Architectural designs are often influenced by formal power relations, "biopower" as philosopher Michel Foucault says. But an architect who wants to reach beauty must reject rules and cultivate “nimbleness”, says architecture philosopher Karan August in her thesis.

In "Building Beauty: Kantian Aesthetics in a Time of Dark Ecology" beauty is the central theme. That is, the concept of “beauty” as philosopher Immanuel Kant describes it. Humanity thoroughly spoiled its environment and there is little prospect of significant improvements in the foreseeable future. And yet, says Kant, we must strive for beauty, because it is basic to our style of being. This starting point August applies to architecture and public space. "My plea is not intended pragmatic: beautiful buildings do not lead to a better world. But still we must act with care, because therein lies the core of our existence." Briefly said: the beauty of architecture can contribute to the wellbeing of the individual. Kant explains how.

August came into contact with Kants philosophy while studying philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. After her studies she moved to New Zealand and took up an apprenticeship in gardening. But soon she ascertained that designing spaces has greater impact than maintaining. That’s why she returned to the academic world and started her PhD research in architectural theory.

In Delft, she studied the work of the French philosopher Michel Foucault. He notes from studying human history that man is held in a harness, kept under control by rules imposed by the state, but also by modern science and technology. What can we do about that? The German philosopher Kant states that we must throw off our shackles and reject "false tutelage”, by cultivation of the self. We can do that by rejecting false knowledge and approach the world in a fresh way, not from predetermined concepts or restrictions.

Architects in that way can develop their own “nimbleness” or, as August describes it, "their aesthetic sensitivity to physical materiality”. Obviously a condition is that architects must get the opportunity to implement their ideas. And that is by far not always the case. As an example of bad architecture, determined by “biopower”, August mentions London's Tate Modern ("great design, but destroyed by a committee that cut out all beauty by manifesting hierarchical power relations."). Example of a building that opens up sublime horizons is for her the Tadao Ando’s museum Chichu (Naoshima, Japan). An architect who is able to design such a building creates a beauty that is rooted within a primordial relationship which people may or may not have the care to recognize, says August. "This can afford the user of the building to cultivate nimbleness. Space can thus motivate a positive feedback."

Published: November 2013