Thinking about the Meaning of Structure: Gadamerian Architectural Hermeneutics and the Ontology of a Building

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When appropriating Hans-Georg Gadamer’s “The Ontology of the Work of Art and Its Hermeneutic Significance,” Geoff Manaugh’s interpretation of George Leonidas Leslie, in A Burglar’s Guide to the City, as “the greatest burglar of the nineteenth century” suggests a hermeneutic significance in Leslie’s “greatest” as a burglar (12).

What, undoubtedly, makes Leslie a “great” burglar capable, as Manaugh asserts, of “pos[ing] a fundamental, perhaps existential, threat to the urban social contract,” arises, first, in the extent to which we can say that Leslie’s burglary skills were a “work of art” in themselves (12). For Manaugh, Leslie’s act of burglarizing is an artistic act, which is fundamentally grounded in “reading” the urban social contract as an “ontology of a work of art.” The “existential threat” that Leslie’s burglary skills presents to the urban social contract, then, is a hermeneutical breach in the relationship between the burglar and the building into which the burglar wishes to break. This “breach” not only literally “breaks” the structure of a building, but it also similarly “breaks” the relationships between the building and the architect, as well as the architect and the burglar. While the former illustrates the ontology of the structure of a building, the latter refers to the meaning of the structure of a building, at a metaphysical level. Both define the structure of a building as two modes of being to a building: the ontological and the metaphysical, which, as “a work of art,” are regulated by “play.”

Gadamer best understands this play “in reference to the experience of art” (102). Experiencing the ontology of the structure of a building and the meaning of the structure of a building as “a work of art” means, as Gadamer suggests, “neither the orientation nor even the state of mind of the creator of those enjoying the work of art, nor the freedom of a subjectivity engaged in play, but the mode of being of the work of art itself” (102).  Manaugh channels this in invoking the architect’s understanding of the urban social contract as an orientation that “misreads” the burglar’s own understanding of the same the urban social contract. In particular, in light of Manaugh’s Leslie-example, Gadamer provides insight into how the structure of a building solicits different experiences for the burglar and the architect, to the extent that the burglar is able to inhabit “the state of mind of the creator,” especially as one who “enjoy[s] the work of art” and is afforded “the freedom of a subjectivity engaged in play.” When experiencing the structure of a building, even though the architect “misreads”—perhaps decidedly so—the burglar’s experience of the structure of a building, the architect seemingly mythologizes the urban social contract, until the architect “misreads” the meaning of the structure of a building as “[a] mode of being of the work of art itself.”

The relationships of burglar-building, building-architect, and architect-burglar are held together by the structure of the urban social contract, whereby the architect presumes to “read” the burglar’s hermeneutical limitations towards breaking-in the “structure” of the architect’s building, as long as the architect adequately employs a hermeneutics that is, in itself, structurally unbreachable. It is precisely by way of this urban social contract that the architect—when thinking more architecturally about the burglar’s burglary skills than the building—presumes that a burglar cannot “read” the “meaning” in the structure of a building beyond its ontology. Like an artist’s “work of art,” the architect treats the structure of a building similarly as a “work of art” that can either extend or limit “meaning.” The architect’s hermeneutical goal, in turn, is to purposefully limit the meaning of the structure of a building for a burglar, so the burglar cannot “break-in” the building, “breach” the ontology, and threaten the urban social contract.

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