What architects said before they said ‘space’

Andrew Saint

  • Words and Buildings: A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture by Adrian Forty
    Thames and Hudson, 335 pp, £28.00, April 2000, ISBN 0 500 34172 9

‘All this talk brings the ears so far forward that they make blinkers for the eyes’: thus Edwin Lutyens on architectural discourse. In Lutyens’s day it was still possible, just, to believe that the good architects got on with designing and building while only the second-raters taught and wrote. Books were chiefly for reference – for illustrations, rules and technicalities. If there had to be criticism, it could be left to professors, rich amateurs and journalists. The sacred route of the architect ran between the drawing board and the building site.

After Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, both as cavalier with language as they were scrupulous with architectural detail, you could scarcely be thought an internationally significant architect unless you not only built but wrote and globetrotted, discoursing as you went. The clamour among competing exegetes today has become deafening. Adrian Forty’s enterprise in Words and Buildings is to reap all this architectural verbiage and run it ruthlessly through the logic-mill. Having winnowed his crop, he sorts it into heaps of words, of different sizes and kinds; then he takes 18 of the most promising heaps in lexical succession and grinds them exceeding small. The product at the end is a highly percipient history of modern architectural theory, disconcertingly arranged. It is as if The Seven Lamps of Architecture had pupped, bringing to birth not the ‘vulgar row of footlights’ into which Ruskin ruefully admitted his own enquiry had degenerated, but 18 penetrating lasers.

It should be said at the outset that Forty is not an enemy of all the talking about architecture, rather the reverse. Where Lutyens (and many Modernists) would have solved the old equation ‘architecture equals building plus x’ with some such term as ‘art’ or ‘design’, Forty suggests, tongue not totally in cheek, that the right answer may be ‘words’. Nor does he have to delve deep into critical theory or the patter of the schools to sustain that argument. It is enough, in one of many well chosen illustrations that grace his book, to show Ernö Goldfinger barking orders down the phone.

Architects spend little of their time at the drawing board and the various devices that have half-succeeded it. To get anything built they must organise, cajole and present the big picture: all of which needs good words. Many famous modern architects have been charismatic wordsmiths, at least orally; and it is arguable that the profession maintains its high status in the pecking order of the construction industry only because most architects are better rhetoricians than their fellow professionals. In a provocative introductory sally on language and drawing, Forty rubs salt in the wound by proposing that drawings, the means by which architects tend to believe they communicate, are inarticulate. The most he will sanction as a bearer of architectural meaning is the sketch.

Seductive this may be, but it cannot erase suspicion that the charge of too much talk has a special justification in the case of architecture. It was on the builders of the tower of Babel that the Lord chose to visit the confounding of tongues. Architecture is the dumbest, most tortoise-like of the major arts. It makes no sound, has to be tickled and twisted into meaning anything, and its linkages with human reason or emotion are obscure. As a result, time and again in Forty’s parade of terms, from the ut pictura poesis analogy of the Renaissance down to the present day, we see ideas and metaphors that started life in literature or science applied first in some other sphere and then plastered tardily, at the cost of eloquence and plausibility, on architecture.

A good example is the term ‘circulation’. Although Forty’s business is with the vocabulary of Modernism, so sluggish are his ‘key words’ that he is obliged to deal also with the remoter past. Where he scores is by doggedly tracking how they seeped into architecture. It does not take much to work out where this particularly pervasive metaphor began: with Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood. From blood, ‘circulation’ swiftly passed to describe the flow of money, and then of traffic, before fastening on architecture in 19th-century France.

The consequences, Forty explains, shifting from lexicographer to critic, have been profound. Blood, money and traffic all move around; buildings don’t. ‘Circulation’ describes, of course, the route along which people travel from one place or room to the next, within or between buildings – something that had always interested French architects. But the adoption of the term endowed this special set of relational problems with a quality of movement abstracted from the static bricks and mortar with which they had to be addressed. If it was imaginative, it could also mislead, once ‘circulation’ had settled into an architectural cliché.

Examples like this raise the old conundrum about whether words describe or formulate ideas. Though Words and Buildings engages all the time with the philosophy of mind, Forty ducks out of giving a personal view, confining himself to analysing his words. His enquiry implies a constant push and pull between an architectural impulse emerging from human demands or material techniques, and a metaphor ready and eager to meet that impulse, flatter it and egg it on. Because his interest is in the transmission of language and ideas, not buildings or technology, that sense of a turbulent marriage is often lost in favour of an autonomy for words. Yet, to judge from stern passages that conclude some of his longer entries, Forty cannot bring himself to believe in that autonomy.

This duality recurs each time he grapples with the changes central to the emergence of a modern architecture: that is to say, the shift from buildings made of thick masonry walls with lots of small rooms, to ones in which steel and concrete allowed wider spans, thinner outside walls and greater freedom in plan and section. Many of the words whose history, use and abuse Forty catalogues burst on architecture with renewed force, if not total novelty, to support or direct this revolution: ‘form’, ‘function’, ‘space’, ‘structure’, ‘transparency’ and ‘truth’. While he shows brilliantly how such terms tended to be pillaged from other lines of 19th-century enquiry, notably physics, biology and linguistics, he seldom supplies a sense of the need that they fulfilled.

One clue to this is the gap often to be found between what the theorists cited by Forty said and what they made. Louis Sullivan’s ‘form follows function’ slogan, for instance, was coined to celebrate his version of the Chicago skyscraper. The idea had long been implicit in the structural theory of classicism, back to Vitruvius. But as a developed doctrine, meaning that architects should respect, study and maybe even imitate the ‘functional’ or ‘organic’ structure of animals and plants, it was first formulated in the 1840s by an American sculptor of irreproachable classical orthodoxy, Horatio Greenough.

Forty is inclined to dismiss Greenough as a ‘precursor of 20th-century functionalism’ because he traded in the old-fashioned concept of ‘character’, and because ideas about organic structure were washing around at the time in sundry cross-overs between romantic criticism, structural theory and natural history. What this pure Geistesgeschichte underplays is a sense of context. Greenough recognised, partly in self-criticism, that in a new country the old classical ‘character’ would not do: America, he says, must find its own forms. Only in a continent with an infinity of practical tasks before it and a boundless biology of its own to explore could ‘form follows function’ bear fruit. In Sullivan’s tense balance between structure and decoration, it was the circumstances that gave dynamism to the idea.

The case of Gottfried Semper, author of the ponderous Der Stil, is not so different. Semper’s buildings, most famously the Dresden Opera House, smack of the meatiest mid-19th century classicism. They are not great architecture, and in no way forward-looking. But they confirm the stress Semper laid (along with Ruskin, but against prevailing trends in practice) on the character and ‘dress’ of the wall, as opposed to the structural ‘skeleton’. Semper, in other words, was a skin, not a bones man. His importance, Forty explains, is as architecture’s first true anthropologist. Anxious to replace the dying classical theory which underpinned his own architecture, Semper lit on Humboldt’s linguistic theory with its emphasis on Urformen, or common original forms of language. This he then used as a model for an enquiry into basic approaches to design in a wide variety of cultures: which, he concluded, privileged enclosure, in the form of dressing and ornament, above structure. All this, in the face of the all-conquering advance of the skeleton frame, sounds even more of a cul-de-sac than Ruskin’s nostalgic enthusiasms.

Yet Semper, unlike Ruskin, ends up a hero of the Modernists. Why? The answer lies in the lengthiest of Forty’s terminological disquisitions, a tour de force on ‘space’. So absolute a fixture has space become in the argot of architecture as to exercise almost a censorship: squares, forums and market-places have all become ‘public spaces’, classrooms ‘teaching spaces’, and so on. As abstract as circulation but one turn of the screw vaguer, no one can say quite what space means bereft of the solids that surround it (if they don’t, it is known as ‘leaky space’). It works best for interiors. Greek temples, as originally conceived, cannot have been about space. What about medieval cathedrals, since the cathedral-builders didn’t use the term? Nobody can say. Yet as a retrospective, secular way of looking at Gothic or Baroque buildings, or as a shot in the arm for the ambition of 20th-century architecture, space worked a treat – especially when allied to the new structural technologies and uttered in German (Raum).

Forty’s space-train runs on entirely German lines. It departs from Kant, who saw space as an a priori concept by means of which ‘extension’ must be understood, but never linked it with his philosophy of aesthetic judgment. On its trajectory through the 19th century the surprise stop is at Nietzsche, who, Forty persuades us, saw space ‘as a force field, generated by the dynamism of bodily movement’. Semper is bypassed for the moment. Then come the heavily populated 1890s, when three authors, Hildebrand, Lipps and Schmarsow, simultaneously press their own readings of Raum as fundamental categories of aesthetic experience. Schmarsow alone specifically targets architecture.

Only a decade and more after these aestheticians wrote did anything like a conscious concept of ‘spatiality’ inform building. The first architect to press it hard was that wily Viennese café-intellectual, Adolf Loos, who used the term Raumplan to market his up to date version of the old connection between rooms in the grand houses and flats of Continental Europe. Ornament was already on the run, persecuted by Loos as degenerate with the deliberate purpose of annoying the Viennese bourgeoisie and his own Jugendstil contemporaries at the same time. Now ‘space’ became important: and that is where Semper, long revered in Vienna, came in again.

Though Semper had understood architecture as the enclosure of space, he was far more interested in the envelope than the contents. In Loos and later Modernists, notably Mies, we see an inversion of Semper. As in a Rachel Whiteread sculpture, the non-visible space now becomes what is ‘real’ and the material walls thin down into a refined whiteness, neutrality, transparency or nothingness. Reinforced by inexact parallels with Einsteinian physics, Modernist space becomes something specific of its own. It also allows architects to see their work, in Forty’s words, as ‘mental rather than manual’. But none of this could have happened without the techniques of concrete, steel and, eventually, glass. Semper’s reputation was prolonged by the needs of technology for a way of thinking drawn out of his ideas, not because those ideas were prophetic or correct.

Among recent thinkers, Forty is much taken by Henri Lefebvre, who in The Production of Space (1974) adopts a social standpoint and makes short shrift of space as a neutral medium of extension – a kind of safe toy for architects to play with. After so much shadow-boxing in the realm of spatial ideas, Lefebvre’s robustness is an evident relief to him. It is also a token of Forty’s engagement with contemporary theory. A striking feature about Words and Buildings is the way it oscillates between the great theorists of the 19th century, like Ruskin, Semper and Viollet-le-Duc, and those who have written since the 1950s. In between come comparatively brief gobbets from Gropius, Le Corbusier, Mies and Moholy-Nagy. It is as if the effort to build up Modernism and then break it down again had been more fertile of theory than the industrious years of construction in between. Indeed, in discussing ‘memory’ (not a category that vintage Modernists bothered about much), Forty posits a ‘condition of silence’ into which Modern Movement technocrats had battered architecture’s verbalisers by about 1960.

The Italians were among the first to find fresh voice, and Forty is illuminating on them. He explains, for instance, how Aldo Rossi’s influential view of the city less as a set of complex functional problems than as a locus for collective memory goes back to conservative reformers eager to establish ‘permanencies’ in French urban society during the interwar years: to the historian Marcel Poëte, the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, and even Henri Sellier, the planner who translated the garden city to France. And he reminds us of the excellent Milanese architect and theorist Ernesto Rogers, who rehabilitated ‘context’, or to be more precise ambiente, as an outward-looking escape from the self-centredness of orthodox Modernism. Whether this ties up consciously with Heidegger, who at about the same time was interested in substituting ‘place’ for ‘space’ but finds a later entry in Forty’s lexicon, we do not hear.

Heidegger wrote little that is strictly relevant to architecture. Yet he is much taught in some schools of architecture today; in others, hungry to be abreast of philosophical thought, critical theory is the rage. These are tendencies that add to the current unabashed garrulousness of architectural theory. Ought theory to be encouraged among architects at all, given that, as Forty shows, concepts have almost always translated themselves into architecture by means of confusion, category-mistake or metaphor? It is hard to see an alternative, since another of Forty’s observations is that all attempts to purge architectural theory of metaphor and create its own language have ended in failure or sterility.

Better perhaps to look on words as just part of the architectural wardrobe, along with materials and techniques. Architects owe more to the legacy of Demosthenes and Cicero than to that of Plato and Aristotle, and perhaps that should be recognised in their schools. Out they go onto the stage, dancing and playing with words and distorting them, yet applauded by us because we hope that it will help them refashion the old mixture of beauty, utility and firmness and make us some good buildings, of which we are in as much need as ever. Still, it is good to have a policeman of Forty’s severity, patience and (it must be added) tolerance, prepared to catch them in the flagrancy of abuse and stop the show from time to time.