Dalibor Vesely

Dalibor Vesely

Dalibor Vesely was born in Prague, Czech Republic in 1934. He studied engineering, architecture, art history and philosophy in Prague and in Munich and obtained his Ph.D from Charles University in Prague. He studied with Hans-Georg Gadamer, with whom he kept a correspondence that would last until the end of Gadamer's life. He was also taught by Jan Patočka and has developed an interest in the poetics and hermeneutics of architecture. As a professor of architecture, Vesely has been influential in establishing the role of hermeneutics and phenomenology as part of the design and discourse of architecture. He has taught some of the current leading architects and architectural historians, such as Daniel Libeskind and Alberto Pérez-Gómez. He has taught at the University of Essex, at the Architectural Association in London and since 1978 at the University of Cambridge, where he also started an M.Phil. programme in History and Philosophy of Architecture. Vesely currently teaches also Architectural History and Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, and is Honorary Professorial Fellow at the Manchester School of Architecture. In 2005 he was recipient of the CICA Bruno Zevi Book Award granted by the International Committee of Architectural Critics. In 2006 the Royal Institute of British Architects honoured Dalibor Vesely with the Annie Spink Award for Excellence in Architectural Education.

Architecture and hermeneutics

Vesely’s work may be understood primarily as a contribution to cultural hermeneutics. Vesely’s exploration of the historical background of modern science in the sixteenth- and seventeenth centuries is particularly rich in detail and insight onto the changing nature of representation. Vesely polemises on concepts such as perspective and anamorphosis, which are traditionally understood to have taken departure from Renaissance culture. Vesely challenges these views with the depth of the problem of representation; a question which has divided Western philosophy as regards the epistemological possibility of representation and understanding of natural phenomena. The ‘birth’ of modern science and its increasing challenge on traditional views has also marked the divide within the possibilities of representation. In the context of the seventeenth century, this was especially clear as a polemics surrounding the nature of scientific work and philosophical understanding.

According to Vesely, the inevitable partiality of such representations is at the very core of the problem that affects the cultural understanding of representation. The contingent nature of representation was not always understood as a divide originating all kinds of dualisms. Before modern science, representation was naturally contingent and the universal aspirations of science (metaphysics) were bound to the nature of the epistemological ground (arché). Vesely’s work traces back the ontological foundations of modern representation to their original Greek context, clarifying their original meaning. In Architecture in the Age of Divided Representation (2004), Vesely presents the notion of ground as having a provisional nature, that can only be seized as a continuity of reference through different levels of representation, ranging from the more explicit, visible world down to a latent world of potential articulation. Precisely this continuity is what may allow us to address the modern, fragmented notion of representation as a task of rehabilitation, which would trace the fragment back to its original representational whole.

Architecture and representation

In Architecture in the Age of Divided Representation (2004), Vesely sets the problem of representation from the experience of architecture, as it constantly works through different modes of representation, including "built reality".

Vesely defines the present cultural situation as divided and ambiguous, especially when it comes to architecture (pp. 4-12, 36, 44 ss). Twentieth-century architecture placed its trust in the epistemological model of modern science and technology that is today largely reflected in instrumental concepts of city and suburban landscape. When epistemology initiated its foundational enterprise it could hardly suspect that its role in validating scientific knowledge would very soon be challenged. Quine's Epistemology Naturalized (1969) reports how this is precisely what happened when it became clear that the argument developed in the terms of logical empiricism was not based on the same empirical standing as the sciences. Today, the attempt to rehabilitate epistemology faces the problem of bridging this gap. This is obviously not an easy task, since the gap is between different modes of representation and concepts of knowledge that in some cases precede modern science, i.e., precede the historical notion of scientific knowledge as it takes course from the seventeenth- and sixteenth centuries.

Vesely's research delves into these historical settings that are understood to be the birth place of modern science in the general hope of exposing the origin of our modern notion of knowledge and how it came about to emancipate from traditional representations of the world. Vesely’s research has accordingly been working out the historical notion of representation, as it constitutes a central issue in this historical affair; and the construction of a modern notion of knowledge has much to do with a changing nature in the concept of representation (pp. 13-19). The concept of representation as it is generally understood today largely surpasses the particular historical context in which modern epistemological concepts began to emerge. According to Vesely, this is because representation works on the basis of a certain "continuity between a particular mode of representation and what is represented" (p. 14), a notion of representation which is at least common to the whole of European architectural history.

The modern situation

When looking at the modern situation, Vesely finds that the understanding of the problem of representation is generally structured on the basis of an ontological difference that is intrinsic to representation itself. This is precisely the difference that allows representation to emancipate from that which it represents, and from the particular circumstances in which it takes place (pp. 4-5). The discussion of ontological difference therefore constitutes an epistemological difference affecting the conditions and possibilities of knowledge. And speculative thought, which we so associate with modern science, is built on this difference. Charles Taylor (1995) points out how the question for modern science is to fit a particular mode of representation to another, extrinsic representation: what we commonly call the "outer reality". The difference between the two constantly jeopardizes the epistemological value of representation; and affects not only the way in which representation relates to what it means to represent, but also between different modes of representing it.

In response, Vesely's work explores how architecture constantly works between different modes of representation, through the difference between project and what is built, for instance, when it translates a whole city into a diagram, a plan or a map. The simple act of reading a map involves more than just the imagination to relate the map with the buildings and the surrounding space; it involves the reciprocity between different levels of representation, that may intake discrepancy and lack of information. According to Vesely, this kind of discrepancy might be useful to understand the nature of the problem of representation, and may in fact become a means to understand what impairs the communication between different levels of representation, and conversely, what happens when such communication takes place.

Vesely also takes up the example of an experiment that, paradoxically or not, was carried out in the hey-day of logical empiricism. The experiment was carried out by Schilder, and involved a temporary inversion of the visual field (pp. 46ss), leaving other perceptual fields untouched. Schilder's experiment addressed the discontinuity between the visual and other fields of perception, and exposed the situated human body as a basic structure of spatial reference (pp. 48-49). Vesely investigates how the subjects of the experiment found that their bodies were the first instance they could rely on when trying to situate in a visual world that was not only upside down, but also turned from left to right; and when trying to perform simple gestures like picking up a book, or reading. Although the experience was difficult to endure, the inverted vision could be partially reconciled with the original body structure (p. 47).

According to Vesely, the ability to reconcile the acquired inverted vision with the situational structure of the human body, points out to a deeper problem when dealing with situation, which is related to our ability to become situated on provisional grounds, even when lacking a fundamental 'ground' of spatial or temporal reference. The example from inverted vision also means to show that such a basis is far from being immediate; it is constituted in the process of a search within the actual space and comes about as a correlation between different levels of representation such as visual, tactile, and so forth. Vesely elaborates on situation and the phenomenon of being situated as an example of how we contextualize spatial knowledge and on which basis; and on how a particular point of reference allows us to situate spatial knowledge. In the course of the argument, Vesely successfully demonstrates that what constitutes the fabric of situation is a continuity of reference and experience through different forms of articulating spatiality down to an implicit structure that itself is neither visual nor tactile, and is only potentially articulated in the objective realm (pp. 48, 82-87, 378ss).

Situation and perception

Vesely’s argument on the epistemological process of being situated develops in terms of an analogy to the formation of the visual field. And takes the organic ability of sight only as a point of departure to the phenomenon of vision, i.e. what one is able to recognize and know out of visual perception. Accordingly, the natural process of seeing is shown to be a result from learning. Vesely presents the example of inborn conditions of blindness treated through surgery, where sight itself only emerges after a painful stage of learning, and without which, the recently-acquired sense of sight would be unable to detach or recognize individual objects out of a ‘visual field’ (pp. 50-51). Vesely describes how the integration of the newly-acquired sense relies on the fact that the world of the blind is already structured, not only in terms of temporal sequences, but spatially; and that the reconciliation of the new ability of sight takes place on an already structured ground of existing objects and spatiality. Perception such as visual or tactile is reconciled upon an implicitly structured ground.

Vesely shows how the task of bridging different plateaux of representation can only be fulfilled by covering the distance to a common 'ground' (pp. 61-63). 'Ground' is like a point of departure from which it would become possible to uncover the basic structure of spatiality; but it is hardly the case that such an epistemological ground can provide us with an absolute source of spatial reference. The notion of epistemological ground is not established a priori, as a given point of reference. It comes about in the process of searching, taking place as a continuum of references between different levels of spatial understanding. In which case, what constitutes the structural source of situation is this stream of references (p. 60).

Vesely's notion of ground consists of a primary source of reference that in many ways coincides with the traditional Greek understanding of arché. Arché is not an absolute source of reference, but only a primary one that works as a point of departure towards our notion of "earth" and our understanding of "world" (pp. 50-52). This is an insecure ground that in a sense, speaks more of its own topography, than of clearly defined rules and references. Although this is an unfamiliar ground for modern science, Vesely accurately describes how much of the understanding of what it means to be situated derives from the knowledge of daily situations on Earth, where horizon and gravity play a common role. Accordingly, architecture's task of raising and 'building' situations does not address the mere existence of conditions such as floor or gravity, but concerns the fundamental condition of 'ground' allowing the phenomenon of situation to take place.

Situation and knowledge

On the epistemological level, this means that for Vesely, the nature of ‘ground’ allows an understanding of ‘spatial structure’; like a hermeneutical key granting access to phenomena of spatiality. Contemporary architecture has been particularly keen on challenging the average views on ground viz. gravity as a basic ground for the displacement of the subject. This is particularly the case of the collaborative architectural enterprise of Peter Eisenman and Jacques Derrida. Although most architecture cannot escape the ‘predicament’ of gravity, there are numerous examples of play with gravity and the 'visual weight' of architectural mass against gravity, starting from the early twentieth-century constructivism. Such architectural play shows an impulse towards the emancipation from gravity as a natural source of situation, and looks forward to expose a more fundamental ground of reference and its problematic nature. Architecture is thus setting a clear challenge on everyday experience as naturally structured in terms of up and down, and according to a horizontal ground. The experiment of the ‘inverted vision’ seems to show exactly that: the touch of ground helps to define the vertical and the relative distances of objects, orientation, and to recognize the physiognomy of the space. Outside these conditions it seems more or less obvious that the 'grounds' for situation escape our grasp. At the same time architects are conscious that it is precisely the implicit nature of ground as a structure of references that makes the task of its architectural exploration so difficult.

Moreover, according to Vesely, the notion of ‘ground’ can never provide us with an absolute knowledge of the whole, but only with a mediated understanding of spatial structure. This means that the task of uncovering the hidden nature of ground becomes, a fortiori, one of looking for a provisional ground that is beyond gravity as a natural source of spatial reference. The first long-term programme dealing with the consequences of the absence of gravity was developed already in 1973 by the NASA Sky Lab. Vesely reports how one of the greatest difficulties encountered by the astronauts is the constant loss of orientation that becomes a general difficulty in recognizing previously known situations. Without gravity, an otherwise familiar compartment would be unrecognizable if not seen from a particular angle. The Sky Lab experience seems to illustrate quite well how the phenomenon of spatial structure and situation comes to be known through a sequence of approximations. Without the right orientation, simple recognition such as finding objects in their right places would become an almost impossible task. Once found the right orientation towards objects, however, the entire spatial frame of the compartment was recognized and so would all objects in their right places and relative positions. In a situation without light or gravity, one of the Sky Lab astronauts also described how a single touch on one of the walls of the space compartment would be sufficient to enact the knowledge of the relative position of the body with respect to all objects (pp. 52-54). This seems to be particularly relevant to show how a particular point of visual or tactile reference can provide with orientation; a physiognomic recognition of the space; and be related to the spatial disposition of the whole. These are instances that, according to Vesely, constitute a continuity of spatial reference and an epistemological, provisional ground. As it arises in the continuity of understanding the potential structure of the space, the notion of ground seems to be of a projective nature (p. 103).

The continuity of reference

Vesely seems to confer a projective ability on spatiality that is thus knowable from its own potential to generate a situation. According to Vesely, the continuity of reference to ground exists within a permanent tension with the actual space, a continuity which under certain conditions may be disrupted and even destroyed (pp. 55-56). The fact that there are discrepancies between different levels of representation should perhaps be no surprise as it is the case of the above-mentioned examples of reading a map, or orienting oneself in a space under zero gravity. That there is discrepancy between the given representation of a space and the actual space is in fact a common datum of everyday experience. The question is not to be solved, although it may constitute one important point of departure to understand the phenomenon of representation. This is particularly the case of extreme conditions where the phenomenon of 'continuity' is no longer recognizable. In the cases of aphasia and apraxia, which rank among others of what is generally known as mental blindness, there is a blatant discontinuity between the possibilities of notional understanding and the actual performance of a purposive act or standard articulation of speech. The work and research that has been carried out on mental blindness tends to show that the ability to articulate both speech and purposive actions and gestures is nonetheless affected by the surrounding environment, and is not based upon mental impairment alone. On the contrary, it has become increasingly clear that such conditions do not take place solely as a result of mental functions; neither can they be enacted by the situational structure, as both contribute to the failure and success of treatment (p. 57). Vesely brings the argument about these conditions back to the experiments regarding orientation, such as the inverted vision experiment and orientation under zero gravity conditions, and correlates it with the problems experienced with mental blindness. This is because of the fundamental knowledge of spatiality that is at stake that enables a possible representation to be actually effected. As regards spatiality, Vesely presupposes an existing continuity between the possible and the actual spatial configuration, as a mediated structure (p. 58). This understanding of representation seems to reverberate Husserl's phenomenological treatment of representation, as moving from the horizon of vague, informal representation (Vorstellung), through a number of possibilities (Vergegenwärtigungen), until it finally reaches actuality (Repräsentation). The fact that Husserl only used the word Repräsentation to deal with explicit forms of representation, may serve us as an example of how a whole representational process was being kept in the background. Husserl's process of representation shows that our knowledge of spatiality intakes different levels of articulation, which are not always as clearly defined as we would wish. This means that the ground and point of departure of explicit references is not a point of departure towards a growing, cumulative knowledge of situation, but is rather a 'coming back' into a prereflective world of experience. In this sense, representation takes place as a spectrum ranging out of explicit forms of articulation into an implicit background, a concept that seems to be confirmed by later phenomenology of perception. It seems obvious that, because of the nature of this prereflective ground, verbal or visual articulation of it cannot take place in an explicit sense. On the contrary, the phenomenological gaze at this background takes place indirectly (p. 69) as a preunderstanding of the world. If this is so, then not only our epistemological ground is constituted as an identity of interpretation of different levels of perception, but also the concept of representation as such is constituted as a movement out of a prereflective background. This is precisely the background against which it becomes possible for an articulated structure to take place and be identified as such (pp. 75-77). This also means that the difference between different levels of articulation, namely between a preunderstanding background and a given object is precisely what allows us to see the object and situate it within our world of experience. If we accept Vesely's argument, then the difference that formerly stood as an epistemological barrier now becomes a necessary condition for representation to take place.

The latent world of architecture

Vesely addresses the preunderstanding of world as a latent world (p. 83), that is potentially articulated and structured, and whose relationship to its visible manifestation is not immediate. The relationship between this prearticulated level and its visible articulation dwells within the very ontological difference that we have been discussing. On the ontological level, we can only perhaps speak in a metaphorical way as a coming into being. We have thus entered the very core of the question of representation, in the terms of its coming into the level of visibility. In the sequence of our argument, the subject of visibility is now, of itself, problematic in nature as it intakes a background of potential articulation. According to Vesely, "the horizon of visibility displays a synthesis of the prereflective experience and of the achievements of reflection insofar as they preserve ontological continuity with the visible" (p. 85). On the other hand, the rise onto the explicit level of visibility primarily seems to express the problem of representation in terms of what is kept from the prereflective world. This is because of the correlation that basically intakes the traditional concept of inner representation as relating to an external reality. Since Vesely challenges this concept by extending representation as a spectrum that ranges from the explicit level of articulation to an implicit world; the notion of reality is left as a somewhat adjectivated notion that allows to qualify only certain types of representation (e.g. virtual reality) that address reality as something extrinsic (pp. 308-315). Vesely's concept of representation, however, takes place in terms of a communication between a wide range of levels; whereby the question that concerns representation also concerns the truth of representation, a question that has been amply developed by modern hermeneutics. What is particularly interesting for us here is that the visible world conveys a kind of knowledge of the prereflective levels of articulation that also jeopardizes the epistemological status of the visible. As we have seen, contrary to empiricist belief, the visible world by itself does not constitute an epistemological ground (pp. 84-86). Instead, our epistemological ground is constituted by features such as orientation, physiognomy, and the relative position of things with regard to one another; and it is from these features that a provisional ground comes to be constituted as regards spatiality. This ground is not a still point of reference. On the contrary, by ground is here meant a source and stream of references. This means that the horizon we set on the visible, tangible world is the most explicit form of embodiment we have, but such a narrow horizon we can only take as a point of departure if we want to understand the rest of our world that is largely beyond visibility. This also means that the visible holds a very important part as a symbolic representation of our world, enabling us to see and imagine beyond the visible.

Finally, this means that we construe our knowledge of 'world' largely on the basis of invisible, implicit references which are only symbolically re-enacted by the visible realm. The level of visual representation may perhaps be compared to the level of more explicit verbal articulation as regards the implicit, preverbal domain of knowledge. Just as visual representation, verbal articulation has the power to emancipate from the given world, and the freedom to convey any meaning. This is a power bestowed upon representation, allowing it to withdraw from its original symbolic domain, thus establishing a tension between the instrumental nature of representation and its larger symbolic field.


  • The Architectonics of Embodiment In: Body and Building (MIT Press, 2002).
  • Space, Simulation and Disembodiment in Contemporary Architecture In: Architecture and Phenomenology (Eindhoven, 2002).
  • Architecture in the Age of Divided Representation The Question of Creativity in the Shadow of Production (MIT Press, 2004). ISBN 0-262-22067-9
  • The Latent World of Architecture In: Space-Place, Symposium on Phenomenology and Architecture (HK Heritage Museum, 2005).

Further reading

  • Derrida, Jacques (1993). Khôra Paris: Galilée.
  • _____________ (1967, 2003). La voix et le phénomène : Introduction au problème du signe dans la phénoménologie de Husserl. Paris: Presses universitaires de France.
  • Eisenman, Peter (1999). Diagram Diaries London: Thames and Hudson.
  • Heidegger, Martin (1925, 1985). Categorial Intuition In: A History of the Concept of Time, trans. T. Kisiel Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 47-72.
  • Husserl, Edmund (1900, 2001). Logical Investigations, vol. 2 International Library of Philosophy.
  • _____________ (1970). The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, trans. D. Carr Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press.
  • Kornblith, Hillary (ed.) (1985). Naturalizing Epistemology Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • MacArthur, John (1993). Experiencing Absence: Eisenman, Derrida, Benjamin and Schwitters In: Knowledge in/and/or/of Experience. Brisbane: IMA, pp. 99-123.
  • Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1945, 1998). Phénoménologie de la perception Paris: Gallimard.
  • Pérez-Gómez, Alberto (1983). Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • Quine, Willard Van Orman (1969). Ontological Relativity and Other Essays. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Rorty, Richard (1979). Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
  • Taylor, Charles (1995). Overcoming Epistemology In: Philosophical Arguments (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, pp. 1-19.
  • Toulmin, Stephen (1990). Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

See also

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