Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Parkinson Temple: How does ideology influence our aesthetic experience? (part 1)

The Parkinson Building at Leeds University is considered to be the symbol of the university: it is also part of the graphical representation of the university logo, it therefore denominates the ‘brand’. What I propose to do is demonstrate how Martin Heidegger’s “temple-work” (2000, p.91) could be theoretically applied to the Parkinson Building. I believe that this approach is more productive in demonstrating the ideology behind the architecture than using the model that Heidegger applies to art.

To the Greeks their temples were not places of worship but rather the material symbol of their gods. The temples themselves were built on holy sites that represented the force of nature symbolised in that particular god or group of gods (Scully 1979, p.7):
With the coming of the temple, housing its image within it, itself developed as a sculptural embodiment of the god’s presence and character, the meaning becomes double, both of the deity as in nature and the god as imagined by men. (ibid.).
Temples were built to please the deities and became the earthly representation of the gods in manifest form, thus becoming a focal point for the citizens and highlighting its centrality to their lives.

In his essay ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ Heidegger makes it clear that the temple reveals little in terms of its content. It is what it represents that is important because “god is present in the temple.”: it is this understanding and the power invested in the object by the people that designates its authority. (2000, p.89) According to Heidegger the temple’s centre of power forms the nexus for the connections and relationships which guide the lives of the people and frame their future (ibid.). Friedrich Nietzsche also discusses how the creative drive behind a work of art, in the sense of its “completion and consummation of existence, and as a guarantee of further existence”, is the very same drive as the will that gave rise to the notion behind the realm of the gods (1956, p.30). He explains how this reciprocal process imbues the gods with a power that offers itself back to the people, it thus becomes a “transfiguring mirror” (ibid.). It is this self-reflexivity I would like to concentrate on here, and how the ideology behind it informs the aesthetics for the individual.

The temple serves many functions: it constitutes the law, society and culture; it is the central point of socio-cultural connections; and it is also the originator of truth and knowledge, because it “makes visible the invisible” (Heidegger 2000, p.89). The temple could be compared to the theological ‘ground of being’ in that it is the whence from which everything emanates and that in which everything returns. As Heidegger explains, the early morning light lands on the temple marking the beginning of the day to the people; the form and order of their world is thus defined and the citizens go about their day within this pre-given framework (ibid.). Later the sunset signals the closing down of the world, and the people return home having made meaning and sense out of their day: “the naming power of the word.” (Heidegger 2000, p.91). Tomorrow brings a new dawn and the process begins again. Michel Foucault explains how in this period of history “The universe was folded in upon itself: the earth echoing the sky, faces seeing themselves reflected in the stars” (2005, p.19). In ancient history the world was smaller, social relationships were well-defined and prescribed boundaries were clearly delimited.

At this point I would like to jump ahead about three thousand years and introduce the Parkinson Building at the University of Leeds. The Parkinson Building was funded by a £200,000 donation from the local industrialist Frank Parkinson who was educated at the university (Gosden and Taylor 1975, p.166). The Parkinson Building superseded the Brotherton Library as the new frontage to the university. Funding was short when it came to completing the entrance to the Brotherton Library and when Parkinson’s welcome bequest arrived a much grander façade was planned (ibid.). Thus, the exterior of the Brotherton Library became subsumed in the Parkinson Building and now exists in a kind of enclave - today it can only be seen through the windows at the rear of Parkinson Court and via other surrounding buildings. The students of postmodernity can peer back though history from the position of the current symbol of the ‘temple of knowledge’ and view its past incarnation, the Brotherton Library: yesterday’s version of truth. This confirms Győrgy Lukacs point that a work of art as well as showing a new order of things, replacing an older one, will at the same time have an ideological effect (cited in Rieser 1957, p.239).

The Parkinson Building was designed in the 1930s. The architecture highlights many Art Deco qualities, for instance horizontal lines and Neoclassical elements, but is not as highly decorated as some buildings from the same period. It could be considered to be one of the “stone-sheathed giants” (Bayer 1992, p.7) that were erected in urban areas at this time. The University of Leeds sits on a hill and upon approaching it from the south the imposing Parkinson Building fills your vista. The symmetrical building has a centralised entrance with steps leading to a number of doors. A substantial phallus-like clock tower, reminiscent of many office or industrial buildings of that period, crowns the building. The Parkinson Building was not completed till 1951 due to a suspension in building during the war period.

In an attempt to concentrate on the ideological aspects of the aesthetic response, I do not plan to dwell further on the architectural elements of the Parkinson Building and have offered them here to contextualise the building itself. To further my hypothesis I would like to include a pertinent quote by Parkinson himself on some ideological expectations he had of the building’s design:
I have in mind that in addition to the provision of Chambers more befitting the dignity of the Council and the Senate they should include an Entrance and Entrance Hall which would leave an indelible impression on the mind of the student which he would remember in after years with affection. (Gosden and Taylor 1975, p.166)
It is clear from this request, and from the planned grand entrance for the Brotherton Library, that the Parkinson Building is designed to be impressive and make a statement about the university. This demonstrates an ideology inherent in the architecture itself; an ideology that becomes part of the very fabric of the building. As G. W. F. Hegel states, architecture can build meaning into its very form and material (2000, p.47). Heidegger explains that in this process the material is “set forth” and in its “consecrating praising erection” the temple is then “setting up a world” (2000, p.91), as we can see reflected in Parkinson’s comments above. When it comes to cultural objects we could say that the glue of matter and creation is form, and that very form is ideology itself.

Part 2 of blog


Althusser, Louis. 1971a. ‘A Letter on Art in Reply to Andre Daspre’, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. by Ben Brewster (London, New York: Monthly Review Press) pp. 221-228.

Althusser, Louis. 1971b. ‘Cremonini, Painter of the Abstract’, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. by Ben Brewster (London, New York: Monthly Review Press) pp. 29-242.

Bayer, Patricia. 1992. Art Deco Architecture: Design, Decoration and Detail from the Twenties and Thirties (London: Thames and Hudson).

Benjamin, Walter. 2004. ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Art in Theory – 1900-2000, ed. by Charles Harrison & Paul Wood (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing) pp. 520-527.

Derrida, Jacques. 2004. Writing and Difference, trans. by Alan Bass (London: Routledge).

Foucault, Michel. 2005. The Order of Things (Abingdon, New York: Routledge).

Gosden, P. H. J. H. and Taylor, A. J. 1975. Studies in the History of a University 1874-1974 (Leeds: Arnold and Son).

Hegel, G. W. F. 2000. Extracts from ‘Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art’, The Continental Aesthetics Reader, ed. by Clive Cazeaux (Abingdon: Routledge) pp. 35-52.

Heidegger, Martin. 2000. ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’, The Continental Aesthetics Reader, ed. by Clive Cazeaux (Abingdon: Routledge) pp. 80-101.

Nietzsche, Firiedrich. 1956. The Birth of Tragedy and The Genealogy of Morals, trans. by Francis Golffing (New York: Doubleday Anchor).

Rieser, Max, ‘The Aesthetic Theory of Social Realism’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 16, 2 (1957) pp. 237-248.

Scully, Vincent Joseph. 1979. The Earth, the Temple and the Gods: Greek Sacred Architecture (New Haven, London: Yale University Press).


  1. Well, it's jolly decent of your family to bequeath the money for the building to us, Alan ; )