It is a commonplace claim that a building can or indeed does express a political idea. But how exactly does this happen? Is there an intrinsic link that connects politics with architecture, political idea with architectural idea and the politician with the architect? If there is such a link - what is the structure of this connection and what are the necessary conditions for setting up that connection?
An interesting answer to this question can be found in Plato’s dialogue The Statesman. According to Plato, this intrinsic link between the politician and the architect is that they both share the same kind of knowledge.
In this dialogue Plato specifically likens the ruler (politikos - πολιτικός) with the architect (architecton - ἀρχιτέκτων) by the kind of knowledge they possess if they are to do their respective jobs well. He makes a first level distinction between the theoretical and practical knowledge(259e), and perhaps unexpectedly by today's measures – assigns theoretical knowledge (gnostike episteme - γνωστικῆς ἐπιστήμης) to architects and politicians. In today’s world, we are sometimes quick to assume that theoretical knowledge consists of general rules and that the subject of separated, practical kind of knowledge is the application of those rules. However, Plato offers here a different, much richer image of the somewhat tensioned relation between knowledge and practical skills which may provide some surprisingly sophisticated and useful interpretation to the contemporary reader of architectural discourse. He introduces the second level distinction within theoretical or intellectual knowledge (259e6) by splitting it into discriminative or calculating knowledge – gnositke kritike (γνωστική κριτική) – with the capacity to judge; and the higher, directing kind of knowledge, which is the “order-giving”, “directional” or “commanding” kind of knowledge – gnostike epitaktike (γνωστική επτακτκή). The Stranger from Elea, a character in the dialogue, explicitly uses the word ‘architect’ (ἀρχιτέκτων) to depict this latter kind of knowledge. Therefore, both a politician and an architect should possess this kind of commanding knowledge, which is not exhausted in a mere capacity of issuing instructions, but it comprises of holding a stance of responsibility in difficult and uncertain situations, not experienced before; and then, with high-level awareness of difficulties, architects and politicians formulate the direction of actions through an informed decision-making process grounded in reason.
For Aristotle, phronesis (φρόνησις) consists of knowledge of universals, and knowing how and when to apply them in particular situations, derived from many years of experience (NE 1141b15-20). In Plato, this is not the case – an inability to apply theoretical knowledge would be tantamount to ignorance. In other words, a successful politician and an architect are equally required to have both theoretical knowledge and a capacity to implement it at the same time. If one possesses this kind of knowledge – no other skill is needed to apply it.
What is the significance of this today?
This conception can provide a possible explanation on at least one aspect of the link between architecture and politics – their respective agencies both possess and use the same kind of knowledge.
The Plato’s conception of knowledge in Statesmen can also contribute to the contemporary discourse on design knowledge, design research and the epistemology of artistic and other practices. Some of the controversy in this discourse rests on the constant tendency to separate unique knowledge architects have into tacit and explicit knowledge, practical and theoretical, intuitive and reflective practises and so on; and on the other hand, there is a strong need for this discourse to allow for some form of unified, special and integrated kind of knowledge architect supposedly possess. This, almost forgotten Plato’s conception of knowing is based on a unity of practical action with theoretical knowledge in such a structured and hierarchical way which may offer a whole new prospect to the field of design knowledge. The Plato’s conception of knowing as discribed in Statesman may serve well to provide an extended theoretical ground and support the claims that knowledge of an architect is in integration of tacit and explicit knowledge (as we would call them today).