Finding Meaning in the Stone: Form and Matter in Architecture

Can architectural materials have meaning apart from their form? In what ways? Philosophy professor Travis Anderson explored the theories of matter and form in art during his lecture at the Philosophy Lecture Series.

PROVO, Utah (Oct. 26, 2017)—I.M. Pei, Antoni Gaudí, Frank Lloyd Wright—their names are well known. We know their work is great, but could we explain why? Does the materiality of a building, or its appearance make great architecture great? Should architecture be evaluated on the basis of its function, or its beauty, or both? Professor of philosophy Travis Anderson explored these questions through the lens of historical philosophic theories of art during his lecture as part of the Philosophy Lecture Series.

Plato and the ancient Greeks defined art more broadly than it is defined today. For them, art included all forms of human “creation,” from stonemasonry to sculpting. Anderson explained, “The world divides up for Plato into otherworldly ideas or forms, and worldly material instances of those forms. Moreover, according to Plato. . .before this life, we had a spiritual existence, and in that spiritual existence we became acquainted with the forms that give meaning to substances, objects, and ideas in this life.“

Those pure, original forms, Plato argued, are echoed on this planet in two ways. Nature takes matter and gives it form through natural processes. The result is thus an imitation of some pure form. Likewise, humans can take matter and give it form. But in such cases, the result is also still just an imitation. Viewed in this context, Anderson said, “Matter becomes meaningful only to the degree that it is informed by some immaterial idea.”

Anderson continued, “For Plato, an artist thus recollects and imitates some form in creating an artistic product. But for Aristotle, Plato’s student, an artist invents the form or modifies existing forms.” Not only did Aristotle believe that each person had the power to assign innumerable forms to matter, he also believed that form and matter were only able to be separated abstractly. “In the case of material substances, all matter takes some form, even if it’s a dirt clod, and all form is realized in some matter,” Anderson explained.

Hylomorphism is Aristotle’s word for this confluence of matter and form. Anderson concluded, “Plato’s metaphysics together with Aristotle’s hylomorphism produces a view of matter as inherently meaningless. I’m going to argue that that’s bad for understanding architecture.”

Anderson pointed out that “for 1500 years, all architecture theory was concerned with was the form. Modern architecture theory obviously has changed that.”

Much contemporary architecture theory that concerns more than mere form can be traced to Martin Heidegger, a German philosopher who, Anderson explained that Heidegger believed the world is a totality of essential connections between people, and between people and material objects. He understood art as “a disclosive relation to the world, the whole matrix of purposeful connections, and the earth and earthly materials that gives place and substance to our world” Anderson said.

Art, for Heidegger, thus reveals something about the material it uses and the people that use it that wouldn’t be known any other way. Art can reveal the possibility of marble to become a beautiful statue of to be used as a building for social interaction and shelter. “For Heidegger,” Anderson summarized, “art is a matter of revealing the truth of the world and the earth.”

Anderson showed Van Gogh’s Starry Night as not just a gorgeous painting, but a vehicle to show the viewer something new about the world. “After seeing this painting, I defy you to go out and look at the night sky again and not . . . have the world become a different place for you than it was before.”

This novel way of thinking about materiality is relevant to architecture. The matter used in constructing architecture is just as important as the form the architecture takes. Frank Lloyd Wright is famous for using both form and material to evoke a sense of the natural landscape surrounding his architecture. His homes echo their surroundings both inside and out.

A last example of the effect of materiality on our world is the classroom. Anderson asked the audience to consider the difference between learning in a plain, fluorescently-lit classroom in comparison to one with oak walls and stained glass. “What role does materiality play architecturally?” he asked. “Can it have meaning apart from the form that is imposed on it?”

He concluded, “I would suggest that we have some thinking to do here about materiality, [and that] the reason why great works of architecture are considered great are, in part, because those architects have been sensitive . . . to meaning in the material they used.”


Olivia Madsen (B.A. French language, ’18)

Olivia Madsen covers events for the Philosophy Department of the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in French language with a minor in international development.



Pictures from Designboom, Painting Sarah, and Architectural Digest