“Western thought is marked by a will to architecture that is reiterated and renewed at times of crisis."

Kojin Karatani, Architecture as Metaphor

Famously nicknamed the thinking machine, the Japanese literary critic and philosopher, Kojin Karatani (born 1941), unearths what he calls a “will to architecture” that is hidden in the human condition. Writing from the East, he says this will to architecture is the foundation of all Western thinking. 

Kojin Karatani Architecture and Metaphor

Kojin Karatani’s thought is far-reaching and Karatani’s Transcritique (2003) even inspires the work The Parallax View (2006), a book written by Slavoj Zizek that rethinks Hegel’s dialectic.

The will to architecture surfaces in disciplines ranging from literature and psychoanalysis to anthropology and mathematics, all of which are explored in Architecture as Metaphor: Language, Number, Money (1983).  

Karatani’s excavation in Architecture as Metaphor traces the transition from the human impulse for making or poiesis to an emphasis on becoming – the dominant metaphor for thinking that characterizes the way we currently approach knowledge.  

His return to making, one that dates all the way back to Plato, leads to a strange but enticing conclusion that recalls the purpose of architecture as communication. Architecture, making, or the will to architecture are to communicate with the other. 

If communication is the end goal, then what happens when we build?

Karatani carefully looks at the relationship between construction and deconstruction. When communication is buried in bureaucracy, forgetting the will to architecture, the structure is on its way to collapse. 

Karatani considers the ways Paul de Man’s deconstructive approach to language contributes to this collapse and an overall rejection of form. Paul de Man elaborates on this in Allegories to Reading, speaking of William Butler Yeats’ poem that concludes, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” 

Karatani celebrates the ambiguity in Paul de Man’s exploration of Yeats:

“This line has often been interpreted as the rhetorical question “How we can distinguish the dancer from the dance?,” implying the indivisibility of form and experience, creator and creation, sign and referent. If read literally, however, it asks, “[Please tell me] how to distinguish the dancer from the dance,” resulting in an inversion of the previous reading. In this sentence, two consistent but incongruous ways of reading coexist, neither of which is superior to the other.”

Karatani goes on to describe the will to architecture as the very reason we come to understand the ambiguity of a text. Without a desire to formalize, which is advanced mathematically, there would be no paradox. 

The desire to formalize, though, emerges from our desire to understand.  

“…non Euclidean geometry made it clear that mathematics could exist independent from reality or perception; in one sense, this constituted a move toward a more rigorous formalization of mathematics.” 

This chasm between observation and calculation prompts a reaction in the form of systems, or math sets, designed to tease out the very ambiguities that the system’s rigidity makes possible. The chasm widens with logicians on one side and intuitionists on the other. 

It is precisely the back and forth that intrigues Karatani: “the whole movement of expansion (invention) of numbers was driven buy a series of crises — paradox and solution…” When Karatani admits, “mathematics is constantly being invented by shifts of concept,” he recognizes a need for our reading strategies to adapt to an ever-evolving space. 

Often before we recognize the dynamism of space, we must sift through the chaotic collection of materials, hoping to some how create order. Paul Valery is uniquely equipped to consider the materials that both poets and philosophers use, which is likely why Kojin Karatani uses Valery to articulate the delicate balance between order and disorder.


“In general, we examine a man made object, if we consider its form, its internal structure, we should fina a relation which is not the same as the realtion we find between the internal and external structures of a so called natural object, whether geological or organic. I do not claim that the problem can always be solved; there are ambiguous cases, but quite frequently we find -- on superficial examination, without the aid of a microscope -- that in the human work the structure of the internal parts seems less important than the form of assemblage whose manipulator takes very little account of the internal structure of the thing he is fashioning. You can make similar things with very different materials; regardless of whether a vase be of glass, metal, or porcelain, it can assume pretty much the same form, but this means that (except during the actual process of manufacture) you have disregarded the material of which you have made the vase. Moreover, if you continue to examine the man-made object, you find that the form of the whole is less complex than the internal structure of the parts, and this suggests a disarrangement. In this sense, order imposes disorder. I recall that I once took this example: if you line up a regiment, you obtain a geometric figure composed of elements, each of which is far more complex than the whole, since each one is a man. Similarly, if you make an article of furniture, you disturb the organization of the tree, for you cut it up and reassemble the pieces without concern for its internal structure. The wood provides you with stable elements which you can consider as invariable in relation to the forms and contours you give the assemblage." Paul Valery, Reflections on Art

This order often means inventing some kind of logic of sense. Ernst Cassirer calls the artist a discoverer of forms, but Karatani invokes Ludwig Wittgenstein to remind the reader that the mathematician is not a discoverer but an inventor. 

Perhaps this is why Wittgenstein is willing to toss his metaphorical ladder out? What exactly does the mathematician or the architect invent? The answer is complicated, yet simple: the rules of the game. 

“And is there not also the case where we play and -- make up the rules as we go along? And there is even one where we alter them -- as we go along.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

Ludwig Wittgenstein - Philosophical Investigations

So what does this mean for the architect – the builder of forms? Karatani calls for a dynamic approach to construction that focuses on the relationship with the other – the living, breathing, fleshly other – who, after all, follows absolutely no rules. 

“No architect can predict the results of construction. No architecture exists out of context. Architecture is an event par excellence. As Wittgenstein maintained, it is the same with mathematics. Plato admired the architect as a metaphor, but despised the architect as a man because the actual acrhitect and architecture fully exposed to contigency. However, this state of architectural contigency does not imply that the actual architecture, as opposed to some putative ideal architecture, is secondary and in danger of collapse. Rather it implies that no architect can determine a design free from the relationship with the other (the client). All architects face the unknowable other. Architecture, in other words, is a form of communications, and this communication is conditioned to take place without common rules because it takes place with the other, who does not follow a commensurable set of rules."
Kojin Karatani on the Will to Architecture