Review for Wolfgang Herrmann’s Gottfried Semper: In Search of Architecture, published by the MIT Press, 1989.

Semper’s and Schmarsow’s theories in architecture were initially intended to construct the foundation for the modern understanding of architectural space and spatiality. This book contains the transcript of Semper’s writing “The Attributes of Formal Beauty,” one of the most important texts by Semper. This seminal document is definitely not of the attributes of a work, but rather its effect. For its thesis is fundamentally scientific rather than artistic, for the formal creation is largely bound by the framework of the cause-and-effect relationship, rather than our direct experience of any given formal language. Semper, in this writing, suggests that the work of art should follow the laws of nature, in other words, “the principles of formal configuration must be in strict accordance with the laws of nature.” The causality of art is therefore not human creativity but the laws of nature—nothing short of cosmology—among which the directional organization is the leading principle in many work of the technical arts and of architecture, with one obvious example of Berlage, who derived his theory from Semper’s conviction.

Considering the fourth quality of formal beauty in this account, Semper writes: “The three qualities of formal beauty (symmetry, proportionality, direction) is analogous to the three spatial dimensions; as little as one can imagine the fourth dimension, it is just as impossible to add a fourth quality homogeneous with the three mentioned above. …this fourth element of unity is the cardinal point of the phenomenon: it is the phenomenon purpose. … fitness of content.” (229) Semper here acknowledges the unity of purpose as the “highest and ultimate element of unity.” (240) Given the concepts of symmetry, proportionality, direction, and fitness of purpose, Semper goes on to say that these qualities “adhere to the abstract and formal attributes of the finished phenomenon” (form), and they exclude all that is extrinsic to the phenomenon, everything that does not relate to it directly. Semper, finally, offers a “function” (formula) of several variable values that unite in certain combinations and form the coefficients of a general equation. He believes that “by giving these variables the values appropriate to the particular case, one will arrive at the solution of the problem: U=C(x,y,z,t,v,w…)” (240)

In this sense, Semper’s fourth principle is as purposive as teleological. A conviction also leads to a contradiction in Semper’s theory. Specifically, he wants the architectural phenomenon to be “purposive,” while he also wants to eliminate all of the extrinsic factors, as the so-called “purpose” being understood as an anticipation of human activity assigned to a particular space. Therefore, it end to interpret this fourth dimension—purpose—not as the externally imposed anticipation of use by the human but the internal purpose that embodied by the form, for the form is meaningless unless there is a purpose specified to it. It sounds like the form has to know it’s becoming ahead of time, as if there is an artistic creation activity, before the form is “performed.”

Semper’s theory anticipates a very important paradigm shift in the architect’s consciousness about external reality: from casual to organic (teleological). Both worldviews are valid, neither one disqualifiable no matter how much context is available. Our conventional way of perceiving the world developed a sequential mode of awareness, while the other way developed simultaneous mode of awareness. The former experiences events in an order of time, and perceives their relationship as cause and effect, while the latter experiences a purpose underlying them all, a deep structural purpose governing the entire natural world. The simultaneous (or lived) worldview is, in fact, in accordance with the development of modern art (Cezanne and Rodin), with the motive of constructivists’ critique of linear perspective (Malevich and Lissitzky), with the modern consciousness of depth in spatiality (Merleau-Ponty), with modern architects’ attitude toward architectural and spatial innovation (Mies and Scharoun), and perhaps with the worldview that applied in the creation of Chinese traditional gardens (self-exceeding mode of landscape).

Posted by:Liyang DING

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