Preface to Basics – Architeture and Dynamic by Franziska Ullmann, 2011
The Poetics of Architecture
One of the most elegant principles governing aesthetics was advocated by the great architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in his statement that "beauty is the splendour of truth". And yet despite the apparent conclusiveness and – almost timeless - lucidity of these words, which Mies borrowed from the theologian and Father of the Church Aurelius Augustinus, the truth is that – whether considered together or separately - they are highly problematic.
For nothing has become as controversial over the years as the notion of "beauty", nothing as elusive as an agreement about what is "true" and we are more likely to associate the word "splendour" with glossy material effects and superficial glamour than with the emergence or revelation of a harmonically complete and transcendent reality. In all the ancient, spiritually oriented cultures, and particularly in Ancient Greece which Augustine himself could remember, beauty in such earthly matters as music, sculpture and architecture was considered as a reflection of divine, heavenly order.
The Copernican Revolution and the Enlightenment however dispelled this mythical-objective approach to - and justification for - all forms of art. Around 1600 William Shakespeare, through Hamlet, proclaimed that, "there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so". And in the middle of the 18th century David Hume added that, "beauty is no quality in things themselves: it exists merely in the mind which contemplates them." With this shift in the aesthetic and moral matrix from the cosmic to the subjective, the criteria of beauty became a matter of endless conflict. That which had earlier been termed ugly, grotesque and alienating could now be seen – according to Edmund Burke - as "sublime" and be viewed with a shudder of relief.
German Romanticism intensified this fascination with the "other side" of the coin of beauty, and while Classicism attempted some return to Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic ideals, the rest of the 19th century revolved around the frantic debate about "in which style should we build?" Karl Friedrich Schinkel – who combined the Romantic and the Classical in a single person – produced Neo-Romanesque and Neo-Gothic designs for the same church. Truth? Only with the so-called Classical Modern of the 20th century did a new concern for the rational, the clearly measurable and the socially useful emerge.
And even behind the ideas of a Mondrian or Malewitsch, Kandinsky or Klee, Mies or Corbusier - despite their logically authoritative arguments and apparent denial of all historic, spiritual and natural mimesis – one could still detect a sense of the transcendental or irrational. "Thinking" and the empirical approach were indeed now regarded as absolute - yet they were still not completely free of the metaphysical. And this intractable dilemma was finally reflected in the liberating Post Modern (seen as a cultural approach rather than a style) principle that "Anything goes!?". But any regrets about the impossibility of creating and enforcing a "comprehensive and universal set of rules" for questions of beauty is countered by our delight at the eternal variation of what is possible today and the unending spectrum of subjectively interpreted truths, qualities of life and architectural approaches.
The automatic consequence of this true freedom is not arbitrariness but quite the opposite. The challenge is simply to replace the crude, generalising yardsticks dogmatically imposed by the International Style with a finer, more open and both contextually precise and elastic set of criteria and ways of looking based on formal, content-based poetics. This is the idea behind this book which was developed as an encyclopaedia of design elements, effects and meanings – firstly as a teaching aid in the Faculty of Architecture in Stuttgart but more generally as a guide for all those interested in architectural quality.
In the book, Franziska Ullmann adopts the trio of terms used by Wassily Kandinsky to explain his theory of forms – "Point, Line and Plane" – not so much as a means of justifying and explaining abstractions but rather as the key to a basic, logical Beginner's Guide to the analysis and deciphering of spatial effects in the form of a geographically and chronologically comprehensible spectrum of constructional examples. It is an encyclopaedic reflection upon how actions and sensations are provoked by constructional acts; it shows us the kaleidoscope of architectural "languages" and content which exists beyond such simple pragmatic matters as materials, construction and volume as well as style.
One could say that, in dealing with the relationships between people, society and the three-dimensional art of architecture, the basic information about intangible SPACE set out in this book equates with the information on the material LEVEL contained in a traditional encyclopaedia of construction. Seen thus, Franziska Ullmann's "Basics" follows in the steps of important earlier works – such as Christian Norberg-Schulz's "Intentions in Architecture" or Otto Friedrich Bollnow's "Human Space" - both which were written in the early 1960s as the era of the International Style was drawing to a close - and Robert Venturi's "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture", as well as other relevant works by Rudolph Arnheim, Christopher Alexander and Joseph Rykwert from the 1970s.
As with all these texts, this book seeks not only to formalise the effect of built forms from an academic, internal, architectural perspective but also to both highlight and argue for the anthropocentric function of architecture in all its rich variety. Franziska Ullmann is Viennese and draws much from both the formal potential of modern building and the cultivated scepticism against any sort of "pure doctrine and absolute truth" for which her home city is well-known and yet at the same time she was exposed in Stuttgart to another important tradition of architectural theory which owes much locally to the work of Jürgen Joedicke.
In this context – and with recourse to the ritual references to architecture and beauty mentioned at the beginning of this introduction – it is appropriate to remember two Viennese who made important contributions to architectural-philosophical debate in the German language in post-war Central Europe: Ottokar Uhl and Herbert Muck, both of whom were acknowledged experts in modern church building who shared a formally critical anthropocentric approach to the design and effects of space.
Attempting a highly simplified synthesis of their two points of view one could state that, "the meaning of a form is determined by what it allows one to do with it", or, "the aesthetic of Modernism is derived from actions: the given form and formal effect of a space is a social plastic and it is the actions of individuals or groups which generate, structure and give meaning to such spaces and spatial sequences." This is the approach, illustrated by examples from past and present, which Ullmann places above the abstract arguments of Kandinsky and Klee.
Clearly well-travelled, the author consistently explains buildings and situations from her own point of view – largely with the use of her own photographs. An old saying states that "we can only see what we know". In the information society, with its increasing reliance on images, signals and the written word, the understanding of built messages is also being reduced to catchy abbreviations and formally conspicuous, purely visual allure.
And yet the medium of architecture both demands and is capable of creating many more non-verbal, preliterate, bodily, spatially dynamic effects, "the meaning of a form is determined by what it allows one to do with it," – yes, and this always means something very different from the simple transforming of passers-by into customers or stimulus-seeking architectural tourists.....
This is a message – and objective – which this book pursues with diligence and passion and it is to be hoped that as wide a readership as possible grasps the opportunity to develop the critical knowledge, framework and criteria with which they can impact upon both their daily and professional lives and, much more than this, demand and work for those qualities which contemporary architecture in all its dimensions and aspects is able to provide.