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Wittgenstein's Stonborough House and the Architecture of Tadao Ando

The following article appeared in French in Daruma in Spring 2007.

Wittgenstein's Stonborough House is a unique example of a philosopher's attempt to express his ideas through architecture. At the end of a psychological crisis, which had led to a temporary suspension of all his philosophical activities, Wittgenstein was asked by his sister Margaret to build a house for her in the suburbs of Vienna. Though having no training as an architect, Wittgenstein accepted enthusiastically. The planning and construction of the house (1926-28) falls into the intermediate period of what are called the earlier and the later phases of Wittgenstein's philosophical work. Wittgenstein was about to renounce his earlier extremely logically oriented philosophy, in order to find new ways of expression in less formal reflections.

Suffering until the late 70s from indifference from the part of philosophers as well as architects, the Wittgenstein House has by now been thoroughly evaluated with regard to its position in the history of modern architecture, as has its relation with Wittgenstein's philosophy. (1) The aim of the present note is not to add anything new to these analyses, but to show that a certain attitude towards modernity proper to Wittgenstein can be seen as being also a dynamic driving force in the work of the Japanese architect Tadao Ando. I shall first list the most striking points of resemblance between Ando and Wittgenstein that appear in their architectural expression as well as their personalities. First, it must be said that neither Wittgenstein nor Ando benefited from fulltime architectural training. A kind of self-conscious "dilettantism" might thus have contributed to the development of similar phenomena in their respective works:

1. The firm decision to resist all tendencies.

2. The principle to value intuition much higher than any geometrical rule (for Wittgenstein, pre-established rules can only intuitively be shown).

3. The appreciation of craftsmanship.

4. The decision to stick to a certain kind of material particularly well suited to the ideal of precision within the context of certain architectural ideas.

5. The choice of "hard" and durable materials (metal, concrete).

6. The evaluation of the effect of light and shadow (more or less forgotten in mainstream Western modern architecture) leading to a severity of abstraction, whose scope goes beyond the creation of a merely "abstract space". As a consequence, the perception of depth and shallowness appears as "pure".

7. An extremely simple exterior of their houses hides a unique interior.


Pictures: Stonborough House

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Simplicity is central to Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, which is, in general, characterized by the refusal of any essentialism. This means that Wittgenstein refuses to see appearances as determined by an essential content. Instead he develops a “formalist philosophy” insisting on the self-sufficiency of form without thinking "form" as something that is cut off from life. However, for Wittgenstein the “form” is never purely abstract, although it is not a “function” either, since a function could still be fashioned according to the needs of life. For Wittgenstein, the (aesthetic or moral) “form” represents the highest ideal according to which life should be shaped. This “form of life” or “style of life” cannot simply be expressed through principles derived from life, but appears as a “picture” imposing its validity at the very moment it comes into being. In other words, the “form” appears through the silence of that about which one cannot speak. In this way, it appears as a transcendental input, uniting ethics and aesthetics as a self-sufficient entity. By designing the Stonborough House, Wittgenstein suggested a way of expressing philosophical thoughts through an activity that does not create language but which comes closer to the creation of pictures. It is an activity supposed to give a form to the life of human beings. This activity is architecture.

Wittgenstein's ideas about the refusal of both aestheticism and functionalism as long as these remain merely linguistic principles (arbitrarily) derived from life, would find very few supporters among Western “modern” architects. It took a Japanese soul-mate to apply similar thoughts in a similarly radical fashion. In both Wittgenstein’s and Ando’s work we are confronted with a simplicity and sobriety able to produce a sense of the “objective.” The “sobriety” is not applied in the service of a functionalism admitted as the highest aim of architecture. Nor is “simplicity” the result of a mere “aestheticizing” aversion against ornamentation (as in the case of Loos). Both Wittgenstein and Ando are in search of a purity exceeding the requirements of both function and mere aestheticism.

Form of Life

The question is one of the search for a "form of life". In 1980, Ando claimed that "life patterns can be extracted and developed from living under severe conditions" (Japan Architect 1980:4). This idea is indeed rather "Wittgensteinian". When Ando decides to combat the "superfluous", he is not looking for a functionalism able to provide superficial comfort. His Townhouse at Kujo, for example, has been called irrational and inconvenient. However, as usual, Ando decided not to listen to the demands of society. What is more important than social, functional or aesthetic imperatives is "the clarity of one's logic."

Wittgenstein's house, however "logical" it might appear through the formal and pure structures of its realization, is also totally impractical and in thus "illogical". It has its "own logic". Therefore one can say that for Wittgenstein and Ando, the genuine architectural pursuit is not to "create rules for the pleasure of it" (cf. Ando in "Shintai"), but to create rules whose necessity flows of their own logic. This logic cannot be explained but appears as a "private logic". As mentioned, for Wittgenstein it represents the coincidence of ethics and aesthetics. Ando expresses the same idea when claiming that "beauty dwells in the function" (ibid). Ando and Wittgenstein do not simply oppose function and aesthetics but ask for the aesthetic and moral justification of the function. They do not accept the function itself as an explanation. Both Wittgenstein and Ando find that modernity is lacking such a genuine approach towards architecture inasmuch as it is lacking a morality able to coordinate aesthetic form with a “form of life."

Picture: Ito House (Ando)

Picture: Koshino House (Ando)

Emptiness, Silence

The "emptiness" sought by Wittgenstein when requesting silence at the moment the unspeakable (das Unsagbare) has crystallized, corresponds to Ando's call for silence as the degree zero of symbolization. There is no speech except that uttered by the empty space, which becomes obvious when Ando says: "I prefer for the space to speak and for the walls to produce no sense of their own identities."

In Ando's work, the silence is inspired by the Buddhist concept of emptiness. (2)
The similarity becomes clear when one considers that both Ando's and Wittgenstein's silence is opposed to that of Loos, which is merely a refusal of semiotic signs. Hubert Damisch speaks of Loos's "desire for emptiness" which led him to refuse different (ornamental) styles which, as a result, ended up as a new, distinct style. (3) What will never be found by such an approach is a "form of life". Such a form of life is not just any style (not even one resulting from a refusal of other styles) but a style expressing the "unspeakable". Wittgenstein would say that such a style is a quality that "shows itself", like an image. Ando says that the space (and not the concrete elements surrounding the space) will "speak" this silence and create a "form". Through this approach, form or style are removed from all practical considerations.

Picture: Church of light (Ando)

For this reason "impractical" people like Wittgenstein and Ando are more predestined to find such a style than a practical person like Loos. Loos was an artist creating "for life" by developing outspoken ideas about lifestyles. Wittgenstein and Ando are craftsmen who work in silence, creating places that cannot be grasped by language but only "felt" as images.

Body Architecture, Architecture as Gesture

To say that images are "felt" means in this context that they have a relationship with the body. The link between architecture and the body indeed represents an important element for any appreciation of both Wittgenstein's and Ando's architecture. Ando insists on "architecture's physical, carnal quality or (...) the labyrinthine quality of the body." (4) Wittgenstein says that "architecture is a gesture", suggesting that any form of life expressed through architecture must be linked to its bodily interiorization. (5) Gestures are bodily expressions, and this, finally, is what distinguishes architecture from language.

Ando's reevaluation of the Japanese notion of "shintai" (translated as "body-spirit") aims at a similar articulation of the world through the body. Architecture makes lifestyles more "profound" (Ando says this in regard to the traditional Japanese tea-house) because, being bodily itself, it necessarily has an effect on the body. Here, a "form" or a "style" of life is not a matter of rationality in the usual sense of the word, but is able to create its own form of rationality. It is obvious how much this is in keeping with Wittgenstein's thinking. (6)


Picture: Langen Foundation, Hombroich, Germany (Ando)


When Ando says that the body for him is an "oneiric prison", he aims at a "purity exceeding function", and this purity comes very close to the logic or "function" that we encounter in dreams. Wittgenstein says about dream: "What impresses us in dream is not its causal connection, but rather the fact that it is like a story (...) whose rest remains in the dark." (7) It is this "part of the story" which is able to create its own logic independently of an overall linguistic structure.

A German journalist once wrote that when walking through the Wittgenstein house, one has the impression of walking through the strange and dreamlike corridors of the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. For Ando as well as for Wittgenstein, the limitation of all expression to an internal structure that is at once complex and simple creates a feeling of purity that is not the one common in modern aesthetics, but rather reminiscent of the experience of dream.

Thorsten Botz-Bornstein

Picture: Stonborough House


1. Cf. P. Wijdefeld: Wittgenstein Architect (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1994); G. Gebauer (ed.): Wien Kundmanngasse 19. Bauplanerische und Philosophische Aspekte des Wittgenstein-Hauses (Munchen: Fink, 1982); B. Leitner: "La Maison Wittgenstein" in J. Clair (ed.): Vienne 1880-1938. Apocalypse joyeuse (Paris: Centre Pompidou, 1986); J. Bouveresse: "Wittgenstein et l'architecture" (in op. cit).

2. For rapprochements of Wittgenstein and Eastern philosophy see my article "Nishida and Wittgenstein: From Pure Experience to Lebensform or New Perspectives for a Philosophy of Intercultural Communication" in Asian Philosophy 13:1, 2003. See also Paul Wienpahl's article from 1958, "Zen and the Work of Wittgenstein" (Chicago Review 12:2), in which the author explains the coincidence of Wittgenstein's complete clarity or simplicity with the Zen notion of no-mind: "Wittgenstein said: For the clarity we are aiming at is indeed complete clarity. But this simply means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear" (P.I., 133). Of a master, it is reported: when asked what he was doing sitting cross-legged quietly, Yao-shan said: "Thinking of that which is beyond thinking." "How do you go on with thinking that which is beyond thinking?" asked a visitor. Yao-shan: By not-thinking." (p. 70-71)

3. H. Damisch: "L'autre Ich ou le desir du vide: pour un tombeau d'Adolf Loos" in Critique 1975, Nr. 339-340 (aug.-sept.), p. 811.

4. Ando: "Representation and Abstraction" in F. Dal Co: Tadao Ando Complete Works (London: Phaidon, 1995), p. 454.

5. Wittgenstein: Vermischte Bemerkungen: Werkausgabe Vol. 8 (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1984), p. 510 (1942).

6. A related principle we find perhaps only in Paul Viriolio's "oblique architecture" of the 1960s that was meant to turn human dwellings into a permanent training ground for the body. See Sylvère Lotringer & Paul Virilio: The Accident of Art (New York, Semiotext(e), 2005): "Buildings would be entirely made of inclined planes that required a special effort, and would make sure that we would remain conscious of our concrete existence through obstacles in everyday life. Consumerism was beginning to make everything abstract and insubstantial - merely comparing signs - and [Paul Viriolio was] rushing in emergency remedial features. Oblique architeture was a version of Artaud's theater of cruelty, a modernist strategy meant to counter people’ increasing absorption in a universe of signs and images. A spiritual antidote to the Society of the Spectacle" (p. 44-45).

7. VB, p. 547 (1948). For Wittgenstein's general attitude towards dream see my article "The Dream of Language: Wittgenstein's Concept of Dream in the Context of Style and Lebensform" in The Philosophical Forum 34:1, 2003, pp. 73-90.

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