The architectural imagination (1): form and history

EdX MOOC from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (based in The Trays), started 28 February, runs for 10 weeks. All quotes edited.

The study of architecture allows us to see culture representing its own values to itself and affords us access to a kind of knowledge about culture and history that would not otherwise be available.

Architecture is not just about the need for shelter or the need for a functional building. In some ways, it’s just what exceeds necessity that is architecture. And it’s the opening onto that excess that makes architecture fundamentally a human endeavour.

Architecture is a technical answer to a question that’s not technical at all, but rather is historical and social. The study of architecture is the study of human thought and human history. This is about the architectural imagination. It’s how to think about architecture, but it’s also about architecture as a mode of thought.

Architecture is one of the most complexly negotiated and globally recognised cultural practices, both as an academic subject and a professional career. Its production involves all of the technical, aesthetic, political, and economic issues at play within a given society. And indeed, in some ways, architecture, as we’ll see, helps articulate history itself.

These are all big claims. And we’ll need big ideas to address these claims. And we’ll also need very specific, concrete examples of architectural projects and events from history.

Goals of the course

Architecture engages a culture’s deepest social values and expresses them in material, aesthetic form. In this course you will learn how to ‘read’ architecture as a cultural expression as well as a technical achievement. Over the course of ten modules we’ll examine some of history’s most important examples that show how architecture engages, mediates, and expresses a culture’s complex aspirations.

In this course you will learn:

  • how to read, analyse and understand different forms of architectural representation
  • social and historical contexts behind major works of architecture
  • basic principles to produce your own architectural drawings and models

The first part of the course introduces the idea of the architectural imagination as a faculty that mediates sensuous experience and conceptual understanding.

Two examples of the architectural imagination – perspective drawing and architectural typology – are explored through video presentations and hands-on exercises.

You will be introduced to some of the challenges involved in writing architectural history, revealing that architecture does not always have a straightforward relationship to its own history.

Module 1: The architectural imagination: an introduction

In our first module we borrow the framework of the imagination from the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, whose work has been very influential on the study of architecture. For Kant imagination is the necessary mediation between the senses with which we experience the world and the cognitive processes through which we understand it.

A preliminary model of the architectural imagination: the mental process of constructing a schema that organizes our perceptions of an architectural project or set of projects.

Very theoretical…luckily we have sketchnotes:

More practical was the optional vid on perspective:

The basic distinguishing feature of perspective – a way of seeing the world – is as a drawing in which parallel lines converge at infinity, way off in the distance. The place where these lines converge, which we can think of as being infinity, or far, far, far away, is called a vanishing point, placed on what we call the horizon.

This means that things that are closer to you will seem larger and things that are farther away will seem much smaller, even if these two objects are actually the same size.

There are three major kinds of perspective drawings –  one point, two point, and three point, differentiated by the number of vanishing points used. In a three point drawing there are two points on the horizon, where the parallel lines converge to the left and right, and one on a vertical line, where parallel vertical lines converge to a vanishing point far above us. This is especially useful for tall buildings.

And on orthographic (perpendicular) drawings:

  • the plan – a horizontal cut (usually 1.2m above the floor) through the building that lets us see how the different rooms and spaces are arranged
  • the section – cutting vertically through the building, generally on the most important axis of the building
  • the elevation – cut well in front of the building; in particular for showing the composition of the facade

Draw a floor plan

Choose a space that you are intimately familiar with – your home, your workplace or a favorite public space – that has at least three discrete and adjacent rooms.

By hand, draw a floor plan of your space. Carefully chose the height of your cut line so that the plan includes all the information you find important. Make sure to indicate locations of doors, windows, and walls.

You may choose to include secondary information you find important, such as furniture or decorative elements. Do not use a ruler to measure; however, make sure to pay close attention to relative dimensions. Choose a method of measurement that is appropriate for the space — for example, you could measure a length of a wall by counting your paces alongside it. Be sure to include an indication of your units of measurement on your drawing.

Write one to two paragraphs reflecting on the experience. How did the method of measurement you chose influence the way you drew the space? How did you decide on where you would cut the plan? In observing your space and drawing it, did you see anything new or surprising you had not noticed before?

Must break my drawing phobia…meanwhile, some examples from the class:

Module 2: Reading architecture: column and wall

We examine another historical example of the use of the architectural imagination to interpret an architectural project. Rudolph Wittkower analyzes Leon Battista Alberti’s designs for four different church facades as a single pursuit of an ideal façade type, beginning with Alberti’s assertion that the principal element of architectural ornament is the column. He then moves on to associate the column with proportion and measure – the “classical idea of maintaining a uniform system of proportion throughout all parts of a building”.

This abstract approach is an important first step in demonstrating that architecture is a mode of knowledge. When we normally consider architecture, we include its function, materials, techniques of construction and its physical and social context, as well as its formal property or aesthetics…to really focus on architecture as exceeding mere building we have to detach a portion of that common-sense world and establish some aesthetic distance from ordinary concerns…for just a time we free architecture from its function, but we also free ourselves from our own interests, and prejudices and expectations.

This part of our model borrows from Kant’s theory of aesthetics. It’s highly intellectual. It’s self-reflexive and recursive. And it’s very abstract – a philosophical exercise, not an historical analysis.

Note that Wittkower’s Architectural principles in the age of humanism (1949) strongly influenced modernism, due to its revolutionary approach to the understanding of geometry, modular pattern and the ways in which diagrams can be used.

Module 3: Hegel and architectural history

The first two modules of this course sought to open up a vision of architecture as a project of imaginative formal speculation. Wittkower’s interpretation of the work of Alberti gave us an example of a Kant-inspired historian attributing to architecture the status of an ongoing formal project – a project of speculation and conjecture that takes place in the architectural imagination.

We now want to put the idea of a formal project into dialectical play with the movement of architecture through history. In Module 3, we will complement Wittkower’s interpretive project by insisting on the historical dimension of architecture, indeed the historical determination of architecture’s formal project. Architecture changes through time because society and culture change through time, and architecture is inextricably tied to the social.

To return to history is to return this internal world constructed by architecture, this world of aesthetic perfection, to the more robust world in which we all reside.

How do cultures represent themselves to themselves through their art? In this module you will explore a model for a philosophy of art history as expressed by the German idealist philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. The very idea of art as having a history, a progression, comes from Hegel, and you will learn more about his attempt to “gather up all the cultures and all the epochs of art into a single, coherent, unified system…a system wherein art discloses truths about the world by giving those truths appearance”.

Beauty is, for Hegel, the perfect harmony of form and function. His division of symbolic, classical, and romantic is then partially generated by the fact that beauty can be either achieved (classical architecture) or not achieved (symbolic and romantic art), and that this failure to achieve beauty can be either the result of the inability to conceive of beauty’s form/function harmony (symbolic architecture), or the result of the conscious acknowledgement that beauty is impossible given architecture’s opaque and insistent materiality (romantic architecture).

John Sallis makes the point that Kant’s system of the imagination allows him to distinguish between beauty or art, on the one hand, and knowledge or truth, on the other. Hegel, by contrast, develops a concept of art in which art is not only a matter of sense and feeling but also of truth.

Sketchnotes please…

Module 4: Aldo Rossi and typology

In the first three modules, we’ve built up our idea of the architectural imagination with two fundamental components: the understanding of form and the experience of history. In this final module for Part I, we give one more example of the architectural imagination at work.

The modern Italian architect Aldo Rossi, perhaps, shares Hegel’s understanding that architecture is one of the fundamental human postulates of our existence in the world. For Rossi, too, architecture is a central medium of human thought and human memory. But in Rossi’s work, we find the suggestion that architecture’s origin is not simply behind us, as Hegel insisted, but that architecture is constantly finding its origin again and again, and that this beginning must constantly be reimagined. The imagination uses historical precedents to create new architectural projects.

Adolf Loos: “If we find a mound six feet long and three feet wide in the forests, formed into a pyramid, shaped by a shovel, we become serious and something says, ‘someone lies buried here.’ That is architecture.”

From the quiz…the idea of architecture as something with a history comes to us from Hegel, and Rossi explores this in his own unique way. For Rossi, an understanding of type is not merely visual or perceptual, rather his architecture engages the full sensorium of its experience. It is a structural and formal urban fact and complex experience.

Rossi understood architectural tradition as an extrapolation of the formal world of antiquity. FALSE:  Rossi’s concept of type allows him to sample from a far greater range of objects and periods of history. For example, in the Monument to the Italian Partisans at Cuneo, Rossi uses the concept of type to construct a monument that links to earlier commemorative monuments, perhaps to ancient examples as well as to modern ones, but not to any specific one monument from a particular historical style.

The architectural type is a primary means of communicating meaning through architecture. Architectural types, specifically those in the urban context, persisted despite changes in the functions and uses of the buildings. Rossi’s classic example of the persistence of type is the coliseum in Lucca, where the formal element remains legible despite functional change from coliseum to marketplace to housing.

Typology is intended to link new architectural projects to collective memories. Rossi’s work used the concept of typology to link architectural projects to collective memories. In Giovanni Antonio Canal’s (Canaletto) Capriccio con Edifici Palladiani, Rossi provokes us to examine the fantasy view of Venice as a means to describe the power of architecture to access an idea of the total city, albeit virtually. For Rossi, architecture is producing knowledge of the world beyond itself. To finish, here’s an article about Rossi’s San Cataldo Cemetery in Modena.

Otherwise, sketchnotes, please!

Two exercises follow, which the class did fabulous things with.

Build a model 

In previous exercises, you have explored conventions of the predominant drawing types of the architectural profession: the plan, the section, the elevation, and the perspective. In this prompt, you will become familiar with another major form of architectural representation: the physical model.

Just as perspective and orthographic drawings were used historically for the purpose of representation and construction, architects made scale models to represent their ideas. These models were useful not only for the architects and builders themselves, but also as a means to demonstrate architectural ideas to the public.

Aldo Rossi’s project for the Monument to the Resistance in Cuneo is based on a cube of 12 meters. It is represented by simple but precisely drawn plans, sections, and elevations. Spare as they are, the drawings contain all the information needed to construct a three-dimensional model of the project.

Your assignment is to construct a physical model of the Cuneo project at a scale of 1:100 (drawings provided; idiot’s guide).

Transform a type

Prompt B asks you to draw and compare diagrams that display transformations of architectural types. You will apply the concept of architectural type, first, to analyze an architectural project, and then, to transform that project to produce variants of the type deduced from a preceding formal organization, ie begin with simple typological elements and then transform and combine them into new organizations.

Find the constituent elements of the project: column, extruded triangle, extruded rectangle, and stair. After you’ve identified these elements, diagram two new possible variations for the project, changing the relationships among the elements to create your variations. You may use two of any one of the elements. For example, you may use two columns or two stairs but not two columns and stairs. Or you may double the length of the wall, but not of the wall and the extruded triangle. (Example diagrams provided.)

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