Jonathan Glancey Column

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I have 16 books on my shelves that quote or refer to Ludwig Wittgenstein, but their subject is architecture, not philosophy. I counted them the other day, not because I had nothing better to do, but because a colleague asked me why I thought some young designers and architects he had recently met felt the need to drop Ludwig's name when talking him through their work. Having re-read the relevant paragraphs of those 16 books, I found that none of them enhanced either our understanding of philosophy or of architecture.

The same quotes, available in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, are trotted out, dutifully in each tome, but without apparent relevance or meaning. So, what is this abstruse Austrian philosopher doing insinuated, so many times, between illustrations of contemporary buildings and paragraphs of impenetrable criticism, and why do some designers like to pull him into their presentations?

Wittgenstein designed and built a house, which you can still see today, that's why. It was for his sister, Margarethe, and is on the fringe of Vienna. Ever since Wittgenstein has been something of a cult among architects and designers, not least those who studied at Cambridge where he was professor of philosophy from 1939 to 1947. Wittgenstein's name is intended to add intellectual lustre to the process of designing and building, while his gnomic style can be invoked to cloak the simplest building in a veil of mystification.

Wittgenstein, however, is really the enemy of architects in search of abstruse philosophical underpinnings: "Philosophy" he wrote in Philosophical Investigations, "is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language." Despite being difficult to read, because he is thinking difficult thoughts, some of them contradictory, Wittgenstein's goal was clarity, not obfuscation.

If Wittgenstein is too lightweight, architects turn to that angst-ridden obscurantist Martin Heidegger, an unattractive beast who kow-towed to Hitler in his quest to climb the social and academic ladder of Nazi Germany. His writings are prolix and possibly only make sense in German (which is fair enough).

He did, however, write an essay on "building" and has thus been annexed by architects. In fact, Heidegger wasn't really talking about bricks and mortar, but nevertheless the word "building", his name, and the opaqueness of his ideas, have been prompts for architects to annexe him.

While on the subject of bricks and mortar, Wittgenstein was certainly no role model for young architects wishing to succeed in their chosen profession. It took a whole year for Ludwig to design radiators to his satisfaction for the house for his sister. During its construction, he insisted on the demolition of a freshly plastered ceiling, so that it could be raised 3cm to satisfy his sense of proportion. The engineer from the eighth firm of contractors attempting to construct windows to Ludwig's design became, understandably, hysterical: Wittgenstein worked to a maximum tolerance of 1mm.

Architects should relax, enjoy the house that Wittgenstein built, but let go of his writings if they want to use them purely as intellectual decoration; after all, the best buildings by the best architects demonstrate a purity of thought and beauty of construction that philosophers can only dream of. The best reduce us to silence and philosophy will not explain why we are so moved by them. And if, after this, I dare to quote Wittgenstein, he was the first to remind us (in Tractacus Logico-Philosophicus) that "what can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent"