Philosophy and Architecture | Wittgenstein House

“I am not interested in erecting a building, but in […] presenting to myself the foundations of all possible buildings.” – Wittgenstein

The relationship between philosophy and architecture is so old as both disciplines are. As our friend Roger [aka @rutx] told us this morning: “philosophers tend to think about the space, the city… like architects do”. Most architects are familiarized with philosophers like Deleuze, Guattari, Foucault and some others and it’s a fact that architecture, because of its social use, changes the landscape of thought and experience.

This time we’re focusing on Ludwig Wittgenstein, an Austrian-British philosopher, that designed and built a house in Vienna for his sister in 1926. Bernard Leitner points in his book The Wittgenstein House that this work “crystallized his philosophy of architecture—notable for its clarity, precision, and austerity—and served as a foil for his written work.”

In this architectural work, we can see what it can be defined as “logic translated into a house”. Ludwig grew up in a household that provided an exceptionally intense environment for artistic and intellectual achievement. His father fully financed the Vienna Secession Building… so, Wittgenstein interest in art and architecture is something that started in his childhood. In Leitner‘s book, we can read:

In November 1925, Wittgenstein’s sister Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein commissioned Engelmann, to design and build a large town house in Vienna in the Kundmanngasse. Wittgenstein showed a great interest in the project and in Engelmann’s plans. He convinced Engelmann that he could realise his sister’s intentions much better, and was eventually asked to be the architect of the house. Describing the work, Ludwig’s eldest sister, Hermine, wrote: “Even though I admired the house very much, I always knew that I neither wanted to, nor could, live in it myself. It seemed indeed to be much more a dwelling for the gods than for a small mortal like me”.

Paul Engelmann had become a close friend of Wittgenstein’s during the war, and both of them had worked together designing the modernist house. The work was intellectually absorbing and exhausting for Wittgenstein; because he poured himself into the design in painstaking detail, including even small aspects that maybe for most architects are not so important, as doorknobs. It is well documented the fact that Wittgenstein spent a year designing each radiators as they had to be exactly positioned to maintain the symmetry of the rooms. Ludwig Wittgenstein is considered one of the most important figures in analytic philosophy and we have the feeling that was this close relationship with analytics and mathematics what made him so passionate while working in this architectural project.

Adolf Loos in his particular manifesto entitled Ornament and Crime, written in 1908, repudiated the florid style of the Vienna Secession. Loos was one of the most important and influential Austrian architects of the European Modern Architecture movement and also was Engelmann’s teacher in Vienna. His influence is remarkable during the decade of 1920, the same period the Wittgenstein House was designed. Then, it’s not a coincidence to find traces of Loos in the clarity, simplicity and weightlessness of the house.

“Louis drew every window, every door, every lock of the window, each Radiator with an accuracy than It would be the finest in precision instruments and measurements, and he then placed with its uncompromising energy by, that Things with the same accuracy were carried out … “
– Hermione Wittgenstein in “My Brother Louis”

The house still stands today, and now houses the Bulgarian Cultural Institute.


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