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CS3 Architectural Theory and Criticism I


Handout 1: Space and Form Wlfflin and Schmarsow as
forerunners of modernist theory
The aim of our creations is the art of space, the essence of architecture.
H. P. Berlage (1908)
The question of form and space is clearly addressed in a huge number of modernist buildings.
And I think it is not wrong to see a connection between the theories of pre-modern thinkers like
Wlfflin and Schmarsow and the built form of some of the outstanding examples of modernism.
Historically, where does this interest in abstract form and space stem from?
Here are two examples that are especially important for the development and understanding of
modernist theories: Both Heinrich Wlfflin and August Schmarsow were art historians, they were
of a type of erudite scientists that you well might find very boring. But it has to be pointed out
that these and many other art historians of the decades circa 18901910 started to think
about architecture in a new way.
They did not deal with the question of style any longer, a question that had for so long
monopolized architectural theory, but much more they sought for the fundaments of
architecture. They wanted to find out what architecture pre-eminently could be described as.
They sought help from other disciplines such as upcoming psychological and physiological
research. They asked how we perceive architecture, what our relationship as human beings
towards architecture can be described as. Thus they arrived at definitions that influenced the
development of modern architecture in a way that has for a long time been neglected.
To put it in a simple (and not totally correct) way, one can say that Wlfflin looked at the
architectural form as a mass or a body to discover its effects on the beholder and, the other
way round, our way of inscribing human features into architecture.
As for Schmarsow, he found architecture the art of shaping space. He is the first to theorize
architectural space in all its complexity and again, its impacts on the human being within
architecture.
Thus the two of them (and many others) opened the way to describe architecture not in terms of
style any longer, but in more abstract formal terms, always considering the relationship between
architecture and the beholder or user.

Architecture, creatress of space: August Schmarsow (18531936)


Born 1853 in Schildfeld, Mecklenburg; died 1936 in Baden-Baden. He lectured in art history
from 1881 onwards. In 1894 he became Professor in Leipzig. He attempted to expand art history
into a theoretical discipline, asking methodical questions of judging art. For his self-image as art
historian the unity of empirical scholarship and aesthetic was the deciding factor.
Schmarsow wrote The Essence of Architectural Creation (Das Wesen der architektonischen
Schpfung), as his inaugural lecture in Leipzig, 1893.
For the introduction of Schmarsows ideas, I will follow Harry Francis Mallgrave who has written
a comprehensive introduction to Schmarsows, Wlfflins and other art historians theories in a
book called Empathy, Form and Space. Mallgrave states:
Previous historical treatments of architecture, Schmarsow argued, had always followed
two patterns neither of which did it justice. The traditional point of view did not
consider architecture truly an art, for it was implicated with a purpose; it therefore had to
be classified with tectonics and the handicrafts as an unfree art. The second perspective,

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that of thoughtful architects, saw architecture chiefly as the art of dressing. They view
their activity as little more than superficial composition of a purely technical and
decorative kind, the pasting up of inherited styles on the framework of a functional
construction.
The art of dressing, as Schmarsow called architecture, taking up a word of Semper, who
had developed the notion of the dressing of architecture, and criticizing it, had led
architecture down the false path of externalization, the path of undue prominence given
to the faade of a building. Schmarsow aimed at correcting this aesthetics from without
by an aesthetics from within. His leading tenet very directly challenged the whole thrust
of Wlfflins psychology of form. The essence of every architectural creation since the
beginning of time is not its form, Schmarsow insisted, but the fact that it is a spatial
construct.1

Schmarsow himself had written:


From the troglodytes cave to the Arabs tent; from the long processional avenue to the
Egyptian pilgrimage temple to the Greek gods glorious column-borne roof; from the
Carribean hut to the German Reichstag building we can say in the most general terms
that they are all without exception spatial constructs [Raumgebilde], whatever their material,
duration, and construction, and whatever the configuration of their supporting and
supported parts.2
Our sense of space [Raumgefhl] and spatial imagination [Raumphantasie] press towards
spatial creation [Raumgestaltung]; they seek their satisfaction in art. We call this art
architecture; in plain words, it is the creatress of space [Raumgestalterin].3
We all carry the dominant coordinate of the axial system within ourselves in the vertical
line that runs from head to toe. This means as long as we desire an enclosure for
ourselves, the meridian of our body need not be visibly defined; we ourselves, in our
person, are its visual manifestation. As the creatress of space, architecture creates, in a way
that no other art can, enclosures for us in which the vertical middle axis is not physically
present but remains empty. It operates only ideally and is defined as the place of the
subject. For this reason, such interior spaces remain the principal element far into the
evolution of architecture as an art.4
Mallgrave:
The principal concern for architecture as a spatial creation is not so much the development of
this vertical axis but the enclosure of the subject. Thus the most important dimension for actual
space creation is depth. Because of the organization of our body, we always give space a
direction; the orientation of the face and limbs determines what is ahead and whether we are
moving forward or backward. In this way direction transforms every spatial enclosure into a
living space.5
The new disciplines of aesthetics and art history had hit their stride by the 1890s, at a pace of
speculation that perhaps has not since been and will not ever be equated. Artistically, the
atmosphere was no less exhilarating, especially when we begin to take note of the extent to which
various Secessions, the Jugendstil, and the underlying architectural realism of the 1890s (soon to
be christened Sachlichkeit) were nurtured by these very same innovations in theory. It certainly no
longer needs to be said that it was precisely these events rather than some doubtful break with

Harry Francis Mallgrave, Empathy, Form and Space. Problems in German Aesthetics 18731893 (Santa Monica:
Getty, 1994), p. 58.
2 August Schmarsow, The Essence of Architectural Creation, cited after Mallgrave, Empathy, Form and
Space, p. 286.
3 August Schmarsow, The Essence of Architectural Creation, cited after Mallgrave, Empathy, Form and
Space, p. 287.
4 Ibid.
5 Mallgrave, Empathy, Form and Space, p. 61.
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history that appointed the notions of form and space with their array of meanings that proved
so suggestive and fertile to the art and architecture of the first half of the century. It would take
an uncritical return to the polemics of late Modernism to believe otherwise.6

Schmarsows spatial theory: the three coordinates


Three axes: vertical, width and depth:
In a psycho-psychological interpretation Schmarsow identifies the three particular characteristics
of the human anatomy as decisive in the experience of space that we are surrounded by. Thus,
the height is the first dimension, derived from the vertical axis of man; width, the second
dimension, is experienced foremost as correlation of the extension of our shoulders and our
stretched arms to the sides; and depth directly relates to our frontal direction, the way our eyes
are directed, the way we act and move forwards.7
A simple table can be set up to explain how Schmarsow saw the value of these three coordinates.
Human body dimension
art
creative principle
Vertical
1. Dim. Height Sculpture
Proportion (body)
Horizontal
2. Dim. Width Painting
Symmetry (body/space)
Direction
3. Dim. Depth Architecture
Rhythm (space)
Since painting contains both the body- as well as the space principle, Schmarsow valued this art
as the highest of all three.

Reception of these theories in Modernism


It is a reflection of his writing style that it was rather his ideas, not so much his publications,
which had a resounding success. Their influence on the theories of modern architecture cannot
be overestimated. Authors such as Paul Frankl, Hermann Srgel, Leo Adler or Fritz Schumacher
followed Schmarsow on his way or further developed his ideas.8
Also Mies van der Rohe, when declaring in 1923, that Building art is the spatially apprehended
will of the epoch,9 was indirectly referring to the theories of the art historians Schmarsow,
Wlfflin and their colleagues. One can claim that Schmarsows sentence of the Raumwille as
the living soul of architectural creation is the decisive precondition for the development of
modern architecture.10
But in the English-speaking parts of the world, space was only theorized through Geoffrey Scott
with his adaptation of German-language art history, Architecture of Humanism, of 1914. Although
Frank Lloyd Wright had started developing a new sense of space in his Prairie Houses from ca.
1890 onwards, he would only write about the term space in 1928. Similarly, Le Corbusier who
was a master of architectural space would only write about architectural space as late as 1948.
What does that mean? They were designing, learning from their (built) environment, reading, but
not so much writing about space as a topic.
Sigfried Giedion said about the new space:
The traditional terms all burst and vanish when brought into relation with the new
buildings: space or sculpture (plastic). This is no longer sufficient. The houses by Le
Corbusier are neither spatial nor plastic: air blows through them! Neither space nor


Mallgrave, Empathy, Form and Space, p. 66.
Eleftherios Ikonomo, Afterword to Schmarsow, Grundbegriffe der Kunstwissenschaft, p. 362. Translation C.
Schnoor.
8
Jasper Cepl, Afterword to Schmarsow, Barock und Rokoko, S. 16f. Translation C. Schnoor.
6
7

Mies van der Rohe, in G, No. 1, 1923.

10

Cf. Jasper Cepl, Afterword to Schmarsow, Barock und Rokoko, S. 16f.

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sculpture are valid terms, only RELATION and PERVASION! There is only one single
non-dividable space. Between inside and outside the covering layers disappear.11

Architectural historian Colin Rowe quotes Le Corbusier, saying:


A building is like a soap bubble. This bubble is perfect an harmonious if the breath has
been evenly distributed from the inside. The exterior is the result of an interior. This
debilitating half truth, Rowe adds, has proved to be one of Le Corbusiers more
persuasive observations. That it never had very much to do with practice should be
obvious; but, it it is an impeccable statement of academic theory relating to domed and
vaulted structures, it is also a dictum which could only lend support to the notion of
the building as preferably a free standing object in the round.12
What do you think is more relevant to understand architecture from the inside out as
space that might determine the outside or from the outside in as a mass, form or
body that would determine the space inside?
Further it should be noticed that, on the whole, International Style space was a system which
tended to prohibit any display of beams; and, rather than the upper surface of the roof slab being
flat, it seems even more certainly to have required that the under surfaces of the roofs and floors
should present uninterrupted planes.13
Taking the intended freedom of the plan as a starting point, he argues that column and underside
of the roof had to remain separate in order not to lead to a compartmentalization of space and
thus to a violation of something of the freedom of the plan.
Architecture as mass and form: Heinrich Wlfflin (18641945)
In contrast to the spatial approach of [] Schmarsow [], the art historian Heinrich
Wlfflin initially believed that the anthropomorphic physiognomy embodied in corporeal
mass was the essence of architecture. [] He invented a new branch: Psychology of
Architecture, which had the task of explaining the hidden symbolism of architectural masses,
that was infused into them by the latent forces of the human soul. For this new science, he
wrote his Prolegomena. This first publication, his dissertation, contained Wlfflins article of
faith which he would never betray; namely, that the one and only object of architecture
was corporeal form: didnt Man himself had a corporeal body?14
In 1864, Heinrich Wlfflin was born in Winterthur, Switzerland. In 1886 he wrote his doctoral
dissertation, Prolegomena for a Psychology of Architecture. He became Professor for Art
History in Basel, Switzerland, in 1893.
Wlfflin argues according to the psychological theory of empathy that it is our own
physical, corporeal strength which we find mirrored in architecture. Imitation of nature,
one of the central topics of architectural theory since its beginnings, obtains a new
meaning through his psychologically influenced research. For Wlfflin, it is human nature
that is expressed in buildings: to him, it is our ability to feel or own body that explains the
aesthetic impression of a building. Wlfflin sees the building as if it was a built counterpart
of ourselves a being with a body, which allows us to read its character, through its shape
and physiognomy.15
Wlfflin says:

Sigfried Giedion, cited after Jasper Cepl, Afterword to August Schmarsow, Barock und Rokoko, p. 21.
Translation C. Schnoor.
12 Colin Rowe in Collage City, 1978, p. 56.
13 Colin Rowe, Neo-Classicism and Modern Architecture II, in: Rowe, The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa,
p. 141.
11

14
15

Van de Ven, Space in Architecture, p. 94.


Jasper Cepl, Quellentexte, S. 272, translation C Schnoor.

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We understand only what we ourselves can do. Physical forms possess a character only
because we ourselves possess a body. If we were purely visual beings, we would always be denied
an aesthetic judgment of the physical world. But as human beings with a body that teaches
us the nature of gravity, contraction, strength, and so on, we gather the experience that
enables us to identify with the conditions of other forms. We read our own image into
all phenomena. We expect everything to possess what we know to be the conditions of
our own well-being. Not, that we expect to find the appearance of a human being in the
forms of organic nature: we interpret the physical world through the categories that we
share with it. We also define the expressive capability of these forms accordingly. They can
communicate to us only what we ourselves use their qualities to express.
At this point, some might become dubious and question what similarities or expressive
feelings we could possibly share with an inanimate stone. Briefly, there are degrees of
heaviness, balance, hardness, etc., all of which have expressive value for us. Since only the
human form, of course, can express all that lies in humanity, architecture will be unable to
express particular emotions that are manifested through specific faculties. Nor should it
try to do so. Its subject remains the great vital feelings, the moods that presuppose a
constant and stable body condition.16

They can only show us what we have in common with them.

Le Corbusier
Architecture is the masterful, correct and magnificent play of volumes brought together in light.
Our eyes were made for seeing forms in light; shadow and light reveal forms; cubes, cones,
spheres, cylinders, and pyramids are the great primary forms that light reveals well; the image is
clear and tangible for us, without ambiguity. That is why these are beautiful forms, the most beautiful
forms.17

Poch
In architecture [poch] means the blackening in of residual areas, such as the thick
structural solids of a plan. At the Beaux-Arts, the precise profile of the plan was inked
by the designer, while the rougher work of filling in the outlined area could be done by a
beginning student. The word also came to be used as a noun at the Beaux-Arts, where
either poch pur (black) or poch dilu (gray) could be required.
Since the structural system used by the Beaux-Arts was load-bearing masonry, poch aided
the reading of the plan by its direct proportional relationship to the white areas
of the rooms it bounded; that is, a large space could be assumed to have a higher ceiling,
and its wider span (and greater load) would require larger supports. Thus the volumetric
aspects of the design could be read from the two-dimensional abstraction of the
plan. With the triumph of the structural frame, the intimate relationship of solid to void
the prized beau poch became meaningless, and was of course scorned by modernists.
The term poch has only recently returned to common use, though it is perhaps little
understood.18


16
17

18

Heinrich Wlfflin, cited after Mallgrave, p. 1512.


Le Corbusier, Toward an Architecture, p. 102.

Michael Dennis, Court and Garden (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1986), p. 4-5.