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What is Philosophy?


This is the monologue for the latest episode of Why? Radio: “What Makes a Building Beautiful?” with guest Sarah Williams Goldhagen. Clickย hereย to listen to the episode.


Sarah Goldhagenโ€™s new book is about how architecture interacts with human bodies. I read much of it flying from North Dakota to New York. I felt enclosed on the plane, and robotic. I became totally internal, even consciously disregarding my bladder because I was trapped in a window seat. Periodically, as I flexed my ankles, I would lift the window blind to get a glimpse of the bright blue sky. It refreshed me.

Ironically, the plane, which was created for habitation, felt inhuman, while the world outside, which I could only ever experience through windows, gave me life. Yet, as much as seeing the sky made me feel as if I were breathing fresh air, I only allowed myself a few moments before lowering the blind. I didnโ€™t want to disturb my neighbor, and the flight crew had asked us to leave the shutters down to keep the plane cool and save fuel. The cynic in me believesโ€”hell, the realist in me knowsโ€”the flight crew uses the darkness to keep us complacent and lethargic.

What is happening here? First, the designer of the plane has an ideal in mind, a docile human who doesnโ€™t move. The actual person is expected to conform to these standards, no matter how unnatural they may feel. The plane limits acceptable social interaction. We are only permitted to speak to the person next to us, but we arenโ€™t allowed to accidentally touch. Weโ€™re also required to curb our internal lives. We canโ€™t be too scared, disagree with absurd procedures, or even suggest constructive changes. Plato suggested that social engineering could change human behavior; Marx argued that it could change human nature. Design has succeeded where their political philosophies have failed.

Second, planes are corporate, in that they are designed for profit and they are collective. Passengers are not individuals. We are means to related ends, money and control. The more control of us they have, the more money they make, and the more identically the treat us, the more control they have. This also challenges human nature. It assumes that we have only one goalโ€”getting where we are goingโ€”and that we are willing to subsume all other aims under it.

I would have recognized none of this if I had not been reading Sarahโ€™s book while I was flying. It afforded me, not just a vocabulary to put ideas to words, but a framework through which to notice things that I had never thought. Itโ€™s not that I learned stuff from Sarahโ€™s book and then saw her conclusions in action. Itโ€™s that I understood what she told me and was thus primed to learn even more from my own experience. She turned on my architectural filter, which in turn, allowed me to analyze my surroundings in a different way.

What is particularly powerful about the architectural filter is that it reveals how our minds and bodies are being pushed through space. It explains why we want to walk through one door and not another, leave a table quickly, or trust a doctor. It also explains the increase in number and intensity of unruly passengers. As airline design whittles away our personal space and as we are required to be in ever more control of ourselves, minor infractions become akin to anarchy. Resistance only happens when a person snaps, ad snapping, by definition, means losing control of oneโ€™s own agency.

To put it another way, it is not, as we are often told, that design progresses and people reap the rewards, itโ€™s that design changes and people are force to act according to its demands, often unconsciously. Any philosopher worth his or her salt will look at all of this and ask, what is the relationship between design and free will? If architecture can define human limitations, where do our capabilities begin and where do they end?

In No Exit, Jean Paul Sartre describes three people in a room who willingly allow themselves to be psychologically tortured so they can control their roommates. They can leave at any time, but they each choose not to, resigned to an eternity of suffering for no reason other than their own egoism. Itโ€™s a tragic and undeniably accurate portrayal of the everyday blockheadedness of human beings.

The traditional way of describing the play is โ€œhell is other people,โ€ yet the first two lines describe the furniture not the characters, putting design front and center. Sartre tells us that we are in โ€œa drawing-room in Second Empire styleโ€ and that โ€œa massive bronze ornament stands on the mantelpiece.โ€œ He knows instinctively, that a different room might lead to different results. A postmodern decor might motivate people to change their moral standards; a Jugendstil couch may inflame their erotic imagination. None of those would take his characters where he wanted them to go.

Hell may indeed be other people, but the devil needs a place to stand. The lesson of my flight to Newark is that the Sartrean phrase is incomplete: hell is also bad design.

Click to listen to this episode of Why? Radio.

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