“Every building must have… its own soul”. American architect Louis Kahn once uttered these immortal words. But what is a building’s soul? By definition, a soul is, “the spiritual part of a person that some people believe continues to exist in some form after their body has died”. So, when left on the verge of dilapidation or worse yet subjected to demolition – widely acknowledged to be the end of a building’s lifecycle or its ‘death’ – what remains?
As opposed to the death of a person, the death of a work of architecture is somewhat less finite. It can be rebuilt from the remnants: drawings and schematics recounting every square inch to once again comprise the architectural whole. However, it remains to be seen if the legacy of such visual esoterica can ever re-encapsulate the ‘soul’ of the built ‘body’ and, if so, is life after demolition ever the same?
Where does architecture go to die? Landfill? Reclamation site? Indeed, physical ruins may end up in such places but what of intellectual ruins? Plans, sections, and elevations are often laid to rest in archives but some find digital life after physical death. Advances in AR, VR and 3-D printing have birthed new forms of architectural reproduction. Blueprints can, in this day and age, be accurately reconstructed in bits and bytes as opposed to bricks and mortar.
But as its definition makes abundantly clear, the soul is that which is spiritual; how a person made you feel, their intangible nature and irreplaceable aura. If it is our unique experiences of a person that comprise our definition of their ‘spirit’ then perhaps the same can be said for architecture? If the spiritual lies in the experiential what, then, are the tenets of our experience? I’ll give you a clue, we have five: hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch.
Raw sensory data forms the foundation of our architectural experience. All five senses contribute to the unconscious formation of an architecture’s subjective spirit, or soul. Recounting our experience of any given building we may recall anything from the faint sound of traffic outside to the rough, yet tactile, texture of its façade and everything in between. Individually, each of the senses can stimulate memory but together they form memories.
And while the emergence of digital replications of architecture as viable sources of architectural dissemination is gaining momentum there has yet to be a reconstruction that conjures the same so-called soul as the original. Our sensory systems detect and respond to stimuli, whether architectural or otherwise. A duplication must, therefore, stimulate all five senses in order to evoke the same temporal characteristics as its predecessor.
One of Kahn’s own works of architecture was recently sentenced to death. Fortunately, plans to demolish part of the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad were scuppered following global protests but his undying belief that “Every building must have… its own soul” serves as a reminder of what is at stake when defining works composing the oeuvre of architectural history are threatened. Bricks can be replaced, a sensorial experience – or soul – cannot.
Hiba Alobaydi is a London-based architecture and design editor and writer. She graduated from the Architectural History MA course at University College London’s Bartlett School of Architecture with Distinction and have written for various institutions and publications including the London Festival of Architecture, Architecture Ireland Magazine and Dezeen.
“Hush now, even concrete has feelings - Louis Kahn searched for souls in buildings and talked to bricks”, Independent, accessed February 13 2021, https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/news/architecture-hush-now-even-concrete-has-feelings-louis-kahn-searched-for-souls-in-buildings-and-talked-to-bricks-along-the-way-he-inspired-some-of-the-greatest-modern-architects-in-the-world-paul-1542554.html
“Meaning of Soul”, Cambridge English Dictionary, accessed February 13 2021, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/soul