Decoding Wittgenstein’s Stonborough Villa
God does not reveal himself in the world. The facts all belong only to the task and not to its performance.
— Ludwig Wittgenstein 
In the 1980s, the beginning of widespread personal computing, we didn’t buy readymade software like today. Every night found me frantically writing a thousand lines of program. The first image I made with CAD was a wireframe drawing of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Stonborough Villa, the only building he designed. Beyond the dithered lines floating on the monitor spread an infinite unknown. It was while inputting the XYZ coordinate data to generate the image that I first noticed something odd about the orientation of the door handles.
Computers have neither gears nor engines; they are language machines. As I did more programming, I came to appreciate this language in and of itself. I also began to create architecture-based works dealing with the synergies of human ideas projected via programs. I wasn’t interested in ‘machines to think like humans’ so much as ‘machines to make humans think’. In looking at computers, I wanted to overturn prevailing notions of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics to explore human-machine relations in an unprecedented way. The aim was to bring the intrinsic sensibilities of computers into the real world, rather than projecting human ideas onto computers.
I always had in mind Wittgenstein’s thinking about the workings of human language, specifically his contrasting propositions in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) and Philosophical Investigations (1953). The difference between these two works eventually led me to the idea of computers as ‘machines that operate in natural human language’ via the conventions of programming language. Gradually, my interest shifted from computers to the ‘riddles’ of Wittgenstein’s thoughts. How had the change from Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus to Philosophical Investigations come about? Perhaps it has something to do with Stonborough Villa, which he designed and had built between the two books.
The first time I visited the Stonborough Villa I couldn’t see it as anything but an empty void. But I soon began to question the significance of its doors. Might Wittgenstein have been trying to express something in the doors that connected room to room? By reinterpreting it as an architecture of doors, it could be possible to uncover some connection between the building and his philosophy, or even some relation to contemporary computing. Were his first and second books progressive developments in the timeline of his thinking, or were they programmed as two different ideas from the beginning? Could the Stonborough Villa offer any clues? Was there some numerical order to the spatial composition? And could the placement of left or right door handles reveal meaning?
The ground floor of the Stonborough Villa centres on the main entrance hall (Halle) encircled by a breakfast room (Früstückszimmer), living room (Wohnzimmer), salon (Salon), and dining room (Speisezimmer). When entering the hall from the entryway, the left-hand wall and its doors are transparent glass, through which can be seen a terrace. The opposite right-hand wall is opaque and features a steel door to the salon.
The symmetries continue in the four adjoining rooms. Each has a wall with symmetrically placed doors whose numbers increase 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 in anticlockwise progression from the breakfast room (1 door) to the dining room (4 doors), but otherwise, there are no decorative elements anywhere. Lighting consists of bare light bulbs on the ceiling, the walls are stark white with doors as the sole features. An arsenal of built-in climate control mechanisms — huge counterweighted iron shutters that raise out of the basement, heated flooring, forced air heating, a complex system of built-in blinds and roll-away screens — all serve to create an unobstructed room-to-room schematic, an interior of enigmatic empty voids wherein all detail has been erased, save for the door apertures.
Supposing, however, that Wittgenstein was not focusing on the design of the doors or the empty rooms, but rather on the number of doors in the abstract? Or even the placement of the door handles? Wittgenstein’s sister, Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein initially commissioned architect Paul Engelmann, her friend, to design the Villa in the autumn of 1925; they, in turn, invited Wittgenstein to help that Christmas. A pupil of modernist Adolf Loos, Engelmann’s initial sketches show a row of decorative round columns within the Hall, while the overall facade emulates a classical symmetry. On his rough floor plan, we can make out rooms numbered 1 – 1 – 3 – 3. After Wittgenstein joins the project, Engelmann’s decorative elements disappear. The round columns are squared off and the facade eschews all semblance of symmetry as rooms are re-ordered asymmetrically into the 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 progression by a number of symmetrically placed doors.
In the Stonborough Villa, as ultimately constructed, the hall has four similar doors, placed symmetrically two to the left of the axis of entry and two to the right. Straight ahead to the left, the door to the dining room has a left-handed handle and the door to a stairway vestibule on the right has a right-handed handle. Turn about-face and the door to the breakfast room has a left-handed handle and the door to the living room has a right-handed handle. So far so good, perfect symmetry with respect to the line of the entrance. But wait, the doors straight ahead open out, while the opposite doors open inwards, which gives the very same handles different operational functions (and of course, when entering the hall from the adjoining four rooms, the orientation of the handles mirror those functions.) Clearly, Wittgenstein intended some kind of order-in-arbitrariness by arranging symmetrical pairs of door elements — transparent and opaque, outward and inward — on either side of the central axis, and even more so in the door-numbered sequence of adjoining rooms.
It has been suggested that Wittgenstein’s concept of language games or Sprachspielen, which comes to the fore in his Philosophical Investigations, can be traced back to his interactions with children at the school where he worked while writing the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The freedom with which children made up expressions that did not adhere to dictionary definitions, as if they were constantly reprogramming language itself, must have given him cause to reflect on the symmetry and asymmetry of words with respect to their meanings.
Wittgenstein repeatedly uses the word ‘sequence’ to explain his language game ideas. Even in what appears to be a simple arithmetic progression, he argues, depending on the equation there are always infinite possible next numbers in the series. That is to say, changing the rules of a game is what gives flexibility to human language; it is the very essence of generating language. Sequencing is the core concept of his language game thinking.
Looking at both the transparency and opacity Wittgenstein gives to the central hall, his insistence on the symmetry of interior door placement, as well as the asymmetrical arrangement of rooms, we may see that he allows for infinite developments out of simple numeric orders. There exists here a strict logic and a complex yet ineffably supple linguistic scheme, evidencing a logico-philosophical discourse and rigorous intellectual inquiry that place the Stonborough Villa at the very centre of Wittgenstein’s thought.
Among themselves, Wittgenstein’s family called the Stonborough Villa a ‘house turned into logic’, but they might just as well have called it a ‘language game house’ — a structure where his early philosophy cohabited with his later philosophy. I cannot claim to have decoded Wittgenstein’s intentions in designing this house, though it is clear enough to me that here is an architecture of doors to his thinking.
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, (English edition: 1922).