The Well-Constructed Joke: Comic Architecture

Holger Kleine

This article first appeared in German: ‘Der gut gebaute Witz’ in Der Architekt 4/21 ‘Effekt und Affekt, Psychologie in der Architektur’ (2021), 60-63.

18 September 2021

Kurt W. Forster writing to Holger Kleine (translated from German)

‘… reading your essay on Paul Rudolph’s Hastings Hall. A fabulous piece, itself a kind of ironic gloss on the fashion of reception history and a tear at all the missed opportunities to discover wit in things hardly anyone recognizes. Incidentally, this applies very precisely to Paul Rudolph’s persona. 

The piece should actually translate well …’

In Western philosophy the comic has long received less attention than the tragic. At least, psychology cannot afford such neglect, as laughter is an elemental stimulus. Therefore, an emerging architectural psychology should generously accommodate a conceptual framework for the conditions, structures, and effects of the comic from the outset.

Whether something is comic is measured by the reaction it elicits: it makes us laugh. If we cannot resist laughter, the Hungarian philosopher Ágnes Heller calls this reaction elemental laughter. In her book Was ist komisch? (published in English as The Immortal Comedy in 2005), she places laughter within ‘the family of affects’: 

‘While bursting out in laughter or tears, the body is entirely shaken, the facial expression gets distorted, and inarticulate noises are made. […] Laughing and crying are pure expressions […] I term the non-voluntary expressions which are characteristic of all healthy human beings, “affects.” […] Affects are innate, yet all of their manifestations are reactions, answers to external stimuli, or provocations. […] In time, usually, cognition also gets built into elementary affects, and emotions thus come to occupy the place of pure affects, […] affects are transformed into various emotions. […] In several cultures, adult men and women acquire the capacity for transforming their sheer expressions into emotions. The ritualization of laughing and crying, the creation of situations and of cultural objects which allow for the “bursting out” in laughter and crying for adults, and thereby also for the suspension of willpower, is an important feature of social life.’ [1]

It is evident that all architecture serves to create social situations, but whether it also belongs—apart from shooting galleries and beer tents—to the ‘cultural objects which allow for the “bursting out” in laughter and crying’ is rather doubtful. In the winter semester of 1982/83, as first-year students at TU Berlin we were taught that jokes should not be constructed—after all, one does not laugh at the same joke for thirty years. With this remark, Dietmar Grötzebach, whose brusque-apodictic manner always charmed the students, aimed to inoculate them against the post-modernist jokes, especially in IBA-intoxicated Berlin. Noble intentions aside, the justification for the maxim does not withstand experience: even after forty years, I, at least, still enjoy laughing at the same good joke, whenever it comes to mind, just as a serious poem can still move me after many years. To refute the maxim itself, however, requires evidence and experiential analysis.

After a thoroughly unsuccessful day, I wandered through New Haven in the evening, past the well-known architectural icons until I stood in front of Paul Rudolph’s Yale School of Architecture. Students in high spirits streamed past the doorman into the building and up to the rooftop terrace; it was the night of the blood moon in September 2015. I joined the flow, discreetly turning aside after a few platforms, opened a heavy fire door, and unexpectedly found myself in the next scene. I would have expected such a spacious, enchantingly elegant leather couch on a set by Ken Adam, but not in an academic building—at least not in one designed fifty years before the invention of ‘informal learning.’ The couch stood in a niche—whether out of embarrassment or calculation, I was not sure—and such uncertainties followed one after another on this late summer night when the only student who was still drawing under his architect’s lamp when I arrived guided me through the building, and the next day Kurt W. Forster did the same with his characteristic nonchalance and clairvoyance. The rooms triggered mixed emotions time and time again, as different worlds were superimposed within them. I have analyzed the spatial dramaturgical tricks of this overtone-rich spatial continuum of raw concrete and orange upholstery in detail in my book The Drama of Space.[2] The crucial point here is that we feel splendid in this upper world, because the irony is not at our expense, but rather plays flattering roles in our imagination: in quick succession and at least semi-consciously, the gentleman, the sportsman, the CEO, the connoisseur of antiquities, and the student within us feel addressed. As everything flows into one another and refers to each other, everything relaxes repeatedly. 

Paul Rudolph, Thomas Hastings Lecture Hall, Art and Architecture Building, Yale University, New Haven, USA, 1959 – 1963, Photographs: Xiao Wu.

But the thick end awaited us in the basement. After some time, the student and I emerged from the staircase, which was spinning out of control, and reached the second basement. Once again, I opened a fire door. It led into a room capsule that was so idiosyncratic that the sight of it forced me into a burst of helpless, elemental laughter. It took me a while to regain my composure and ask the bewildered student if I could walk around this lecture hall—it was the Thomas Hastings Lecture Hall—for another fifteen minutes. Why this ‘inarticulate outburst’?

This cave, of which existence I had no idea, glowed empty, warm, and soft in its orange upholstery. It was erotic, designated for me alone down here on this night of rooftop parties. So, it was the laughter of an unexpected gift, but at the same time, it was also a laugh of indignant rejection. Everything I saw, I had seen somewhere before, but the way I saw it here, it seemed wrong, even forbidden to me; I knew soft room linings from movie theatres, but not in exuberant orange. Gently sloping steps are also familiar from movie theatres—but certainly not equipped with church pews. Sitting on the two-seater benches in the elevated side aisles of this glowing crypt is like sitting on a bus. And what were the two state-theatre-like side boxes doing in such a tiny space? And as so often, the front of the projector booth reminded me of the command bridge of a bulky ferry, but one does not decorate this with ancient reliefs. And what do Ionic capitals have to do in a modern lecture hall anyway?

Paul Rudolph, Thomas Hastings Lecture Hall, Art and Architecture Building, Yale University, New Haven, USA, 1959 – 1963, Photograph: Xiao Wu.

All my Protestant-rationalist education and self-education rebelled against this space of manifold transgressions. The laughter was the inarticulate expression of my helpless astonishment at so many taboos being broken in such a small space. But if I truly were one with the rebellion within me, I would have laughed only briefly and turned my defensive reaction into a snarky judgment. But that was not the case. It was not the defensive reaction that solidified but the laughter. I began to laugh at the blockages within me because: wasn’t the room wonderful? The more I engaged with it, the more the guarding laughter turned into blissful radiance. Now, however, it was less because of the confronting presence of the room and more because of its sparkling symbolism. All the references—cinema, church, bus, museum of antiquities, state theatre, command bridge—were spaces familiar to me from childhood. To see the most formative spaces of a period of life merged into a single spatial image is something that only dreams usually grant us. 

I stayed in this dream space for a long time, going back and forth, and yet all that recipient’s happiness did not dissolve into harmony—for then we would have had an example of the beautiful, not the comic. Some thorns continued to nag at me. This was the purpose itself: the cave was a lecture hall, nothing more and nothing less. And it is precisely in such a hall that the references gained a sharpness with which they turned from playfully ironic to unmaskingly sarcastic. They discredit the roles we play in a lecture hall. I imagined someone thinking they had a right to sit somewhere and how embarrassing it is when the uninitiated violate the unwritten code, but also how the absurdity of the code is revealed because in all seats one feels disconcertingly exposed. There was no escaping the farce. Thus, so the speaker is tacitly expected to make the listeners forget this theatre of vanities, which is not made easier by the two impaled capitals, as these seem to urge the listeners to hold the weapons of criticism sharp against the speaker’s temporary claim to authority. A compassionate smile for the speakers who seemed to have only the prospect of succeeding as a ‘witty fool’ or failing as a ‘foolish wit’ overwhelmed me.[3] If the jokes of the upper-world buildings had flattered our vanity, down here it is unmasked in a well-constructed joke. This hall, which presents itself as an arena even without an elliptical floor plan, reflects our social life as a theatrically failed attempt at distinction. 

In the comic view of the world, there is nothing that does not also have at least one comic side. However, the theatre of distinction is not just any comic side; it shows the core of all comedy. According to Ágnes Heller, this core lies in the impossibility of ever being able to close the gap between our genetic and social a priori. Ágnes Heller understands the two a priori (borrowing concepts from Martin Heidegger and Arnold Gehlen) to mean our accidental being thrown into a certain culture and equally having to grow into it accidentally. ‘The mediation between the social/cultural and the genetic a priori is never entirely completed. […] In the elementary outburst of laughter and tears, the impossibility of bridging the abyss is expressed.’[4] We laugh or cry when the impossibility of being simultaneously with ourselves and within our culture is expressed.

A mixture of different feelings—or, following Heller, a sequence of different perspectives on the abyss—had thus triggered my laughter. It was that of the unexpectedly gifted and the indignantly rejecting, the self-contradictory and the finding oneself in memory images, the sarcastically unmasking and the compassionately acknowledging the inexorable. In these facets, once again, the heterogeneous character of all comedy was demonstrated. After stepping out into the fresh air, into the student town where everyone was on their feet, I had to pull myself by the ears once again. How ridiculous I was to hide in an orange-upholstered rabbit hole on a night that had lured everyone else to the rooftops.

Contrary to the doctrine, jokes can indeed be cast in concrete and woven into carpets. Of course, nothing would be more embarrassing than forcing comedy, especially in architecture. Besides the law of sparing dosage, the law of proper placing and timing also applies here. Paul Rudolph introduces his joke with a poker face, casually and elegantly parrying in the rooms of study and research, administration and exhibition, only to have it burst into the underworld, in the depths of the earth. And it bursts again and again, because in the social ritual, it continually retells itself and reveals the unavoidably comic nature of the human condition using as an example the institution of the lecture hall. Of course, one will not laugh again on every visit—but reliving a scene in connection with the memory of the first experience is fortunate enough.

But does architecture not so rarely evoke laughter that we have to concede that comedy is alien to it and wrested from it only with difficulty? Even if that were the case, the question directs our attention to what seems to be the generic characteristic of architecture in the field of comedy. Pure architecture is always only an inviting gesture, always only an offer, accepted by humans. Without accepting the invitation, all architecture can be as funny as a speech whose form has lost its content: like in Loriot’s sketch ‘Bundestagsrede’ (Stiegler, left) from 1972, in which the filler words circle without finding a theme, or in Joseph Beuys’ soundtrack ‘Ja Ja Ja Ja Ja… Ne Ne Ne Ne Ne’ (‘Yes yes yes yes yes….no no no no no’) (1968), which reduces all communication to puffing agreement and rejection. By being the architectural impression of all speeches held in the past and in the future, Paul Rudolph’s Lecture Hall ranks equally alongside these two examples of ingenious communication comedy. Its unique selling point could be that it unfolds its comedy both when the Lecture Hall is empty and occupied.

Paul Rudolph, Thomas Hastings Lecture Hall, Art and Architecture Building, Yale University, New Haven, USA, 1959 – 1963, Drawing:  Lars Werneke / Holger Kleine.

Even though it is said that laughter is contagious, this by no means implies that it primarily occurs in society. On the contrary, the comic nature of architecture is often more compellingly experienced when, as in our example, we dwell alone in an empty room. Another example is that tragicomic scene in Lucchino Visconti’s film Ludwig II, in which Empress Elisabeth enters the newly built, frostily empty hall of mirrors at Herrenchiemsee and in a bitterly sardonic fit of laughter realizes the futility of the always-threatened, but formerly so deeply supported Ludwig —and consequently the untenability of herself, her class, her time.

In memory of Kurt W. Forster.


  1. Ágnes Helller, The Immortal Comedy: The Comic Phenomenon in Art, Literature, and Life (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2005), 19-20.
  2. See Holger Kleine, The Drama of SpaceSpatial Sequences and Compositions in Architecture (Basel, Switzerland: Birkhäuser, 2018), 116-121 and 212-273.
  3. Pun by William Shakespeare in Twelfth Night (1601), Act I, Scene V, spoken by the Clown.
  4. Heller, The Immortal Comedy, 22.

The images and the drawing presented in this article were first published in Holger Kleine, The Drama of Space. Spatial Sequences and Compositions in Architecture (Basel, Switzerland: Birkhäuser, 2018).

Prof. Holger Kleine is a graduate of the Cooper Union and an architect in Berlin. Since 2010, he has been teaching as a professor for Artistic-Conceptual Design in the Interior Architecture department at the RheinMain University of Applied Sciences in Wiesbaden. His research focuses on public interior spaces. He is, among others, the architect of the German Embassy in Warsaw, author of the book The Drama of Space (2018), and curator of the exhibitions ‘New Mosques’ (Catalogue JOVIS 2014), ‘My Home is my Parcel’ (German Architecture Museum Frankfurt DAM 2020), and ‘The Salons of the Republic’ (DAM /JOVIS 2021). His design ‘Talking Station 1’ was exhibited at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021 as part of the exhibition ‘Conceiving the Plan’. Currently, he is working on two extensive suites of autonomous architectural drawings.