The Both/And Condition of Poetry and Pragmatism

During the course of my architectural education, the duality of poetry and pragmatism has come up many times. At times I’ve been told I’m too pragmatic, and that an element of play is needed in my projects, yet in the end results I have routinely been praised for the poetics present in my work. To me, this signifies that many still believe an either/or dualistic relationship between pragmatism and poetry exists. Either/or dualities, however, no longer exist in architecture. Either/or has been replaced by both/and, not only in regards to poetry and pragmatism but also in other dualistic conditions. Conditions where both ends of the spectrum feed off of each other to create an architectural whole.

The pragmatism shown, especially in the early stages of my projects, is a product of my environment. In the Midwest there is a general tendency towards the pragmatic and logical; traits I picked up from my grandfather. My grandfather was an engineer with Eli Lilly, so over the course of my experiences with him I picked up his logical thinking. I’ve always been a pragmatic thinker, with the first challenge to that during my first semester at Tulane. With this came the first introductions of the poetic; the switch from “how to build” to “how can I build”.

It is my opinion that pragmatism becomes a system or a language on which the poetic is told. For example, in dealing with the notions of place and identity in my hometown of Columbus, Indiana a lexicon has been established consisting of the following five points: Green Space, Modulating Light, Publicity/Inclusiveness, Material and Program Innovation, and Contextual Relationships. These are all pragmatic responses to connecting the architectural works of the city; yet all are extremely poetic. The notion of green space in architecture recalls the connection between man and nature, of Heidegger and his concept of dwelling [1] that is so eloquently portrayed in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, and in the paintings of T.C. Steele. Modulation of light begins to bring a connection between interior and exterior, but is also used to create a connection between Man and God (in a church/cathedral) or Man and Time. The use of design to designate publicity and inclusiveness, as both Eliel and Eero Saarinen did with Modernism in Columbus speaks to the poetic notion of architecture creating a better world. In fact, Eero Saarinen spoke of architecture as “not just to fulfill man’s need for shelter, but also to fulfill man’s belief in the nobility of his existence on earth.” [2] Material and Program Innovation, while speaking to the technological advances of our current society, has a deeper poetic meaning. It is “praiseworthy competition with one’s ancestors”, the definition of patriotism put forward by the Roman historian Tacitus and interpreted by J. Irwin Miller that “the best response to the gifts from previous generations is to create something of lasting value in our own time and in our own way for future generations.” [3]

Alberto Peréz-Gómez speaks of this system or lexicon as “the work of architecture, properly speaking, preserves meaning within itself. It is not an allegory in the sense that it says one thing and gives us to understand something else. What the work has to say can be found only within itself, grounded in language, and yet beyond it.”[4] To me, this speaks of going beyond the pragmatics of the system, and not simply using scenography or mimesis, using the poetic as a modifier to create a cohesive whole. For an example on how to combine pragmatic and poetic (in this case create a both local and global condition), one should look to the works of Norwegian architect Sverre Fehn. Fehn’s work combined Modernist, pragmatic thought with the poetic Norwegian lexicon of heaven and earth, life and death, and deep rootedness in nature and place to create works that are “based on a poetic construction.”[5] This poetic construction, for example showcasing the works and life of a local author/illustrator or telling the story of a natural phenomenon, combined with his belief that “the structure is a language, a way of expressing yourself, and there should be a balance between thought and language”[6] expresses the both/and condition of poetry and pragmatism. Whether it is the bridging concrete ramp lightly touching the ruins of the Bishops’ Fortress at the Hedmarksmuseet in Hamar or the rock (the Norsk Bremuseum) left in the lea by glaciers thousands of years ago in Fjærland, “Every story has a construction.”[7]

Columbus’ development as a city is both pragmatic and poetic. J. Irwin Miller started with the very logical notion of architecture as an economic engine, providing the amenities required in order to draw the best and brightest to both Cummins and the city. One must look past the top-down condition created by Miller to the bottom-up poetics created by the individual architects who built in Columbus. Miller’s personal belief that “what is built reflects what a city thinks about itself and what it aims to be”[8] recalls the nation building of the 19th century and the quest for nationalistic styles that represent nation and society. Although this is a top-down philosophy, it speaks to the larger poetic of connecting man and his history; of creating identity and meaning in the places we live. These poetics have created a bottom-up condition that shows an incredible optimism in built form, the poetics of the future in innovations to program, material, etc. Eliel and Eero Saarinen created a lexicon of Modernism that speaks to creating a greater collective whole in the city through Modernism, a both/and condition consisting of the 19th Century French Architecture with a capital A, and the German aufbau and cultivating culture for the collective whole.

Note: This is an essay I wrote during the design portion of my thesis project, one which helped immensely to discover what I truly was looking for and how I design. Look for the post on my thesis design project in the next couple of days, and feel free to leave a comment or note!

1] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time.
2] J. Irwin Miller, “Saarinen Memorial Service held in M.I.T. Chapel”, Architectural Record Dec. [1961]: 232.
3] Will Miller, “Eero and Irwin: Praiseworthy Competition with One’s Ancestors”, Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future.
4] Alberto Peréz-Gómez, “The Space of Architecture: Meaning as Presence and Representation”, Questions of Perception: Phenomenology of Architecture.
5] Sverre Fehn, “An Architectural Autobiography”, The Poetry of the Straight Line: Five Masters of the North.
6] Per Olaf Fjeld, Sverre Fehn: The Pattern of Thoughts.
7] Ibid.
8] Columbus Visitors Center, “The Columbus Story”,

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Josh Mings

Architect and painter. Columbus, IN born, New Orleans educated, Chicago living and trying to leave the world better than I found it.