Kundmanngasse, Vienna

From The New York Times, April 6, 2008

In the late 1920s, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein designed and built a house in Vienna for his sister. Wittgenstein’s family was extremely wealthy (there were gold-plated faucets in the bathrooms at home), and the building proceeded without the usual financial constraint. In one famous instance, to better satisfy his sense of proportion Wittgenstein had the drawing room ceiling torn out and rebuilt three centimeters higher.

As a novice architect, Wittgenstein obviously had large ambitions. “I am not interested in erecting a building,” he once wrote, “but in … presenting to myself the foundations of all possible buildings.” Whether or not his sister’s house approached this high ideal, Wittgenstein himself judged the finished building to be austere and sterile. It has “good manners,” he later wrote, but no “primordial life,” no “health.”

Richard Sennett’s “guiding intuition” in “The Craftsman” is that “making is thinking,” and Wittgenstein’s experience as a builder speaks to the point, even in its combination of obsession and disappointment. As Sennett notes, it “came at the end of a period in Wittgenstein’s life when he had sought the philosophical equivalent of ‘the foundation of all possible buildings.’” There is a strong link, Sennett argues, between what Wittgenstein learned by building a house and the turn that his philosophy subsequently took, away from rigorous logic and toward a playful engagement with common speech, paradox and parable.

Entire article here.