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Values in architecture

About one and a half years ago, an architectural article was published in the German weekly Die Zeit defending the house of Christian Wulff in Großburgwedel against its critics. It posited a link between problems of taste and communal values. “Residents of a town or village are part of a value community – not just economically, but also in terms of culture and architecture. The question is: what exactly are these values? And how can we agree on them?” What are we talking about when we speak of values? And how do values find their way into architecture? An article by the architectural theorist Professor Achim Hahn.

Dr Achim Hahn has been professor for architectural theory and architectural criticism at the Faculty of Architecture at the Dresden University of Technology since 2001. Between 1996 and 2001 he taught at the Anhalt University of Applied Sciences as professor of sociology. He is the publisher of the journal “Ausdruck und Gebrauch. Dresdner wissenschaftliche Hefte für Architektur Wohnen Umwelt” (Expression and Use. Dresden Scientific Papers on Architecture, Living and the Environment). Hahn’s studies include the methodology of the empirical sciences (“example hermeneutics”), urban landscapes (“Zwischenstadt”), the philosophy of living and aesthetics and ethics in architecture. Achim Hahn has published the books “Architekturtheorie. Wohnen, Entwerfen, Bauen” (Architectural Theory. Living, Designing, Constructing) (Vienna 2008), “Raum und Erleben. Über Leiblichkeit, Gefühle und Atmosphären in der Architektur” (Space and Experience. On Corporeity, Feelings and Atmospheres in Architecture) (Aachen 2012) and “Erlebnislandschaft – Erlebnis Landschaft? – Atmosphären im architektonischen Entwurf” (The Landscape Experience – Landscape Adventures – Environments in Architectural Design” (Bielefeld 2012).

A look at the history of use of the word value illustrates that it can refer to both things and people. From very early on, value described the price of something. The association of value with worth, appreciation and importance is just as old. Finally, the word also came to mean the quality of something. So we see that value refers to both material and immaterial things – whilst a distinction must also be drawn between its economic and moral or philosophical ascription. Sociology is in a realm between them. Its use of the term value is normally associated with standard. Standards are broadly binding regulations of action guided by moral concepts that are considered socially desirable and whose observance is governed by society. The ethics of value also deals with standards and values. Fundamentally different modes of scientific thought can even be brought to bear on a subject as general as values in architecture when we consider, for example, the economics of construction or restoration. Architectural theory, however – insofar as it seeks the Place of architecture in the life of man (Sitz der Architektur im Leben der Menschen; compare Achim Hahn: Architekturtheorie (Architectural Theory). Vienna 2008) – broadly identifies and describes modes of behaviour in which value relationships and fundamental attitudes are important. The assignment of values – whether to things or properties – is always carried out by people.

Architecture in the service of the human existence
Architecture can be assigned a value insofar as a use and quality has been found for it. Value here refers less to the worth of a building (as in architectural criticism) than to actual practical quality, suitability and usefulness (such as the long-term value). From the perspective of use, a significant difference is evident: as an “experienced value” architecture is a different object to a car. Because the activity of driving is different from life at home. I do not have to (be able to) drive the car myself to profit from the benefits of a trip by car, to appreciate them. But I cannot delegate living or have someone take my place. Once I am in this world I have to go somewhere. Nobody can just disappear into thin air. Living is to stay in a specific place for a certain amount of time. Nobody can live for me, I have to do it myself. Architecture that serves to give people a “good” place to live on earth, and which is used for this reason, is neither a tool nor a work of art. Architecture is a provision insofar as it has been, and will continue to be, created by people to make the world habitable. This asserts a kind of anthropologic prescience of the value of architecture, insofar as it serves the here and now of humans. In the field of architectural experience, values manifest themselves as the feelings of an experience and subsequently are expressed and shared as conscious value experiences. Value expectations and value experiences exist because, when our senses come into contact with architecture, we also feel our mental state that makes up a design space in which both the sentient person and the experienced object quality (e.g. the feeling of security) are contemporary and physically present. By experiencing architecture, I feel impressions associated with joy or aversion. The primary distinction here is between pleasant and unpleasant, namely something that contains a positive or negative value.

Sensual and theoretical value judgements
If we have established a relationship between the processes of perception and value statements, then we have assumed a practical value judgement. However, to distinguish professional values from practical ones, reference must be made to the distinction between sensual and theoretical value judgements. Interestingly, the latter concerns the field of aesthetics – which cannot be separated from (value) ethics. The Polish philosopher Roman Ingarden (1893 – 1970) spoke of “aesthetic values” in various publications. He pointed out that “valuing” a perceived object does not result in theoretical judgement (compare Roman Ingarden: Erlebnis, Kunstwerk und Wert (Experience, art and value). Tübingen 1969). Instead it is part and the product of the aesthetic experience. To understand this, a distinction has to be drawn in our understanding of aesthetics. The common term aesthetics is derived from the Greek word aisthesis which means sensual perception and the total human capacity for perception. Only with the emergence of the scientific discipline of aesthetics (art theory) was a new sense established, according to which aesthetic themes are forms of perception and production that relate to objects – primarily from the area of art – valued as being “beautiful”. According to this logic, the goal of aesthetic perception is to put forward a methodically acquired, substantiated value judgement. In contrast, access to the “aisthetic” concerns experiencing objects, e.g. architecture, without one’s perception leading to a strict artistic value judgement. So what do we now have with “aesthetic value”?

Value experience and value judgement
In short, it can certainly be claimed that values can be found in architecture, as dice can be found in a box. Only in the “encounter” with architecture do we humans realise a value. Humans themselves are existentially (physically) bound to the events of an encounter. Every encounter requires contemporaneity and physical presence. Ingarden suggested distinguishing between an aesthetic judgement and an aesthetic experience. In both cases there are value responses. Cognition (judgements), practice (living) and experience (perception) each have their own objects – even if it concerns one and the same building. Of course, human perception also plays a role, but perception is not the same as perceiving. Why? The perceiver themself is physically involved in the act of perception, insofar as they want to understand or orientate themselves in the here and now. Every perception situation is set within the context of a life and also comprises focused attention, expectations, a horizon of understanding and background of experience, etc. Man is not a blank canvas when he perceives something. Perception is instead a creative and emotional act. Assigning a value of good/bad or pleasant/unpleasant to what the senses encounter does not, according to Ingarden, result in judging as a logical statement, “instead it only culminates in it – it is shaped and summarised conceptually by it.” Every time you place a value on something, therefore, you relate back to a value experience. In (experienced) value there is a physical emotional reaction, an experiential value response

A feeling of value and value expectations
An “aesthetic” consideration of architecture from a neutral standpoint seeks value in it, even if there is no intention of using it. But this kind of methodised assessment of value does not relate back to a value gained from the experience of use. Instead it has to be justified scientifically by drawing comparisons between other modern or historic buildings judged aesthetically. The goal here is a cognitive value judgement, in which a feeling of value is no longer at all evident. That we can distinguish between the good and bad as well as between what is suitable and unsuitable for us – and that we are not indifferent to this distinction – is the fundamental basis of the morality of our value practice. Were we not sure about wanting to lead a good life, then we would not be able to understand the inclination towards the pleasant and away from the unpleasant in architecture. Humans endeavour to lead successful lives in and outside the home. And in our experiences with architecture we have corresponding value expectations of buildings, which are either met or disappointed. From the perspective of architectural theory, cognitive value judgements cannot be put before simple experience, i.e. what you physically feel. Simple experience has the advantage of not being prejudiced by assumptions and excesses of art theory.