Interview between Dr. Juan D. López Arquillo, architect and author of “Increasing the idea of Reality: The Wittgenstein house” and Pavlina Josisova, about her graduate project on Philosophy, about the Wittgenstein house.
Institute of Philosophy and Religious studies, Faculty of Arts. Charles University, Prague. December 2014.
Pavlina Josisova: Given our different professional backgrounds, there might occur some clashes of our general understanding of the Wittgenstein House and of what it means to us. In otherwords, differentaspectsmightbe more important to me as a philosopherthan to you as anarchitect.
I started studying Wittgenstein’sphilosophical oeuvre and proceeded with reading about his personal life and, ofcourse, inquiringaboutthe house, whileyoutookthe other way around. I assumeyoustartedstudyingthe house and thencontinued to explore Wittgenstein’s views in the field of philosophy. Howdidthissequencego in your case and whatwasthemotivationforstudyingotheraspectsof Wittgenstein’s life and work? For me, it was my wanting to understand better the philosophical texts I had read by thattime, namely Tractatuslogico-philosophicusand PhilosophicalInvestigations. Therefore I started reading R. Monk’s The Duty of Genius, Wittgenstein’s biography, and went to Vienna to see the house for the first time immediately after that.
Juan D. López-Arquillo: Of course there´re some common knowledge in our disciplines, architecture is actually much more than simply construction, that´s why I was really interested in the Palais Wittgenstein, actually. But before reaching the house as a very special point in Wittgenstein´s life, it was totally necessary for me to know close to perfection his whole works. Almost one year took me to read and analyze the whole books, not for the great quantity, but for the intensity of their substantial density. So actually, I must say, once interested in the house, I started a complete study of the architectural thoughts of Wittgenstein (not about the architecture of his thoughts structure, which competes to your discipline) and just after, started to study the house. Actually, the works named by you in your question are really interested, just because Monk is, as Aicher, oneofthefirstauthorstablishingthe house as a turning point between the first philosophy of Wittgenstein (which highest point and resume is the Tractatus) and the second one, born after his back to Cambridge and with quite a different point of view, as you know the Philosophical Investigations. I can´t assume a Wittgenstein writing about the duck-rabbit figure of Jastrow, during the writing of the Tractatus in the very center of the Great War, as he did after in the Philosophical Investigations. That´s why the Palais is so interesting for me, so architecture and its process can be a master piece in the evolution of structuralism.
P: Do you think the difference between our starting points modified the way how we perceive the house in anyseriousway? It might not have been just the difference between the philosophical and the architectural point of view but it as well might have been our be ingloaded with different segments of Wittgenstein’slifework. While you came to the house as ifyouwerecoming to a pieceofarchitecture and just thenstarted to explore all of his philosophical background, I am forced to still wear the glasses of what I know about his philosophical thoughts and can’t help myself from applying all this knowledge to the interpretation of what I perceivewhenstudyingthe house.
JD: Yes, of course. It´s impossible a clear or innocence view on the house if you reach it after knowing Wittgenstein´s works. But you´re supposing the architecture is the final object, and the architecture is the process of generating and building itself, too. So part of the interest for the architects is how it´s possible to have a special piece of modern architecture (which grows up in the years during theinternational style wasbeingstablishedofficially) made by an absence architect and conducted and built by a philosopher with engineering formation. The complex process initiated by Paul Engelmann was sorted by Wittgenstein in not the ultimate point of the evolution of the designs, so the Palais could have been a masterpiece of the modern architecture, really. It´s a lost opportunity about the leaving of Engelmann.
In any case, the Palais is so complex and resume so untemporary beauty that can be seen with the eyes or/and can also be perceived as a synthesis of a philosophical system. But, unfortunately, the Palais is fully crowed with disencounters, size failures, broken propotions…which betrays the attempt of Wittgenstein of making the house as a physical proposition of a universal thoughs structure.
P: In which ways do you think your professional background influence your perceiving of Wittgenstein’s written works? Did you tend to perceive it mainly from the point of view of treating the rapport between the form and material that is formed?
JD: Not at all. I must say, the process of creating a physical reality of a building through the mental previous process of express a thinking structuralist system, is the real value of the Palais for an architect, more than the final result, which is, in too many times, quite disappointing. The Palais is made around the obsession of hiding the real materials of the whole construction in order to provoke a continuity of the interpretation in the different spaces isnside the house. And, outwards, the image is almost the same, the white enclosures are not only wall coverings of the inner spaces, but a proposal of unbiased expression inside the city, which is treated as a real danger for the inhabitant, not a human pacific surroundings. I Suppose the years of the building came just after the retirement of Wittgenstein as a rural teacher, and the peace of the Tyrol had to be a real calm in a contrast of the scalding social living in Wien he found after going back.
P: In Culture and Value, Wittgenstein lists ten people who influenced him: Boltzmann, Hertz, Schopenhauer, Frege, Russell, Kraus, Loos, Weininger, Spengler, and Sraffa. Adolf Loos is among them. The names are organized with a chronological order, thus the influence of Loos came rather later, but stillbeforetheconstructionofthe house: Wittgenstein met Loos in the eve of World War I. How much visibleisLoos’s influence on the house?
JD: In my thesis on the house, I actually defend that Wittgenstein influenced to some of them much more than he was influenced by them. Of course in Philosophy is certain that he was under the influence since he stopped studying engineering, but in the theoretical aspects of aesthetics, even some letters and written conversations with William Eccles, of 1912 and 1913, prove that reduction to minimal expressive form of the needing is a foundation for his physical application of the sequences of reduction of the Tractatus. In some cases, specially with Loos (whose is supposed in some authors to be the main influence to his architecture) It´s impossible to confirm Loos as a influence to Wittgenstein, when it´s possible to understand Wittgenstein´s influence upon him, as the theorical basement to his novelties in Loos architectures, as the Raumplan is. In honor to the truth, anyone can see the projects of Loos before and after his major part of the relationship with Wittgenstein. When Loos leaved Wien in order to go to Paris, in 1924, he wrote a letter to Wittgenstein: “To Ludwig Wittgenstein, gratefully and regardly, quite thankful by his inspiration, hoping this evidence go back with him”. I do not think there´s any influence of Loos in the house made by Wittgenstein, but is undeniable the geometrical principles of the plan projected by Paul Engelmann, an outstanding pupil of Adolf Loos. Considering the relation between the volume and the surroundings, the inner program, the way of living which is provoking and supporting the Palais…there´s no influence of Loos more than, perhaps, any reduced aesthetic to the minimum. But this principles are perfectly clear in the writings of Wittgenstein almost 15 years before, for examples, the letters to David Pincher during his first stage in Cambridge are impressive in that sense. If the Palais would have been raised in the time Wittgenstein were thinking in his own way about it, the influence on Loos was quite undeniable, but now it must be demonstrated.
P: It has been said that Loos did not influence Wittgenstein to any large extent, whilst he had rather been influenced by Wittgenstein himself. Should we saythattheLoos’s influence on the house wastransferredsolely by Engelmann, could we approach the problem from a different direction and say that it was the same Viennese era that had given birth to both Loos and Wittgenstein? We could also deduce their common views from the fact that they were both coming from the same cultural background, fin-de-siècleVienna.
JD: There wasn´t any relation between Wittgenstein and Loos after 1924. The project of the Palais started in the Christmas days of 1925, but Wittgenstein finally entered after the summer of 1926. The exact relation starts after the death of Wittgenstein´s father, Karl, so, you´ll know, Wittgenstein gave much money to some friends and friends of his friends. Loos was one of them. Perhaps the necessity of these countries and the people after the disaster of the Versalles, besides of provoking the raising of the nazi party, made Loos accept the money but hurt his honor. Studying the return of Wittgenstein to Wien, according to Monk, is acceptable to think about the general jealous of many many people against him and his family. Loos had, of course, a fully structured thoughts about society, architecture, city and design. But, formerly aesthetical thoughts transformed into a ethical significance of the absence of meaning according to the abstraction on architecture, which is one of his more-than-architectonical principles and procedures (v.gr. in the Steiner house and the Michaelerplatz building, ca.1910 in Wien; are clearly notable the difference with the Rufer house and the fantastic competition for the Herald Tribune in 1922). Loos and Wittgenstein were introduced during the summer of 1914. It´s well known the expression first used by Loos to Wittgenstein: “You are me”. It can be completely affirmed that both were the authors of the architecture of a language more important than the space: the silence, the absence.
P: Into what extent can theWittgenstein’s House beconsidered as a functionalist building? Does he respect the functionalistic ideals and is he successful in applying them while working on the construction site? In particular, how is the distinction between ornament and practicaluse heldwhenconstructingthe house?
JD: That´s a marvelous consideration in the process and works on the Palais. Wittgenstein didn´t found a plan draw by Engelmann, as much time is considered. He was participating since the very start of the project with his sister Margaret. In fact, the site for the first project wasn´t the plot in the III sector, as it was inside the inner courtyard of the family palace in Argentinerstrasse. He insisted on having any location of the different parts inside the program as a perfect piece. He tried to have a perfect space for every function in the house, specially in the main floor, the public one. In this case is the same way as Loos made with the Raumplan, projecting a “perfect” saloon to the visits, a dinner room looking upon the garden, a quite thought entrance pathway, etc…but he also understand that those different pieces must be inside a global structure which relates the parts as a whole, but not only as a joining method closed by the enclosurements and covertry, but a structural method of making the parts from the unity of the whole, and the total from the unity of the parts. That´s why the function of the different spaces is established as a proposal for the very first moment of the house, but, actually can be used in very different manners. The functionalism never had been capable to raise a house that can be used as a hospital, a refugee, a military base of cavalry and now, as an empty museum. The house is at the same time functionalist and flexible, capable, and is like that just because of the Wittgenstein principles of universal application of the opposites, as it´s exposed in the Tractatus.
But, during the process, he understood the impossibility of making a real application of a numeric measurement method when you have to build with materials like bricks and steel, which are no longer capable of a perfect adjustment to pre-established measurements. That´s the problem of the material reality: It´s no more perfect, so after these years he went back to Cambridge and will never return outside philosophy.
P: Speaking about the different uses of the House has been used during the years, could Wittgenstein presume this particular practical aspect? It was not common for the house to be left “empty” by its architect then: Usually the house was provided not just with the walls, floors, ceilings, windows, or doors, but also with at least the basic equipment like furniture that would go well with the spirit in which the house was being built. Wittgenstein took care of the disposition of the rooms and also of some interior features such as thewindows metal screens, floorcoverwith no carpets, simpledoors, etc. However, he did not choose the furniture. He left this on theownerofthe house, Margaret. Was it a common practice back then? Or was it usual to provide the house with all the furniture by the architect and hand it over as afinishedpiecepreparedforbeinglived in?
JD: In this moment, we need to consider the social position of a wide open source in the family way of life. They were quite more than a rich family, their gold reserve was a important piece of the state reserves before and during the IIWW. As a matter of fact, the first emplacement for the house of Margaret was in the rear courtyard of the family palace in the Argentinerstrasse, and just the desires of Gerome Stonborough, Margaret´s husband, forced her to accept the emplacement outside the inner Ring of Wien. The house is an act trying to going out of the historic considerations on the Wittgenstein family, they were trying to be quite a different rich people. And so are the furniture; in spite of accumulate tons of added furniture to a empty space, Wittgenstein tried to select a special pieces of a well-defined functional designs, but, the real life of Margaret (who need, after all, curtains, carpets, libraries…for a social standard life) was quite different. Anyway, Wittgenstein went back to Cambridge in 1929 and never came back, even, after been a awarded soldier in the Imperial Army during the IWW, he worked for the Royal Army of UK in the IIWW. Never lost his contact to several friends and family, but he died as an english citizen. He never saw the house as an hospital, nor even as the house that finally Margaret transform the Palais into. He would have likely elected rationalist furniture and in a quite low quantity. The house should have been –at least, the principal, social, level- an empty monument to the honesty of the reducted form as a way of ethic consideration of purity in space. But the economic effort to built, without any limit, exceed the real ethic compromise of the universal building born with the International Style, which founded the considerations on the universal demand of the cost of a home for everyone.
P: In his Tractatuslogico-philosophicus, Wittgenstein writes that everything that can be expressed can be expressed clearly. This must be read in the context of his distinction between saying and showing: he continues with the point that what can be shown cannot be said. If we take an example of a simple sentence, there are always two aspects of it: what is said and what is shown with it. When I say that the Wittgenstein House is in Vienna, it was said that the Wittgenstein House is in Vienna, and many features were shown at the same time. It was shown what grammatical structure the sentence had, to what language it belonged, but also, for example, where the Wittgenstein House was not. Itwas not built in Madrid and itisobviousfromthe sentence that I put as an example, but still, it was not said there. It was only shown. A meta-language, in which it could be possible to express what was not expressed in the language that was used initially, can always be constructed. This system of meta-lingual expressing of what was only shown could be led ad infinitum.
So far, the distinctionbetweenwhatcanbesaid and what can be only shown was applied just to language. Let us imagine it applied to architecture. What would it produce? What can we think of as said by an architectural piece and what could be only shown by it?
JD: This is a question about identity and identification in architecture, much complex than a simple sculpture, as it´s participated by interpretation, use and time. The application to architecture is, as I told previously, almost impossible, as it must be interpreted in terms that exceed the final object. Anyway, it would be considered like that, but only in the project phase, which has no specific presence but has significance without interpretation just in front of an object. It´s important to understand the Palais not as an architectural piece, but an extralimitation of a philosophical attempt to exceed the surroundings of the ideas and getting inside the field of the physical reality. But, actually, these ideas come directly from the Tractatus, refuted by himself several years after the completion of the house when he started to write his second-part philosophy. It´s necessary to understand that Wittgenstein has two-faced opposite thoughts, and the Palais was one –perhaps the one- of the turning points.
P. He also writes that whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. It means that there is a certain sort of things that we can’t speak of. According to him, we cannot speak of ethics and religion or mysticism as it lies beyond the limits of our world, or, in other words, beyond the limits of our language. On the other hand, we can speak about the material world. Its states should be expressible by language and our task is to speak about them clearly, without any traces of trying to refer beyond the limits of where we can reach. Therefore we should beable to speakaboutthe house in termsofdescribingthe reality that lies before us, and to do so as precisely as possible. The question is whether we can be set to rest by meredescriptionofhowthematerial part ofthe house lies in thespace-time. Werathertend to go further and discussdifferentaspectsofwhatisshown in the house. By that, we are creating our own meta-language and are forcing the House to give us what it has shown to us. But canwereallysaythatthe house isspeaking to us? In what terms could such an object speak? And in what terms could we understand it?
JD: Perception depends of interpretation. Of course the house is talking to us, specifically to every of us in a specific time of our lives. The house talked to me in a very different way the first time I visit it, and the months I spent working of it several years after. The more you have present the Palais, just in front of you or in your thoughts, the more it´ll talk to you, as it´ll be operating in different fields of your perception. Perhaps the understanding of the structure, form and timespace of the house is actually limited by the meanings of the words we are able to use depending on our language, but the perceptive experiences of the whole Palais –including the process and the things we know about it- are more extensive than the language we used to perform them. I think these were the considerations discovered by Wittgenstein and, in that way, he was actually capable to evolution over his earlier philosophy. For me, the Palais is a qualified balance between an ideal project born of the necessities of a program, and the reality of a built work which has to support demands of different fields: legal urbanism, building plot, thermal insulation…The work of an architect is actually hard because of the disagreement between the reality and the idealization, and this house, the Palais, shows us it´s not impossible.
P. Wittgenstein’s work is divided into two parts in the academic tradition: the early part and the later part. Tractatus logico-philosophicus and the Lecture on Ethics appertain to the former, the rest of his work to the latter. Should we dare to try to assign the appurtenance of the house to one of these periods, we would assign it to the early Wittgenstein, as it reflects the theoretical framework of his thinking in the Tractatus rather than in the Philosophical Investigations. The second option is to perceivethearchitectural period ofWittgenstein’s as in the middle ofthosetwo: neitherthe early Wittgenstein, northelaterWittgenstein, but the period which stands between these two, which connects them. Which of these twotraditionsofperceivingthe house iscloser to your own beliefs?
JD: Ludwig Wittgenstein in that part of his life tried to think philosophy playing the role of the architect, and projecting a space fitting functions into proportions, with concrete materials, suddenly discovered a structure of nonlinear, biunivocal, changeable decisions making between the endings. And the house is a perfect link of his philosophical parts; just because the house is one of the most important refutations to the universal meta-structure of the Tractatus, as he discovered the experience and the subjective position of an individual and unique person. The abstract interpretative of a space in a project is deeply far away of the physical space of the Palais, this unique Palais: Sun movement, temperature, humidity, reflects, light, shadows…A space is the result of a multi-purpose experience, and is no longer the previous concept in a architectonical masterplan. A home is no longer a abstract house. So is his philosophy.
P. Do you think that we can approach Wittgenstein’s work on the House as the experience that pushed him towards his second philosophical period? When he claimed that he was done with philosophy after he had finished the Tractatus, nobody knew whether he would continue his philosophical occupations. Itwasrightafterthe house wasfinishedwhen he decided to return to his philosophical inquiries, albeit in a totally different way. He gave up on thepurityof a closedlogicalsystem as he held in the Tractatus and rather started to examine language found as is, as itisusedeveryday. He decided to embrace all the inaccuracies and misunderstandings we experience while speaking: He stopped trying to create a logicalsystem and denouncingeverythingthatdidn’t fit as nonsense but ratherhe began to describethenormal, everyday language. Is it therefore possible that the way how he perceived the rough material that will not submit to every form that he invents for it inspired him to perceive language in a different way?
JD. Yes, I firmly think so, as many others authors thought before, as Otl Aicher. There´s a performance considering that point of view: Architects usually justify the house as a turning point of the philosophy of Wittgenstein, “the house discovered a new reality” is said, but philosophers have some different idea, and there´s no longer accord onto that. Of course, the language for an architect is the transference between ideal construction and the physical final building, so it´s quite flexible and open to misunderstanding, errors, and, of course, able to accept multiple interpretations. But, for a philosopher in the way of Wittgenstein, the interpretation of every term must be unique, in a proper way to express complex concepts. That is an important difference, and the evidence of having destabilized Wittgenstein is obvious.
P.There is a famous anecdote according to which Wittgenstein had the ceiling raised 30 mm in one room in order to have it in the very proportions he wanted, and all of this happened when the house was nearly finished. This obsessive desire to have everything accurate and exactly how he planned it to be can be seen in his early writings. However, in the later Wittgenstein, the object of his thoughts, language, stands as it is: with all the inaccuracies, often misleading and sometimes even disguised as something else and confusing us, not letting us to understand profoundly. The material of the house was the same: it had some properties of its own and often it refused to accept theformWittgensteinwanted to giveit. Instead, it forced him to reevaluate what is and what is not possible in the real world, it forced him to stop trying to apply his ideal plans and systems and rather to conform to what the material is and what it requires. What are theparticularexamples in the house on whichwecouldsee how this change was happening?
JD: That´s the main reason to consider the house as a turning point for Wittgenstein´s language structures, more than a simple link of a kindly continuity. Wittgenstein –so we do in every study on the house- discovered the incoherence of forcing the whole process –Margaret started to cry with the episode of the ceiling, Hermine wrote- of the building in order to get a perfect measures. That´s the worst consideration on the Palais, for reaching the process to a special measures planned on the project, he deserves everything –at any cost necessary – to get the measure; and it´s no longer important to cheat openly increasing several thickness sizes in several walls and ceilings, which deeply betray the coherence between language and meaning, project and physics. The language, flexible and capable of adaptation, is unable to express only a unique meaning. So is the house in different windows, doors, etc; but, specially, in the default on correspondence between the spaces proportions (plan and section) and the elements and materials that define these spaces. And it´s even higher just because he didn´t have any spending limit.
P. It is, however, startling to realize how great thedifferenceisbetweenwhat he chose to live in and what he chosefor others to live in. His own standards of living were of no luxury: he hardly invested any money to the interior of his Cambridge apartment. As Monk describes in Wittgenstein’s biography, he had just the very basics of furniture, no decorations except the bright colored walls, and many piles of garbage American detective stories. He alsospent a long time in his cottage in Norway where he did not pay any attention to how it looked. As long as it was clean, he was comfortable. In comparisonwiththe “dwellingforGods” that he wasbuildingfor his sister, theway his ownlookedwastrulypoor. For the regular city person, both of these, his ownrooms and the house, wouldbeinhabitable. Do youhaveanyexplanationforwhyhe neglected his ownliving space in such a fashion? And why and howdid he build such a house thatwasratherfor Gods than for small people?
JD: That´s the starting line for almost every architect trying to start a project. We´re supposed to project every space, house or building for a personal experience. Best house will be the one you desire to inhabit. But if it´s your work and you are in a very deep investigation –usually during your whole life- it´s necessary to avoid a constant consideration about the future inhabitation inside it; the same way that a surgeon needs to focuse in the surgery, with no consideration –not in every moment, of course- of a unique person with life, family, friends. Without that personal distance, it would have been impossible to think clearly; and Wittgenstein, I´m sure, had a personal ability to get it. Wittgenstein was always –the letters from 1908 proved it- he wanted to live as a result of an ethic void of richness, and desired –and demand to others- that furniture, houses, the whole city –it´s incredible there´s no main references to the city in Wittgenstein´s works- must be a expression of its function. He was always thinking, so if he have had a house perfectly and specially made for them, he had just got a poverty in his life. The self demand on thinking about the necessity of making better words, better engines, better houses, was one of his main fuels. He worked and inhabit a standard environment, and with the contrast built this impressive Palais.
P. Do you believe the house has its place in the history of architecture and the Viennese cultural environment? What about the fails in thermal insulation, the bad-traced stairs, theunmovabledoors, orthegenerallyuncomfortableliving? Despite all these imperfections, it can still represent something more than just a machine for living or hosting soirées. As a monument of Wittgenstein’s way of thinking, it can be preserved to impress the future researchers.
JD. I firmly believe so. That´s why I studied it intensively. Unfortunately the personality of Wittgenstein and the roughness of him has been a terrific charge for the house, which has been condemned to ostracism by the architectural profession and the critics, both. It´d had been funny to see Adolf Loos turning around 10 minutes walking down the Kundmanngasse to avoid seeing the house –he had his studio quite close to the house, but it is well-known thanks to the interview to Wittgenstein´s sister Hermine- but, specially for a good explanation to this point, is the interview in June 1988 to Ernst Plischke, one of the most important architects for the International Style in Austria, in which he admitted “ We did know he was upsetting a house in the Kundmann. No interest at all. After all, he was using in the house classic steel windows. Wittgenstein was an outsider. We didn´t even go there.”
Architects and critics have hated Wittgenstein, not his house. But, even after, during the years of the Situationism, the house has been not accepted, as it has been assimilated to just another work of the International Style. Whether critics like or not, the Palais has now been, for the last decades, revalued, and now we are able to understand it. Now, we have to love a house which is an opportunity to discover how important a simple house –not even the better, of course, not even much good consider by architects in professional terms- can be for a change of meaning in one of the most important philosophers in the entire history, and specially during the XX century. A house is usually built for been a home; but the Palais was made not to serve only to a human inhabitants, but a monument to express the ideal foundation to any physical buildings, a monument with a family life inside. The failures aren´t important for a house like this. After all, architecture is function and expression together, capable to change without alteration, evolving without leaving the past; as the language does. That´s why we have a treasure in the Palais…