Arts & Culture

Philosophers expand meaning of ‘space’

4 min read

At Design School, scholars discuss building and change

Gaston Bachelard, a French philosopher of science, published “The Poetics of Space” in 1958. It was a meditation on the intimate and resonant places that are the cradle of memory — things like a child’s first house, chests, drawers, nests, shells, and corners.

More than 50 years later, philosophers have to cope with new concepts of space imposed on consciousness by global markets, the Internet, ballooning population figures, social isolation, and environmental crisis. These modern pressures make Bachelard’s rooms and nests, in retrospect, seem quaint.

But his poetic ruminations on the meaning of intimate places continue to inspire thinkers faced with a crowded, ecologically stressed, interconnected world. In turn, these contemporary philosophers of space inspire architects, who are required to design structures and places responsive to modern realities.

Two of these thinkers — Peter Sloterdijk of Germany and Bruno Latour of France — visited the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) last week (Feb. 17) to deliver sequential lectures in Gund Hall’s Piper Auditorium.

The double bill was titled “Networks and Spheres: Two Ways to Reinterpret Globalization.” Sloterdijk told the brimming, fervent crowd of 450 that the double visit was bound to be “a crash course in philosophy.”

He also joked about philosophers addressing a room full of architects, designers, and humanists attentive to the meaning of created spaces. Both he and Latour, said Sloterdijk, are “deeply convinced that philosophy can happen anywhere — except in philosophy departments.”

Their studies — deep inquiries into the way the real world operates — seem to bear that out.

Sloterdijk is a professor of philosophy and media theory at the Karlsruhe School of Design in Germany. He’s the author of books famous for an intellectual reach that goes beyond the normal parameters of philosophical inquiry — from anatomy and the ancient uses of public space to mammalian facial evolution, disease, and drug cultures.

Latour, an anthropologist and philosopher by training, is vice president for research at Sciences Po, a social sciences university in Paris. He has done studies of the scientific method, technology transfer, Louis Pasteur as a political influence, modern public culture, and — like Sloterdijk — the challenges of globalization.

For Sloterdijk, the world has undergone three globalizing transformations. The first was metaphysical, prompted by Greek cosmology. The second was cosmopolitan, starting with world-spanning nautical explorations in the 16th century. The third globalizing transformation, he avers, is making the world interconnected but provincial.

For these two thinkers to visit at one time was “a historic occasion,” said GSD Dean Mohsen Mostafavi, since their ideas — avidly followed by GSD students — speak to modern demands on architecture and design.

For one, Mostafavi said, architecture has shifted “from object to atmosphere.” Buildings cannot only be imaginative representations, but have to be designed in ways mindful of the environment and human health.

Latour is widely known for actor-network theory, a way of explaining how people, ideas, and technologies interact to form a coherent whole. He touched on one new dimension of space — the World Wide Web — in “The Space of Controversies,” an interview in a recent New Geographies, a GSD quarterly. (Sloterdijk was featured in the same issue.)

Latour held that it would take “several decades” for humans to use the Web to its full potential for interactivity and “virtual witnessing.” Today, he told the interviewer, it remains little more than a means of “reproducing pages.”

For the polymath Sloterdijk, space is a leitmotif. He is the author of a three-volume opus on spheres, a spacial metaphor he uses to express the ancient wholeness of being. Spheres gathered in “stable, personalized worlds” have, said Sloterdijk, the lightness and strength of foam and embody a “strong concept of intimacy.” It’s an idea that modernizes Bachelard’s simplicity of womb and nest.

“The vast majority” of creatures, said Sloterdijk — reptiles, fish, birds — lay fertilized eggs in an outdoor setting. But a mammalian female, he said, creates in her womb “an ecological niche for her own progeny,” an evolutionary step that has created in humans “a sense of interiority.”

It is the business of designers to recapture the “healing spaces” of the past — places that provide “immunity,” he said. Sloterdijk called these desired spaces “apartments” that are “a world for a single person … anthropogenic islands … that make human life possible.”

He called Latour the “sensitive reader” any scholar would wish for. In turn, Latour quoted freely and with admiration from Sloterdijk’s work — asserting in the end that the two “are on the same side of the divide.” In their own ways, both caution designers to be mindful of their critical role in humanizing both public and private spaces.

To create supportive, large-scale environments that cultivate humanity and cooperation, said Sloterdijk, “an architect has to know more than a simple hut maker.”