Should we strive for an awareness of the past or its imitation?

Bauakademie, Berlin, Karl Schinkel, 1836 and Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, Renzo Piano & Richard Rogers, 1977

Alex Potts describes Schinkel’s approach to history and interest in the “continued development of mankind” as being reminiscent of Hegel’s. Schinkel believed that “perfection in architecture could not be limited to the particular forms of architecture evolved by one nation but rather that ‘the perfection of architecture as a whole may well be precipitated in the endless succession of time’” (51). According to this understanding of history, therefore, good architecture is necessarily different from its precedents. It engages them by being different. It internalizes history and expresses its respect for history by departing from a tedious repetition of its forms. An imitation, said Schinkel, “marked the end of history, rather than a proper awareness of the historical past” (51). He was more interested in advancing history by “introducing in some way an extra, a new element, into the world” (51).

The Centre Pompidou does this very effectively. It uses new materials and a new language to evoke proportions reminiscent of a Greek temple façade, or perhaps Schinkel’s own Bauakademie. Both buildings are to a certain extent “dishonest” because they use a tectonic language that differs from the materials they employ: the Bauakademie uses masonry in the style of industrial materials, and the Centre Pompidou exaggerates its technological expression.

Supposing we accept Schinkel’s idea of history (which, by the way, is very similar to Venturi’s idea of an awareness of historical context), how far does a building need to go before it has stopped engaging with history, and who decides?

Consider the following building by Zaha Hadid Architects. Does its fragmented interior not evoke Hans Scharoun’s Philharmonie? Does the lighting not remind you of Le Corbusier’s Ferminy Church?


Berlin Philharmonie, Hans Scharoun, 1960-63, and Ferminy Church, Le Corbusier, 1971-2006

Can we categorize the Beaux Arts tradition as a period of decline in architecture?

“‘If you want my advice, Peter,’ he said at last, ‘you've made a mistake already. By asking me. By asking anyone. Never ask people. Not about your work. Don't you know what you want? How can you stand it, not to know?’”

This is Howard Roark’s response to Peter Keating in Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, when asked whether Keating should accept a scholarship to the prominent Ecole des Beaux Arts.

It seems that Roark shares the Chicago architect Louis Sullivan’s frustration with the Beaux Arts school, which he attended only for a year, hoping to study Michelangelo and the Renaissance. Sullivan was interested in the spirit of creation rather than replication. The Beaux Arts school was the wrong place for this quest.
The ateliers, portfolios, and “problem-solving” of the Beaux Arts School mark a period of decline in Architecture. The idea of decline is linked to transition, and has as its characteristics doubt, crisis, paranoia, a loss of authorship, and an unoriginal repetition and combination of what has already been canonized.

Durand’s introduction helps to illustrate this argument that the Beaux Arts School was unoriginal and, as Antoine keeps repeating, “boring”. Beatriz Colomina spoke today in Sanford Kwinter’s class and she said that architects work in many mediums. She said the building is just one of those mediums, even though to the lay person it may appear to be the only medium. The Renaissance architects understood the importance of the representation of an architectural idea, both in drawings and in built form. So did the Modernists.

Durand has forgotten it. He is clearly only interested in building. He recycles Vitruvius and, with an air of great authority, sets out to describe what is “dangerous” and “strictly forbidden”: representation and decoration. He is interested in the basic demands of a building: cost, use-value, and a “composition” of “elements”. He praises only Palladio but we must remember that Palladio’s work would have been impossible without the likes of Brunelleschi and Michelangelo.

How could Durand appreciate Architecture’s symbolic value? He was at the top of a very hierarchal institution and there was nothing to react against; architecture’s role was reduced to reaffirming and reiterating the status quo.

He says architecture should not “please” and that “imitation is not a means proper to architecture”. But that is exactly what he is doing by reducing architecture to a set of rules and regulations. Just like Philip Johnson and others killed Modernism by declaring it the International Style (Eric Owen Moss said this in the winter 2011 issue of Log), the Beaux Arts kills everything before it by over-canonizing it and reducing it to a set of rules (right and wrong) that students must follow.


I include the image of Labrouste’s library’s interior (conspicuously missing from Antoine Picon's lecture slides!) to point out that there is a positive. The Beaux Arts school was so archaic that it produced reactions from people like Labrouste and Sullivan (and Roark). It created the conditions for the Modernists to declare a revolution in the way we think about architecture—which was of course much needed!

If Palladio’s desire for an order based on mathematical proportions is expressed best in plan and if a similar desire in Le Corbusier’s work is expressed most prominently on the façade, then how can we think of a mathematical proportions as an ordering system in our contemporary (cultural and technological) context?

Both Palladio and Le Corbusier present structural reasons for a mathematical spatial order in their architecture: “Solid wall structures, Palladio declares, demand absolute symmetry; a frame building, Le Corbusier announces, requires a free arrangement” (6). Rowe rightly questions this as the only reason for applying mathematical proportions to architectural design.

He instead focuses on the respective structural systems’ ability to allow for and deny certain applications of a mathematical ordering system: “If Le Corbusier’s façades are for him the primary demonstrations of the virtues of a mathematical discipline, with Palladio it would seem that the ultimate proof of his theory lies in his plans” (9). Both structure and the need for using “‘customary’ materials” restrain Palladio’s most precise mathematical proportions to the plan but allow him to express variation in what Rowe calls a “free section” (11).

Rowe calls this a “freedom” that the horizontal floor planes and horizontal roof at Garches do not allow (11). I would question that and propose that each system (Palladio’s orderly plans and free section, and Le Corbusier’s orderly façade and free plan) comes with its own set of freedoms provided by structural constraints and cultural “customary” desires. In fact, Le Corbusier’s architecture is an advancement of the idea because his column grid does imply a mathematical order in plan as well as in the facade.

Given all this and considering OMA’s library project (shown above) where there are neither load-bearing walls nor horizontal floor plates, we have arrived at a new level of “freedom”. If mathematical order does represent a “natural beauty” (2) (and I believe it does) how do we employ mathematics to bring order to a complex system like OMA’s library?

James Ackerman and the Villa Savoye

Ackerman refers to the ideology/myth of the villa as “a concept or myth so firmly rooted in the unconscious that it is held as an incontrovertible truth.” For Marxists, he says, this kind of ideology is a “means by which the dominant class reinforces and justifies the social and economic structure and its privileged position within it while obscuring its motivation from itself and others”.

The Villa Savoye does not reinforce the power and wealth of the rich but challenges or radically repositions it. The house is neither integrated with nature nor placed on a podium to symbolize stability and power. It is lifted off the ground on piloti, and it floats in the air like a sailing ship. Its ties to the land it sits on are questioned. The land it takes up is reproduced atop its flat roof. The horizontal window abstracts the landscape: instead of providing a continued picture frame from land to horizon to sky, it reveals a widescreen slit of the distant horizon. It uses industrial material, and the only forms of luxury its ascetic lifestyle contains are bread, milk, fish, etc. There is still a servant’s lodge and there is still the eternal program that intends to facilitate “enjoyment and relaxation”. But the Villa Savoye is made not just for its patron. It serves to advance a political and cultural idea through architecture and thus to impact society as well as the client who pays for it.

Tafuri's Construction of Impossible Alliances

Manfredo Tafuri narrates a theatrical story of the Renaissance, a story of grandeur, power and intrigue in which architecture is implicated as a key protagonist. He employs formal analysis to explain how architecture plays a role in creating what Peter Burke described as a “theater-state” (102). After the execution of Girolamo Savonarola in 1498, the Medici began to carefully construct a new beginning for Florence, equipped with money and connections but with little tangible power. It was important to construct an image of power, clemency, and hope.

Architecture is systematically employed to create temporary (as in the celebrations of 1513) and permanent structures that reiterate a myth until it becomes reality. This new reality articulates a resolution of two opposing ideas: (1) religious devotion (and Savonarola’s more extreme ascetic version of this) and (2) a loyalty to the progress of the state and to the ideals of secular (and what Ruskin would call pagan and sinful) humanism.

Only in the grand and permanent forms of architecture can such a complex new reality be constructed. Architecture is the setting of this theater against which the drama unfolds. To a large extent, argues Tafuri, the Medici were successful:
No other prophets emerged to proclaim Florence the center of a new Golden Age. The Medici were victorious. They understood quite clearly the visions of religious renovation were intimately connected with dreams of civil liberty…. With unbending determination the Medici eradicated, in the decades that followed, the myth of Savonarola, offering in its place a new ‘Florentine idea.’ (154)
Of course, Leo X’s efforts to construct an idea of state and religion as one and the same culminated in his infamous sale of indulgences that elicited the Protestant Reformation, but not before it had achieved the creation of St. Peter’s. This, along with other Medici projects, left, or had the potential to leave “a lasting imprint on the collective imagination” (154).

Tafuri offers as a result an enormously positive and idealistic view of Architecture’s ability to shape politics and history, and to realize impossible social alliances, alliances that cannot be envisioned in our world unless an architectural intervention reforms the very backdrop against which we play out our daily lives.

It makes me think of Israel and Palestine.

A New Age

In the chapter “Seeing Through Paper” of The Projective Cast, Robin Evans argues that “buildings… are mightily influenced by [the means of their production].” He gives a fascinating account of how architects designed buildings in the Classical period (base line, center line, processional axis, and so forth) and he claims that the Classical order was a “tendency, not an imperative”. In other words, buildings were orthogonal, symmetrical, planar, frontal, and axial because those were the characteristics that the means of their design facilitated. To design otherwise would be impractical and probably not even possible.

Today, we attend tedious conferences on computational design where the eternal dilemma is to figure out whether we are in the information age and, if yes, how to we deal with it as architects. The advent of three-dimensional computer modeling—in the design process more than merely as a representational device—has taken architecture to a whole new level. If Modernism was an ideological revolution in architecture (in which projective drawing remained the means of design and representation) then where we are now –let us call it the information age—is even more radical. This is because it comes with a cultural/ideological as well as a technological shift.

The technological part is obvious. The ideological shift is hard to pin down because its defining feature is dispersion. If Modernism was about industrialization and mass production and categorizing and labeling, this, here, now is about infinite variability. No one person can proclaim an International Style because we no longer live in a colonial world. We embrace cultural diversity and everyone has a voice, on mass media and on the internet. This is also manifest in an infinitely variable architectural expression, and in an architecture that is highly attuned to its geographical/environmental and cultural/political context.

There is no question about it. People will talk about the 2010s in the same way we talk about the Modernisms of the 1920s.