By relating to ourselves in the third person through social interaction, we are able to form a relation-to- self. If we are only conscious as perceivers of the world, we can only form judgements of the state of the external world. Only when we are reflexively aware of ourselves through the way others perceive us, can we form a judgement about ourselves.
For the realm of comfort, this has far-reaching consequences. To feel comfortable about that which we perceive can therefore not be achieved by only feeling comfortable in relation to the state of the external world, but also requires a sense of comfort in relation to ourselves. The built environment must therefore foster comfort in a broader sense, bypromoting a positive relation-to-self.
The social philosopher Axel Honneth describes how a positive relation-to-self can only be safeguarded when we are recognised by others in certain ways. Since we perceive ourselves through others, we cannot possibly perceive ourselves in a positive way, unless others do so. Firstly, we need to be recognised by others as individuals whose needs and desires are
of unique value. Secondly, we need to be recognised by others as equally morally responsible agents. And thirdly, we need to be recognised as people whose capabilities are valued within concrete communities. We cannot maintain a positive relation-to-self, and feel ourselves that our needs and desires, our ability to make moral decisions, and our capabilities are valid and valuable, unless this is recognised by others.
Architecture can play a role in this recognition, and enable us to feel comfortable through a positive relation-to-self. The first form of recognition can be denied by architecture – it can expressly ignore our needs and desires, but it cannot value them uniquely. Except in rare cases, architecture is a medium that relates to people that the architect does not intimately know. Therefore, whilst the architect can value the needs and desires of the users generally, they cannot possibly do so uniquely, as this would require a bond of affection that very rarely exists between architect and user. In addition, architectural forms of expression usually characterise the built environment for decades, whereas our needs and desires change much more rapidly. Consequently, architectural expressions – through the distanced relationship between the architect and the user or passer-by of their work – will almost never be able to adequately express a unique recognition of the needs and desires of the user or passer-by. Similarly, the distanced relationship between architect and user means that architecture can rarely be the medium of a recognition of personal capabilities that are valuable in concrete communities, as knowledge of these personal capabilities is not something that the architect usually has.
While architecture can only rarely provide these two forms of recognition essential for a positive relation-to-self, it can negate them. This is the case when architecture expresses a disvaluing of our needs and desires. “Hostile architecture” – such as the bench that prevents one to lie down on it – leads not only to physical discomfort, it is also a moralinjury that expresses to certain inhabitants of the built environment that their needs and desires are not valued. Another example are the bridges designed by urban planner Robert Moses in the early 20th century on Long Island, which were constructed so low that buses from predominantly black neighbourhoods could not travel to the city's recreational parks - which not only reduced their quality of life, but also expressed that their need for recreational greenery was not valued (and possibly actively disvalued). “Hostile architecture” therefore negates a positive relation-to-self in these inhabitants.
It is the second form of recognition, however, that architecture is able to express in a positive sense. To recognise the other as a morally accountable being
– and to the same extent as everyone else – is something that is to be expected from everyone, not only those in intimate relationships and concrete communities. Architecture is able to negate this form of recognition by diminishing its users’ sense of agency, and provide it by increasing this sense of agency. "Hostile architecture", that aims to restrict our behaviour, therefore always negates this second essential form of recognition and thereby impairs our respect for ourselves as morally responsible actors.
Architectural expressions that deny this moral respect can however be much more subtle. An example of this is the “Frankfurter Küche” designed by the architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky. The height of functionalism – this kitchen was designed based on an ergonomic study to be as spatially efficient as possible (Figure 1). The result wastherefore necessarily restrictive in terms of the types of living that could be lived out within it. The minimal space the kitchen used meant that cooking could not be a social activity, as only one person could efficiently move about it. The integrated, fold-out work surfaces were designed so that different activities (such as ironing and cooking) could not be carried out at the same time. The “Frankfurter Küche” thereby subtly expresses a disregard for the moral accountability of its users, as the type of living that occurred within it was determined by the architect, not by the user. The “Frankfurter Küche” therefore impedes its users’ development of a positive relation-to-self not by disregarding their needs and desires (the first essential form of recognition), but by disregarding the value of their judgement (the third essential form of recognition).
For architecture to provide comfort in our relation- to-self as well as in our environments, it must therefore respect the judgement and moral accountability of the user. It is not the architect's job to patronise the user by telling them how to live, but to adopt an attitude of humility and recognise that it is up to the user alone to choose their way of life. The architect must therefore allow a certain amount of flexibility in the use of spaces, and must allow for interventions of the user to make the space their own. Something as unspectacular as the integration of a display shelf expresses that the architect recognises the value of the user's judgement, by giving the user the opportunity to make the space their own.
An architectural project that beautifully recognises the judgement of the user is the Alex Monroe Studio in London, by DSDHA architects (Figure 2). While this project, like the "Frankfurter Küche", has to use its limited space efficiently, DSDHA has succeeded in incorporating spaces where the user is invited to use their judgement to decide for themselves how to use the space. The Alex Monroe Studio includes a "social staircase" whose steps were deliberately designed to be wider than necessary for mere circulation. This means, that the staircase can simultaneously also be used as a picture gallery and as a chance meeting place (Figure 3). The architectural decision to over-dimension treats the user as a responsible agent, rather than forcing them to use the space in one specific way. Not only functional design choices, but also aesthetic choices can create expressions of recognition. First of all, the aesthetic design decisions of the Alex Monroe Studio clearly speak of a recognition of the spatial context of the building:
the façades continue the existing street walls and lines of sight, the storey heights match those of the neighbouring building, and the colours complement the bright shop fronts on that side of the street. At the same time, the aesthetics of the building are outspokenly unique: using a zinc façade in contrast to the beige London brick, incorporating a flat roofinstead of a mansard, and breaking up the regularity of the façade cladding by creating the illusion of two double-height windows. The appearance of this building speaks of respect for its surroundings, recognising, as it were, the design decisions of the designers of the existing built environment.
At the same time, its appearance emanates an outspoken eclecticism that expresses recognition for individual expression (simply by embodying individual expression itself). Perhaps this building is a paradigm for an aesthetics of recognition: it neither expresses disregard for the design decisions of its context, nor does it express disregard of designdecisions that emanate otherness, since it manages to incorporate both. Expressions of recognition in architectural design speak of the attitudes of the architect and the client, and thereby express not only positive recognition for the designers of the rest of the built environment, but also for the user and the passer-by, whether they choose to integrate more with the context, or to more strongly express their individuality.
To conclude, Axel Honneth's recognition theory implies that the realm of comfort goes beyond our relation to the external world, but also encompasses our relation-to-self. The realm of comfort cannot be safeguarded only by the conformity of our environment to our needs and desires, but requires social recognition through interaction with others.Designing the built environment is a special form of social interaction that communicates ideas between the designer and the user (and vice versa). A bench that you cannot lie down on is therefore a message from the designer to a potential user, communicating that the user’s needs and desires are of no value to them. If it wants to safeguard the realm of comfort, architecture must therefore deal with the messages it expresses, in order not to express a disregard for the needs, desires, judgement and capabilities of its users. Despite the distant relationship that the architect often has with the user, architecture can contribute positively to the users’ comfort in their relation-to-self, as architecture can treat the user as a morally responsible agent, whose judgement is valued. In functional terms, this means providing the user with space and facilities enabling them to use the space in different ways, and thereby make it their own.
Aesthetically, architecture can express recognition of the judgement of other designers of the built environment by entering into a dialogue with its context and simultaneously incorporating unique forms of expression – symbolically expressing recognition of users through their identification with their surroundings.
Alex Monroe Studio - London, United Kingdom, 2012
- Architects: DSDH. “The Chicago Athenaeum,” August 22, 2014. https://www.chi-athenaeum.org.
Gaete, Javier. “Alex Monroe Studio / DSDHA.” ArchDaily, December 16, 2021. https://www.archdaily.com.
Honneth, Axel. Disrespect: The Normative Foundations of Critical Theory. Translated by Polity Press. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007.
Kessler, Glenn. “Robert Moses and the saga of the racist parkway bridges.” The Washington Post, November 10, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com
Teerds, Hans and Woltjes, Chris. Architectuur – Werk in uitvoering 1. 4th ed. Delft: Faculteit Bouwkunde, Technische Universiteit Delft, 2020.