“First, What kind of life was lived in this place, that is, Why and how did its builders build as they did?
And second, what rules with general validity and applicability did they follow?”
Carroll William Westfall, Learning From Pompeii.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Letter to a Professor

Caro Professore,

I have really appreciated your willingness to discuss the issue of what I will call uniformity in architecture, or perhaps more appropriately, urban scale architecture. Obviously this is a point of contention among architects and urbanists and I will need to be able to justify my position. As I understand it your argument is predicated on the belief that modern issues in urban design can only be addressed by a carefully composed variation in architectural and urban forms, rather than a single unified vision. Unity in this view is achieved not through uniformity, like an endlessly repeated theme, but through differentiation which provides for the individual “character” of a place. This now commonplace approach is founded in the work of Leon Krier.

I think we can both recognize a pattern in our discussions this semester; namely, the role of regularity and uniformity in architectural design and in urban planning. I am convinced that there is truth to what I am attempting to put into words and buildings. I can see it both in writing and traditional architecture and urbanism; it is my lack of eloquence that is doing it a disservice. This is something I have finally had to defend because it helps me explain how architecture integrates commerce into the civic realm. So, I will try to first do the best I can to describe in writing what I have been trying to say, and secondly, attempt to defend it.

Beginning with my conversations and work with Mario Gallarati, based on the Muratori school of urban design a year and a half ago, I began to be interested in the study of formal Renaissance squares. As a student of the Muratori school, Mario Gallarati has consistently worked within the understanding that cities and buildings are composed of a number of scales and that to be successful each part must engage its appropriate station in the hierarchy of the city or state. Given this understanding, it is not surprising that I am interested not only in individual buildings, but in the concept of the formal square, and on a larger scale, the form of cities. The Muratorian approach is based on this idea of an intelligible system of architectural scales. These urban scales can be described or “read” using “synoptic tables” that compare traditional building similarities and differences from the scale of entire regions down to the scale of window treatment. I began to read the few translations available on Muratori and his students. I tried to test it against the indubitable theory of my professor Carroll W. Westfall. So far I think them consonant in their essential ideas; the main difference being their focuses on theory and practice respectively, and the empirical approach of Muratori in contrast to Westfall’s reliance on rhetoric. Together they give me a compelling theory of architecture combined with an “operative system” of practice. I am afraid I am an inadequate evangelist of this theoretical combination and have barely scratched the surface of understanding either thinker, but I am enjoying making the best of what I have.

From what I understand of Westfall and Muratori it seems that the different architectural scales of the city embody the order of communal life which has the common good as its end. These various scales are hierarchically more or less important according to the degree to which they deal with the public realm. More directly, parts of the city on the architectural, or building scale are subordinate to the urban scale (Muratori), or “urban ensembles” in the words of Westfall. Urban ensembles are members of the city, but are in turn, wholes composed of building members. Significant events in the urban scale might include civic places such as law courts, libraries, markets, theatres and baths. These places are more important than private buildings, but in turn subordinate to the larger, more public building which is the city.

The various scales are represented by their use of similar components. Without similarity between these scales comparison between them would be impossible, and yet without difference their location in a higher order would be equally unintelligible. Comparison is not the same thing as finding out where you are.

Building Scale
Buildings can appear related to each other only by virtue of their parts being obviously related to one another, or obviously different in a similar way. Westfall explains this as the “pattern of the assembly of the components” and gives the examples of basic compositional types: temples look like temples, houses look like houses, etc. because they are made of the same parts. Those parts, however, are never assimilated in the same way. Buildings also relate to one another according to the physical character of these components i.e., materials, ornament, size and level of finish. These scales operate by increasing in their level of realization as they reach higher importance in the public realm. The capitol or royal palace is the most fully ornamented and finished building in a state, the city hall the best dressed of all the parts of a republican city and so forth down to the most diluted branch post office or library. Within individual buildings many different activities can take place, however, every building, according to Westfall, is in some way a dwelling, whether it be of a god, a king or a pleb, and that specific purpose of the building is what drives its overall treatment. Different floors, wings, and rooms are realized according to their individual purpose, but on a subordinate scale within the context of the building.

Urban Scale
The urban scale works in exactly the same way. In a city the urban scale is almost always the most important. Occasionally, the territorial scale may override it (as in the Palazzo del Capitaniato in Vicenza, or the Virginia State Capitol), but they each require varying levels of a related treatment. More important streets such as those linking significant nodes in the city or territory are represented as such by their relative width, or because the buildings on their “pertinent strip” are collectively on a grander scale. The level of finish or ornament of a street is the degree to which it is treated in a related or unified way. Perhaps it is lined with arches, or the buildings facing it share the same cornice, etc. The most important public places, traditionally public squares, receive the highest levels of ornament and most thorough treatment in terms of their realization as single bodies made up of different parts. Traditional squares are often wrapped with arcades or colonnades that are made up of related components, the most important receiving the most unified treatment. The distinctness with which the various purposes of the buildings surrounding the street or square are represented is proportionate to their relative importance in the life of the city. The cathedral may remain entirely distinct in even the most formal European squares because of its complete dominance in the public life of the city. Conversely, commercial or industrial activities serving the private realm will almost always be entirely invisible.

These traits are common to almost every city in the Greco-Roman tradition to some level or another. Often, as in the case of S. Petronio in Bologna, an element of the city will remain unfinished. To say that the building is better as it is today is debatable, but to argue that the intention of the architect was to leave it half-finished is preposterous.

So too with the urban scale. The charm of Italian piazzas is often attributed to the informal character in which Goethe encountered them in the 19th century. This is the beauty of the relationship between contingent reality and an ideal. Perhaps a piazza embodies more of a city’s order through its un-realization. I certainly find them beautiful, livable places. Perhaps they are more beautiful in ruins or incompletion, but we would never have had even the failed attempt had someone not once striven for an “inevitable” solution, in the words of Professor David Mayernik.

I personally find the intentional design of picturesque urban forms and elements today known as “New Urbanism” to be at best arbitrary and at worst contrived. There will never, ever be a shortage of reasons that the most ideally visualized urban form or building will in the end have to submit its rigor to the contingencies of reality. Perhaps, repetition or uniformity may be repellent to individual taste. I, however, am attempting (how successfully remains to be seen) to form an argument based on reason, not taste. Such a hierarchy would, I feel, expand the possibility for true variety, not limit it. An alternate feeling that uniform urban or architectural forms are the product of autocratic forms of government falls into the same fallacy as the argument that ancient Greek architecture is the architecture of democracy.

To design a piazza that looks like an ancient agglomeration is to imitate symptoms of successful urbanism, but to miss the actual operative principle that makes it an enduring place. That operative principle, I am arguing, is the concept of urban scales of building which explicitly represent the order of the city according to a dilution of the unity of the whole.

Sincerly Yours,
Richard Worsham