Philosophy and the Built Environment

Ever since its earliest known writings, philosophy, in the course of its own pursuits, has engaged with the built environment, addressing it as a backdrop for an argument, a metaphor for an idea, a source of information, a trigger for reflection, and increasingly as a subject in itself. The heyday of these ventures occurred during a highly prolific, diverse, intense, and consequential interdisciplinary exchange with avidly curious architects and urbanists in the late twentieth century, with effects that continue to reverberate in the way these disciplines work today. But architects are not always the authors of built works, and even when they are they remain but one element, albeit an important one, of the systems that shape the massively impacting ever-present setting of our everyday lives that is the built environment. Now canonical authors in architectural theory like Walter Benjamin, Martin Heidegger, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, and many others spoke of modern designs as well as traditional homes constructed by their owners or local guilds, and of rooms, roads, railways, bridges, streets, gardens, temples, museums, prisons, towers, monuments, cemeteries, shopping arcades, urban fabrics, and even ruins, reading them with a variety of idiosyncratic outlooks that brought forth all kinds of illuminating and influential insights.

What should we talk about today? How does philosophy contribute to an understanding of the built environment? And how does the built environment as a topic inform contemporary thinking? What is there to be said and gained from these discussions by those who shape the built environment, not just architects, planners, and landscape designers, but others too, like engineers, scientists, lawmakers, speculators, activists, artists, and all of us users of these spaces? As these domains change along with the word within and upon which they operate, so do the potentials for their interactions. What are, or ought to be, the important debates concerning the built environment in the present and immediate future, and what role does philosophy play in them? What new ideas, approaches, authors, and works might illuminate them?

The Philosophy and the Built Environment Working Group tackles these questions on a monthly basis. Each session dives into a particular topic drawn from discussions on what these should be, why, and how to pursue them. Participants are invited to focus on material they themselves proposed in advance, ranging from reading to projects, with the support of special guests knowledgeable on the issue. All those interested in taking part, regularly or dropping by for specific sessions, are encouraged explore tentative new ideas in an informal, intellectually stimulating, and disciplinarily diverse setting.