At home in the world: Architecture, the public, and the writings of Hannah Arendt

  • Hans Teerds TU Delft, Architecture and the Built Environment


Although the German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt never addressed architecture specifically, her writings very well can help us to rethink architecture as a spatial, cultural and political phenomenon and practice. Arendt’s work after all is remarkable spatial: behind all of her writings is a particular concern about the ‘world and its inhabitants’ tangible. Arendt once used this phrase to describe the writings of her teacher, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers. His writings were spatial, she stated, not because they were bound to a particular space, but since they always were related ‘to the world and its inhabitants’. The same thus counts for Arendt’s writings, I argue. It is not bound to a particular situation, but it stresses ‘the world and its inhabitants.’ Arendt actually distinguishes the world from the ‘earth’. Whereas the latter refers to the natural globe, the world refers to the human and cultural intervention in that earth – and intervention that is needed, in order to make the earth fit for human life. Important in this distinction is that the world always is ‘in common’. Human life after all is living together with and amongst others. Arendt moreover stresses this world as permanent and durable (in opposite to the cycle of nature) – we have it in common not only with our contemporaries, but also with our predecessors and our successors. This world (and its inhabitants) therefore, for her was the ultimate aim of all political life: it is the world that not only literally brings us together, it also unites us together and conditions human and community life. This community life, in other words, is sustained by the permanence of the world.

This brief summary of one of the major premises behind Arendt’s philosophical reflections actually urges architecture as a practice and phenomenon that actively contributes to the establishment of this world-in-common. Architecture as a phenomenon contributes to the permanence, whereas architecture as a practice intervenes in that world-in-common. There cannot be one other profession that is so powerful present as architecture in this regard. Architecture designs and constructs the everyday environment of people, more extensively than any other intervention in the earth or addition to the world. This study, called At Home in the World, stresses the field and profession of architecture against this background by simultaneously investigating the perspective of Hannah Arendt as well as investigating the world, as it is designed and constructed through architectural interventions. It starts with the question of the public space, a central question, of course in relationship to the commonness of the world, as it also has been a central theme in architectural discourses for about three decades now. Sparks of it already are evoked more than a century ago, with the establishment of a ‘modern’ approach to the city, but it particularly got attention through the 1989 English translation of a seminal book from the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, the 1962 Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit. In this book he explains how in the 18th century the bourgeoisie in Europe established a third realm in-between the market on the one hand and the state on the other. He describes it as the emancipation of the public from the feudal system: this third sphere, the public sphere, was neither susceptible by the sphere of the government, nor by the sphere of the market. Both the state and the market had to relate to the public sphere in this new situation – it had to deal with the public opinion. Ideally, of course, since in the book he also describes the fall of this sphere in the 19th and 20th century, since it lost its independency. However, the core of the public sphere was, according to Habermas, people gathering together in cafés, coffeehouses, salons, discussing actualities, as they were made accessible by new media: the newspaper, that had the capacity to inform a large part of the public with the same information. These discussions, the reflections of the participants in the debates, their opinions somehow converge (on the meta-scale) to the public opinion, to which the other spheres had to relate. This thus is the image of the public sphere: a sphere of conversations, debates, exchange of opinions, that, taken together, have power against the market and the state. But Habermas’s book was not simply celebrating this third sphere of power, it recognizes its decline throughout modernity. The public sphere was lost (or at least in a very poor condition) – the market had taken over.

The translation of Habermas’s perspective, and particularly the description of the diminishing power of the public sphere, in English, and the publication particularly in America, somehow evoked a fierce debate amongst political theorists, a discussion that also came to the table of architectural and urban theorists. What Habermas described somehow was visible in the American cities and the countryside, where new urban and suburban artefacts, like the gated community and the shopping mall, were characterized by exclusive rather than inclusive (public) spaces. The suburbanized landscape, as well as the contemporary city had become strongly segregated, which makes it hard to imagine a well-functioning public space, where people of all different backgrounds together take part in public life, conversations, and exchange of ideas. This of course is not only the situation in America, it can be touched upon around the globe, even in much sharper tones. In America, however, the loss of public spaces found its theoretical imperative in the hypothesis of Habermas.

The first part of this study maps the contemporary suburban landscape (Chapter 2) and city (Chapter 3), parallel with a reading of the discourse in architectural and urban theory of the last three decades. The discourse is rather pessimistic: the public sphere has become a ‘phantom’, public space is ‘dead’. The landscape and the city after all can be described as a world that falls apart in enclaves, worlds on its own. Even in the city, where diversity is sought and celebrated, processes of gentrification disturb the ideal image behind truly public spaces, spaces that are used by all, give room to exchange of ideas and perspectives. Such spaces after all are hardly imaginable in a segregated spatial organization as the contemporary situation. It thus is clear how ‘spatial organization’ contributes to (or has a negative effect on) the possibility of public life that needs to support the public sphere. The architectural debate on public space, as well as the philosophical debate on the public sphere seems to be stuck in this negative scope.

The second part of this study therefore investigates the other origin source of this debate on public space, a source that only in limited ways has entered the discourse on the city and architecture: Hannah Arendt (I extensively introduce her in by an intellectual biography in Chapter 4). Arendt, in her 1958 book The Human Condition introduces the idea of a public realm, a term that often is taken as synonymous to Habermas’s term ‘the public sphere’. Her reference, however, is not the early stages of modernity, but the establishing of the Greek and Roman

Polis, and their organization of its political life. Citizens of these city-states took part in public life through action and speech, Arendt states. They appeared in public, in public space, actively: they participated in public discussions and joint their words, their contributions, with actions. For Arendt this is an important figure. In The Human Condition, Arendt actually distinguishes between three human activities on earth: labor, work and action. The latter thus is bound to the public realm, it is the essential aspect of political life, and bound to the multitude and plurality of citizens of the city state. If any citizens was rendered the same, no action nor speech would be needed. The first two activities deal with the earth and the world, the notions we touched upon already previously: labor deals with the temporal and survival, the cycle of nature, while work creates the world that has a certain permanence, and therefore is able to house the human community on earth. The interesting perspective here is that this notion of the world is required before action is possible. In other words: there needs to be a permanent world that enables political life. Action and speech, Arendt argues, creates a web of human affairs that is sustained and supported by the permanence of the world. Participation in political life only makes, if this web of human affaires somehow is reified in the world. Yet, this political life is not simply only possible in and through the world, it vice-versa also has this world (and its inhabitants) as its objective. What unfolds here is discussed in Chapter 5, 6 and 7, in which I discuss Arendt’s reflections upon action, the world, and political life and bring them to the current architectural discourses.

Chapter 5 discusses Arendt’s notions of action and the public realm, particularly by emphasizing an important difference with Habermas’s reading of the public sphere. For Habermas, the public sphere is characterized by inter-action, whereas Arendt’s public realm is characterized by action. Arendt’s notion of action certainly incorporates inter-action (speech, in Arendt’s terms), but only insofar it contributes to and supports action. Speech is needed in order to explain action, in order to gain support and response. The argument that is unfolded here states that inter-action easily can become virtual and intangible (as in the columns of newspaper, the forums on internet) without any connection to the tangible. Action, on the contrary, needs bodies and spaces, needs others, a public that sees (and hears) and responds. It, in other words, stays real, needs real spaces. This argument, which thus offers a perspective upon the importance of reality and real spaces regarding Arendt’s notion, even more is underpinned by another description Arendt offers of the public realm: it is the ‘space of appearance’. Through this notion Arendt once again introduces a spatial perspective: we appear in public, amongst peers, through action (and speech). I qualify this ‘appearance’ as moment and movement: it is situated in space and time. It is a moment of revelation (Arendt argues that everyone acts differently, and that only through action the actor is disclosed, and thus fundamental plurality of men is revealed) of plurality as the very condition of the public realm. This of course, confronted with the reality of the contemporary city and suburb, is a critical perspective. In the enclave world, plurality is at stake. Arendt’s notion however is hopeful here as well: her description of plurality is not so much differences between groups of people, but stresses the unique-ness of individuals. That means that even within the enclave, that seems to be inhabited by a homogenous group, there is a fundamental plurality. Therefore, even in the mall or the gated community, there is at least a tiny potentiality of appearance to one another. Plurality, however for Arendt is important, since only through plural views (from different positions) upon the world, the reality of the world is revealed. Without touching upon others, the human being is stuck in his own perspective, which not simply is superfluous and virtual, but also limited and compelling. The space of appearance therefore also requires movement: to appear in public is to step out. It is to appear in a particular space from somewhere else. At this point, it is clear that Arendt has a strong distinction between the public and the private in mind: a life lived in public will lose its depth, while a life lived deprived from public appearance will never be fully human, she even states. It is, as previously seen, stuck in the private perspectives, and loses contact with the reality of the world. For Arendt, going back and forth between the public and the private, the public to participate in the world, and to the private, to recuperate in order to participate again, is important. This going back and forth, I argue, is an important movement, to which architecture, as the very profession that creates differences in the world, contributes extensively (or disturbs it extensively). Architecture creates spaces to appear, but it does not create ‘spaces of appearance’ per se. They after all are bound to the gathering of people, not to a particular architectural place. The nevertheless require space. What architecture does through its intervention in the world, therefore, is to contribute to or to disturb the potentialities of a space to become a space of appearance.

Chapter 6 then takes up Arendt’s notion of ‘work’, and discusses the significance to understand architecture as part of Arendt’s notion of work, as being distinguished from labor. The debate on public space takes here an ontological turn. Since work creates the world-in-common, it is a pre-requisite for political life. Work creates a durable world, that connects the now with the past and the future. It does not make sense to participate in public and to be engaged in a web of human affairs, if it is not sustained by a world that does not change overnight. Political life thus requires the world and its permanence as its stage. Arendt introduces the art-work as the human product that exemplifies this perspective, since the work of art is an end in itself, and therefore cannot be spoiled through consumptive processes (which is the case with all other objects produced, which together from this world). This chapter however particularly argues in what way ‘architecture’ contributes to the world. If permanence is reified in everyday structures, then it is through architecture. I take Arendt’s understanding of the arts in order to see how this also is applicable to architecture. Art, after all, is understood by Arendt as not only the most permanent of all things on earth, it also contributes to our understanding of the reality of the world. Art, after all, transforms matter in order to challenge spectators to look differently, to open their eyes and senses, to step aside and to take other perspectives. In other words, it ‘thickens’ our understanding of the reality of the world by opening up different perspective and offering particular experiences. These perspectives are a challenge to architecture too. Art, after all, often is hidden in particular art-spaces, while architecture is the context of our everyday life. Architecture therefore mostly is experienced in a distracted manner (contrary to art, to which one need to decide to go). It nevertheless is not neutral how this everyday environment is designed: unconsciously it offers views upon and experiences of the ‘world and its inhabitants’.

This chapter therefore argues that no distinction should be made between mere building on the one hand, and architecture on the other. Here I refer to a well-known distinction that sometimes explicit and sometimes implicitly is made within architectural discourses. The world is full of (mere) building, and architecture only is understood as the surplus of these structures. Those buildings that make a change, are technologically innovative or aesthetically attractive. Most constructions today however seem to be simply the results of economic rules and construction efficiency, while only the striking and remarkable buildings are understood through a cultural perspective. The argument in this chapter is, however, that since all constructions intervene in the world, and therefore create a world-in-between the inhabitants of the world. Mere building and architecture, in this perspective, fundamentally are the same. No building therefore should be only the outcome of simple economic maths or private profit – each construction is politically charged. Architecture (like mere building) intervenes in the world-incommon, erect structures that will shape the world, not only now and tomorrow, but permanently. Architecture treats the world as we inherit it, it treats the past and transforms it in the world that will offer space for the needs of tomorrow and cater the space of appearance today. This therefore urges the designer to think beyond the actual intervention, program, ambitions, and understands each construction and intervention in the light of culture and community – or in other words, in the perspective of the establishment and maintenance of the world-in-common.

This brings us to the 7th Chapter, that takes up the question of design. If every assignment is politically charged and challenged by a public perspective, how can we reflect upon architecture as a profession? This perspective of course first is an ethical question. The work of architects does not shape a single building; it shapes the world that we have in common. Building never is only in the interest of a singular client. It after all impacts all of us. This chapter therefore introduces architecture as simultaneously work and action. Architecture reifies, which is the work-part. It however also actively creates spaces, new conditions, takes initiatives for change, which is the action-part. Work and action, however, needs to be supported by reflection, I argue. Reflection upon ‘what-he-is-doing’ distinguishes the craftsman from the amateur and profiteer. This notion brings us to another distinction Arendt offers, particularly in her latter writings: between thinking, willing and judging. This chapter finalizes than by offering the notion of judgment as model for design itself. Arendt’s notion of judgment strongly relates to the public. Judging, for Arendt, is to be able to think from different positions, not in order to come to the average, but to take knowledgeable decisions that are communicable to the public. It involves the public, but not to come to a singular public opinion, but in order to come to a judgment that is explicable to the the public. This perspective thus not simply urges ‘building’ as always affecting the world, but also stresses ‘designing’ these buildings as a public enterprise. It offers a perspective through which the very activity of design can be understood in the light of the world and its inhabitants.

Arendt’s ideas, since she does not explicitly address architecture, cannot be used 1:1 within the profession of architecture. There is a significant gap between reflections of the philosopher and their active use in architectural design. This study somehow bridges that gap, by investigating Arendt’s writings and consciously bringing them to the profession of architecture as well as the discourses on architecture and the city. This of course urges an important methodical issue, that also Arendt once challenged. In a reflection upon the writings of German philosopher and literature critic Walter Benjamin, who she met during her flight from Germany, via Paris, to America, prior to World War II, she describes his work as ‘pearl-diving’, or as a fragmented historiography. What Benjamin did was diving into the past, in order to bring valuable findings, pearls, from there to here, from then to now. But in this transition, the context of the findings is destroyed – they are brought to a new context. The pearls are taken from their natural habitat towards an artificial one. It nevertheless is significant to do, Arendt stated. Modernity already had cut this line with tradition, she states. The historical context already is destroyed – unreachable for our contemporary perspectives. Nevertheless, this perspective does not dismiss the past. Not at all, Arendt argues: the past still frames our experiences today. We need these pearls from the past, in order to understand today. A similar perspective also counts for this study: taking fragments from Arendt’s writings towards the field of architecture means somehow to dive for pearls and to bring them to another context. By doing so, it never can fully describe and revive the original context. But by carefully taking them out of their place in the writings of Arendt, and placing it in the discourses on architecture and the city, new perspectives, new horizons, and new connections are established. Particularly her focus on ‘the world and its inhabitants’ offers a new understanding of architectural constructions and interventions, and even challenges architectural design and craftsmanship. It offers not simply new perspectives, but it also renews insights that were long forgotten or lived a hided life. It challenges the significance of all aspects of architecture as it is related to the public.

Chapter 8 then finalizes by bringing a few of these lessons learned to the fore. It urges the significance of architecture, not only as a profession taking care of the ‘beautification’ of buildings, but as a profession that has responsibility over the world-in-common. It urges architecture politically, since it forms literally the experience of this world, even if it is an unconscious experience. Architecture enables (or disturbs) the experience of the world as it also can be the stage of public life. It intervenes in the world in order to make differences – differences that can create moments and movements that contribute to the potentiality of a ‘space of appearance’. In other words, how these interventions are designed is significant. It cannot be left to the drawing boards of architects, nor to the maths of developers. It need to get words and images that enables the discussions amongst architects, their clients, but also publicly in society. Architecture needs to have the public interest always in its scope, it after all maintains and establishes the world-in-common, and thus needs to think from the perspective of the ‘world and its inhabitants’.

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