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On the Ruins of Babel

Architectural Metaphor in German Thought

Daniel Purdy

Publication Year: 2011

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.

Published by: Cornell University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 1-6


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pp. vii-8

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pp. ix-x

My apprenticeship in architecture has taken a decade. Many have helped me along the way. Professor Ulrich Schütte at the University of Marburg was a generous guide. I would like to thank Professor Fritz Neumeyer at the Technical University, Berlin for agreeing to sponsor my research. Generous funding came through a...

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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...

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1. The Decline of the Classical Orders

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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...

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2. Science or Art? Architecture’s Place within the Disciplines

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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...

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3. Architecture in Kant’s Thought: The Metaphor’s Genealogy

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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...

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4. How Much Architecture Is in Kant’s Architectonic of Pure Reason?

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pp. 107-145

Kant defi nes 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...

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5. The House of Memory: Architectural Technologies of the Self

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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...

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6. Goethe’s Architectural Epiphanies

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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...

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7. The Building in Bildung: Goethe, Palladio, and the Architectural Media

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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...

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8. Goethe and the Disappointing Site: Buildings That Do Not Live Up to Their Images

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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...

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9. Gothic Deconstruction: Hegel, Libeskind, and the Avant-Garde

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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...

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10. Benjamin’s Mythic Architecture

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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...


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pp. 295-310


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pp. 311-316

E-ISBN-13: 9780801460050
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801476761

Page Count: 328
Publication Year: 2011

Edition: 1