Immanuel Kant’s philosophy of architecture:

“[Sculpture] presents corporeal concepts of things as they could exist in nature (…) [architecture] is the art of presenting, with this intention but yet at the same time in an aesthetically purposive way, concepts of things that are possible only through art, and whose form has as its determining ground not nature but a voluntary end.” 1

  • Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant's philosophy of architecture
Immanuel Kant ©

Immanuel Kant’s philosophy had a profound influence on the theory of architecture and to this day is considered relevant. He was a German philosopher, born in 1724 during the Age of Enlightenment, who argued that the mind shapes the human experience. Kant described Enlightenment by the Latin phrase: Sapere Aude – “Dare to be wise” and strongly believed that one should be autonomous in his thought with no pressures from any external authorities. He believed that morality comes from reason and that disinterested judgment is the basis of aesthetics. His work resolved many differences between empirical and rational philosophical movements. The first one focused on learning about the world through human senses, the latter by applying logical thinking to the understanding of the universe. Kant suggests, however, that to comprehend the external world we should rely on both – our experience and previous concepts.

Kant managed to consolidate aesthetic theory within a complete philosophical system. He believed that beauty is a consciousness of pleasure and not a certain property of the artwork itself. We do not use cognitive judgment to ascertain if the work is beautiful. Beauty and sublime are subjective, however, the latter establishes a relationship between imagination and reason. He believes that the judgment of beauty approaches us with a universal voice, which does not relate to only one person but speaks to many people similarly. An important factor in understanding Kant’s aesthetic principles is the concept of free play. He believes that an object, which can induce the pleasure of free play, becomes the purpose of its form.

“…what he means by disinterested judgment or taste: I would be making an interesting judgment, thus failing to make a genuine judgment of taste if, when, “someone asks me whether I find the palace before me beautiful, I… say that I don’t like that sort of thing, which is made merely to be gaped at, or… in true Rousseauesque style, I… even vilify the vanity of the great who waste the sweat of people on such superfluous things.” ” 2

This means that the judgment of architecture is based on purely formal beauty. There is no place to take into account its function, social aspects, and benefits of the work. The decision is made by simply gaping at it. However, there is more to it as we have different kinds of judgment. One, which was described above, is pure, free, and instantaneous, and the other is conditioned and supported by other factors. They are “characterized precisely by the fact that they do presuppose a “concept of what the object ought to be… and the perfection of the object by it.” ” 3

Kant believed that the function of the building is reflected in its appearance and that beauty relates to this concept. He does not specify their relationship, but indicates that “the beauty… of a building (such as a church, a palace, and arsenal, or a summer-house) presupposes a concept of its perfection, and is thus merely adherent beauty… One would be able to add much to a building that would be pleasing in the intuition of it, if only it were not supposed to be a church.” 4 We might believe that he argued that if there is a huge dissociation between the function and the form of the building, we would be unable to accept it and find it beautiful. It suggests a very delicate relationship between the form, the function, and the beauty.

In Immanuel Kant’s philosophy, he believes that beauty must be independent and not adhere to preconceived concepts. Art and architecture, however, are formed with a specific concept in mind and are intentional. This paradox is explained by him, with the importance of human experience. In the same way, when we experience natural beauty, we are not immediately influenced by the inherent concept when determining it. Our experience of the object is reflected in its originality and its spirit which is dependent on the author’s talent.

“… his conception is rather that beautiful art always suggests some profound intellectual content, but does so by means of form and matter so rich that it cannot be reduced to any rule but instead triggers inexhaustible and pleasurable “motion” of free play in the mind of its audience.” 5

Kant believes that it is important for art and architecture to express profound ideas, to have a deeper meaning. Today, I believe we are a bit lost in the multitude of concepts and aspects architecture has to offer. Or on the contrary, we keep it oversimplified and functional, with no deeper investigations into its aesthetics. Reflecting on Kant’s understanding of beauty, and his insistence on a significant message, a spirit with which architecture should be filled, might rescue the architectural field and bring back the excitement and wonder that it once held over human emotions.


  1. Kant, CPJ §5:322
  2. GUYER, PAUL. “Kant and the Philosophy of Architecture.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 69, no. 1, 2011, pp. 7–19. JSTOR, Accessed 10 July 2020.
  3. GUYER, PAUL. “Kant and the Philosophy of Architecture.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 69, no. 1, 2011, pp. 7–19. JSTOR, Accessed 10 July 2020.
  4. GUYER, PAUL. “Kant and the Philosophy of Architecture.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 69, no. 1, 2011, pp. 7–19. JSTOR, Accessed 10 July 2020.
  5. GUYER, PAUL. “Kant and the Philosophy of Architecture.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 69, no. 1, 2011, pp. 7–19. JSTOR, Accessed 10 July 2020.

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.

1 Comment

  1. Anthony stredwick Reply

    You make Kant look like Ruskin (in The Stones of Venice) seeking the virtue of Architecture.It must speak well and act well. Action it is inferred here belongs to the world of conditioned things, speech to free play and the relation between entities in these two categories is a great acheivement of Kant. Then Ruskin possibly shows up as a more relevant thinker than many accounts will have him be,not rather seeking to be ruled morally AND aesthetically by the dead or by transcendent beings.Indeed he does consider the empirical possibility of a sacred building enjoyed without knowledge of its ( lets say )theoretical grounding in scriptures. Its early morning for me commenting now ,and I fear “The Poverty Of Historicism” has fallen into the mix!

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