The Apollonian and Dionysian in Architecture.

Architecture is the synthesis between the real and the spiritual.  The real is the body of elements that influence a building towards its practical function; it is the rationalist necessity or the objective aims of built works.  The spiritual is that in a  building which is unrelated to, and unsupported by, necessity.  The spiritual is borne of a desire to create something that transcends the laws of practical reality. It is the will to create beauty; to satisfy a deep unknowable longing.  In theory the real is objective and the subjective is spiritual, however, the objective is continuously tempered by the bias of the individual. Conversely, when subjectivity resonates with an almost universal approval, or is validated in time with age value, the notion of total subjectivity can blur.  The purely pragmatic is merely shelter; the purely aesthetic is merely sculpture. 

 The aesthetic, spiritual element in architecture can be self-reflexive, taking cues from methods previously thought of as objective, rational and appropriate. On the other hand, aesthetics can run counter to the practicalities of built work. These a-tectonic gestures seek to divorce the pragmatic aims of a built work from its aesthetic aims.  Objectivist aesthetics can be found in the expressive rationalism of Louis Sullivan’s skyscrapers or the pure structural diagram of Crown Hall by Mies Van Der Rohe, while Erich Mendelsohn’s Einstein tower or Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Museum represent blatantly subjective aims. 

 With expressive rationalism, aesthetics take on an Apollonian desire towards discipline and restraint.  The work seeks a rhythm in accordance with its own demands; it rests within its own framed completion.  Expressionist architecture respects the Dionysian; it desires play, and a break from discipline: freedom of unadulterated expression removed from the demands of corporeal constraints (structure, program, gravity, client, budget).

 Nietzsche writes that the Apollonian seeks out truth and regards its expression as symbolic of that truth.  It seeks to eliminate contradiction and is thus inflexible: it is catholic.  The Apollonian does not acknowledge its temporary nature.  Instead it often whole-heartedly mistakes itself for an expression of timelessness.   Its aims are thus purely spiritual even if they poetically echo the diagram of the pragmatic work (late Mies Van Der Rohe). 

 The Dionysian is aware of the subjective nature of aesthetic expression.  It is open to its openness of interpretation.  It is nebulous and aware that its perception will change with time.  It acknowledges time and may chose to celebrate temporality and the torrid nature of perception.  Building materials are thus made with weathering in mind. The building is not suspended in an ideal state: it has an intended lifespan.  This very duality between the Apollonian and the Dionysian is denied by the former and embraced by the latter.

 Regardless of whether aesthetics are Apollonian or Dionysian, they are always in contrast to the true demands of the built work.  Pragmatic reality is constantly an opposing force against the creative will to order or make poetry of the raw necessities of shelter. Once the work is actually projected onto clients, budgets, and regulations, each of the architect’s careful fantasies is sifted through the filter of realistic demands.  Thus there is the duality between the pragmatic and the aesthetic. As stated above, there is also an additional, nested duality in this paradigm between an aesthetics of pragmatism and an aesthetics of pure art. 

 Architecture itself is an expression of this very duality.  It is a manifestation of the frustration between the purity of artistic thought and the constraints of reality.  The acknowledgement of duality itself is thus the foundation and tension found in great works of architecture.


More on that later….

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1 Response to The Apollonian and Dionysian in Architecture.

  1. Heba says:

    this is so informative, but also extremely beautifully-written! thank you! this was a joy to read.

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