Reflecting on Russell: Embracing Doubt in Architecture

Russell_Zumthor
Bertrand Russell b. 1872; Brother Klaus Field Chapel, Wachendorf 2007; Kolumba Art Museum, Cologne, 2007 (both buildings by Atelier Peter Zumthor).

When presenting his position on the value of scepticism, the Rationalist Bertrand Russell invoked the teachings of Pyrrho, who “maintained that we never know enough to be sure that one course of action is wiser than another”1.

This text endorses that position, and suggests that as architects we ought to consider embracing a similar scepticism, recognising that in spite of what we may like to think, we can’t know whether any given architectural proposition is any more valid than another. Or, put another way, we can’t ever really be right.

Perhaps it’s because of the duration of our education and our formative years in training, or perhaps there’s some less tangible factor related to confidence or ego, but we do seem often to be inclined to present our thoughts as definitive. Maybe it’s because of a tendency to believe that we have to be confident and rigorous in explaining and defending our proposals – whether to reassure concerned clients; persuade suspicious planners; or resist aggressive contractors.  Too often however, architects appear to be comfortable asserting that their position is decidedly correct.  Furthermore, by implication, that assertion requires that any alternative position(s) must be wrong.

This seems to be intellectually (and architecturally) untenable.

In a series of essays composed in the 1920s, Russell explains with grace and rigour the absurdity of any, and every, doctrine – which by positing its ‘rightness’ depends on the assertion that the many alternative or competing doctrines (all of which will have many followers) must be, in simple terms, wrong.

Russell understood that from a place of rational critique, that doctrine becomes fundamentally, hopelessly weak.

If ten architects are invited to offer a response to the same problem, the result will be ten different proposals. There may be similarities which will arise from the detail of the brief, interpretation of statutory requirements, and, to some extent, adherence to the prevailing architectural style(s) of the day; but the intellectual origin of each scheme will be unique, having been born within the personal critical agenda of its architect.2

Russell would lead us to conclude that they can’t all be right, and must be, in fact, wrong.

In this context each architect ought to have the restraint and humility to understand that their idea is just one possible solution, and that, in principle, it’s no more valid than the other nine:

“No man can achieve the greatness of which he is capable until he has allowed himself to see his own littleness.”3

 On the 13th of October 2016, Peter Zumthor delivered the Metzstein Discourse in Edinburgh for the Royal Scottish Academy.  A book was published in coordination with that event, in which several RSA Academicians celebrated his work.  A conversation between Peter Zumthor and Charlie Sutherland discussed some of Zumthor’s ideas, and the themes that have recurred through his work.  Zumthor noted:

“…I don’t want to be innovative. This was modernism when I went to school – the big goal to be innovative – but now I’m a bit old so this is not the idea. The thing is to give a good answer, to give a right answer. Basically I want to feel good in a space.”4

Note the use (twice) of the indefinite article; “the thing is to give a good answer, to give a right answer”.  Peter Zumthor is arguably entitled to speak of these things definitively and with absolute certainty, perhaps more than any other living architect, but he chose not to.  That demonstrates the kind of sensitivity and humility that I’ve attempted to commend here, that I think we should all aspire to.

 

Notes

  1. Bertrand Russell (1928). From ‘Sceptical Essays’, current edition published 2004. Routledge, Abingdon.
  2. A while after writing this text I read the following: “Whereas there may be one or few right answers (in the sense of most efficient or functional) answer(s) to an engineering programme… there will always be more than one possible answer to an architectural problem”.  This seemed to reinforce (in an architectural theory context) the essence of the position that I had absorbed from Russell.  For further reading on this point refer to: Christian Illies and Nicholas Ray (2014). From ‘Philosophy of Architecture’, pg. 13.  Cambridge Architectural Press, Cambridge.
  3. Bertrand Russell (1928). From ‘Sceptical Essays’, current edition published 2004. Routledge, Abingdon.
  4. Peter Zumthor (2016). From ‘Peter Zumthor’, published in coordination with the RSA Metzstein Discourse 2016. Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh.

5 thoughts on “Reflecting on Russell: Embracing Doubt in Architecture”

  1. Thank you for recommending this to me! I really enjoyed it! The idea of humility but also showing others your confident in your ideas is something I feel comes up a lot and people have a hard time striking that right balance!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I once read that the difference between languages isn’t what can be said in using one or the other, but in what can be said EASILY. Because of the need to express subtleties about types of snow, Native people in Alaska had many words for snow, whereas in English we have just the one, then need to modify it with adjectives. When many points of view come into play, or ten different architectural plans, it isn’t that one is better, it’s that one may or another may better fit a particular need. The winner isn’t better overall (or once and for all) it’s just the right choice right now. Things change, as you point out. Keeping an open mind and realizing the variables are miraculous and ever changing keeps us both nimble and humble. Thanks for the post. I enjoy your blog.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. “Sensitivity” and “Humility” are gifts rarely demonstrated in the work of some at times, and the idea of aspiring to covet these precious gifts that they may be visible in our work is commendable. I thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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