What is architecture? Whenever attempting to give a definition of material things and their sciences, I often discover there is an inevitable feeling that one has participated in a sort of reductio ad essentia, that in trying to get at the essence of a thing I have accepted the skeleton at the expense of the flesh and blood. This uneasiness stems from my struggle with the apparent contradiction between two Aristotelian beliefs: 1) that we truly know a thing when we have defined its essence; 2) that metaphor, which lies between the unknowable and the commonplace, most produces knowledge. Unless, of course, there is a resolution to be found within the tension by positing that even the definition is itself metaphorical, meaning literally that it carries meaning beyond itself. As St. Thomas has shown, such human knowledge can only ever be analogical, for we can never truly exhaustively know a thing’s essence, can never know a thing as it is known by God. And so if the above is true, the reductionism is only apparent rather than actual upon further consideration. For it seems to me that “definitions”, while in one sense a sort of parametric or bracket, always indicate “this and something more” when belonging to the realm of material or composite objects and/or the study thereof. In a modern, post-Cartesian world, though, “definitions” are confusedly connoted as “delimitations” because material objects and their sciences have been reduced to modern mathematical objects and their sciences– as nothing more than mere extension and duration in space and time and the study thereof. Delimitations precisely “delimit” something as “this and nothing more”. And so, to put it in another way, ”definitions” are both markers and pointers, meaning that they are “symbols” which transcend rather than “signs” which delimit. Likewise, since they are marking points of entry, and indicating points of departure, this is also to say that definitions, and thus symbols, are “thresholds”. These ideas will prove important for later development.
To begin, then, by giving our point of entry and our point of departure, architecture is the objectification of space, and since this space is the space of our world, this is to say that architecture is a recapitulation of our world in a highly compressed, idealized, and formal way. Thus every architectural composition restates basic spatial boundaries found between gravity-bound man and his surrounding world: the ground, the sky, the horizon, and the threshold (symbolizing and/or framing actual passage from one space or world to another). In buildings, these four elements generally constitute the floor (base), ceiling or cornice (top), wall (middle), and door/window, though they are not limited to buildings per se (see monuments, obelisks, totems, etc). In short, they are all “orienting” features– confirming, reinforcing, and framing man in his basic human orientations in the world, thereby making him truly at home in the world as well as in his own skin. In so doing, they are directing and ordering him towards the flourishing proper to his nature. Thus premised, architecture becomes “something more”, namely the art whereby man manifests, orients, and transforms his relationships with other men, creation, and God through the built world.
Architecture is a distinctly human phenomenon, we do not (or should not!) build as if we were some other creature of different shape, size, or proportion. Pursuant to this point, space is not a mere abstract concept, rather it is something that is conditionally perceived and experienced via our human faculties based in our finite human condition. Two points will follow.