14 October, 2006

Architecture, sculpture, and natural form

A few years ago I took a day-trip to Brighton with my friend M. The sky was glaucous and overcast, as is proper to that town, and as I imagine the sky to be at Balbec; the brute gulls seemed to fly without moving. We marvelled at the collapsed West Pier, and strolled the shingles at length, clutching newly-purchased books—I had admired a Dali-illustrated Don Quixote, but it was too dear, and I'd plumped instead for a copy of Zukofsky's "A". At that time M was reading Giedion's classic Space, Time and Architecture. We sat on the beach overlooking the Palace Pier, and watched a couple of sapphites toss pebbles into the irrefragable spume. He asked me, Which is the highest art-form? My reply was immediate: Literature, then architecture. I could not perfectly explain this answer—both of these art forms, I said, have something of the mysticable about them. I coined the word in the heat of the moment, and it still seems appropriate to me. They can be mysticated, made mystical. M smiled indulgently, perhaps sensing there was a germ of truth in my unusual language. For whatever reason, I also said that it was a mistake to confuse, as so many did, architecture with sculpture—that a work of architecture is something categorically more than a large, elaborate sculpture.

At the present moment I am in a better position to explain both points, and their interrelation. What distinguishes both literature and architecture from other art-forms is that they hold something back, that they do not present themselves to a man all at once. Painting and sculpture are clearly more immediate, in that they are taken in at one glance, or in a few glances in rapid succession. Music exists over time, and so does not present itself at once—but nonetheless, like painting and sculpture, it presents itself. The listener is acted upon, even if, like a good Kantian, he is busy finding patterns among the notes.

A text, on the other hand, does not present itself: it is self-contained, a whole, and to be appreciated it requires the brain to decipher huge numbers of symbols and to assimilate gradually a complete body. The text, in a real sense, resists the eye, and does not easily give up its riches. A building, too, holds back: to appreciate it one must not only glance at its façade, and not only walk around the sides and back, but enter into it, to explore its internal structure, and as with a text, to build up gradually a sense of the whole. In this sense, it is categorically different from a sculpture; one might say that its text-like properties—recurrent themes, relations of part to whole, and most importantly, a semantics—are emergent at a certain level of three-dimensional complexity. A building, like a text, requires a sort of participation.

My aesthetics are naturally geared towards the self-contained, the whole and the hidden. These are the constituents of the sublime and the mystical—by which I really mean, they are my substitute for a self-contained, whole and hidden God, an Ein Sof. Literature and architecture display these God-like qualities: and so they are for me the highest art-forms. They are not for enjoyment or entertainment, but for quasi-religious contemplation.


Attempts to make architecture like sculpture alarm me—they seem to stem from a deep metaphysical confusion. Chris Miller compared the two forms on these very pages, though of course I do not wish to scold him. Again, take this statement from Bernard Rudofsky's classic manifesto of 1964, Architecture Without Architects:
Great builders draw no line between sculpture and architecture. With them, sculpture is not "commissioned" as an afterthought or budgetary dole.
This is not a fair example, I concede: Rudofsky is talking about the sculpture which is integrated into a building, and so becomes part of its architecture. In fact, I would quite agree with him. But there are more worrying manifestations. Back in 2001, Peter Wollen wrote a rather impressionistic piece on Situationism for the New Left Review, in which he discussed the Danish artist Asger Jorn and his 1948 essay, 'What is Ornament?'. Jorn, a founding Situationist and also an appallingly sloppy painter, had a quaint view of art:
For Jorn, the pairing of European versus oriental ran together with other pairings, such as classical versus spontaneous, idealist versus materialist, Apollonian versus Dionysiac, with Jorn supporting the second term throughout—oriental, materialist, spontaneous, Dionysiac, and so on.
Further, for Jorn:
the nature of art is not to imitate the external forms of nature (naturalism) but to create natural art. Natural sculpture which is true to its material will be identical to nature’s forms without seeking to imitate.
Jorn thus compares a minaret to a horsetail, and a totem-pole to a chestnut branch; the non-Western forms are seen as more organic, more rooted in the natural world. But as Wollen observes, 'Architecture and sculpture. . . here seem to be treated as if they were more or less the same thing.' Later, in the context of Gaudi and King Ludwig, Wollen develops the thought: ’Perhaps the main point is that all these buildings seem to meld sculpture with architecture, and to be works of the untrammelled imagination rather than of controlling reason.' Again, this time of Constant Nieuwenhuis' New Babylon, 'The plastic models were also designed to be both architectural and sculptural, to work as aesthetic objects in their own right, as well as intimations of future constructions.'

Minaret and horsetail: similar?

There is the sense here that non-Western architecture is more like sculpture, and thus more like nature—the contrast is between a formal, Apollonian architecture and a free, Dionysian sculpture. The Situationist desire—not a thousand miles from Rudofsky here—was to return to these natural and harmonious, sculptural forms, to 'de-Westernize' architecture. The problem with this desire is that it presupposes that the only difference between architecture and sculpture is morphological, and one of degree—a view that I have argued against above.


Jorn's notions about natural forms are part of a strong Romantic heritage, going back to the nineteenth century. In 1856, Western appropriation of Oriental graphic forms crystallised in Owen Jones' monumental folio volume, The Grammar of Ornament. The preface to this work contains a series of universal precepts about the shape of ornamental designs. First is the clear subordination of ornament to architecture—decoration to structure:
The Decorative Arts arise from, and should properly be attendant upon, Architecture.
In line with this is the 5th proposition, that 'Construction should be decorated. Decoration should never be purposely constructed', to which the subtitle is a reiteration of Keats, 'That which is beautiful is true; that which is true must be beautiful'. Second is a classic statement of Hegelian historicism:
Architecture is the material expression of the wants, the faculties, and the sentiments, of the age in which it is created.
More interesting is Jones' conception of beauty, from the 6th proposition: 'Beauty of form is produced by lines growing out one from the other in gradual undulations'. This naturalistic conception is expanded in propositions 11-13:

Jones, like Jorn, sees 'Oriental practice' as being in accordance with 'Natural law'. Ruskin wrote about the Gothic, rather than the Oriental—the two were commonly associated in contrast to 'rationalist' classicism—but like Jones he thought in terms of natural forms. Kenneth Clark summarises Ruskin's view that 'beauty of form is revealed in organisms which have developed perfectly according to their laws of growth, and so give, in his own words, 'the appearance of felicitous fulfilment of function'.' One of Ruskin's seven 'lamps' or principles of architecture is Honesty, and he criticises vaults that look like leaves but carry stress differently—constant reference is made to the natural world and its objects as perfect expressions of function in form.

In Abstraktion und Einfühlung (1907), the historicism and naturalism of Jones would become further theoretised by Wilhelm Worringer, also under the influence of Nietzsche's revival of the distinction between 'Apollonian' and 'Dionysian' art, the West and the East. This essay contrasted Western classicism, with its calm Einfühlung (empathy) to the world, to Gothic and Oriental styles of architecture, which display a fearful and fluid abstraction of form—he notes, for instance, the transformation of the geometric classical column into the more curvilinear piers of a Gothic church. Worringer, developing his dichotomies of West/East, civilised/primitive, and formal/spontaneous, supported the second term of each balance just as much as the first, and in doing so provided some justification for the primitivising tendencies of Modernist art. Architectural forms in his work become sculptural forms—purely morphological expressions of emotion. This is the tradition acquired by Jorn, whose painting represents the last and worst throes of Modernist primitivism, Abstract Expressionism.


I repeat myself: if, like Jorn and his predecessors, we reduce our notion of architecture to mere sculpture, mere shape, we significantly limit the possibilities of its form. We need not be Corbusierian rationalists to disagree with Jorn, and to suggest that it can do more. Architecture, unlike sculpture, has function—Ruskin still understood this, Worringer less so, and Jorn not at all—and it has a narrative, albeit an open one. It is this function and narrative which provide its semantic dimension; we come to a building as to a text, not just the figuration of shape (as with sculpture), but the intimation of a God—self-contained, whole and hidden from immediate view.


John Cowan said...

Exuberance is Beauty, full stop.

chris miller said...

Why isn't a sculpture as open to narrative -- and a semantic dimension -- as anything else in the world ? You can walk around it (sometimes even in it), if you wish. You can ponder how its physical materials and structure - as well as all its views and possible representational narratives -- might be considered a "self-contained whole".

While the point that I made earlier about sculpture -- could also be made about architecture: i.e. it can be seen as a set of compromises --- compromising one view or function for the sake of another -- and I, as a viewer, want to set myself in front of the preferred views -- and soak them in.

But even then --- while contemplating just one view -- it's not been my experience that it can be " taken in at one glance, or in a few glances in rapid succession." Only the ordinary, mediocre, common stuff strikes me that way ----- I see it --- I judge it --- I ignore it forever after.

But the good things --- oh those good things ! -- their "hidden soul of harmony" continues to attract me -- because -- it continues to illude me ---
and I'm always looking for it ( just like NYR is always looking for her lost lover)

BTW -- I've got some real problems with Jorn's observation that ‘the nature of art is not to imitate the external forms of nature (naturalism) but to create natural art." --- as yet another sales pitch that's been evevated to a philosophy.

In our post-French-Revolution- world, we're never going to get away from the sales pitches. They're at the heart of bourgeois civilization -- and art MUST BE accompanied by them to find a prestigious place in the world.

But after the sales pitch has successfully gotten our attention --- it can then be ignored--- and the very best pitches always seem to accompany the very worst work. (Jorn -- and the rest of the ABX painters serving well as examples)

I think your term "fishy sort of codswallop" would be well applied.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Chris, it isn't my wish to denigrate sculpture. (Of course, I did say that for me architecture is the greater form, but I am really explaining my aesthetics, not pronouncing on absolutes.) A sculpture might be thought finer, subtler, more delicate, more elegant, more interesting, more humane, than a work of architecture--but surely it cannot be thought of as more complex? It is the complexity of architecture, both in morphological terms and in its additional properties of functionality (lacking in sculpture--unless we start talking about ritual objects, perhaps--but then we would treat the objects as tokens, not as artworks), that allows it to possess a semantics. The difference between a building and a sculpture could theoretically be reduced to one of degree, but I think that what I have described is essentially an emergent property at a certain level of complexity.

Compare, for instance, Anthony Caro's Tower of Discovery: this is a sculpture which you can walk around in. But it still isn't architecture: it is just shape, just form.

Fundamentally--and I suppose this is the root of our aesthetic differences--I don't see architecture as a set of views. I think it transcends what is immediately apparent to the senses, in a way that sculpture does not. To put it another way, the views of a building (inside included) are sensorily irreconcilable in a way that those of a statue are not.

Which is not to say that there can be nothing complex, moving, subtle or profound about a sculpture: but discovering this is more a matter of just looking than it is with architecture.

Of course, Jorn's nonsense is a 'sales pitch'--my word would be 'manifesto', but it makes little odds--but not uninteresting from a historical perspective. It would, I think, be worthwhile to write a history of artistic sales pitches. In a way I'm glad the art is terrible, it makes it easier to discuss the ideas (and why he would have them) without prejudice.

chris miller said...

It seems to me that "art history" already is a history of manifestos
(which is why it's not a subject that interests me)

Coincident to this discussion, one of those manifestos is the necessity of architecture to the proper practice of sculpture (and maybe even vice versa) -- i.e. good/true sculpture can only be made within an architectural context -- and at one point, there was an excellent art school in New York devoted to that premise: the Beaux Arts Academy, where my role-model, Milton Horn, was once a student -- and where practicing architects volunteered to serve on the faculty. (hopefully, someone will eventually discuss this place on Wikipedia)

Of course, at that time, public buildings and monuments often incorporated figure sculpture -- and there is plenty of historical precedent.

One principle is that sculpture organizes the space around it --- and if aesthetic attention has not been given to everything else in that space (i.e. the architecture) the effect of the sculpture will be limited.

Another principle is that sculpture in an architectural setting can and should address a public, mythic dream rather than a private, personal fantasy.

In the last century, those mythic dreams were, regrettfully, primarily totalitarian -- so this is a manifesto that was abandoned (outside the Soviet Union) after the second world war.

Andrew W. said...

I'd be interested in hearing a bit more about what you mean by buildings having a semantics. Perhaps it's having spent too much time doing analytical philosophy, but it's not clear to me exactly what you mean by it.

Conrad H. Roth said...

"I'd be interested in hearing a bit more about what you mean by buildings having a semantics."

I'm not sure I can give a definition that would satisfy Russell (yet). But I take semantics in its broadest sense to mean the systematic relation of two systems: form and 'meaning'—in the Renaissance they would quite comfortably have said body and soul, an analogy which Breal himself made.

Architecture gains by virtue of its complexity a new level of relation between form (pure three-dimensional shape) and 'meaning', by which I mean function and narrative. Partly this is iconographical, as with painting and sculpture—for instance, the different significations of each columnar order, on which see Onians' Bearers of Meaning. But also there is the meaning of function, eg. the meaning given to each part of a church by its ritual function, and the overall meaning created by the complex (spatial and temporal/narrative) relation of each part to the whole. In a church, space can be organised narratively, as by the Stations of the Cross, or a series of windows, or non-narratively, as by the important relation of the pews to the altar, which as you know, was a subject of some contention in the Renaissance. These kinds of considerations must be absent from painting and sculpture. On sacred architectures as structures of observer-dependent meaning, see Lindsay Jones, The Hermeneutics of Sacred Architecture, though he does have a tendency to get lost in theoretical mumbo-jumbo.

The case is similar with secular buildings: my favourite example, about which I will certainly write a post some day, is the university campus, where great efforts are taken to ensure that the buildings are in a proper relation to one another, that they constitute a 'well-formed' whole, to borrow a phrase from analytic philosophy. The Canadian York University Masterplan, for instance, is able to discuss spatial layout in terms of narrative: the hypothetical path of a student from one building to another, taking into account cigarette breaks, climate effects, and so on. The relation of part to whole on a campus, just as within a single building, constitutes a structure of narrative, as the three-dimensional shape must be traversed in a one-dimensional line; but also a structure of function, where the physical shape of a building or room mirrors its human purpose. Its body mirrors its soul, if you like.

Is that any clearer, or have I merely been more obfuscatory?

Andrew W. said...

No, that's helpful. My view of semantics is needlessly narrow.

Anonymous said...

There is another kind of hidden and held-back element in literature--that is, so many books are cut and cut in revision, with great chunks hurled away. Yet these lost shapes leave a shadow of themselves in the text and influence the reader in secret and mysterious ways.

I think it is rather wicked of you to stop your blog without writing about Laura Riding. Her ghost is probably jumping out of a third-story window in chagrin at the thought.

Conrad H. Roth said...

True, Marly; and have you seen "A Humument"? My apologies are certainly due to the 'late' Riding.