The Aesthetic Experience of Architecture: Debating the essentialist account of Roger Scruton

Richard Kulczak-Dawkins

    Research output: ThesisMaster's Thesis


    The primary purpose was to consider the aesthetic experience of architecture through a discussion of the single modern work in the aesthetics of architecture, written by Roger Scruton in 1979, entitled The Aesthetics of Architecture. In doing so, the aim was to develop an understanding of the problem of architecture in aesthetics by studying it in its primary mode of apprehension, experience. Scruton claims that imaginative perception is of the essence of experiencing architecture. By considering in what the aesthetic experience of architecture consists, it can be proven that whilst imaginative perception may be possible and necessary for an experience of architecture to be ‘aesthetic’, it is not sufficient. According to Scruton, engaging architecture requires imaginative perception. However, we must allow for chance or untrained aesthetic experiences, for if imagination is active in the sense that one must be engaged in thought about the object, then surely this is unnecessary. Imaginative perception does explain much of our experience, but it is perhaps only one aspect of a complex of attitudes that we can take towards architecture. As Scruton intimates, the structure of our experience of architecture mirrors that of perception, this structure containing the levels of literal and imaginative perception. This explains the how our experience can be imaginative and not aesthetic, and how it must be imaginative to be aesthetic. From this, we find the necessity to superimpose upon imaginative experience, an additional level of ‘graded complex experience’, exemplified in the ‘thick’ conception of the imagination. For example, ‘rhythm’ is actually there to be discovered in the columns of a mausoleum; appreciating architecture aesthetically requires more than visual perception. Scruton’s imagination thus becomes the basic or ‘thin’ conception of experience. All experience of architecture consists in the exercise of the imaginative capacity, for otherwise we merely would perceive ‘stuff’ literally. Even in the ‘thick’ conception, it will be impossible to have an aesthetic experience that is not an engagement of the imagination, owing to the imaginative structure of experience. The level of ‘complex’ experience explains the range of aesthetic experiences in which the imaginative capacity is engaged to greater or lesser degree. Whilst every experience of architecture need only be imaginative, every aesthetic experience must employ something more that the imagination. As such, we must address the range of aesthetic experiences, then demarcate as to what constitutes an aesthetic experience, and what does not. A mind-set defines the range of experiences, allowing not only for the complex and plural experience akin to a ‘religious awakening’, but also chance or untrained encounters, as well as simple one-dimensional experiences. Architectural experience consists in the ‘thin’ level of imaginative perception, upon which supervenes ‘thick’ perception as a central feature of aesthetic experience. An obvious problem with such pluralist accounts resides in their inability to provide succinct answers to questions regarding the essence of experience, the value and importance of architecture and the experiences we derive. But the primary issue here is not that the competing accounts are incommensurable, rather they are complementary and interrelated; it’s not that we can offer no correct view, or that all of these views are equally correct. It is more that there is no single way of stating the unique fundamental truth about our experience in the way that Scruton proposes by citing the imaginative perception. Finally, some of Scruton’s claims following from his presentation of imagination are purely a manifestation of personal preferences. It might be seen as an attempt to rationalise and objectify those preferences in the manner so frequently displayed by others with a manifest bias, as vividly illustrated in his choice of examples, coming predominantly from classical architecture. It may tentatively be proposed that until we undertake to delineate a full understanding of the psychology of ‘aesthetic’ perception and experience, we cannot properly say what it would be to experience architecture aesthetically.
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • Birkbeck University of London
    • Price, Anthony, Supervisor, External person
    Award date30 Sept 2001
    Publication statusPublished - 2001


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