Review for Hermann Muthesius’s Style-Architecture and Building-Art: Transformations of Architecture in the Nineteenth Century and Its Present Condition (originally published in 1902) translated by Stanford Anderson.

Proceeding his magisterial three-volume study of the English house (1904), this book reflected Muthesius’s denial that contemporary artistic production stemmed from either the continual adoption of past styles or the invention of a new style. The work is important to me because,  before grasp Muthesius’s approach derived from his survey of the English “free architecture,” we first have to understand his general orientation. For Muthesius believed that artistic culture functions as the vehicle for cultural and social reform, can we understand the spiritual aspect that he saw in the examples of England and on the continent, particularly in Germany. Therefore, he was not solely an architect or historian, but rather an intellectual who held the ambition to transform the social and cultural condition with larger political forces. His expanded goal was “the creation of a contemporary middle-class art,” and his solution was sincerity, Sachlichkeit,a purified artistic sensibility that he derived from the picture of modern industrialization. In the introduction of this book, Anderson translated Sachlichkeit into “straightforwardness.” In a recent study of Behne, Rosemarie Haag Bletter proposes the necessarily expanded translation of “the simple, practical, straightforward solution to a problem’and suggests bearing in mind ‘matter-of-factness’, ‘objectivity’, and also a philosophical sense of “thingness.” Muthesius also identified the inefficiency in Arts and Crafts movement and in Jugendstil. Just like what the name of the latter indicated, it is possible to see the “battle of the styles” of the nineteenth century would result in the devaluation of all earlier modes of building and finally left the architect with “nothingness.” If “nothingness” was to be avoided, the new pursuit could only seek to offer a “new style.” The genuine value of building-art therefore endowed with the attributes of the Sachlichkeit, rationality, and realisticity. Despite these distinctions, England remained a positive model for Muthesius for two major reasons. First, if he argued that unornamented form could still be artistic, exemplars continued to be helpful in resisting the formalism of the Jugendstil. In England’s free architecture, from Morris and Philip Webb,down to the high achievements of Shaw and the young practitioners of his own day, Muthesius perceived a formal restraint that fortified his resolve and provided models. Second, the centrality of domestic architecture to the English movement offered evidence that the new movement (in England as well as on the Continent) could affect social and cultural conditions quite generally, not only for an elite and not only in matters of high art.

Posted by:Liyang DING

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