Doina Carter

Architectural Meaning

In ’The birth of tragedy’ Nietzsche looks at the ancient Greeks and the way they avoided descending into the abyss of pessimism: through art as an affirmation of life. According to him, there are two ways of doing this: one is ‘veiling’ life by acknowledging only its aesthetic beauty; it is the Apollonian way, expressed in epic and plastic arts. Another way is accepting existence as an inexorable torrent and Nietzsche identifies music and tragedy as arts best embodying this second attitude, the Dionysian.

Apollo represents reason, analysis, measure, introspection, restraint. ‘Venus de Milo’ exemplifies the Apollonian; a serene androgynous beauty, almost an abstraction, she is the air-brushed cover girl of antiquity.

Dionysus is the symbol of passion, the tumult of life, intoxication, impulse (Richard Wagner’s music). The Greeks believed in the power of the human intellect of untangling and controlling reality. A Doric temple expressed their conviction that there is inherent beauty in numbers and compositions controlled by geometry were deemed to be aesthetically pleasing. The result: we still consider the Parthenon beautiful…

The same methods were used for Ionic temples; the ionic volute is just an example, it is pure geometry, nothing is arbitrary. But the result is very different (example, the Erechteion). Of course it is a matter of refinement, but what can be seen to be different is the attitude with which the same rules were applied, the Apollonian versus the Dionysian.

The practice of architecture has little affinity with Dionysian impulsivity. The process of getting a building built involves a lot of analytical work. It is the moment of creation, however, the concept, which will embody the architect’s attitude to life and the resulting building will carry this imprint in the sensation left in its users. Corbusier said in his Vers une architecture “You employ stone, timber and concrete, and with these materials you build houses and palaces: that is construction. Ingenuity is at work. But suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good. I am happy and I say: This is beautiful. That is Architecture”. The purpose of this discourse is to identify certain factors which assist the production of a successful design, in aesthetic terms.

In architectural composition four anthropological structures of order are relevant and they are: repetition, alternation, gradation and symmetry. They can be considered elements of design syntax (how) which reign over elements of vocabulary (what).

Repetition is the insistent, persistent affirmation of something ‘unique or singular which has no equal or equivalent’; repetition doesn’t add a second and a third to the first, but ‘carries the first to the nth power’. In architecture the even repetition of an unchanged element abolishes time, it creates a state that refuses to aknowledge degradation in time, decay. Ospedale degli innocenti Florence (Fillipo Bruneleschi) and Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach am Neckar, Germany (David Chipperfield) exhibit a classical repetition of columns, their beauty given by proportions, materials, detailing.

Alternation (alter, the other), the regular succession of one after another; if repetition is affirmation of the one, self, alternation represents the affirmation of the couple. Alternation can be opposing (metopes and triglyphs in a Doric temple) and consonant: (Palazzo Farnese Rome, by Antonio da Sangallo, the windows ranking cornice as an externalised expression of the piano nobile).

Both repetition and alternation are static, descriptive, expectative. If time is acknowledged, the resultant type of order will imply growth, transformation, movement. It is gradation.

Symmetry is a more complex structure of order. In a symmetrical composition there is a dominant, materialised or implied, the axis. There are several types of symmetry:

mirrored symmetry; dissymmetry; anti-symmetry – it is not the opposite of symmetry, it is opposition of expression involving an axis (villa Muller, by Adolf Loos); asymmetry – Victor Horta stair in Hotel Tassel, in plan a stair can look symmetrical, but in space it coils, the wall decoration does the same thing.

The elements of vocabulary considered here are:

Point: as pivot- an object in a piazza- obelisk in the Vatican square, Rome (Bernini); Marcus Aurelius’ statue in the Campidolio piazza (piazza designed by Michelangelo); as tie- the key of an arch- the arch of Constantine, Rome;
as signal- a building- Bruder Klaus chapel, Germany, Peter Zumthor;

Line – examples: ornamental frieze – in a frieze the quality of epidermis changes and thus it acts as a ‘shadow gap’ making the stack of stone which is architrave, frieze and pediment look much lighter than it is.

Axis – the elements mentioned so far are physically present , one’s eye is drawn to them and behaviour is modified accordingly; but an axis is a line which is implied, not necessarily material, without losing its persuasive, even coercive potency – Paris- Palais de Chaillot -Esplanade du Trocadero – the Eiffel tower – Champs du Mars- this is a grand civic gesture, typically French, an axial succession of urban elements, such as buildings, spaces and artifices (fountains, trees, a bridge, paths and so on); the result of which is one’s need to find a central position to view this ensemble.

Surface – the difference between line and surface is academic; some of the examples below could be read as lines in a two dimensional world of frontal images or drawings; but they were chosen for the impact they have as surfaces: as a capping device: the roof of the Cite de la Musique Paris (Cristian de Porzamparc); as the building- the Thanks giving chapel in Dallas, Phillip Johnson – a simple architectural gesture, uncompromising, meaningful, its strength being the purity of the idea; as a sheet- façade of the Insitute du monde arabe, Jean Nouvel- the complex clockwork cladding is attached simply to the structure as if pinned, the building behind is transparent emphasising the planar quality of the façade.

Space – the rules of composition, elements of composition, scale, proportions, materiality and so on are all employed by architects to define space. Architectural space is a complex topic and the following examples are only about quality, about how these elements come together and materialise a thought. Tadao Ando’s Church of light in Osaka signals its programme externally in a succinct and clear manner; internally the signal (obviously, the cross) becomes the source of light thus transgressing its original symbolism. Bruder Klaus chapel Germany is a mysterious smooth faced concrete menhir like event in the landscape; it could be a small industrial building, but the door suggests it has nothing to do with the rationality of the world of production. The space inside has a strong telluric quality given by texture and the way light is allowed in. The contrast between the heavy dark surface of the walls and the eye of light is very powerful. The Thank giving chapel in Dallas, Phillip Johnson, looks like a sculpture and the fact that it unfolds to allow access inside is one of the first spatial surprises; the simplicity of the idea, material and detailing make a powerful statement. It is, however, the poetic suggestion of infinity that is the ultimate meaningful surprise.

When choosing the examples to illustrate space, it became apparent that they were all chapels and that was not a conscious, a priori decision. The fact that they are all chapels is not accidental, though. When challenged to house spirituality the response strives for the essence of human condition and although fermented by the mind, it will be visceral, telluric. It is ultimately how the intellect manages to deal with something greater than itself. In searching for meaning, the Apollonian part of us has no choice but to acknowledge the Dionysian

Doina Carter

Frederick Copleston, A history of philosophy, Vol 7, Image books (1965)
Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, Dover Publications (1985).
Howard Robertson, The principles of architectural composition, The Architectural Press ltd (1942).
Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition. Trans. Paul Patton. London: Athlone Press (1997).
Rudolf Arnheim, The dynamics of architectural form, University of California Press, 1977.

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