The Two Themes of Architecture

From Aesthetics Vol. II. Trans. Rev. Brian McNeil and John F. Crosby

by Dietrich von Hildebrand, appearing in Volume 29

Dietrich von Hildebrand, 1939. Photo: George Baltus

Architecture occupies a unique position in art. Unlike the other arts, it does not have only one theme, namely, beauty. Like nature, it has two themes. Its first theme, the practical theme, is the creation of a dwelling place that protects the human being against bad weather, etc., for the whole of his private life. This practical theme extends further to the creation of places for public life and divine worship.

The second theme of architecture is the beauty of the outside of buildings and of the inner rooms. The fact that architecture has two themes, a practical and an artistic theme, gives it a completely unique place among the arts.

Unlike all the other arts, the architectural works of art (residential homes, palaces, churches, etc.) belong to the same reality as we ourselves and the nature that surrounds us—for example, rocks, trees, and animals. Architecture is a part of the real world in which we move. Unlike all the other arts, it is not a world of its own. In the case of architecture, we do not enquire about the artwork’s specific kind of reality, as we do with a literary work, a piece of music, an opera, a painting, a relief, or a statue. Architecture belongs to the sphere of reality in which our life takes place, that is, to the reality of the external world that surrounds us.

Another characteristic of architecture is its polarity of outer and inner: first, the external architecture, the face of a building; and secondly, the internal architecture, the face of the internal rooms in which we find ourselves, whether a hall, a small room, a large room, or the interior of a church. The other arts lack this polarity.

Finally, architecture has the basic function of creating human space and thereby creating a presupposition for all the other arts.

The Significance of Human Space

Much could be said about the exceptional importance of space in nature. What we have in mind, of course, is not the statements of natural scientists about space in nature, nor even a purely philosophical analysis of space. We are thinking of space in its primal significance for our life, of the beauty of three-dimensional space as such, of the phenomenon of being encompassed by it, of the splendor that a wide vista can have, of the grandeur of the sky that arches above our heads.

Human space, in the sense of the term “human” that we are applying here to architectural space, is self-contained. It separates us from the vast, unlimited space in nature. It encompasses us and protects us in a special way. This human space is the interior space of architecture, which has qualities that differ from those of free space in nature.

A view of the Marienplatz, Munich’s main square since 1158, with the new City Hall and the Frauenkirche to the west. Photo: Wolf

The feeling of space in this human space is a new experience. The delight that one experiences on walking around in the noble space of a beautiful church is something all its own. It is incredible what great and ample beauty an enclosed space can possess as such. Examples are the interiors of Hagia Sophia or of San Marco in Venice, or the interiors of Santa Croce in Florence, of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan, or of the cathedral in Chartres. We are surprised by the aesthetic values that the human space is capable of displaying. It can, as such, possess not only a distinguished breadth and greatness and a stirring nobility, but also the beauty of a delightful intimacy.

Santa Croce, Florence, begun in the thirteenth century. Photo:

Through its human space, architecture also creates the basis for the unfolding of the other arts, as Bernhard Sattler has very aptly noted. Through the creation of its human space, interior architecture is not only a basis for sculpture, but stands in a close mutual relationship with it. This also applies to exterior architecture, as Bernhard Sattler observed: “Architecture is then complemented by sculpture, for which architecture creates the substructure, the pedestal, the background, and the framing.”

Painting too presupposes architecture for the walls that it requires, for the correct light, and many other factors. This applies both to frescoes and to paintings on a canvas or a wooden tablet. Bergmann rightly says that one cannot hang up pictures in a primeval forest. Pictures necessarily presuppose human space. Even the performance of music, that is to say, its full realization, demands a corresponding space if only for acoustical reasons, whether it be the intimate space in a house for chamber music, a hall for concerts, or the theater for operas and music dramas.

The relationship is at its loosest between literature and architecture, with the exception of dramas. It is of course possible to read a poem or a novel even in the open air. Even the great tragedies were not performed in an enclosed space in classical antiquity, but under the open sky. However, the construction of the classical theater is a tremendous architectural achievement, yielding an emphatically architectural space that is called for by the performance of the drama. The stage is a self-contained world, and the theaters of antiquity also display a great architectural beauty.

The relationship that architecture has to music and literature is naturally very different from the relationship to the visual arts of sculpture and painting. One must not exaggerate the extent to which architecture is presupposed in each individual instance. One can give concerts in a loggia and even in a garden; but music and literature are at home in human space, and they come fully into their own in a cultural world, indeed, in a world that is formed by architecture.2

Sculpture on the Royal Portal of Chartres Cathedral, France. Photo:

The First Theme of Architecture: The Practical and the Spiritual Purpose

The “practical” theme in architecture refers first of all to the real purpose that is in one sense the raison d’être of the construction of a building. The second theme is beauty. Although beauty is fully thematic in architecture, it must never be the exclusive theme. The architecture must also have a purpose, namely, a real theme. Within the real theme or purpose, we must distinguish two types: a purely practical and a spiritual purpose.

We have already pointed to the first purpose: the protection of the human person, providing him with a shelter in which his daily life takes place. Here we have in mind first of all the space required for external life. This applies to the simplest houses that often consist of one single room, as well as to those houses in which specific rooms are available for all the activities of life. Like all the objects of civilization, the practical theme, which belongs to the sphere of civilization, can be developed and perfected from many different perspectives, such as hygiene, comfort, heating, or cooling. In the same way, a factory has a purely practical, civilizational purpose that can be improved in various ways, such as rapid ventilation or a sufficient number of exits, especially for emergency situations like explosions and fires. One of these practical considerations is economy of space. Railway stations, airports, banks, administrative buildings, schools, and shops of every kind likewise have a purely practical purpose.

But the same buildings can simultaneously serve a spiritual purpose. For example, a residential home is not a mere shelter over a human being’s head. It contains not only rooms in which one sleeps, cooks, eats, and so on, but also rooms in which one lives with one’s family, in which many cultural events take place, in which the human being thinks, has conversations with other people, reads beautiful books, has profound experiences—in short, rooms in which he spends a great part of his truly human, affective, and intellectual life.

A residential home is also meant to serve this cultural or spiritual purpose, which is not so indispensable but is nevertheless something much higher. The home should be structured in such a way that it takes account of the demands made by these higher purposes. The question whether a space is structured in such a way that it provides an adequate setting for the life of a human being as a spiritual person is very important within the real theme of architecture. The practical and spiritual requirements vary in kind, and the realization of the one does not guarantee the realization of the other.

Many buildings primarily serve a purely spiritual purpose. This is true above all of churches. It is indeed true that some technical requirements exist here too: lighting, a good acoustic, ensuring safety in emergencies, etc. But it is clear that these are completely subordinate considerations. The unequivocal purpose is the creation of a space for divine worship with a sacred atmosphere that helps us to recollect ourselves and fills us with reverence.

Profane buildings with a cultural purpose are theaters, concert halls, and ceremonial halls, galleries, museums, etc. In all these buildings, the technical requirements are merely something that is unavoidable on the practical level. They do not belong to the purpose for which the building is erected.

On the other hand, their artistic beauty is always fully thematic, unlike a philosophical work such as a dialogue by Plato, where the great beauty is not thematic. One would misunderstand one of his dialogues and fail to do justice to it if one regarded the beauty of its style as thematic; for its theme is truth, and its beauty is primarily the metaphysical beauty of truth. The beauty of the style consists first and foremost in being the adequate form for the great truth-content of the work. This applies all the more to The Confessions of Saint Augustine, and in a unique manner to sacred scripture. These writings have only one theme, and their beauty is the emanation of the truth or of revelation, the emanation of the holy. Architecture and nature possess two equal themes. Since one of these is beauty, it is completely appropriate, and indeed necessary, to experience their beauty as fully thematic and to be filled by its great seriousness and its profound utterance when we look at architecture and nature.

In the case of the purely practical requirements and purposes, it is especially important to bear in mind that until the beginning of the nineteenth century and the triumph of the machine, culture had not yet been strangled by civilization. The expression of the spirit, the gift of giving form in such a way that was not practically indispensable, penetrated all the practical spheres of life up to that time. A knife should not only cut well; it should also possess a noble form. A chair should not only be comfortable and solid; it should also be beautiful—in fact, it should sooner be a little less comfortable than be sober and prosaic. Practical life as a whole possessed an organic character and was therefore united to a special poetry of life.3 Related to this was the penetration of life by culture.

But as the practical life of the human being was robbed of its organic character and was mechanized and thereby depersonalized, so too the poetry of practical life was lost. The practical requirements in residential homes became a prosaic matter that was radically detached from the affective and intellectual life that we lead as persons. Railway stations, factories, airports, filling stations, and department stores were built to serve technical, neutral purposes. . . . In all these buildings, it is clear that there is no link between practical requirements and the spiritual requirements of the human being. The latter are neutralized in such a way that they no longer offer any artistic stimulus for the architectural shaping of these buildings and rooms. The building itself becomes an object of technology.

Many architectural tasks have disappeared as a result of the mechanization and depoeticization of practical life that go hand in hand with the triumph of the machine. The buildings for watering horses and the pools in small towns where women did their washing are no longer needed today. It suffices to recall the Porta delle Fonti in San Gimignano, with its architecture and its setting, to see the architectural expression of the poetry of life that existed in this activity. It is obvious that this development has far-reaching consequences for architecture. Buildings where the poetry of life unfolds alongside their practical purpose clearly make very different demands on architectural design than buildings with a completely neutral, lifeless, practical purpose.

The relationship between the two purposes is important for all buildings that have both a practical and a spiritual purpose. In residential homes that serve more or less the whole of human life, practical requirements are also completely thematic. Although the spiritual requirements are higher and ultimately more important, the practical requirements belong likewise to the raison d’être of this kind of building. In one sense, indeed, they are in fact more urgent and more indispensable.

The situation is completely different in those buildings that clearly have a purely spiritual purpose but, like everything on earth, must also fulfill certain practical requirements thanks to our nature as human beings who consist of body and soul. This can be seen most clearly in the case of churches. Their purpose is not only spiritual, but religious and supernatural. Divine worship is celebrated in them, and the holy sacrifice of the Mass is offered. Nevertheless, one must do justice to certain practical requirements. For example, the ventilation must be as good as possible, and there must be a sufficient number of exits in case of fire. These practical requirements do not belong to the purpose, and they are not the reason why the church is built. They are only general presuppositions for every building in which a large number of people come together. However, some general presuppositions or perspectives lie closer to the special theme of a building—for example, the requirement that as far as possible, all the members of the audience in a theater should have a clear view of the stage.

Part Two of this article will appear in Sacred Architecture 30.