Review for Gottfried Semper’s The Four Elements of Architecture and Other Writings, translated by Harry Mallgrave, and published by Cambridge University Press in 2010.
It was with Gottfried Semper that the notion of space first found its way into German architectural discussion. Drawing upon ethnological investigations of the 1840s, Semper began toward the end of the decade to hypothesize four elementary or primeval motives underlying architectural development, one of the most important of which was the idea of ‘walling’ or space-making. This primal instinct could be seen in so-called primitive (aboriginal) societies, he argued, in the vertical hanging of crude mats, composed of grasses and bast, thereby defining an interior world separate from the exterior. With the development of textiles these spatial dividers became artistically exploited; when they and their material successors of tiles and paneling were draped over more solid walls they became a symbolic’dressing’ (Bekleidung), still alluding to the same textile motive. The culminating stage of this motive’s material evolution for Semper lay in the painted Greek temple, whose polychrome sheathings both dressed the temple’s appearance and masked its materiality, thereby allowing it to achieve pure form. It must be stressed, however, that this dressing motive was for Semper a classical motive, one that had lost its applicability to modern design.
In addition, Semper proposed that the first impulse for architecture was the enclosing of space. the material components are only the secondary to spatial enclosure… “the wall is that architectural element that formally represents and makes visible the enclosed space as such” (Der Stil, 254) in this and other remarks about the primacy of enclosure over material, Semper suggested that in space certain lay the future of architecture. It is called the “precondition of modernist architectural space.” His ideas probably owed something to his reading of Hegel’s Aesthetics.For Hegel, “enclosure” was a feature of architecture’s purposiveness, and as such, therefore, entirely distinct from, and inadequate to its aesthetic, idea-bearing property. However, the whole thrust of Hegel’s account of architecture was to address the question of how what arose originally out of the satisfaction of human material needs might at the same time be purely symbolic and purposeless, the independent embodiment of the Idea (vol. II, 631-32). Although Semper’s remarks about space were brief, his influence, both on those who agreed with his arguments and those who did not, was great. For those German-speaking proto-modern architects who first articulated“space” as the subject of architecture in the first decade of the century,there is no question but that he was the source of their conception of space.