“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.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Critical Consciousness and the Unchanging in Architecture

‹‹Bisogno fare qualsiasi cosa, fuorché l’invenzione di cose nuove: la vera invinzione è il non inventare nulla. Chi si rende consapevole di tutta l’inventabilità dell’inventabile è colui che non inventa nulla, perché ormai tutto quello di cui è capace questo nostro sistema planetario è già stato prodotto, ed è tutto qui: più esso sarà reinventato e piu sara posto in crisi. 
Ma occorre viceversa capirlo.
Dunque pianificare vuol dire lasciare lavorare la realtà, comprendendone il senso del miglior utilizzo››.

S. Muratori, Autocoscienza e realtà nella storia delle ecumeni civili, a cura di G. Maranucci, Roma 1976.

One question is of singular importance to the contemporary architect attempting to return to the classical tradition amidst the dissolving wake of the modernist movement. That question is “what is unchanging in architecture?” Tradition, in this sense, is the means by which we access truth. The adjective classical denotes works of architecture which are prized as the finest exemplars of a tradition. These are held up as models for the guidance of current practice and for the assurance of future success. Therefore, the form that the examples in a classical tradition take is necessarily contingent on the material requirements and propriety connected with both time and place.

The classical architecture of one era will not take shape in the same way as that of another, nor will the architecture of one place necessarily resemble that of a different place even at the same time. Conventions such as patterns of use, fashion, language and ways of building change over time and in different places, gaining their correctness through general acceptance and habit. This accepted knowledge and these skills and customs—-means by which we pursue the true, the beautiful and the good—-are guarded and handed on by the custodians of tradition to succeeding generations. As part of this transfer, the means of accessing truth is developed and changed according to the requirements of time and place. The tradition of one place may not be the same as that of another. The purpose of tradition is to bring into conformity the way we each pursue our ends in the particular with the best possible means of achieving those ends in the universal. In other words, tradition is the way in which our judgment is informed through the comparison of the way things are with the way things should be. Thus tradition is not about preserving a unique way of building, but of ensuring that our buildings are the best they can possibly be.

The concept of imitation is essential to an understanding of tradition. The idea of mimesis, first formulated by Aristotle in his Poetics, became an explicit principle of creative formation and procedure from ancient Greece until the end of the Renaissance.[i] As James Ackerman has noted, the concept of imitation was understood in two ways both for the ancients and the thinkers of the Renaissance.[ii] Imitation in art occurred both in mimesis—the imitation of nature or human behavior, and in the imitation of preceding artists. The first mode of imitation forms the framework in which moral judgment is made possible, while the second provides a means of translating these universal truths for a particular time and place.

Imitation, as Quatremere de Quincy enunciated as late as 1823, was seen not as mere copying of natural forms or previous works, but as the embodiment of apparent universal rules governing the production of beauty in the work of art.[iii] These rules could be extracted from nature and perfected over time through the imitation of predecessors in a tradition. As Ackerman points out, imitation is inherently forward looking. By this he means that the artist is able to use imitation during the creation of the work of art. This view is in opposition to that of modern art historians who use the concept of “influence,” an idea only debatable after the creation of the work of art and in the service of the art historian.[iv]

How are we then to judge what is essential in a tradition? What can be discarded in the face of improved technology, or to suit changing political or physical conditions? This question has undoubtedly been the starting point of all architectural endeavors and probably troubled the architects of the fourteenth century as much as it did the proponents of the eighteenth and nineteenth century revivals. In a world so full of varying forms it has been difficult to determine what concepts and categories should guide contemporary practice. Compounded with a seeming abundance of choices, the void left by modernism’s denial of tradition has exaggerated its self-proclaimed goal of severing us from the past. We are faced not only with the questions raised by the contingent reality of tradition itself, but by any attempt to restore a tradition that has been systematically eradicated.

As citizens of the United States our tradition is that of the West. This is not to say that the tradition of Greco-Roman-Judeo-Christian architecture is the only one in our country, or the first, but that it is the visible part of our “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The need to separate our new republic from the colonialism of England and justify our classically derived system of government prepared the United States for the embodiment of its constitution in an architecture of Western classicism. Little wonder that the author of the Declaration of Independence should also design the new Capitol of Virginia using the classicism of the Roman temple.

Fiske Kimball in his American Architecture asserts that “the classical ideal thus embodied was ultimately to rule in America to a degree unknown in Europe.”[v] Indeed, it was to precede it by more than a decade. The embodiment of the political order in the architecture of America is significant in that it points to the most essential truth of the classical tradition: the understanding that the highest good in life is the perfection of our nature, a good held since the Greeks to be accomplished through the moral life led in community. This is the self-evident truth behind the most just political systems of the past and the guiding principle in the American founding.

What this understanding means for architecture is that our ability to pursue our highest end as individuals is dependent on the freedom insured by our government, and that architecture serves this good as the embodiment of the state.[vi] In other words, architecture is the visible part of the more important activity of politics. Conversely, it is only in the freedom provided by well-ordered politics that architecture can be pursued. Vitruvius opens his De re aedificatoria by noting that it is in the realm of peace brought about by the Emperor Augustus’ conquest of the world that the opportunity and need for civic buildings arose, thus grounding architecture in a particular relationship with politics.[vii] Not only can mere building become architecture, but architecture can embody the polity and legitimate its claim to authority. By doing so, it can establish the means for its citizens to pursue the moral life.

Traditions are necessarily conventional. This means that they are contingent on materials, climate and circumstance. Conventional knowledge is particular, temporal and accidental, meaning that it could have been otherwise. Limited by the contingencies of both time and place, knowledge of convention is gained from experience and hearsay. The best pitch of a roof is dependant on the climate and characteristics of the location. That there exists a hierarchy of architectural orders and that they include an architrave, frieze and corona is not necessarily true (although the predominance of such features across traditions could point to a correspondence with a larger order). So too, the rules governing a given order’s proportions may vary with the changing requirements and traditions of the building and its purpose. Gaining as they do their acceptance through trial and error, such conventions are not necessary truths, or a priori knowledge, but point to a correspondence with an order outside of sense experience. Conventions have been adduced to be the best possible way of embodying the necessary truths of political life. Conventional knowledge on its own may be factually true and empirically verifiable, however, by its very nature it cannot be true in every instance. It can only tell us about the actual world and hence what is the case; it can say nothing about the ideal world and what should be the case.[viii]

When the American founders referred to the self-evident truths of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness they were invoking the necessary truth of nature, the repository first described by the ancient Greeks of the true, the beautiful and the good.[ix] As a priori knowledge, these truths of nature can be known through reason independently of experience or empirical evidence and are understood as incontrovertible imperatives. In platonic terms Nature can be described as the intuitive realm of perfect forms; for Vitruvius she was “the architect [who] placed the hinges as central axes” of the earth.[x] For our purposes it is sufficient to say that nature is the totality of universal truths both known and unknown including the laws of physics, the rules of geometry and logic, and the truths described in the American Constitution such as justice, liberty, the equality of man, and the pursuit of happiness. Indeed, nature includes not only the natural objects around us such as plants, animals and rocks, but the system of principles by which things can be explained according to reason and which were true prior to their discovery. More importantly, nature provides the mark against which rational judgment is made possible, the moral order which allows us to state confidently that democracy is the best form of government because it has as its goal the good of every citizen, and the goal of all our efforts as human beings.

We can posit the idea of democracy, though a state where every citizen has been treated equally has never existed, because we can see that a state where some or all are not free is imperfect. In other words, the truth of nature is revealed only through the comparison of things we experience or accept with things we know to be true through reason. The truth of nature is self-evident, but it can only be accessed through our experience of conventional truth. As Socrates points out to Meno, people do not enquire into what they fancy they know, though they may in fact be entirely ignorant of it, unless they begin to compare what they think they know with the truth of nature.[xi] For example, we are gifted with the concept of justice at birth, but we must experience different embodiments of justice in practice to be able to understand perfect justice, and we must always be ready to reexamine our necessarily incomplete knowledge of justice. This Socratic doubt leading to the discovery of the order of nature—to the intrinsic, universal and enduring—is made possible only through out experience with the extrinsic, particular and transient we encounter in the here and now.[xii]

For the pagan writers of antiquity truth was embodied in number. The comparison between knowledge of convention and nature could be expressed through the concept of the part and its relationship with the whole. Number and the relation between numbers, or proportion, were seen as ideal frameworks upon which the basis of nature was modeled. The application of number and proportion to conventional material resulted in measure, and the correct use of number and proportion resulted in the beauty of the building. To phrase this another way, measure was meaning embodied in experience through beauty.

For Vitruvius, architecture depended upon number in the form of Order, Arrangement, Eurhythmy, Symmetry, Propriety and Economy. In the first place, “ordering is the proportion to scale of the work’s correspondence to an overall proportional scheme of symmetry.”[xiii] In other words, for the work to be beautiful it must initially conform to a geometrical framework extending to the subsequent design.[xiv] Arrangement, eurhythmy, symmetry, propriety and economy are aspects of this proportional application of number to material and depend on measure, which determines the relationships that make up proportion. At the center of this ideal proportional analogy Vitruvius placed the human body, described in the correspondence between the form of the extended human figure within the perfect geometric shapes of the square and circle.[xv] The anthropomorphic analogy was subsequently taken as the beginning of classical imitation and dominated architectural theory well through the sixteenth century.

According to Vitruvius the architect employs both conventional knowledge gained through experience, which Vitruvius termed fabrica, and the knowledge of the necessary truths of nature to explain a work’s beauty through ratiocinatio, or reasoned judgment. Just as the limbs of the body are proportioned in relation to the whole within a meaningful framework, beautiful buildings must have a relationship between their elements and the whole corresponding to their enduring purpose. The perfect geometrical forms within which the finite proportions of the human body are inscribed allow us to explain their beauty according to a higher meaning. Thus measure is essential for Vitruvius in the application of proportion to material, but only insofar as it serves the meaning inherent in the number it defines.

Renaissance thinkers such as Leon Battista Alberti took the tradition of Socratic skepticism, or the understanding that expertise must include both the knowledge of convention and of nature to its highest level, analytically breaking up all accepted thought into its constituent parts and reassembling them in a way that could answer the requirements of new and changing circumstances. Alberti, in his own words, "never stopped exploring, considering, and measuring everything, and comparing the information through line drawings, until [he] had grasped and understood fully what each had to contribute in terms of ingenuity and skill,” or until he had determined through measure the dimensions imitated by the ancients from nature.[xvi] Critical to this ability was the understanding that the content of a thing was more important then its form, and that form served as the access to a thing’s content.

The essence of the modernist movement lies in the mistaken belief that this Socratic doubt, instigated by our encounter with conventional truth, can only be answered by conventional truth, or fact. When Enlightenment thinkers realized the possibilities of the connection between natural and conventional truth based upon improvements in the science of measurement their Socratic doubt of received ideas turned to a revolutionary doubt in the very meaning of the universe. As soon as the measure of a thing (formerly a means of extracting a material object from a universal idea) became the thing’s very meaning, the imitation of nature by architects became pointless. While previous thought had held that regardless of the form of a thing such as the universe, the meaning behind it was immutable, the new view held that the way we perceive the universe, or the form of a thing, was all we could know about it, and therefore the way it should be.

Artists and architects, in the tradition of Socrates, have always questioned accepted truths and sought to translate them into the language of their own time. However, the Enlightenment’s rejection of inherent meaning required that artists’ translations could only be descriptive, meaning that they now relied on measure devoid of meaning. Imitation, in order to avoid the trap of mere copying, must be undertaken analytically. This means that, just as Alberti carefully studied all the ways in which the greatest buildings had treated specific conditions thereby arriving at an understanding of the universal they all pointed toward, imitation must be undertaken with a thorough knowledge of the whole body of traditional architecture and extract from each model pieces of the eventual solution for the given set of conditions. Imitation in the Enlightenment became the descriptive copying of the measurements and particulars of specific buildings. It was no longer the analytical treatment of precedents as a kit of parts capable of innumerable possibilities, all working within the framework of a building’s inherent purpose.

In order to judge what is essential in a tradition and what may be discarded in the face of improved technology, it will be necessary to recover our ability to think analytically. In other words, we must recover the understanding of imitation. The twentieth-century Italian architectural theorist Saverio Muratori has posited the existence of two types of consciousness essential to all architectural traditions. Spontaneous consciousness is entirely conventional and, though invariably traditional, lacks the analytical capacity for imitation. It could be described as something quite similar to Vitruvius’ fabrica, or practice. Spontaneous consciousness is simply the way things are built. Critical consciousness, on the other hand, represents the theoretical side of architecture. "When someone builds his own house with his own hands, he does not follow the dictates of the various architectural schools or currents and does not choose to build it out of structural steel or tree trunks without distinction: he does it as a house is built at that particular moment and in his own cultural area, thus acting in full spontaneous consciousness. Acting with critical consciousness is almost the opposite: when we are going through one of those critical periods . . . people are obliged to choose what they are doing, but let us make it clear, they do not choose having acquired greater maturity but out of uncertainty that what they are doing is right or wrong, in the absence of their community codifying what is right and wrong."[xvii] Muratori describes this modern absence of communal consensus as a crisis, carefully reminding us that the term does not necessarily denote a catastrophe, but rather the point at which an unresolved question is recognized and addressed. Critical consciousness is for Muratori both the cause of modernism and the only means of returning to and continuing architectural tradition. "If it is impossible to resuscitate spontaneous consciousness when we no longer have it, it is wise to exercise critical consciousness for the best. And the best that this can produce is to stick to the world of spontaneous consciousness, i.e. to recuperate what we would do if we had continued to operate through it."[xviii] It is only with our critical consciousness that we can regain the necessary ability to compare what is with what should be.

This is accomplished, according to Muratori, through the analytical “reading” [lettura] of the great buildings and cities of the past and the extraction from them of the essential human patterns of building. Rather than merely copying details—roof pitches, façades, column diminution or plans—the traditional architect must break down all the examples of the way in which buildings in the tradition conventionally treat specific problems, and from them reassemble a theory of universal types of architecture, both on the scale of the individual building scale and that of the larger city. Central to this endeavor is the understanding that although there may be new uses for buildings and cities, there are a limited number of building and urban types. These types derive from universal constants among buildings and cities.

Modernism attempted to replace spontaneous consciousness, a principle intimately linked with tradition, with a wholly theoretical vision of the future. As a result, however, architects have come to rely completely on conventional knowledge and the denial of analytical thought. In the attempt to enthrone critical consciousness as the sole means of producing art, modernist thinkers have been forced back upon conventional truth utterly devoid of theory and meaning. Modernism, for all its insistence on originality and freedom from tradition, is in fact a slave merely to the way things are done. Neoclassicism, the ultimate manifestation of modernism, is motivated to copy only particulars in just the same way that twentieth-century modern architecture can do nothing more than conform to the whims of its architect.

In order to comprehend what is unchanging in traditional architecture, we must understand that while conventional truth cannot prescribe the way things should be, it is the only means by which we are led to compare the way things are with the way they ought to be. Practice informs theory. Conventional knowledge provides the means by which we can access the order of nature. It is only through the analytical imitation of convention that we can apprehend the universal order of nature and make manifest the city of God.


[i] Aristotle. The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. (New York: Random House, 1941), 478.
[ii] Ackerman, “Imitation.” Origins, Imitation, Conventions: Representation in the Visual Arts. (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2002), 64.
[iii] Quatremère de Quincy. An Essay on the Nature, the End, and Means of Imitation in the Fine Arts. Trans. J.C. Kent. (London: Smith, Elder and Co., Cornhill, 1837), 11.
[iv] Ackerman, 65.
[v] Kimball, American Architecture. (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1928), 75.
[vi] Westfall, Carroll William, and Robert Jan van Pelt. Architectural Principles in the Age of Historicism. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 49.
[vii] Vitruvius, Marcus Pollio. Ten Books on Architecture. Trans. Ingrid D. Rowland. (New York: Cambridge UP, 1999), 21.
[viii] Westfall, Architectural Principles, 56.
[ix] Westfall, Carroll William. “Architecture and Democracy, Democracy and Architecture.” Democracy and the Arts. Ed. Arthur M. Melzer, et al. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999. 72-91), 76.
[x] Vitruvius, 109.
[xi] Plato. “The Meno.” The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961), 389.
[xii] Westfall, in Architecture and Democracy, Democracy and Architecture, has described this doubt as “pious skepticism,” which has been replaced by the impious skepticism of modernity.
[xiii] Vitruvius, 24.
[xiv] Vitruvius, Commentary, 149.
[xv] Vitruvius, 47.
[xvi] Alberti, Leon Battista. On the Art of Building in Ten Books. Trans. Joseph Rykwert. (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1988), 155.
[xvii] Gianfranco Caniggia and Gian Luigi Maffei. Interpreting Basic Building: Architectural Composition and Building Typology. Florence, Italy: Alinea, 2001), 36.
[xviii] Caniggia and Maffei, 42.