Published in Emotions in Architecture (Schinegger K., Kuhlmann D.; eds.), Luftschacht Verlag, Austria 2011.
This is a quick and rather superficial comment on architectural education – which I regard as the strongest experimental and multidisciplinary domain of the discipline of architecture – of architectural drawings, and of the figure of the architect. I write it as an external observer to the work featured in this catalogue, having been invited to review it in January 2011. It should be a brief yet strong plea against any kind of academic fundamentalism.
It is important to understand that the student work featured in this catalogue was produced within one of the first Polytechnical institutes (the Technische Universität Vienna was established as early as 1815); a model that starting from Paris was then adopted in various countries such as Austria, America and later Germany and England (for various reasons in the UK, where these words are being written, this model was only adopted after the crucial moment of the first World Exhibition of 1851).
During the first half of the nineteenth-century debate between the general practice – that believed in objective functions and techniques – and professional schools – permeated by the early Picturesque ideals – the teaching in such schools followed the scheme of the Parisian École des Beaux-Arts (1819–1968), re-structured from the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture and the Académie Royale d’Architecture, and breaking with the tradition of such academies – a term still reminiscent of humanist ideals suppressed by the Revolution.i Inversely, from the late eighteenth century onwards the École Polytechnique in Paris had begun to postulate a new instrumental and schematic approach of mathematical ratios and didactic methods, which the Beaux-Arts never really rivaled.ii Its dean, Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand, had a very industrial and modern architectural theory that triggered the devolution of the school of style (Beaux-Arts) into a school of method, causing a shift in architectural theory towards industrial demands and technological doctrines of usefulness. Durand’s dogmatic philosophy arose within an environment permeated by the 1789 French Revolution and the end of the Enlightenment – coinciding with the disappearance of a whole generation of philosophers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot.iii In between two different epochs marked by the anti-Baroque – balanced and calculated Neoclassicism on one side and the individualistic, instinctive and inspired attitude of Romanticism on the other – Durand’s ideas grew from his preference for elementary geometry, in contrast to the architecture parlante of visionaries Étienne-Louis Boullée (his own teacher) and Claude Nicolas Ledoux. Contrarily to Ledoux’s figure of the architect as creator and imitator of divine nature, Durand prompted an analytical architectural language and a scientific, rigorous educational methodology based on simplicity, economy and utilitarian outlook. Durand's curriculum morphed architecture from a tradition with a strong metaphorical ‘referential, symbolic, mimetic, sometimes even animistic, or finally organic’iv guise into a training of a discipline that could be studied and taught scientifically. His Précis de Leçons d’Architecture Données à l’École Polytechnique, written in 1823, not only omitted any mimetic, natural or sublime agenda from the discipline of architecture, but also cleansed the architectural drawing from all artistic, pictorial, non-scientific content – even perspective – towards a scientific, ‘technographic’, geometrically accurate representation of architecture.v In fact, Durand conceived an architectural design technique based on the articulation of various predefined tectonic elements as defined by axial configurations systems:
[architecture] being the composition of the whole of buildings, which is nothing other than the result of the assemblage of their parts, it is necessary to know the former before occupying oneself with the latter; as these parts are solely a compound of the basic elements of buildings, and as all particular principles must be derived after the study of general principles, it will be these basic elements that constitute the prime object of the architect’s study. vi
This system of axes would allow infinite compositions and assemblage possibilities of again characteristic particles: ‘these new axes can combine in a thousand different ways and originate, with their combinations, an infinite number of different general arrangements’. vii
How adequate is this statement in relationship to the projects in this catalogue? Without any judgmental bias, I must say that reviewing this student work (as much of similarly developed projects around the world) I could not de-associate this procedural design method from its Polytechnical DNA. Look again at the work: do you see the individual parts? Do you read the composition principles? These projects are – genetically speaking – fully Polytechnical projects. Yes, surely, evolved into the 3D (the skilled ones do it 4D) digital domain of complex geometries and fabrication protocols; but Durandian in essence. I leave it up to the reader to agree or disagree with various criticism directed at Durand such as to have 'introduced a delusory relation with history, […] one that has been taken by postmodern style architects and conservative ideologues to align with Heidegger's concern’ (that architecture is dominated by technology and ‘calculative thinking’)viii or to have ‘separated the techniques from their ends; [as] he taught [...] execution but not invention’.ix
A lot could be said about design: about invention, originality, creativity. And about drawings: about execution, techniques, accuracy. Bear in mind that the term ‘design’ originates from the Italian disegno, which means drawing, to draw, which itself incorporates the Latin signum [sign]. x It is through such direct relationship between sign and idea, that Renaissance Italy managed to release architectural artistic creativity from the workshops into academia (from the first, the Accademia del Disegno, established by Giorgio Vasari in Florence in 1563 to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture and the Académie Royale d’Architecture that we encountered above). This is one of the turning points in Western architectural history: that the matter of architecture is not necessarily to be material. Architecture, now coupled with painting and sculpture, had created its own legitimate and ‘virtual’ domain for the expression of values other than craftsmanship and building construction. Leon Battista Alberti for instance shifted the emphasis of architecture towards the abstract and the conceptual, leaving craftsmanship to the material and the concrete. He writes:
Him I consider the architect, who by sure and wonderful reason and method, knows both how to devise through his own mind and energy, and to realize by construction, whatever can be most beautifully fitted out for the noble needs of man, by the movement of weights and the joining and massing of bodies. To do this he must have an understanding and knowledge of all the highest and most noble disciplines. This then is the architect. xiWhat De re aedificatoria [On the Art of Building] does, is that it introduces an architect who bears no resemblance to a carpenter, who is ‘but an instrument in the hands of the architect’. xii It is the architect who, in very basic terms, does the thinking: 'Through his intellect he must invent, through experience recognize, through judgment select, through deliberation compose, and through skill effect whatever he undertakes.'xiii By doing so, the Renaissance architect, separating theory and practice, was a magus that could unite mathesis – what can be learned, studied and taught – and at the same time the metaphysics through mythos. Until 1800, when logos and scientific theories became the main vehicles to understand and depict the world; the truth. This particular truth, since Plato’s Timæus, defined as scientific reading of cosmos, nature and body, and thus professed by the Beaux-Arts architecture under a universal, classical, ‘rationalist’xiv style based on the Orders, proportions and perfect beauty – parameters that the École Polytechnique rejected.
It would go far beyond the scope of this text to deliberate whether those classical parameters are nowadays totally irrelevant or not. Instead, let us thus focus on the drawing as a critical tool; in a late eighteenth-century Romanticist approach that allows the possibility of conceiving architecture from a completely aesthetic, a-technological point of view. The building as painting. Or is it the painting as building?! For example like James Wyatt’s Gothic Romantic renderings of Fonthill Abbey where it is the perspectival drawing that affects the composition of the architectural proposal (not the axial system). Let us think of the architectural rendering as more than just a means to an end – a concept already put forth by Giovanni Battista Piranesi in the mid-eighteenth century. Why should we not see digital renderings in the light of the work of Piranesi, or Boullée’s tableau.xv In the 1780s, Boullée’s rejection of classical academic ideals in Architecture, Essai sur l’Art triggered the conception of drawings as experiential impressions of the building. That included properties of colour, seasons, light and shadow: ‘ed io anche son pittore’ [I am also a painter].xvi But we are, of course, still suffering from this troubled relationship between art and technology, between architecture and building, between theory and practice.
Thus it appears that in contemporary discussions of twenty-first-century architecture (practice and education), the identikit of the 'proper' architecture student goes on resembling more and more the figure of the architect as described in Vitruvius’s opening chapter of The Ten Books of Architecture. His was in fact the first known authoritarian attempt to give a definition to the architectural profession and education, and to establish a position of authority for the architect. Such authority is gained by constant undertaking of research and design. Of course, he uses a different vocabulary, depicting the architect as a ‘child of practice and theory’. xvii Practice is articulated as ‘the continuous and regular exercise of employment where manual work is done with any necessary material according to the design of a drawing’, and theory as ‘the ability to demonstrate and explain the productions of dexterity on the principles of proportion’.xviii Nowadays practice could be associated with design, techniques and the arts: execution; theory with research, technology and the sciences: invention. I partly see the design brief given to these young students as fitting this scenario, as much as I see myself within this endeavourxix, as I consider design by research, as well as research by design, the most intelligent – and on a long term the most prolific – way of pushing the boundaries of the discipline. I think some of these student projects – of course, with all the Polytechnic-alities as described above – do this. And with a certain authority. No: with confidence, because of course I find the term 'authoritarian' problematic. It reminds me of old despotic high school and senile university teachers and autocratic bitter office principals (but luckily none of those around here...). I surely prefer the term 'authored'. 'Author or unemployed – you must choose,’ Paul Virilio used to tell his students.xx I concur.
i Richard Chafee, ‘The Teaching of Architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts’ in Arthur Drexler (ed.), The Architecture of the École des Beaux-Arts (London: Secker & Warburg, 1977), p 61.
ii Joseph Rykwert, The Dancing Column: On Order in Architecture (Cambridge Massachusetts and London: The MIT Press, 1996) p 12.
iii Sergio Villari, J.N.L. Durand (1760-1834): Art and Science of Architecture, trans. from the Italian by Eli Gottlieb (New York: Rizzoli, 1990) p 30.
iv Ibid., p 18.
v Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand, Précis des Leçons d’Architecture d’architecture données à l’École Royale Polytechnique (Paris, 1819) and Partie Graphique des Cours d’Architecture (Paris, 1821) vol. 1, 1802, preface (1823 edition) pp 32-5. And Villari, op. cit., pp 56-7.
vi Ibid., p 28 in Villari, ibid., p 59.
vii Ibid., p 91 in Villari, ibid., p 61.
viii Pérez-Gómez, ‘Dwelling on Heidegger’, online.
ix David Van Zanten, ‘Architectural Composition at the École des Beaux-Arts from Charles Percier to Charles Garnier’ in Arthur Drexler (ed.), The Architecture of the École des Beaux-Arts (London: Secker & Warburg, 1977), p 193. His italics.
x See Vilém Flusser, The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design (London: Reaktion, 1999). And Hill, Immaterial Architecture, pp 33-9.
xi Leon Battista Alberti, ‘The Ninth Book of Leon Battista Alberti on the Art of Building. Ornament to Private Buildings’ in Leon Battista Alberti, On the Art of Building in Ten Books, trans. by Joseph Rykwert, Neil Leach and Robert Tavernor (Cambridge Massachusetts and London: The MIT Press, 1996 sixth printing), p 3.
xiv Richard Chafee, ‘The Teaching of Architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts’ in Drexler, op. cit., p 62.
xv David Van Zanten, ‘Architectural Composition at the École des Beaux-Arts from Charles Percier to Charles Garnier’ in Arthur Drexler (ed.), The Architecture of the École des Beaux-Arts (London: Secker & Warburg, 1977) p 159.
xvi Ibid., his italics.
xvii Vitruvius, The Ten Books of Architecture, trans. by Morris Hicky Morgan (New York: Dover Publications, 1960), p 5.
xix Having absolved a PhD by Architectural Design and now supervising half a dozen research-by-design PhD students, and running portfolio-based design units since 2000 at the Bartlett School of Architecture UCL London and Westminter University et al..
xx Paul Virilio quoted by Charles Bessard, ‘Paul Virilio’ in Michael Chadwick (guest. ed.), Back to School: Architectural Education – the Information and the Argument, Architectural Design (London: Wiley-Academy, September/October 2004, vol. 74, no. 5), p 44.