike the a priori categories, which make possible our comprehension of physical sensations, the ideas that shape architectonics are consciously chosen by philosophy. They do not have the same conditioning function as the categories. The architectonic idea stands outside scientific discourse, but this does not mean that it operates prior to our understanding of the world; rather, it is a last step in a long chain of critical...

  9. 5 The House of Memory: Architectural Technologies of the Self
    (pp. 146-161)

    The ancient world had its own tradition that organized thought in the form of buildings. As with architectural theory, the surviving sources are Roman, but the practice is unquestionably much older. Rhetoricians advised their students that in order to remember the many facts and stories that one needed to draw upon in public speaking, it was useful to construct a mental storage space.¹ The human body, however, was not the model for this space; rather, the mind conformed itself with some real or idealized building. The analogy between a house and memory appears in Roman rhetorical treatises in order to...

  10. 6 Goethe’s Architectural Epiphanies
    (pp. 162-192)

    Right in the middle of his weighty history of ancient architecture (Die Geschichte der Baukunst bei den Alten), the Berlin professor Aloys Hirt pauses to ask: Who were the architects that designed the great buildings of the past?¹ Where and how did they learn to build? Were there ancient schools of architecture? Written sources provide no information on these points, he notes with sadness. The treatises composed by the many names Vitruvius mentions as his predecessors have been lost. Even worse, for long stretches of ancient history not one architect’s name is known. Such a rich history of construction!—yet...

  11. 7 The Building in Bildung: Goethe, Palladio, and the Architectural Media
    (pp. 193-211)

    Well before photography and electronic networks encircled the planet, there existed a European migratory channel within which architectural images were carried across the Alps by tourists and pilgrims.¹ Moving along well-established pathways, architectural drawings, treatises, and personal recollections operated as a self-replicating network that allowed travelers, once home, to recreate the buildings they so admired abroad. The northern European reception of Andrea Palladio (1508–1580), facilitated by the elegant woodcuts and explanations in his Four Books of Architecture (1570) and by the prominence of his buildings in cities and estates between Vicenza and Venice, demonstrates the effectiveness of this premodern...

  12. 8 Goethe and the Disappointing Site: Buildings That Do Not Live Up to Their Images
    (pp. 212-231)

    Inherent in Goethe’s aesthetic assessment of architecture is his consideration of “the unbuilt.” Although they are often taken as monumental units, complete and whole, buildings have different versions of themselves: the material structure left standing by history, and the architectural designs that preceded it. In the case of Palladio, an obvious tension arises between the drawings in his Four Books of Architecture and the existing structures. At his death many of Palladio’s buildings were still under construction. The loggias of the Palazzo della Regione at Vicenza were completed a century later. Many palaces were left unfinished because of the declining...

  13. 9 Gothic Deconstruction: Hegel, Libeskind, and the Avant-Garde
    (pp. 232-260)

    It is a commonplace when discussing Hegel to associate his philosophy with authoritarian government. Henri Lefebvre’s comment early in The Production of Space is but one example: “According to Hegelianism, historical time gives birth to that space which the state occupies and rules over.”¹ Having removed Hegel from serious consideration as a theorist interesting to the avant-garde, Lefebvre, like others, proceeds to engage a variety of Hegelian concerns. However, as valid or heartfelt as such denunciations may be, they also seem to provide a cover for theorists to pursue the details of Hegel’s thinking without suffering the consequences of his...

  14. 10 Benjamin’s Mythic Architecture
    (pp. 261-294)

    Walter Benjamin’s physiognomy of modern industrial cities builds on the architectonic model of correspondences between buildings and humans. It intensifies the Renaissance’s particular emphasis on the facade as parallel to the face, while allowing for many more differentiations in appearance and function than classical architectonics, which always presumed the existence of a single ideal type. Kant, Goethe, and Descartes also presumed a correspondence between buildings and human character, but they began to break it down into varieties. Benjamin organized buildings into many industrial types, of which the arcade was but one, particularly representative, case. Classical theory, as the Enlightenment critics...

  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 295-310)
  16. Index
    (pp. 311-316)