A Space of Time
José Manuel dos Santos and António Soares

The word ‘architecture’ is used in English, but speaks ancient Greek (and later learned Latin), since it is there that it finds the origins and foundations of the two terms that compose it etymologically: arkhé (chief, master) and tékhton (construction, builder, worker). In this way, we can conclude that in the word ‘architecture’ there is the sense of directing workers (many today would say: lead) and that the architect is the one who directs (leads) them.


Church of the Redeemer in Venice, designed by Andrea Palladio, 1592
© Photo: Scala, Florence

Therefore, in this word that crossed and shaped epochs and spaces there is an idea of art and production. Or an art of producing (Plato and Aristotle), through a technique and a process that realises it. It also presupposes a knowledge and an order that are immanent to the action that produces it. Therefore, in architecture, the intelligible precedes the sensitive and theory collaborates with practice, establishing its hierarchy over it: the execution (tékhton) obeys a command (arkhé) and a project.

Placing itself within a particular conception of cosmos (logos) and vision of the city (polis), practicing architecture was, for the Greeks, the same as practicing politics. But it also reflected a divine power (the divine that creates and produces worlds, beings, things, events, phenomena, harmonies, punishments, values) and confirmed – conformed – the relationship between man and the gods. The idea of a ‘great architect of the Universe’, still alive today, or at least still present in certain initiation practices, is linked to the idea of the architect as a demiurge.

Inspired by Greek culture, whose body and gaze matched her own, Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen said:

I know it would be possible to build the fair form
Of a human city that was
Faithful to the perfection of the universe
So I endlessly start over from a blank page
Such is my job as a poet in rebuilding the world

Sophia also reminded us:

There is a beauty that is given to us: the beauty of the sea, lights, mountains, animals, movements and people. But there is also another beauty that man has the duty to create: beside the dark earth, man builds the white wall where light and sky are reflected. […] Based on the quality or degree of beauty of the work that we build we will know if we live with truth and dignity or not. Man’s work is always a mirror where consciousness recognises itself. […] The things we build must not destroy what already exists. Art is always the expression of a relationship between man and the world that surrounds him. Specifically, architecture is the expression of a fair relationship with landscape and the social world. Outside of these guidelines there is only bad architecture.

In Greek mythology, Dedalus is the discoverer and inventor of materials, forms, values and spaces. He is the architect who built the labyrinth where King Minos of Crete imprisoned the Minotaur, which was described by Ovid as ‘half-man, half-bull’. Later, his son Icarus flew alongside him to escape the labyrinth that his father had designed and built and where they were trapped after Theseus killed the monster.

Ignoring his father’s warnings, during the escape the son flew higher and higher, nearing the sun. The beeswax that connected and gave consistency to the feathers that formed his wings melted, causing the fugitive to fall into the sea, over which he daringly flew.

In personality psychology, Icarus lent his name to a complex. This great mythological moment, turned into a symbol of reckless human ambition, was depicted and interpreted by the Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel. His painting then became a seminal work that inspired poets, philosophers, musicians and filmmakers.

In the endlessly interesting research essay L’architecture dans la philosophie antique. Aproches pour une anthologie [Architecture in ancient philosophy: Approaches for an anthology], written by the philosopher, art critic and visual artist Anne Coquelin and the architect and philosopher Arnaud Sompairac, the Greek theoretical void regarding architecture is acknowledged and reflected on. This strange absence of Greek texts on architectural theory contrasts with a distinguished, powerful and varied practice of architecture, whose monuments, even if partially ruined, still represented unique references and great models for future centuries.

The authors give the following shrewd explanation for this reality:

To put it in a different way, if the strictly architectural discourse does not take place, its topics, goals and means are concealed in a world system for which architecture and urbanism are simple applications, exercises whose only need is the common representation that the citizens make of the system. Hence our proposal: the logos of Greek architecture is elsewhere, in the texts of a philosophical, cosmological, political, biological nature. In a different place from the one where we usually look for it in current practice.

It is from this observation, perhaps little noted, and this explanation, perhaps little considered, that Coquelin and Sompairac examine the origin and evolution of the theoretical discourse on architecture and the critical discourse about architecture.

The Greek word arkhitékton passed into the Roman language and became architectus. In the 1st century BC, the Roman architectus Marcus Vitruvius Pollius published his treatise Ten Books on Architecture, committing a great architectural thought to these pages and collecting knowledge to be passed on to the future. This monumental work of encyclopedic ambition took on a founding importance, since it was the only classic treatise that survived from Antiquity, guiding and inspiring, a few centuries later, the architects of the Renaissance. To this day, its presence in our hands is not anachronistic, useless, or unnecessary.

In it, the Roman architect lists the three classical principles of architecture, the so-called Vitruvian triad: utilitas (comfort and function), firmitas (solidity) and venustas (beauty).

Of this work we can say that it is a great architecture of words and images, opening up a river, which has never stopped flowing, for the discourse of architecture and on architecture.

Since then, this discourse has been endlessly practiced by great architects, in a dialogue with what they design, what others build, and what many think and write about what is built.

In the Renaissance, the architect Andrea Palladio, born in Padua, in the Most Serene Republic of Venice, complemented the amazing palaces, arches, bridges, villas, churches, and civil and religious monuments that he designed and built with a theoretical and literary work that left a mark in the history of architecture: Antiquity of Rome, Description of Churches in the City of Rome and, above all, The Four Books of Architecture. This canonic work joins Vitruvius’s treatise, on whose Italian edition of the time Palladio collaborated, as one of the most influential and well-known books in the history of architecture.

Of Andrea Palladio, of his work as an architect and writer on the subject of architecture, Goethe said in Italian Journey:

One ought to pass whole years in the contemplation of such a work. It seems to me that I have seen nothing grander, nothing more perfect, and I fancy that I am not mistaken. Only imagine the admirable artist, born with an inner feeling for the grand and the pleasing, now, for the first time, forming himself by the ancients, with incredible labour, that he may be the means of reviving them.[…]

How he thought and how he worked becomes more and more clear to me, the more I read his works, and reflect how he treated the ancients; for he says few words, but they are all important. The fourth book, which illustrates the antique temples, is a good introduction to a judicious examination of ancient remains.

(Trans. A. J. W. Morrison)

It has been common to find in architecture an image, a trope or a metaphor for the great constructions of thought and creation. We say: the narrative architecture of a novel, the architecture of a symphonic movement, the architecture of a scientific theorem, or now, the architecture of information, when we explore websites and apps. But to reflect on architecture and question the relationship between architecture and thought has been less common.

In book III of The World as Will and Representation, the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer turns a sharp and observant gaze on architecture, confronting the values of aesthetic intention and utilitarian end.

Always looking into the future, even when he seemed to be looking to the past, Friedrich Nietzsche stated, in Twilight of the Idols, that ‘architecture is a kind of eloquence of power conveyed through forms’. This statement can be understood in light of his doctrine on the will to power (or potency). And a few inferences could also be taken, for architecture, from the Nietzschean doctrine of perspectivism (ontological or vital perspectivism, as well as epistemological perspectivism, which concerns knowledge).

Ludwig Wittgenstein, the great philosopher of language, took his fascination with architecture to the point of thoroughly, obsessively and methodically designing a house that bears his name, in Vienna. This house became mythical and is used for research – and even speculation – on the tormented philosopher and his daring, complex, enigmatic, but deeply intuitive philosophy.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault studied architecture as a technology of power. He found in the organisation of space, the use of light and the architectural figure imagined in the 18th century by the English philosopher and jurist Jeremy Bentham – the panopticon system and device – a model for the institutions that surveil and produce subjectification in our modern societies of discipline and control.

On the other hand, post-modern architecture piqued the interest of contemporary philosophers, helping them understand the aesthetic and ethical, sociological and ecological devices of our contemporaneity. Moreover, today we cannot reflect on architecture without also reflecting on the endless, surprising and unpredictable scientific advances and technological developments, with their unexpected possibilities and myriad effects.

It is also impossible to properly understand 20th and 21th century architecture without knowing the theoretical productions of Adolf Loos, Walter Gropius and other masters of the Bauhaus, Bruno Zevi, Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Alvar Aalto, Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson, Lúcio Costa, Alberto Sartoris, Aldo Rossi, Robert Venturi, Oscar Niemeyer, Lina Bo Bardi, Kenneth Frampton, Christopher Alexander, Daniel Libeskind, Mark Wigley, Peter Eisenman, Vittorio Gregotti, Álvaro Siza Vieira, Frank Gehry, Herman Hertzberger, Bernard Tschumi, Peter Cook, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Souto Moura, Tadao Ando and Alejandro Aravena. But we also must read the voices that have criticised the architectural system, such as Georges Bataille, Guy Debord, Henri Lefebvre, Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu.

The German Ludger Schwarte, professor at the Kunstakademie of Düsseldorf, is the author of a book entitled Philosophy of Architecture where he proposes, alongside an aesthetical or symbolic philosophy, a political philosophy of architecture. In this original essay he examines the relationship between the architectural construction of the public space and its political uses, in a journey that begins in the Agora of Athens, passes through Rome, looks at length at the French Revolution and reaches our time. Considering public spaces as stages for collective action and theatres of both emancipatory and repressive movements, we arrive at the very centre of political, social and cultural history.

charlotte perriand

Charlotte Perriand and the B 306 chaise longue, designed in collaboration with Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, 1929 
© Photo: DeAgostini Picture Library / Scala, Florence / Biblioteca Marciana, Venice


mies van der rohe

Mies van der Rohe photographed by Fritz Schreiber, Ticino, 1933 © Fritz Schreiber



The Society of Beaux-Arts Architects costume ball at the Astor Hotel, New York, 1931: (from left to right) A. Stewart Walker as Fuller Building, Leonard Schultze as Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Ely Jacques as Squibb Building, William Van Alen as Chrysler Building, Ralph Walker as 1 Wall Street, D. E. Ward as Metropolitan Tower and Joseph H. Freelander as the Museum of the City of New York


For this reason, today thinking or talking about architecture is thinking and talking about power, knowledge, imagination, feeling, having, exchanging, building, destroying, selling and buying. It is talking about the past, present and future. It is talking about a practiced theory and a theorised practice, which do not stop inventing and reinventing themselves. Recently, Rem Koolhaas said:

‘We have abundant proof that we must change. That everything must change: language, procedures, priorities, aesthetics.’

We should pay attention to all this. Architecture (like urbanism and design) has been a theme or motif which runs throughout Electra. Since the beginning, our pages have featured the words and images of architects, historians, photographers and architecture critics. Among others, we have published works by Jack Self, André Tavares, Álvaro Siza Vieira, Michael Morris, Martino Tattara, Delfim Sardo, Daniel Malhão, Nuno Cera, Thomas Struth, Moisés Puente, Salvatore Settis, Pedro Levi Bismarck, Daniela Arnaut, Pedro Ignacio Alonso, Valerio Olgiati and Alireza Taghaboni.

In Electra 21, we continue talking about architecture, through an interview with the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, Pritzker Prize 2016, conducted by the architect and critic Ana Vaz Milheiro. In this conversation, Aravena talks about the relationship between architecture, nature, society and economy. We should remember that Aravena was the curator of the inspiring 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, with the topic ‘Reporting from the Front’. He called for works that dealt with segregation, inequality, periphery, sanitation problems, natural disasters, housing crises, migrations, crime, traffic, waste, pollution and community participation.

It was Karl Marx who, in Volume I of Capital, stated: ‘The spider conducts operations that resemble those of the weaver, and the bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.’

François Mitterrand, who in his role as French President became a great patron of architects and an active and happy ‘builder’ of large architectural buildings, gave the title The Bee and the Architect to one of his first books, turning this Marx quote into a manifesto of political philosophy. Many other experts from various fields adopted or commented on this statement, which became a leitmotiv or motto. And maybe this statement cannot be read in this time of recognition and appreciation for animal rights in the same way as it was read when the author of ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’ wrote it in the 19th century…

In any case, Karl Marx’s affirmative observation can and should serve as an invitation to inquire into architects’ minds. How does what goes on inside them emerge, building new realities? And how do their ideas and designs turn into modest or triumphant realities?

There is no doubt that architecture is a key topic, whose knowledge is essential if we want to know the world of different eras. It also evident that, in our time, architecture as a discipline, practice and system has reached an unprecedented and exponential importance, politically, culturally, artistically, economically, socially and ecologically.

In his oft-quoted essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Walter Benjamin stated:

Buildings have been man’s companions since primeval times. Many art forms have developed and perished. Tragedy begins with the Greeks, is extinguished with them, and after centuries its ‘rules’ only are revived. The epic poem, which had its origin in the youth of nations, expires in Europe at the end of the Renaissance. Panel painting is a creation of the Middle Ages, and nothing guarantees its uninterrupted existence. But the human need for shelter is lasting. Architecture has never been idle. Its history is more ancient than that of any other art, and its claim to being a living force has significance in every attempt to comprehend the relationship of the masses to art. Buildings are appropriated in a twofold manner: by use and by perception – or rather, by touch and sight. Such appropriation cannot be understood in terms of the attentive concentration of a tourist before a famous building. On the tactile side there is no counterpart to contemplation on the optical side. Tactile appropriation is accomplished not so much by attention as by habit. As regards architecture, habit determines to a large extent even optical reception. The latter, too, occurs much less through rapt attention than by noticing the object in incidental fashion. This mode of appropriation, developed with reference to architecture, in certain circumstances acquires canonical value. For the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at the turning points of history cannot be solved by optical means, that is, by contemplation, alone.

(Trans. Harry Zohn)

Bearing in mind Benjamin’s passage, so fruitful and varied in suggestions of critical thought, the idea that architecture was never useless is resumed (and reopened) in this edition of Electra, by the famous architect and curator Mark Wigley, in an original essay on idle architecture and the architecture of idleness. This text can be read in the dossier, dedicated to ‘Leisure and Idleness’.

Today it is evident that since the first half of the 20th century, the regimes of leisure and their relationship with the regimes of work, have gone through many changes. These economic, social and cultural transformations that have taken place and will continue to take place have deeply altered the nature of leisure, in its values, practices, modalities and meanings. Today, the times and spaces of leisure (and also of work) are very different from what they were in previous centuries.

This radical mutation institutes a new type of vision and administration of time, arising as one of the traits that help us draw the profile of ‘our great epoch’, as we have called the time we live in, borrowing Karl Kraus’s words and making his irony our own.

As one of our slogans says, Electra is ‘a magazine that is read and seen’. But it is also a magazine that reads and sees the world, and what makes and unmakes it.

It is often by ‘reading and seeing’ what is projected and built that we can extract an image from the world. This image governs the discourse that we project onto the world and build upon.

We could even defend that architecture is not only its theory and practice, since it is a cause and effect of many other things and a mobile mirror that reflects them. We associate a third notion with it and what it represents – themata (singular: thema). It was conceived and used by Gerald Holton, a North-American physicist, professor at Harvard University and historian of science, who is also a researcher with an in-depth knowledge of Albert Einstein’s work and archive.

Using this notion in architecture – and adjusting its meaning –, this word can refer to conceptions, references, methods, perceptions and terms that influence or condition the architects’ individual or collective activity. The themata can have a significant influence on the way we think, feel and act, establishing guidelines or defining polarisations that rule over the activity (research, creation, project, construction) developed by an architect or a community of architects, in a given time, place or environment.

Representing values and beliefs, generating attraction and aversion, promoting convictions and prejudices, whether aesthetic, technical, stylistic, artistic, sociological, political or religious, the themata are almost always unconscious or involuntary. They are almost never made explicit in architecture conferences, publications or exhibitions, but they influence and strongly condition the theoretical and practical activity of architecture, interfering both in the creation of one’s own theories and in the reaction (of acceptance or rejection) to other people’s proposals or solutions, whether conceptual or practical.

As João Barbosa, a researcher in philosophy of science, explains in his article about themata and paradigms, the themata are simultaneously intellectual and emotional, subjective and objective, serving as guides, orders, instructions, predispositions, preferences, beliefs, memories, attractions, prescriptions. They are persistent motifs, linking architecture to several disciplines, its past history and its present context and that of others.

As this researcher further mentions, the themata are prone to cycles of rise and fall, affirmation and concealment. They are present in several domains of knowledge and culture. They touch on Jung’s collective unconscious and Foucault’s episteme. They have a long life and a transversal, and even universal, vocation. They often work within a common cultural framework, whether alone, in dialectical pairs of antitheses (thema / antithema) – for instance, the fixed-mobile or dream-reality dyads – or in triads, such as greater-equal-less.

The same thema can be identified in disciplines as diverse as architecture, psychology, literature, sciences or visual arts. For example, symmetry is a recurring and essential topic in architecture, physics, mathematics and visual arts. Another example: harmony is fundamental in architecture, health, visual and decorative arts, music, psychology, religion and politics.

After the Romantic period, it is not possible to speak about architecture and the imaginary that corresponds to it without also speaking of the dream that ferments within it like wine. We just have to remember the oneiric and daring castles commissioned by King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Fernando Pessoa, who Eduardo Lourenço called ‘the King of our Bavaria’, asked in The Book of Disquiet this melodic and melancholic question: ‘And what divine substance constitutes the castles that are not of sand?’

Throughout the history of literature, many writers have turned architecture into one of the fundamental aspects of their works. In 2014, one of Cerisy’s well-known conferences was dedicated to ‘Architecture and Literature’.

There have been those who, with excessive voluntarism and exaggerated simplicity, have distinguished and classified writers into two categories: writers of space and writers of time. In any case, in the works of many 20th century writers architecture arises as a fundamental topos.

Among others, we could mention Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, Virginia Woolf, André Gide, Louis Aragon, Jorge Luis Borges, Julien Gracq, Marguerite Yourcenar, Georges Perec, Julio Cortázar, Italo Calvino, Michel Tournier, José Saramago, Yukio Mishima and Bret Easton Ellis.

Surprisingly, in one of the Six Memos for the Next Millennium Italo Calvino speaks about his literary work as an architect would speak about his architectural work, although using a different terminology:

My writing has always found itself facing two different paths that correspond to two different types of knowledge. One path goes to the mental space of bodiless rationality, where one may trace lines that converge, projections, abstract forms, vectors of force. The other path goes through a space crammed with objects and attempts to create a verbal equivalent of that space by filling the page with words, involving a most careful, painstaking effort to adapt what is written to what is not written, to the sum of what is sayable and not sayable.

(Trans. Patrick Creagh)

It has been said that In Search for Lost Time, Marcel Proust’s inexhaustible opus, is permeated by a constant ‘desire for architecture’. It has also been said that, in its complex and enigmatic construction, it emerges like a great cathedral. It was Proust who, describing the church of Combray, stated: ‘all of these things made of the church […] a building which occupied, so to speak, four dimensions of space – the name of the fourth being Time.’

So it is as if by one of those magical correspondences or miraculous communications the physicist Albert Einstein were speaking through Proust’s words.

Perhaps we can give every building that the architects design in their minds and then build in the part of the world that is awarded to them, the four dimensions of Proust and Einstein. With them, time appropriates space to make us see its most visible face more clearly.

lina bo bardi

Lina Bo Bardi photographed in her Glass House, São Paulo, 1952 © Instituto Bardi / Casa de Vidro, São Paulo