Classicism and symmetry

Eugène Viollet-le-Duc:

‘Alas!’ said M. de Gandelau, ‘there are too many people in our country with whom considerations of vanity take precedence of everything else, and that is one of the causes of our misfortunes. Appearance is the great object. Every retired bourgeois who has a country house built wishes to have his turrets regularly disposed at the corners of a building, symmetrical, indeed, but in which he is very indifferently lodged—satisfied if this inconvenient erection is called the chateau, internal comfort being sacrificed to the gratification of exhibiting outside …’ (‘How to Build a House’)

Classical architecture—all of it, in all its revival forms; renaissance, baroque, Palladianism, nineteenth and twentieth century neo-classical, and the current American attempted revival—is symmetrical. Summerson says that classicism requires either the use or close emulation of canonically classical features; that is, sculpted elements such as capitals, or architraves; “arbitrary aggregate[s] of architectural detail” (‘Antitheses of the Quattrocento’). This may be right. What classicism absolutely requires is symmetry. Only minor departures are licensed: for example, Alexander Thomson’s St. Vincent Street Church has an asymmetric spire, or campanile. Such asymmetry is always subordinate.

Symmetry points to a centre. It connotes status and hierarchy. At the same time, symmetry constrains the designer, and then the citizens or occupants. The ideal prisons of the nineteenth century are symmetric, sometimes around multiple axes. Symmetry is not plastic: it is exceptionally rigid; it is totalising. I’ve sometimes asked myself which side of bed Louis XIV got out of: his bed was in the centre of his bedroom, which was at the exact centre of Versailles, which itself was (is) centred on an axis extending from the centre of Paris. When lying in bed he himself would be symmetric: as soon as he moved—you have to assume—he wasn’t. If your symmetrical building has a symmetrical staircase, when the return stair divides, as it has to, which side do you walk up? It’s a short step from absurdities like these to finding yourself rewriting a building’s use programme to satisfy a symmetry rule. I think that this, in part, is why classicism has been repeatedly rejected; modernists rejected classicism, but so did the gothic revivalists before them. Designers do not want to be so limited. John Ruskin:

It is one of the chief virtues of the Gothic builders, that they never suffered ideas of outside symmetries and consistencies to interfere with the real use and value of what they did. If they wanted a window, they opened one; a room, they added one; a buttress, they built one; utterly regardless of any established conventionalities of external appearance, knowing (as indeed it always happened) that such daring interruptions of the formal plan would rather give additional interest to its symmetry than injure it. (‘On Art and Life’)

Beauty is almost the first word on the lips of the current revivalists. The people active in this sphere are sincere, I think, in that they really do believe that their output is beautiful. One of Speer’s employees as Generalbauinspektor for the Construction of Berlin, Annemarie Kempf—when interviewed by Gitta Sereny—talked of the beauty of their office’s designs for the new Berlin. For Kempf, the designs for Germania and the Reich Chancellery were made disreputable, and in retrospect, only by association with a specific political regime, and not through their aesthetic attributes. To decide that architecture is mainly concerned with beauty is to decide on the question of whether or not architecture is an art, and in the affirmative. But except for furniture, no other art form places a premium on mirror symmetry. No representational art does, even though its human subjects are (pretty much) symmetrical. Those paintings that approach symmetry are then called classical (and become laughable). I thought of Buddhist sand mandalas, but they show asymmetry. If architecture is an art that achieves beauty through mirror symmetry, it is an art that is sui generis. Little support for this approach to beauty—it seems—can be taken from other forms of art. So what is it in symmetry and axiality that makes some people say that when symmetry is applied to architecture, the result is beautiful?

Some revivalists—Leon Krier, for example—have promoted picturesque and (partly) asymmetric urban compositions. I think the hope here is to produce, for certain briefs, something Italian-looking, or maybe another Acropolis. Within a Krier urban scene—Poundbury, for instance—each landmark is symmetric. Here is a church: thump, symmetric. Here is a bank: thump, symmetric. Krier’s work is somewhat of an outlier within classical traditions: chronologically it follows the post-war ‘townscape’ accommodation of modernist planning and is possibly better understood as post-modern. Poundbury is an ersatz instant settlement; a simulation of a prosperous market town, with a medieval plan, that had at some point decided to spend its wealth on classical facades. (The look of prosperity is crucial to Poundbury.)

This is not to say that Krier always avoids the axis. His Germania-level plans for the rebuilding of Washington DC are intensely axial. He proposes to flood the Mall, turning it into the grandest of reflecting pools: i.e. another mirror, another line of symmetry. Historically, classicist city designers converge relentlessly on the axis. They are more than happy to emplace axes on cities that already exist, and the axis always wins. If land must be acquired and inhabitants moved; too bad for the inhabitants. The disruption is not according to need (‘here is some poor quality housing, we must rebuild it’); the disruption is according to geometry (‘the line must be straight, and unfortunately you are in the way’). Sixtus V’s Rome is succeeded by St Petersburg, which is succeeded by Napoleon III and Hausmann’s Paris, which is succeeded by Mussolini’s Rome (again), which is succeeded by Speer’s Germania. At the intersection of each axis, a focus. On the focus, a symmetrical building of great importance; an institution, a church, a palace, a monument.

The grand axis is supposedly ‘continental’ rather than British. (As it happens, Krier is a Luxembourger.) Nash’s Regent Street bends in deference to land owners (it still has a focus, at All Souls). Wren’s post-fire plan for London wasn’t implemented: its implications for property boundaries were recognised. These examples mislead. Wren’s axial composition at Greenwich is sometimes airily described as ‘enlightenment’ architecture; it is probably better thought of as a triumphal marker of the 1688 Revolution. At first a ‘hospital for seamen’ it became in the nineteenth century a training establishment for the Royal Navy. The grandest British axes are found outside Britain. Lutyens’s memorial arch at Thiepval is well-regarded for its subtle volumetric effects. But it is clearly a victor’s memorial: colossal, axial, pure. It has the arch of Titus as its precedent.

Also praised for its subtlety is Lutyens’s design for the Viceroy’s Palace in New Delhi. The subtlety, whatever it consists in, is not a matter of scale: it is obvious that the intent of this vast building is to dominate. The effort was futile. The palace opened in 1931; in 1947 India became independent.

I think that symmetry and axiality in buildings makes for beauty—for some—because built symmetry and axiality brings about a feeling of power. If implementing that symmetry and axiality involves a real exercise of power, perhaps so much the better (for some). The history of classical planning is a history of the application of force—to borrow a phrase from the British Army—to such an extent that you wonder, like a Jonathan Meades, if force isn’t exactly the point. Authoritarians—the ridiculous, regrettable and often very harmful narcissists that have come to power in our world—love symmetry: they love hierarchy, they love status, they love feelings of power. Therefore they love classicism. If the buildings and city plans that they so often cause to be made are beautiful, it is their sort of beauty. This needs acknowledgement. It’s not enough to say that some democracies—such as we have them—have built classical buildings. Those people who want to revive classicism—yet again—need to provide an explanation of motives; both their own motives, and those of their patrons.

Form & spatial legibility

What shape should a building have? Should it have a simple shape? From what should the shape be derived? And should the shape be comprehensible, or have precedent: does a building need to be ‘legible’?

John Summerson, in his 1941 essay ‘The Mischievous Analogy’, writes that 20th century architects have become obsessed with the “relation of architecture to other things” by way of a “world-tour of contemporary life—scientific research, sociology, psychology, engineering, the arts and a great many other things”. In doing so, they have alienated themselves from the architect’s position as being fundamentally that of an artist with some sort of relationship to tradition, even though the relationship may be transformative. This alienation—for Summerson—is unsustainable: the architect cannot let go of artistic style as his or her central concern, and style—a way of handling form—has heritage.

Summerson’s view of the preoccupations of modernism is borne out in a 1960 essay of Reyner Banham titled ‘Stocktaking’. For Banham, the history of modern architecture is evidence of a sluggish gradualism: although some accommodations have been made—by some progressives—to new methods and requirements, architecture remains at risk of sudden overtake by social and technological advance. For example, the Monsanto company might start to sell millions of factory-made houses, meeting a fundamental human need for shelter—environmental protection—by other means altogether. He also talk of a “scientific aesthetic” where design choices will be made based on evidence about the “effect of certain colours, forms, symbols, spaces, lighting levels … on human viewers”. Implicit in this is that there may be no way to tell where the evidence will lead.

Underlying both positions is an anxiety about the role of architects. For Banham, this anxiety takes on a certain joy of obsolescence; for Banham, the architect should welcome the dissolution of architectural activity and its replacement by other activities. Is this anxiety (or excitement) justified? Possibly not: the role of an industrial designer has a lot of overlap with that of an architect, even as traditionally conceived. For any made object (of any era) a designer has to weight trade offs, and there are ethical dimensions to this activity. And obviously there is still a place for aesthetics: the look and feel of an object may be subsumed under ‘commercial appeal’ but this is just a reframing of the commissioning relationship: instead of one patron, on one site; many consumer customers, in many places. So, production and distribution methods may change; it’s likely that there will still be designers of buildings: architects.

However, the difference of view between the two writers is deeper than the issue of how architects should stand in relation to their societies. The difference is to do with how designers of buildings should proceed. What should be their central concern? In his 1957 essay ‘The Case for a Theory of Modern Architecture’, Summerson advocates a switch in fundamental justification for architectural form. Previously, antique forms (classical or medieval) had provided “a bulwark of certainty, of unarguable authority on which [the architect’s] understanding leans while his conception of the building as a whole, as a unity, takes shape”. If this is to be rejected, the modern designer first needs an equivalent justification—or so Summerson argues—and for Summerson an answer can found in programme: the expected occupancy levels and use patterns of a building, with their implied spatial dimensions and relationships. This programme must then be communicated clearly by way of “regular solids and simple ratios”. Hence, notwithstanding the new concern with programme, there remains a continuity from pre-modern architecture. For Banham, this sort of continuity is merely a holdover—an architectural “addiction to formality”—a continuity that simply lacks any foundation. But for Summerson, the continuity is unavoidable. Even where curved geometry is used, no matter how sophisticated, there will still need to be a ‘shadow’ organising form, essentially orthogonal or otherwise simple, and comprehensible for that reason. This claims something about people; that we are reassured by the use of simple geometries in buildings, or at least the perceptible ghosts of simple geometries; such usage helps us to understand and navigate those buildings: “we shall always seek to read through the complex to the simple, to seek the assurance of those simplicities which must be implied even when they are not stated”.

But what evidence supports this claim about people? The American town planner Kevin Lynch, in his 1960 book ‘The Image of the City’, describes the results of interviews with residents of three cities: Boston, Jersey City and Los Angeles. Lynch asked respondents (thirty for Boston, fifteen each for the other two locations) to answer from memory questions such as ‘where is x located?’ and ‘what are the distinctive parts of the city?’. He also asked the respondents to draw maps of areas they knew. Alongside this primary research, Lynch presents fragments of prior anthropology, for instance: “Sapir gives an interesting example … in the language of the southern Paiute. They have single terms in their vocabulary for such precise topographical features as a ‘spot of level ground in mountains surrounded by ridges’ or ‘canyon wall receiving sunlight’ or ‘rolling country intersected by several small hill ridges’. Such accurate reference to topography is necessary for definite locations in a semi-arid region.” ‘The Image of the City’ is animated by a keen sense of what it is like to be lost:

“… let the mishap of disorientation once occur, and the sense of anxiety and even terror that accompanies it reveals to us how closely it is linked to our sense of balance and well-being. The very word ‘lost’ in our language means much more than simple geographical uncertainty; it carries overtones of utter disaster.”

Lynch uses his research as a base to argue for a reform of spatial planning. For Lynch, successful spatial plans are ‘imageable’; that is, inhabitants of a place or settlement must be able to make reasonably accurate mental maps of that place or settlement. They will be greatly facilitated in doing this if designers include into their designs differentiable features such as landmarks or edges (“boundaries between two kinds of areas”).

One point that can be made here is that Lynch’s research is not behavioural: respondents were not observed but interviewed, and Lynch is interested in the content of their reports. Banham’s contemporaneous call for a “scientific aesthetic” based on “effects … on human viewers”, by contrast, looks naive. Psychology does not look only at behaviour and psychologists give weight to personal accounts.

This, though, is a side point. What stands out more is that the sort of primary research done by Lynch seems to be exactly part of that “world-tour of contemporary life … sociology, psychology” that Summerson says architects have wrongly strayed into. Indeed, the Lynchian approach seems to offer Summerson a way to acquire an evidential base, and the idea of ‘imageability’ looks to be friendly to the use of simple, comprehensible geometries. This might not mean orthogonality. Lynch stresses topology; the maps drawn by interviewees were often distorted but rarely “torn and sewn back together in another order”. However, a terrain with landmarks is key; as one respondent said: “I like to think of a few focal points and how to get from one to another, and the rest I don’t bother to learn”. Lynch also highlights the case of Boston Common, which has “a most peculiar shape, difficult to remember: a five-sided, right-angled figure … two of the bounding paths, Boylston and Tremont Streets, are of city-wide importance … here they cross at right angles, but farther out they seem to be parallel … all this adds up to a critical ambiguity of shape at the city core, a major orientation flaw”. So orthogonality might not be necessary to Lynchian imageability, but the consistency it brings may be helpful.

One objection here might be that Lynch is writing about settlements, whereas Summerson and Banham are focussed on buildings. But does this really matter? Barring cognitive deficits (and Lynch mentions this) it seems unlikely that anyone would get lost at home, given domestic scale and familiarity. However, it doesn’t take a very large increase in scale from the domestic for the effects of legibility—or the lack of it—to be felt. Once you reach the scale of a hospital, or an airport, the possibility of becoming lost is acute, and wayfinding becomes essential to the design brief. Typically, wayfinding focuses on signage and similar, but this is of course can be highly problematic; following coloured lines on the floor is routinely despised, and many people find airport movement—navigating from sign to sign—stressful.

Here I’d like to look at two examples. The first is the British Library building in St Pancras, by Long and St John Wilson, designed between 1982 and 1999 (pictured above). The plan of this large and complex building is not rectangular, and the change in angle across the plan corresponds to a basic split in library subject matter: ‘humanities’ and ‘science’. Within each area of the building, though, the geometry is orthogonal.

In Lynchian terms the building looks to be highly ‘imageable’; it has regularities that allow safe inferences about how things will work—what will be found where—but also has irregularities and contrasts that allow users to mentally turn features into ‘landmarks’. In places, the interior approaches a kind of miniature indoor urbanism: there is a minaret-like lift tower in the north-east corner of the central space, and the George III collection is housed in a ‘building within a building’, and given a unique dark glass cladding. This looks to further help legibility; whether the implicit orientalism—a ‘qaaba’ of books—is culturally appropriate is a separate question.

My second example is the Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku, Azerbaijan, by Zaha Hadid Architects,  2007-2012 (pictured above). This is a well-executed building of similar scale to the British Library. The complex geometries in use here are virtuosic and in a sense contemporary; ‘fresher’ than the Long and St John Wilson building. However, the building also looks to be in scope for Summerson when he writes in 1957 of “unfamiliar and complex forms … plans [that] wriggle in the wildest of ‘free’ curves … forms of great precision but visually unreadable complexity”. Nothing in the Heydar Aliyev Centre strictly repeats—although the main auditorium is symmetrical—but there is a high degree of visual uniformity, both formal and material. This satisfies the design urge to make things consistent, to remove geometric conflict; the ‘unresolved’ or difficult intersection. But does it help legibility?

In a 2008 document titled ‘Parametricism as Style: Parametricist Manifesto’, the architect Patrik Schumacher (of Zaha Hadid Architects) writes:

“Modernism was founded on the concept of space. Parametricism differentiates fields. … We might think of liquids in motion, structured by radiating waves, laminar flows, and spiralling eddies… We would like to think of swarms of buildings that drift across the landscape. Or we might think of large continuous interiors like open landscapes or big exhibition halls of the kind used for trade fairs. Such interiors are visually infinitely [sic] deep and contain various swarms of furniture coalescing with the dynamic swarms of human bodies. There are no platonic, discrete figures with sharp outlines. … Imagine there are no more landmarks to hold on, no axis to follow and no more boundaries to cross.”

I think what’s interesting here is the acknowledgement of a Lynchian view of things—“no more landmarks”—along with a clear statement of intent: users of buildings will navigate in a different way than before. There will still be aids to navigation—forms may gesture at organisation and layout—but the use of contrast and sharp delineation is deprecated. You might have been used to all that once, Schumacher says. Here is a better way. But just as with Summerson’s advocacy of platonic forms, we can ask: what supports this? Where is the fieldwork?

Functionalism & inhabitability

I’ve written here a bit about arguments for tradition in architecture, and also tentatively worked at some strands of current architectural theory. But now I want to sketch out what I think modernism in architecture is. I think modernism has a central concept which is essential to it. Alongside it we can put a number of auxiliary concepts.

In the central concept, modernism calls for both:

  • The embrace of beneficial possibility;


  • The adoption of a revisionist stance; modernism actively seeks change to current practice and attempts the widest survey of possibilities.

There’s a difference between beneficial possibility and novelty. For example, when mathematical knowledge is used only as a route to new architectural form, the situation tends towards that of an appreciation of formal innovation. But modernism is more than this: the adoption of beneficial possibility is consequential. Of course; we want to make buildings that are helpful. Modernism is, at root, a thoroughgoing application of this attitude.

Even if this bare definition is sound—and I hope that it is— it is not in itself all that interesting. Things get more interesting when you start to consider some auxiliaries to the central idea. One auxiliary concept is authenticity. Here, two senses of authenticity are relevant. First, authenticity as an appropriate relationship to cultural practice, present or old. This is the sort of authenticity that writers such as Frampton are concerned with. Second, authenticity as the stripping away of illusion: the determination to strip away or look through comforting surface deceptions; the desire to ‘know the truth, no matter how painful’. The two senses are related: consider the situation where we consciously hold at a certain distance from some traditional practice on the basis that the traditional practice represents something illusionistic, or false.

Another auxiliary concept—and one with strong cultural roots—is functionalism: that is, the idea that built form should obviously reflect or signal some mode of use. This idea has been repeatedly criticised. There are difficulties of implementation: can we be sure that a building feature is sending the right signal? Is the attempt at clear, consistent signalling frustrating optimum building performance (violating the central concept)? And how does the designer cater to a diversity of uses, possibly simultaneous uses? I don’t think that functionalism is retrievable. However, I do think that it can be replaced by a related concept of inhabitability:

Functionalist = a building signals the way in which it is used or occupied, or should be used or occupied;

Inhabitable = a building signals a way (at least one way) in which it could be used or occupied.

I’d suggest that the buildings we consider good tend to demonstrate inhabitability. Modern buildings often do it very well, and better than traditional buildings, although some do it badly, or do it badly in at least some aspects. We like many functionalist buildings not because they are functionalist, but because they are also—albeit accidentally—inhabitable.

For example, Lasdun’s National Theatre building. This is one of very few modern buildings praised by Scruton (in his ‘Aesthetics of Architecture’). The structure is full of obvious terraces and stairways that suggest modes of use or occupation. The user can either see a path to a place they can inhabit (or safely infer that such a place is reachable). The signaling in effect here is not particularly one of convention or cultural inheritance: the user knows how their body works in space; they know how to get from A to B; as a practical matter they can ‘read’ the terrain.

The National Theatre has an analogue in many of Wright’s house projects; again, their inhabitability is obvious. It is not that terracing or stairs are necessary for inhabitability (although they are often effective). Another approach is to use fenestration in a very deliberate way, such that the user can infer—from the outside—a space occupiable by them.

I think inhabitability generalises from townscape; that is, the view that the buildings that make up settlements should be laid out in a way that takes perspectival experience into account. How do you get from here to there? Is it obvious? Is the journey inviting? Some modern projects—the Barbican, for instance—seem to score well on inhabitability but poorly on townscape. And this is why the Barbican divides opinion.

Arguments for tradition in architecture: 3

I wrote earlier about David Watkin’s criticism of Pevsner in ‘Morality & Architecture’. Watkin says much less about another advocate of modernism: Sigfried Giedion. But with Giedion, Watkin’s general thesis—that modernists have all signed up to an unreflective Hegelianism and a ‘belief in progress’—comes closer to the mark. In ‘Space, Time & Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition’ (Harvard, 1941) Giedion does describe a Zeitgeist (and calls it that) and declares his obligation to bring it to light, for general benefit. Still, there is more going on with ‘Space, Time & Architecture’ than you get from Watkin. ‘Morality & Architecture’ promotes the idea of style, where this term is understood as naming collections of building features: patent features that are primarily understood visually, and which tend to be seen in characteristic families or groups. Giedion rejects the term style (and Watkin reacts to this rejection). But why does Giedion reject style?

‘Space, Time & Architecture’ offers, in place of styles, a distinction between what Giedion calls “constituent facts” and “transitory facts”. By ‘facts’, Giedion means the (factual) occurrence of building features; a “constituent fact” is the persistent appearance, over time periods that may be quite extended, of a certain feature. For example, an “undulating wall” is, for Giedion, a constituent fact. Watkin mistakenly thinks Giedion intends by “undulating wall” a modernist stylistic trope and assigns to Giedion a simple preference for it. But Giedion traces his undulating wall from the Italian Baroque (perhaps Borromini’s S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, 1638-41), through “the great dwelling complexes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries” into the present day (of the 1930s-40s); the undulating wall must then be understood as a feature that, if not ‘transcendent’ of style, is at least one that cannot easily be captured within a style definition. A better understanding of Giedion, I think, is that his “constituent fact” is an expression of knowledge how: that is, there is a known way to build curved walls; a geometric understanding, a capacity to make drawings on the basis of that understanding, and finally a capacity to transfer that information for use at full scale by stonemasons (or other fabricators). At one time that knowledge how did not exist, and now it does. This is an achievement; a newly embedded element within our institutions and accepted practices. It is this status of achievement that gives the “constituent fact” its rootedness, or persistence. A “transitory fact”, by contrast, involves no such achievement. The features in play with a “transitory fact” are mundane and no special—or new—knowledge is involved in their application. Giedion’s example is “furniture of the Second Empire in France”, typified by an eclectic re-mixing of classical motifs. The implication is that Second Empire furniture is something that did not happen earlier, but could have happened earlier. At the time that it happens, it is merely a novelty. As such, it may just as easily disappear again.

Giedion’s focus on persistence in ‘Space, Time & Architecture’ is reflected in the subtitle he gives the book: ‘The Growth of a New Tradition’. Some things become established in architecture. Let’s look at another example. Take the conoidal structure that’s hidden inside the dome of Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral. This involved both a geometric and structural innovation. However, Wren himself had a conservative aesthetic. In Parentalia he writes:

“There are only two beautiful Positions of strait Lines, perpendicular and horizontal: this is from Nature, and consequently Necessity, no other than upright being firm. Oblique Positions are Discord to the Eye, unless answered in Pairs, as in the Sides of an equicrural Triangle: therefore Gothick Buttresses are all ill-favoured, and were avoided by the Ancients, and no Roofs almost but spherick raised to be visible.”


“The misapprehending World measures the Excellence of things by their Rarity, or Difficulty of Framing, not by the Concinnity and apt Disposal of Parts to attain their End by a right Line as it were & the Simplest way.”

This, I’d suggest, explains the concealment of the part of the dome of St. Paul’s—the actual masonry shell—that carries the main forces from the cupola: for Wren, it was the right shape (roughly, a revolved catenary) to do the job of carrying imposed loads, but the wrong shape to be seen. It was therefore hidden by a roof structure of a more spherical appearance, executed mostly in timber.

Today, would a conoid still be the wrong shape to be seen? No; but what has made the difference? Giedion says that there is an additional dimension to innovation beyond architectural practice; that is, experiment in visual arts. For Giedion, experiment in fine arts—implicitly, quick experiment, at low cost—allows the application and open exhibition of new construction techniques. There is a gradual evolution of general taste, through new sculpture and painting, and in these changed conditions the new way of building can emerge. To illustrate this further claim, Giedion considers the output of the Swiss engineer and architect Robert Maillart (1872-1940); the twenty-six pages devoted to Maillart constitute one of the most rewarding parts of ‘Space, Time & Architecture’. Maillart’s main contribution, according to Giedion, is to shift the domain of structural analysis from planar elements—beam, column and arch—to surfaces; shells and vaults. This innovation is accompanied by the take up of reinforced concrete as a construction technique, with particular exploration of connection details: just how the steel reinforcement—the component that deals with tension forces—transitions from slab or vault to column is crucial to the realisation of greater plasticity. (Giedion is careful to illustrate these details. They are not incidental: they are part of the knowledge how.) Now vaults and shells—structural surfaces—do predate Maillart: Wren’s conoid is an example. Some of these early (typically masonry) structures even feature tension elements. However, along with his presentation of Maillart, Giedion cites the work of Impressionist and Cubist artists: this body of work—he argues—emphasises surface. In the context of an improved public appreciation of surface, a designer such as Maillart can now propose unornamented, pure forms. The shape of the optimised structural element is now aesthetically sufficient; nothing now needs to be hidden.

Of course, we can dispute this, or some part of it. We can look, for instance, at the French tradition of surface expression in stonemasonry (stereotomy). But still, what Giedion sets out here looks to be some sort of sociological model, or perhaps a kind of anthropology, and his case for acceptance of it is convincing. This is how people act, he says, and here is an example that has happened. Take this example and all of the related activity together, and we have something we have to call a new tradition. It exists. Here, Giedion is in descriptive, rather than normative mode: if he is wrong, it is not because we think we don’t have to do likewise in our own design practice; he is wrong because what he describes simply did not happen (or did not happen like he says) and the tradition does not exist. And it seems obvious to me that he’s not wrong. It is still open to us to go in a different direction, but this is the basis for the departure.

Architecture school theory: authenticity

The word ‘authenticity’ carries multiple senses. Something that is authentic is true, but not quite in the sense of being a true report or description of something. But like truth as correspondence, authenticity is relational. When something is authentic it is correctly or properly related to other things. A forged or reproduction artwork, for example, is inauthentic in that it does not correctly relate to a known artist; it does come from that artist—in the sense that the artist is still the originator of the composition—but it comes only as a copy. With that said, I’m going to set aside senses of authenticity such as authorial authenticity. Instead, I’ll use the following senses of authenticity:

1. Having truth to experience. Literary modernism tends towards this sense; i.e. the narrative of Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’;
2. Having an appropriate relationship to some culture or practice, recent or old;
3. Being open to the possibilities of the present (or responsive to the challenges of the present) rather than having an appropriate connection to the culture or practices of the present.

The first sense—truth to experience—looks to be something beyond architecture, which—to a first approximation—is mute. There are conventions in architecture: a door will usually be recognised as a door. There are resemblances and historical associations: a pyramid will usually be recognised as Egyptian. And there are—in a certain sense—narratives: a spatial arrangement may be experienced linearly, with one experience giving way to another. But the way we use buildings is distant from the way we use spoken or written language; if we want to refer to something, we generally do not build something.

The third sense—openness to present possibility—is what Pevsner seems to be getting at in ‘Pioneers of the Modern Movement’, although his presentation of the idea is minimal.

It is the second sense of authenticity as I’ve defined it—authenticity as an appropriate relationship to some existing culture or practice—that suffuses Frampton’s influential 1983 essay ‘Towards a Critical Regionalism’. In this essay, Frampton sets out to give parameters to a reformed modernism. The appropriate cultural relationship Frampton has in mind is a complex one:

“[Critical Regionalism] has to ‘deconstruct’ the overall spectrum of world culture which it inevitably inherits; in the second place, it has to achieve, through synthetic contradiction, a manifest critique of universal civilisation.”

In Frampton’s scheme, ‘universal civilisation’ terms a technologically oriented, productive but placeless modernism, while ‘world culture’ names our collective inheritance of region-specific customs and practices. This inheritance is reported on—we all know about it, or can come to know about it—but is essentially localised.

Frampton also defines his reformed modernism against what he sees to be the alternative of ‘Populism’, which works, he says, principally through signs:

“… the primary vehicle of Populism is the communicative or instrumental sign. Such a sign seeks to evoke not a critical perception of reality, but rather the sublimation of a desire for direct experience through the provision of information. Its tactical aim is to attain, as economically as possible, a preconceived level of gratification in behaviouristic terms. In this respect, the strong affinity of Populism for the rhetorical techniques and imagery of advertising is hardly accidental. Unless one guards against such a convergence, one will confuse the resistant capacity of a critical practice with the demagogic tendencies of Populism.”

Frampton’s characterisation of ‘populism’ looks to have Venturi and Scott Brown in its sights. Three decades on, Frampton’s aim here looks off, even as his use of the term ‘populism’ is prescient. What we now see in political populism is a demand not for signs and quotations, but for the full blown restoration of tradition in the built environment; circumscribed, limited tradition; ‘proper buildings’; actual Grecian-style, stone-built structures. Post-modernism is not the current architectural populism, even if we deny to the current architectural populism the authenticity it so clearly wants, and in doing so, call it post-modern.

But my main concern is that Frampton’s formula for authenticity looks undeliverable. He approvingly cites Utzon’s Bagsvaerd church, near Copenhagen (1968). This is a building which combines rectilinear—although interestingly articulated—elevations with a fluid, expressive section. The elevations are said by Frampton to be representative of ‘universal civilization’; i.e. they are simple, economical and repetitive. The precedent for the section is said to be the Chinese pagoda form; the section, then, is here the bearer of ‘world culture’. However, the pagoda form is abstracted; it has something of the shape of the pagoda; it does not ‘quote’ a pagoda. This, for Frampton, is the right sort of response to ‘world culture’. In Frampton’s scheme—if I have it right—‘regional’ only means ‘regional somewhere’, and not necessarily ‘regional here’. And in the drawing from elsewhere, there is to be at the same time an (appropriate) transformation; the regional element is to become something else, even as the spirit of the original (supposedly) remains.

I can see two problems with this. The first problem is that—in the Utzon example, at least—the elements are unrecognisable as what Frampton describes. When I look at photographs of the Bagsvaerd church, I see not a straightforwardly modernist exterior—something representative of ‘universal civilization’—but some sort of modern interpretation of a local vernacular. The exterior includes pitched roof forms (although glazed).

It calls to mind domestic construction, faintly Germanic classical in its proportions. But that could just be me. Nor do I see a Chinese pagoda in the interior. And this, too, could just be me. But it could be you as well. There is a problem of recognisability; the formula aims to deliver a special kind of authenticity, but it is hard to see how this can work if the building user cannot perceive the cultural connection intended. For that user, there is either perhaps no authenticity at all, or else the ‘wrong sort of authenticity’; i.e. a connection is made, a connection with propriety, that could even have been intended, but which was not in fact intended. When I look at pictures of Bagsvaerd, I see something church-like, certainly; something Scandinavian, and—because I’ve seen Aalto—something Aalto-like. To me, Bagsvaerd looks like a (northern European) modern church. And it is one, too. Authentically so. I feel on safe ground with this.

The second problem is that Frampton’s formula seems to rely on judgements of taste. Elements of existing culture are to be abstracted and transformed, and tastefully, not crudely; cutting and pasting is out (or the result is ‘populism’). Now architectural education follows something like a conservatoire model; there is there a cultural transmission, in which architects train their successors to apply (what is considered to be) good taste judgement. As it happens, I think Kenneth Frampton has good taste; I share his appreciation of Utzon, an admirable architect. I enjoy the subtleties of his Bagsvaerd church. In his 1995 book ‘Studies in Tectonic Culture’, Frampton makes an excellent presentation of not only Utzon but also Mies, Kahn, Wright and others; I recommend this book. And I try to have good taste too. But in an architectural theory, an exhortation to exercise good taste judgement—to do things well, with refinement—just won’t bear much weight. Something more categorical is needed, for a theory.

Beyond Frampton, I have to say that I find myself losing faith in the idea of architectural authenticity, at least in its second meaning as I’ve given it. It seems to be a problem concept, one that causes effort and lost sleep, and for not much in return. There are many superficial applications; for instance, the current trend of interiors featuring walls and floors of Delftware.

And authenticity is a notion apparently surrounded by pitfalls. Authenticity is too readily co-opted into grim politics. Frampton has done his part in popularising Heidegger, and Heidegger’s advocacy of architectural tradition is now echoed by the far right; a development not anticipated in architecture schools. There’s more work to be done to secure authenticity for modernism, if it’s wanted there.

Architecture school theory: instrumentality

A repeated message in current architectural writing is to warn against ‘means-end thinking’, or ‘instrumental thinking’. For example, we might decide that we want to live in a home that has a constant temperature of 22 degrees centigrade, or that ‘has a view to the south-east’, and with these ends in mind, we go about arranging them; we find the means, whatever those are. And this—it’s said—is a bad way of doing things. The warning extends to architectural types; to think of whole buildings as objects serving our purposes—a research facility, a learning resource centre, a shopping mall—is also to practice ‘means-end thinking’. The cost—it’s said—is twofold; the resulting construction will not be worthy of its inhabitants, and worse, we risk “spoliation” of the environment. Instead, architects should aim at a simpler, more direct relationship with places, with people and with customs of inhabitation. Not housing, schools, factories, but dwellings, and gathering places of the community. Not needs met, but people addressed—so to speak—‘in their fullest being’ (my phrasing). Here’s an example of the message, from Dalibor Vesely:

“Architecture has probably never abandoned completely its humanistic role, though in modern times this role has mostly been improvised. That approach may no longer suffice in a changing world increasingly dominated by instrumentally oriented expectations. To preserve its primary identity and humanistic role in the future, architecture must establish credentials on the same level of intelligibility as instrumental thinking, while at the same time it must integrate and subordinate the instrumental knowledge and the technical potential of human beings to their praxis. This is, in essence, my aim in broad outline …” (Vesely, ‘Architecture in an Age of Divided Representation’ (2004), p. 5)

We got here, as I hinted at before, via Heidegger. How? Heidegger’s core project is to induct readers into an alternative to the traditions of metaphysics. Most people—and, you’ll be reassured to learn, four out of five living philosophy specialists, by their own self-reports—believe that there is a world of things with independent existence outside of the mind that experiences and recognises these things: this is realism; the world is real. Most people, but not all people. There is an alternate view, which is that the things of experience are things of the mind, and we should be sceptical of the existence of—or at least of the appearance of—what some might take to be a mind-independent world. There are several variations of this line of thinking in philosophy, sometimes termed idealism, or anti-realism, depending on the version, and all of them tending to have a sophistication which I can’t tackle here.

And there are complications. We also like to predicate of objects that we encounter in experience; for example, we say ‘I see the roof is shiny’ or ‘you’ll find the path is bumpy’ in the confidence that many things are shiny or bumpy: that those things are alike in those ways; they have properties. There is then a range of views about what properties are. When we predicate, do we refer to something somehow in the object, to something mental that groups objects together, or do we invoke something we might call a universal; something external to the mind, and whose location cannot be given?

Heidegger’s approach is to say that there is a difference between things existing—mere existence, we might say—and those same things having a certain graspable or connectable kind of being. Things—for Heidegger—have this special kind of being only when experienced by us with purposive engagement; he collectively terms such things ‘equipment’ and describes the special kind of being as ‘readiness-to-hand’ (zuhandenheit). As examples, Heidegger determinedly points to everyday objects, when we use a hammer—when we engage purposively with a hammer—the hammer is ‘equipment’ and has zuhandenheit. As a metaphysical position, this is not realism—in this picture the existence of things is in a certain way conditional on our experiencing them—but it is not idealism either; things retain a mind-independent mere existence. To put this second point in Heidegger’s terms: beyond our engagement with them, things continue to have ‘presence-at-hand’ (vorhandenheit) as things ‘in’ the world (as the desk is ‘in’ the room, and the room is ‘in’ the university). We may still relate to such things that are only ‘present-at-hand’, but our doing so is a sort of reduction; we come to consider such things, in our detachment, as objects, and ourselves as subjects. And when we treat things as ‘present-at-hand’—as only objects of our curiosity—we achieve for ourselves only a less authentic way of being; full authenticity is only found in engagement, in connection with the ‘ready-at-hand’.

The philosopher Rudolf Carnap, in a sharply critical piece of 1932 (‘The Elimination of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of Language’), argues for much tighter control of expression in philosophical writing than he sees in Heidegger (whom he names). For Carnap, a term such as ‘being’, in philosophical writing at least, is to be understood only through its role as an ‘existence quantifier’; a thing x is (or is not)—this is the quantifier—and has property F (or does not have it). Existence is not to be predicated of something; there are not kinds of existence, or kinds of being. My intent is not to try to come to a judgement on this. However, Carnap then says the following:

“The metaphysician believes that he travels in territory in which truth and falsehood are at stake. In reality, however, he has not asserted anything, but only expressed something, like an artist. [But] Lyrical poets … do not try to refute in their poem the statements in a poem by some other lyrical poet.”

And I think the implication of egotism in Heidegger—extreme egotism, even—is right. Heidegger presents himself as getting at something of crucial importance. His metaphysical picture is to give a foundation to sciences: “basic concepts determine the way in which we get an understanding beforehand of the area of subject-matter underlying all the objects a science takes as its theme, and all positive investigation is guided by this understanding”. Indeed, his metaphysics is meant to overturn wrong thinking generally. In a jarring passage in Being and Time he writes (my emphasis):

“It would be unintelligible for Being-in-the-world to remain totally veiled from view, especially since Dasein has at its disposal an understanding of its own Being, no matter how indefinitely this understanding may function. But no sooner was the ‘phenomenon of knowing the world’ grasped than it got interpreted in a ‘superficial’, formal manner. The evidence for this is the procedure (still customary today) of setting up knowing as a ‘relation between subject and Object’—a procedure in which there lurks as much ‘truth’ as vacuity. But subject and Object do not coincide with Dasein and the world.”

The construction “no sooner was … than it got interpreted” (admittedly here in translation) is flat footed in the context of the generally attractive, mystery-unfolding aesthetic of Heidegger’s prose. A big mistake has been made, Heidegger says; it must not only be commented on, it must be reversed. And he is clearly reaching.

And so we get to building. There is also wrong thinking—Heidegger comes to say after an interval that includes, shockingly, his own active involvement in German fascism*—in the way which we build. And there is a better way to build; it can be done, he says:

“Let us think for a while of a farmhouse in the Black Forest, which was built some two hundred years ago by the dwelling of peasants. Here the self-sufficiency of the power to let earth and heaven, divinities and mortals enter in simple oneness into things, ordered the house. It placed the farm on the wind-sheltered mountain slope looking south, among the meadows close to the spring. It gave it the wide overhanging shingle roof whose proper slope bears up under the burden of snow, and which, reaching deep down, shields the chambers against the storms of the long winter nights. It did not forget the altar corner behind the community table; it made room in its chamber for the hallowed places of childbed and the “tree of the dead”—for that is what they call a coffin there: the Totenbaum—and in this way it designed for the different generations under one roof the character of their journey through time. A craft which, itself sprung from dwelling, still uses its tools and frames as things, built the farmhouse.”

By ‘dwelling’ and ‘entering in simple oneness into things’ Heidegger intends his own metaphysic of zuhandenheit: purposive engagement, craft; not our habitual subject-object, or means-end thinking. We may doubt the accuracy of Heidegger’s description; it seems touristic, we may say. What are these houses really like? What has been left out? But it’s the phrase “by the dwelling of peasants” that strikes. Are these real people? Who were they? How does he know of them? What does he know of them? What reports do we have of their thinking? Is the house itself taken to be evidence of that? If not, then what is?


Let’s say that such a house, either as Heidegger describes it, or as we might find one, is evidence of the thinking—of the way of being, to put it in Heidegger’s terms—of its builders. If this is right, then to do as they did will be to be as they were, at least to a degree. Yet to do as they did requires us to take note of features of the house; these gables, those windows, those beams, etc. But which features are the correct ones to take note of? Are we sure that none of what we see was put into place by means-end thinking? The history of Black Forest houses suggests that earlier examples were built with living rooms facing the hillside, and not facing out, over the valley, as we might expect. At some time, a switch was made and later examples do have valley-facing living rooms. But why was this done? Can we be sure that no Black Forest farmers had the thought that it would be nice to look out at the valley and asked themselves what would have to happen to bring that about? I suggest that we cannot.

Heidegger, of course, presents his example and immediately disavows it:

“Our reference to the Black Forest farm in no way means that we should or could go back to building such houses; rather, it illustrates by a dwelling that has been, how it was able to build.”

So what should we build? We stand outside the craft tradition attributed to the Black Forest farmers. What is our own craft tradition supposed to consist of? We will know, Heidegger suggests, if we adopt the metaphysic of zuhandenheit. But note that the farmhouse—Heidegger’s example—now has no role to play. We can understand the hammer easily enough; the farmhouse is a more complex affair. It is probably unsafe to assume that any of its features will guide us; we are instead reliant on first principles: Heidegger’s metaphysics, if we choose to go that way. Some architectural writers seem to work back from ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’—finding the picture there appealing—to some of Heidegger’s other writing, coming to support his normative demand—i.e. we should reduce our tendency to means-end thinking—assigning that demand extra weight ‘because Heidegger’ (i.e. it comes from authority) and only perhaps as a last step internalising a Heideggerian metaphysics. Resilience to the Heidegger mystique is best obtained from working forwards instead. Is Heidegger’s metaphysics convincing to you (is it better than alternatives; is it worse, even, than anything; is it—as Carnap seems to think—somewhere between psychology and fiction); even if it is convincing, does it give any weight at all to Heidegger’s normative demand as applied generally, and if so, what does this mean for building specifically? And note that if you find his metaphysics unconvincing (or just of no moral consequence), it is still open to you, as a designer, to pursue something we could call a ‘mindfulness approach’, or even a ‘psychology of Heidegger’. In this, we would pay careful attention to things of the world on the grounds that (occasional) simple, direct, sensory engagement with things of the world is good, happy and productive. But contra Heidegger, we needn’t think that our mindfulness signifies any great truth. Heidegger anticipates this objection:

“… this characteristic [of zuhandenheit] is not to be understood as merely a way of taking [things], as if we were talking such ‘aspects’ into the ‘entities’ which we proximally encounter, or as if some world-stuff which is proximally present-at-hand in itself were ‘given subjective colouring’ …”

We are not to give things subjective colouring, he says, except that we can; this choice is open to us.

And we can go further, again without internalising any particular metaphysics; we can agree that means-end thinking is often unsatisfactory, and sometimes destructive. Here, though, I think more caution is needed. We do not live and work in a world made only by us, or by those near to us; we live in enormous societies with many technical specialisms. Some of these (many of them, even) apply to building. For example, someone has researched the role of radon gas in health, and found out that it collects in basements, and can be mitigated in a certain way; it is very hard to see the ‘means-end thinking’ that has been done here as anything other than beneficial. Similarly, someone has researched the performance of materials as applied to structures, or to fire resistance, with lessons for the way we build. Beyond individual buildings, someone has researched the effects of certain approaches to town planning, to transport planning, also with lessons for the way we build. Even as we retain traditions—if we retain them—we may choose to modify them: rationally, instrumentally. Or we may choose to abandon them: again, rationally, instrumentally. It is a stretch to call into question or demote  all ‘means-end thinking’ (and still more of a stretch to insist that we all pay attention to the phenomenologically-grounded world view of one writer): it depends on the means, and on the end.

*Heidegger’s anti-Semitism was categorically established in 2014 with the publication of his private journals.

Architecture school theory: introduction

So, what is architecture school theory? Take Scruton’s ‘Aesthetics of Architecture’, which I blogged about earlier. This is a book written by a non-architect, for non-architects (mainly), about architecture. From the perspective of architecture schools, it is almost counter-cultural. How did this happen?

In the UK, Oxford University has no architecture school at all (although Oxford Brookes does). Some schools of architecture are fully independent (the Architectural Association). The school I attended (the Mackintosh) is embedded within of Glasgow School of Art and has only a very slender link to Glasgow University. The state of formal academic writing about architecture reinforces the sense that there is little dialogue between (anglophone) architecture schools and humanities departments. However, some architecture schools produce architectural theory. Overwhelmingly, this draws on a so-called ‘continental’ tradition of philosophy. This is a category that recognises–perhaps tendentiously–an academic fissure that was opened by anglophone philosophers such as Russell and Moore in their rejection of the method of F. H. Bradley and other so-called ‘British idealists’, who themselves identified–more or less–as followers of Hegel. On the far side of this fissure there now also stand French and German writers such as Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Sartre (with Brentano as a common influence); hence the term ‘continental’. These writers share a focus on articulating conscious experience through introspection (‘phenomenology’). They are also ‘system builders’, making efforts to present complete (and therefore lengthy) philosophical descriptions; implicitly the reader is asked to consider the verisimilitude of the picture presented: this itself continues a tradition of Hume, Kant and Hegel, and is an approach mostly rejected on the anglophone (or ‘analytic’) side since Russell. All disputes fade with time; what I think is (slightly) interesting here is that anglophone architectural writers have made no efforts to bridge the gap: they continue on with Heidegger et al.

I suspect that, in part at least, this is because Heidegger himself is one of few philosophers to directly address architecture, mainly via his short essay ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’ (1951) (.pdf). If so, the situation is unflattering to architects, as if writing from other disciplines has to be flagged as ‘about architecture’ in order for architects to think of reading it. What then, should architects read? Architecture is something which people do that affects the world and the people in it. Architectural theory, then, has to be thought of as a guide to action; an answer to the question: what should architects (and planners, and designers) do? In answering this question, ethics and politics are the topics in philosophical writing that theory-minded architects ought to turn to first, with aesthetics following … possibly. These topics are richly represented in the analytic tradition. Introspective explorations of consciousness might feature; on the face of things it is hard to see any specifically architectural application for this line of inquiry. From a scan of the literature, though, you might think that phenomenology was considered to be architecture’s special philosophical complement.


That said, over the next few months I plan to write some posts here on architecture school theory, with the intent of setting out what seems useful in it, and what seems objectionable (or at least questionable). I hope to give a fair representation of it along the way. Or of a slice of it. There are a lot of words out there, and I haven’t decided how best to organise the task: reading everything is not feasible. Most likely, I will take a thematic approach, looking at topics such as representation (architects do drawings!) and what is now often called ‘place’. If there are connections between what is in architecture school theory and some of the advocacy for traditional architecture, or for modernism, I will try to sketch those out as well.