Architecture and philosophy are extremely intertwined. There are two, opposing theories that speak through architecture and urban planning very loudly: Empiricism, which focuses on the human senses, experiencing space, and Rationalism, which concentrates on logic, order, and control.

One of the most important philosophers of empirical thought was Sir Francis Bacon, who in 1620 argued that all our knowledge comes to us through our senses. Further on, John Locke explained that ideas are created by our senses and that we start with an ‘empty mind’ which is formed by our experiences. Afterward, George Berkeley, in 1709 concluded that all objects only exist in our minds, followed by David Hume’s exaggeration that nothing exists unless somebody is there to experience it.

Joseph Addison (1672-1719) and Edmund Burke (1729-1897) translated those reflections into aesthetic theory. Addison, who considered the sense of seeing to be superior, thinks that our soul loves to be surprised and thrilled by visions that are vast, diverse, and hard to comprehend. Burke, on the contrary, contemplates that Beauty can be found in slow and even changes, smoothness, and gradual adaptation.

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Duoao Art Gallery Progetto ©
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Duoao Art Gallery Progetto ©

Sir Uvedale Price (1747-1829) developed the empirical theory in regards to aesthetics. He sees that the difference between beauty and picturesque could be found in roughness, irregularity, and variations of feelings they evoke. He believed in picturesque-focused, irregular design that forces the rotation of windows to frame most beautiful views. This concept is visible in many modern buildings such as the Duao Art Museum designed by Progetto CMR, which is located in the mountainous area of China. The plan of the building seems to be reaching out towards the most interesting views and framing them for the visitors.

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Cullen The Concise Townscape ©“Concise Town” by Gordon Cullen

Gordon Cullen belongs to the Neo-Empirical movement. He describes the elements of architecture and its environment that are essential for it to be stimulating. He thought that within a space there should always be a promise of a newly emerging view and we should have a sense of other spaces all around us. The complexity of architectural style, its materials, layout, and textures should emphasize its uniqueness. “The intention is to suggest that a pleasant degree of complexity and choice which, although it is contained within a coherent framework, allows the individual to find his path.” 1

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Shodan House Le Corbusier ©Fondation Le Corbusier/ADAGP
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Sir Edwin Lutyens Entrance ©“Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture” – Robert Venturi, page 24, (Country Life)

Robert Venturi’s book – “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture” published in 1966 shaped the architecture of the 20th century. His program is defined in two parts: First one to exploit the uncertainty of our visual perception, and the second to look into the complexity of functions within the spaces. He recognized that complexity does not negate simplicity. He describes Le Corbusier’s Shodhan House as randomly opened and closed at the same time. He notices that Sir Edwin Lutyens Entrance to the gallery at

Middleton Park is a corridor, which gives you a sense of direction but finishes with an empty wall.

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Peter Zumthor Brother Klaus Field Chapel ©Samuel Ludwig –
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Peter Zumthor Kolumba Art Museum ©

The empirical thought can also be noticed in the architecture of Peter Zumthor. His attitude towards material and atmosphere of the space that reacts with human senses and emotions is evident in his work. Brother Klaus Field Chapel and Kolumba Art Museum show a beautiful interplay of light and present a space of picturesque quality.

Empiricism was challenged by Renee Descartes (1597-1650). He believed that our senses can be tricked, that the information they give us is unreliable, and that the truth can only be learned by logical thinking. Cogito ergo sums – I think, therefore I am – is a quintessence of rationalist theory that places its faith in logic and order above all else. Its followers focused on the purity of form that was reflected in their architecture.

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The Doric temple of Segesta ©

Marc-Antoine Laugier (1713-1769), was one of the first who translated rationalist theory into a set of aesthetic principles, which focused on architecture made of pedimented roofs, beams, and columns with no place for arches, pedestals or windows. Doric Temple was the closest to achieve the ideal form he was looking for. In urban planning, he was searching for a different kind of disorder than empiricists sought. “But this multitude of regular parts brings with it a certain impression of irregularity and disorder, disorder of the kind which suits great cities so well.” 2

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Etienne-Louis Boullee King’s Library ©

Etienne-Louis Boullee (1728-99) was designed by Laugier’s ideals. His most famous design was King’s Library, where he created a semi-circular cylinder that rested on top of the rectangular base. He used Greek orders for architectural detailing and introduced a set of symmetrical terraces that ended with a line of colonnades. “Because their forms are simple, their faces are regular and repeat themselves… their regularity and symmetry are the very images of order and this image is self-evident within them.” 3

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Aldo Rossi – Modena Cemetery ©

Quatremere de Quincy (1755-1849), looked into the idea of a Type. He researched basic forms from which many other variations were created. “All is precise and more or less given in the model, all is more or less vague in the type.” 4 The idea of a type was further researched within the Neo-Rationalist movement by Aldo Rossi (1931-1997). He believed that to truly understand a Type he should analyze every building ever created with this particular Type as its base. Only then he can reach its essence, can realize the thoughts of the architecture itself. One of his most famous designs is Modena Cemetery, which he considered to be a house for the dead. It meant that the tomb’s typology is the same as the house.

Both Empiricism and Rationalism had been expressed in architecture throughout history as well now. There is a constant fight between the rational architecture that follows logic, and the sensual one that focuses on atmospheres and experiencing the space. I believe that the most interesting changes in architecture and philosophy happen through disagreement. The more we strive to express different ideals through architecture, the more true development can be perceived as well as understood.


  1. Emerging Concepts in Urban Space Design; Geoffrey Broadbent; E&FN SPON 1996, p. 222
  2. Emerging Concepts in Urban Space Design; Geoffrey Broadbent; E&FN SPON 1996, p. 90
  3. Emerging Concepts in Urban Space Design; Geoffrey Broadbent; E&FN SPON 1996, p. 94
  4. Emerging Concepts in Urban Space Design; Geoffrey Broadbent; E&FN SPON 1996, p. 91
Katarzyna Czapiga

A graduate from the Architectural Association with an interest in urban studies and public spaces that actively change and influence the neighbourhood. Her area of research focuses on the development of European metropolises and the way the architectural theory impacts their design.

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