|Vol. 7, No. 2 (January 2003)|
Revisiting the Rhodian Shore:
Architecture and a New Critical Order
While architecture is the most material and all-encompassing of the human productive arts, there remains the paradox that to come to terms with it either through actual building or through appreciation demands some intellectual effort. The very word ‘architecture’ denotes ‘best building’ from classical times, so that one is led to distinguish some examples of the art as superior to others – indeed all art invites a qualitative and thereby a selective approach of discrimination. So there is an implicit invitation to the critical process – properly understood as that of judgement and not just negative assessment – a connotation that has unfortunately accrued to the notion of criticism in the English language. As the invitation to this Konferenz of Cloud-Cuckoo-Land rightly sets out, the invitation to ‘grasp architecture’ means a grasp of critical attitudes and methods, which for me, means that any user of architecture, i.e. most thinking citizens, should be able to make meaningful assessments at different levels of the artificial environment that he or she inhabits.
However for professionals engaged in architecture either in construction or in academia, there is a tendency to rely on a set of prejudices and half-digested viewpoints, adages and shibboleths picked up in early years or along the way, giving a deformed critical ability that can make little sense of post-industrial society or the waywardness of the avant-garde, that fluctuating presence in modern art. Among the more articulate, the scope for prejudice becomes unlimited as Susanne Langer discovered when Barnett Newman addressed her from some distance: ‘Aesthetics is for art what ornithology is for the birds.’ At another level, Louis I Kahn, the great American architect, said, ‘All I can say is that architecture, per se, does not exist.' As for the ordinary citizen, he can avail of some direction from criticism proffered in the better journals and newspapers, but these offerings are usually short, and tend to boost the careers of architects and interests remote from the daily experience of the reader. Such is the pluralist condition of our civilisation, little agreement can be found about recent architecture, and the populations of Western society on the whole have not accepted modern architecture, despite the arrogance of all kinds of culture-merchants and design professionals in their midst.
To dramatize the critical realm of
architecture, I select a story from the preface of the Sixth Book of de Architectura by the Roman architect
Vitruvius, which has been an authority since it was first penned until the
eighteenth century, and is still used as a source for the history of
mathematics and science. In this story the Socratic philosopher Aristippus (c.
435-c.355 BC) was shipwrecked off the coast of
This is not an idle question since the
appearance of ‘traces’ occurs with frequency today in unexpected circumstances
in an otherwise natural setting. I speak of crop circles, mysterious
geometrical drawings on the face of the earth, and common for many years in the
area of Wiltshire U. K, indeed becoming world-famous. Coach loads of tourists –
many from the
Returning to the case of Aristippus, we
should remember that geometry for a Socratic philosopher had two origins, one
presumably anterior to the other. The first justification of geometry was that
it was the alleged practice of measuring land, as used by the Egyptians when
This synthesis of patronage and the arts
survived until the eighteenth century, and we can identify readily with the
exclamation of Aristippus – his reference to the order of geometry for humans -
since we are basically the same in most respects and inheritors of classical
mathematics and philosophy in part, despite the political changes that have
erupted since the French Revolution. In the same period since antiquity, the
historic reality of architectural criticism lay directly in the hands of the
patron, an agency that has disappeared almost totally from modern discourse. The
patron, in causing the building to be built, set the standards and took over
parts of the role of the modern architect in ordaining all pasts of the
building in conjunction with artists such as sculptors and other plastic
artists. Furthermore he was best placed to ascertain how intentions matched
results, a relationship that poses difficulties for historians and commentators
as ourselves who are outside the magic circle in so many ways. Even the
greatest writers of antiquity, Plato and Aristotle who were alive as the
Acropolis was being finished in
The patron of antiquity may have been a committee or a small number of citizens, trustworthy and knowing, charged with ensuring the completion of a project of exceptional size and complexity, such as was the task of realising a large temple in stone in the age of Pericles. Only in Hellenistic times and in the Roman army did the office of architect emerge as a recognisable profession. Nevertheless the interdependence of the architect and other designers and artisans with the patron – either a committee or magnate – was complete. This interdependence can be ascertained in an interpretation of Vitruvian doctrine in Bk. I, Ch. ii, by C. Watzinger ninety years ago. This interpretation identifies the several aspects of the design process with quantity, - order, disposition and economy, giving rise to corresponding values in the product – symmetry, eurhythmy and decorum, as in the following table:
Dispositio > Eurhythmy
Economy > Decorum
In the Middle Ages, master builders may
have had some independence in keeping the overall design in their heads, given
the guild secrecy and other rivalries that bore down on servants of feudal
yet the iconography and decoration was promoted quite assiduously by the patron
or his learned representatives. Power lay decisively with the patron as several
events of some moment attest down the ages. The emperor Hadrian designed the
The Man of Taste
While the focus of current art history follows the artist at this period of the Renaissance and Baroque, we should not ignore what was occurring with patronage at the same time. The key territory here is the question of taste and its increasingly problematic character as the Baroque was under question at the same time. But before arriving at this issue, it is well to remember that already an attack had been launched on the very acceptance of nature as a regulating polarity of culture, at the hands of an important figure for the development of politics, Machiavelli. In the words of Ted V. McAllister,
The hard core of the modern project, articulated by Machiavelli, was the turning of moral and political problems, once considered part of the human condition, into technical problems. Or, to but the matter another way, Machiavelli rejected nature as a standard in favor of nature as conditions to be overcome, the raw material for human creativity. The manipulative possibilities of a nature turned on its head became evident in the physical sciences [in the work of Francis Bacon, for instance] and political science, in which Hobbes drew out Machiavelli’s logic.
The rejection of Platonic-Aristotelian science (scholastic cosmology and the vertical structure of theology, liberal arts and practical virtue) was slow to come about – indeed it was available to the Baroque Age in its last efflorescence and the more radical confrontation came with J.J. Rousseau and his denial of human nature. ‘The development of a historical consciousness, which came at the expense of “nature,” made all of the moral (and hence political) and epistemological bases of Western civilization problematic.’ Not much wonder that such problematics affected the grasp of practical virtue that supported artistic choice and decision-making in the same civilisation. And the full emblem of this problematic was the rise and fall of taste.
As Professor Karsten Harries has recorded,
it was Baltasar Gracián (1601-1658) and his followers who presented
Unlike the Cartesian man of reason, the man of taste has no principles by which he governs his actions. He needs no rule. Instead he knows intuitively what to do in a given situation, how to behave at court or in the world. He immediately grasps what is demanded and acts accordingly. He is the man of tact, who listens to a voice within himself which is more reliable than the cumbrous doctrines of the philosophers. His is an artistry which has not been learned, for which he himself cannot account, and which others only clumsily imitate. He cannot share his secret with them since he himself does not know it. Taste is inevitably private, the property of one individual. The man of taste is a successful, but lonely, actor on the stage of life.
But this image, which most probably depended on the recognition of harmony as the binding desideratum in all things, soon became itself a puzzle, as of course traditional harmonics was eroded away on every side, witness the fate of some of Leibniz’s doctrine. Soon all artistic matters were subjected to the blank statement – je ne sais quoi, or certo, non lo so, (I don’t know what it is), the very opposite of what a man of taste and sentiment should have held. The weakening of the moral basis of artistic attitudes went hand in hand with the loss of accepted links to other aspects of transcendent reality in every part of visual culture. The rise of the English landscape garden is perhaps the most convincing witness to these widespread phenomena at that time.
In contrast to the regular and symmetrical
Given the Whiggist triumphalism that expressed the conquest of the English upper and bourgeois classes in command of the land through a series of providential and fortuitous arrangements, the ‘infinite’ extent of the landscape garden to the horizon was confirmed in the success of the British Empire; Whig certitude continued in the following century when Britain forged the industrial revolution and exported it abroad.
What has happened in the sweep of history
from antiquity to the present? First we
should recognise the characteristics of the Western experience as a tension
between the divine and the mundane, what Eric Voegelin has labelled metaxy,
punctuated by ‘leaps of being’ such as those of Moses, Plato and Paul. The main period of classical antiquity is
dominated in Voegelin’s image as the Ecumenic Age from the rise of
Humans necessarily experience alienation
because they feel the attraction of the divine, whole, timeless pole of
existence while they live in a mundane, partial and historical cosmos. Despite
the pull toward the divine pole of our existence, human life is constituted in
the tensional field between the two heuristically understood poles of a futile
attempt to escape one’s humanity. The constant questioning of each pole of
existence over the past 500 years has left us with tensions which seem to have
no explanation, unless we address the scenario as presented above as legitimate.
Consequently such enterprises such as instrumental power, scientific curiosity
and utopianism, unless wedded to some polarity of existence, become endless
pursuits of ambiguous if noble objectives, usually without any finality or
Testifying to order, mimesis seems as valid now as it was in the past, insofar as every work of art, even in our own increasingly standardised world of mass production, still testifies to the deep ordering energy that makes our life what it is. The work of art provides a perfect example of the universal characteristic of human existence – the never-ending process of building a world.
Despite the intrinsic fascination of the posthumanist prospect we always wake up in the morning and find ourselves in a world of familiar obtuseness, where the mythological/cosmic constants of season and minor rituals must be respected.
Modernity as Cultural Revolution
The last 300 years has witnessed a continual ‘cultural revolution’ with the aim of subverting whatever superstructure of reigning sensibility that held good. This continual revolution began with the attack on the Baroque, singling out the phenomenon of luxury as not just as a defect of human nature as in the Christian view, but as an aberration of nature itself. And to correct this aberration was to reconstruct society itself, in the mind of Rousseau, or in the economics of the Physiocrats. Just before the French Revolution in 1788, the Abbé Sièyes declared that ‘political systems, today, are founded exclusively on work; the productive faculties of man are everything.’ To confirm the character of revolution, immediately a reaction set in to this line to thinking, which we know today as Romanticism.
Romanticism, like economic liberalism, was based on dissatisfaction. In the words of Jacques Bousquet, “Romanticism and economic liberalism are equally founded on dissatisfaction; instead of seeking inner contentment in the present situation, one must always ask for more, at any price and in all domains, whether in sentiments, impressions, or consumer goods” (Le XVIIIe Siècle romantique, 126). Romantic individualism and aspirations and economic individualism thus have a common source. 
The difficulty of defining Romanticism lies in the great sweep of systems designated to confront the overabstraction and false generalisation of the Enlightenment, by attempting to reconcile personal freedom with the inescapable need for collective action. In the words of Isaiah Berlin, Romanticism’s view of great images dominating mankind – of dark forces, the uncanny, of the importance of the inexpressible and the necessity of discounting it and allowing for it – spreads to every sphere every sphere of human activity, and by no means confined to art . . . any such assumption that there are objective laws is simply a human fantasy, a human invention, an attempt on the part of human beings to justify their conduct . . . upon the shoulders of imaginary external laws, such as the law of supply and demand, or any other kind of external law, which is alleged to be unalterable.
Such broad sweeps of thinking thus embraced irrationality and raised it high in terms of recognition and feeling. So irrationality was to be the fate of music already in the eighteenth century with the invasion of independent instrumental music such as the sonata. Stendhal liked Rossini with great passion but considered the music of Beethoven as almost mathematical in its harmony. The irrationality of music, once the symbol of cosmic harmony, was then confirmed by Schopenhauer: ‘the Composer reveals to us the intimate essence of the world [ . . .] he is interpreted by the profoundest wisdom, spreading a language which cannot understand’, seeing music as the essence of reality which the other arts try to tame. 
Music, in becoming divorced from words and texts which once were its senior partners, ‘is no longer bound to express what a verbal text can express,’ and this occurred at a time when there was ‘a move towards non-representational conceptions of language.’ Professor Andrew Bowie suggests that this change in music resulted in a fundamental change in the idea of truth. ‘If truth is supposedly inherent in the word, it is clear that anything which suggests the word is no longer adequate as the expression of truth must have a devastating potential for philosophy. If music without words is a higher form than music with words, then music seems able to usurp the word’s role as the locus of truth.’ It follows also that if music is privileged in this way, then there is an impact not just on philosophy but also on the visual image as well, which will so important to understand in the rise of modernity.
For the Romantics music was the master art, which J.J. Rousseau had already described as a pure system of relations ‘able to paint things that one could not hear, whereas it is impossible for the painter to represent things you cannot see,’ so that music can embody the idea of freedom which cannot be represented but which is yet of fundamental importance’ – in short, the art of music as emancipation from nature and from most standards of culture as well – total emancipation. Such a possibility brings us right up to the recent past. For if, as Bowie points out, modernity generates at the same time two factors to be considered – the first being the ‘systematic determination of more and more areas of life’, and the second, ‘the awareness that such determination involves a process of repression’, which he allocates to ‘aesthetics’. To struggle against such repression has engendered two responses, from those in the one hand who attempt to attach significance to historical research, the celebration of the artist’s life, computer analysis of texts etc., on the other hand those who like the Romantics ‘see such an enterprise as inimical to the very nature of art, and demand attention to the capacity of art to generate ever new significance.’ And such a state of affairs is antecedent to the rise of ‘modern design’.
The Rise of 'Modern Design'
Given the new conditions introduced by
Romanticism described above, the subsequent rise of modern design is
accompanied by many short-lived conflicts that render it difficult to
understand at a superficial level. Perhaps the widest characteristic of modern
design is the factor of utopianism, even in the 18th century. In
architecture this took three forms: Father Carlo Lodoli’s ‘utopian rationalism’
harnessed to structural and constructional aptness, P
My own contribution to this discourse in
qualifying the rise of modern design is to understand its motive as that of
‘constructed landscape’ growing out of the mathematization of architecture
through the picturesque (already referred to with respect to the English
landscape garden) and perspectivity, this last an apodictic process of vision
emancipated from the world of qualitas in terms of post-Galilean
geometry. The major portrayal of constructed landscape was the outcome of the
widespread doctrines of both John Ruskin and Viollet-le-
Despite the determinism that informed the
scientistic ethos of process and ‘design’, there was no clear method in all the
vaunted declarations of efficiency and mastery, which by the mid-20th
century allowed le Corbusier to make the ‘turn’ that was so startling when he
built the chapel of Ronchamps. This demarche seemed to release a phase of
Neo-expressionism in the 1960’s and led on the ‘postmodernism’ of the 80’s. At
the same time there was a recrudescence of various streams of rationalism in
Whenever I journey through
Swindon in Wiltshire is the first horror, possibly the saddest victim of the executive housing that grasps its tentacles around each and every town, smothering them with kitsch design, improbable mortgages, company cars and cul-de-sacs.
New Jersey-style strips are a second horror – try pretty much any
exit from Daventry,
Bluewater is horror three. “Your future dream’s a shopping scheme”, sang Johnny Rotten in 1977. A Queen’s jubilee on, here it is, chums: no beggars, no dogs, no smelly poor people. At least Bluewater is tucked in a former Kentish quarry. The St James Centre desecrates central Edinburgh.
Heathrow is horror four. – a labyrinth of overlit shops, stressed-out people, tinny, airless architecture, sad looking “asylum-seekers” who for a pittance clean up the foul mess we make, and your choice of horrid meals and slushy, warm, milky liquids known in the transport industry as “beverages”. There are aircraft here too. Bet you can’t wait for terminal five.
Canary Warf in London’s dockland is horror five – though these new offices sprout all over the country: bland design, sealed windows, glaring lights, cheap carpets, uncomfortable furniture and sick building syndrome.
Staffless railway stations are a sixth horror. These public places are as sad as the grim trains that, grudgingly, serve them in the pursuit of private gain.
Hospital waiting rooms. Designed, it seems, to make you feel terminally ill, depressed and very afraid. The horror, the horror.
This pretty conclusive catalogue is sadly all too accurate of our ‘design-led’ planning and building of today over all prosperous parts of the world and is ceaselessly spreading to ‘undeveloped’ countries.
Towards a New Critical Order
Manfredo Tafuri and Francesco del Co and in their History of Modern Architecture quite frankly stated at the outset that the development of modern design was a fable, and here I have indicated that we live in a vast ruin of intellectual debris, from the cosmological empires of the ancients to the now discarded theological-physical structure that survived until the French revolution in most parts of Europe. Many observers have unwittingly described this state of affairs in different ways as we have seen; to quote one more, Christine Boyer sees in the abstraction of modern life the ‘logic of functional ensembles and technical operations, giving rise to a modern imagination [which] required looking at urban form and texture through the particular set of links and occluded the ability to engage in social reality.’ So in the words of Karsten Harries in his important contribution, ‘The Dream of the Complete Building’, ‘Architecture comes to be experienced as a complete whole only when it has lost its place in our life and lies behind us, when it has become a monument. There is a deep connection . . .in all the arts and the experience of art as something that really belongs in a museum.’ His demand that ‘Buildings should live’ is a reasonable one, but difficult, it seems, to respond to today.
One response is that of Dalibor Vesely in his recent thinking about architecture. Dr Vesely extends the temporal aspect of praxis (the concrete situations of life) until the level of myth is reached which he defines as ‘the dimension of culture which opens way to a unity of our experience and our civilisation . . . myth is an interpretation of primary symbols which are spontaneously formed and which preserve the memory of our first encounters with the cosmic conditions of our existence’. Myth indeed reflects that polarity of culture already identified for us by Voegelin. Vesely then proposes the concept of the paradigmatic situation, which links primary symbols through secondary symbols to the field of the artificially built environment. ‘The nature of paradigmatic situation is similar to the nature of institutions, deep structures or archetypes. It is on the level that ethos receives its objective.’
The concept of paradigmatic situation is a positive rival in every way to the tired formula of modern functionalism or fitness of purpose, which for some has been aligned with decorum as well (but without ethos such a link cannot be maintained). Modern functionalism with its models of the machine and the organ, is another vestige of ancient understanding now rendered almost unintelligible to its original meaning, when ‘machine’ was an imitation of animated nature – indeed the world was considered a machine until the Middle Ages. Likewise the organ was a single instrument or method or bodily given informed by a higher purpose. However under modern conditions all reference to nature is hopelessly compromised or confused, shown by Professor Philip Bess who has succinctly defined modern attitudes, which do not admit of any realisation of an animated cosmos. For us nature is the model for ‘constructed landscape’ – indeed modernity seems for many to have constructed nature for itself – the social construction of nature. Our ‘constructed landscape’ is the assemblage of equivocal and indeterminate images arranged in a meaningless geometrical order that again is the product of the same history.
Given the prevalence of these conditions Vesley recommends the positive power of the fragment as the solution to overcoming, as I understand it, the meaningless of ‘constructed landscape’ and the devouring of meaning that is the outcome of modern technology. Vesely has traced the history of the fragment in European architecture as a parallel course, one originating in the use of particular fragments such as spolia, the other that awareness that the building was never considered as an isolated or as a perfect entity of us moderns, as Harries has demonstrated. Just as the aphorism in modern literature carries positive and decipherable messages of analogy and metaphor, it seems that in the absence of agreed symbols today, symbols that once united the consciousness of earlier systems of artistic expression, we can only now depend on the positive power of the fragment in the context of the paradigmatic situation – on an awareness of mimesis in our changing conditions of society and production.
Is the contribution of Vesely the answer to the reestablishment of decorum in our artistic world once again? If not, the outlook is bleak. Contrast this position with the emerging conflation of the museum - emblem of our intellectual striving for order, with the shop window - emblem of consumerisation, in our present celebration of visual gratification. Beyond that, the infantile allure of posthumanism with its demonic control mechanisms and the wretched flattening out of all experience are imminent threats. For this reason, better counsels of artistic criticism must prevail.
 Arthur C. Danto, 'The Philosophical
Disenfranchement of Art', Aesthetics ; A Reader in the Philosophy of the
Arts, ed. David Goldblatt and Lee B. Brown, (New Jersey: Prentice Hall,
1997), (pp. 46-50), p. 47.
 Joseph Masheck, Building-Art; Modern Architecture Under Cultural Construction, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 125.
 Vitruvius, On Architecture, 2 vols., edited and trans. by Frank Granger, reprinted 1983, (Cambridge MA and London: Loeb, 1931), Vol. II, p. 3.
 Conversation with Professor John Onians, 1994.
 J. J. Coulton, Greek Architects at
Work: Problems of Structure and Design, (London: Granada, 1977),
 Eugene Dwyer, ‘Vitruvius’, The Dictionary of Art, (New York: Grove Dictionaries, 1991), Vol. 32, (632-636), 633.
 See the entry by Robert W. Gaston, ‘Decorum’, The Dictionary of Art, ed. Jane Turner, (New York: Grove Dictionaries, 1996), Vol. VIII, pp. 612-614. he relates decorum to modern functionalism and fitness for use but does not (cannot?) justify this statement, p. 615.
 Gűnther Binding, High Gothic in the Age of the Great
 Ted V. McAllister, Revolt against Modernity; Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and the Search for a Postliberal Order, (Laurence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 1996), pp. 135-136.
 Ibid., p. 136.
 Karsten Harries, The Meaning of Modern Art, a Philosophical Interpretation, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968), pp. 21-22.
 John Dixon Hunt, ‘Landscape as Art’, Collier’s Encyclopedia, Vol. 14, p. 293E.
 Ibid, p. 293F.
 This and the following interpretation of Voegelin is from his great Order in History, 4 vols., (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1956-1974). The later fifth volume was not used in this survey.
 Hans Georg Gadamer, The Relevance of the Beautiful, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 104.
 Rémy G. Saisslen, The Enlightenment against the Baroque: Economics and Aesthetics in the Eighteenth Century, (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Oxford: University of California Press, 1992), pp 24-28.
 Saisselin, Enlightenment, p. 70.
 Saisselin, Enlightenment, p. 67.
 Andrew Bowie, Aesthetics and Subjectivity from Kant to Nietzsche, (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1990), p. 179.
 Franco Borsi, Architecture and Utopia,
trans. from the French by Deke
 (Cambridge MA, London, The MIT Press, 1983), p. 4.
 Ibid., p. 7.and n. 14, p. 328. where it is Dalibor Vesely who brought this to Pérez-Gómez's attention.
 Ibid., p. 7.
 See Kunstler’s Home from Nowhere,
Remaking Our Everyday world for the Twenty-first Century, (New York:
 The Guardian, (
 Trans. from the Italian by Robert Erick Wolf, (New York: Henry Abrams, 1976), p. 9.
 Christine M. Bowyer, The City of
 Perspecta: the Yale Architectural Journal, (New Haven: 1980), (pp. 36-43), p. 43.
 Dalibor Vesely, unpublished lecture, Ecological Ethics, with grateful permission of the author.
 'One view holds that man is fundamentally separate from nature, and nature is simply raw material for human consumption--an operative (if often only implicit) post-sixteenth century notion fundamental to the industrial revolution and modern economies. A second common view of nature--in part a reaction to the first, but also with a long intellectual history of its own--would make no fundamental distinction whatsoever between the human and the natural. But this has the conflicting consequences of on the one hand rendering any human intervention in the natural environment inherently suspect, while on the other hand rendering any such intervention logically immune from criticism. Yet a third view of nature (common among today's critical theorists) holds that nature itself is a "construct," the alleged properties of which are human inventions rather than human discoveries; from which it would seem to follow logically that nature commands no inherent respect, if indeed nature can logically be held to exist at all.' Philip Bess, Humanist Art Review (WWW, July 2001), ‘The Architectural Community and the Polis: Thinking about Ends, Premises, and Architectural Education’, Part IV.
 Dalibor Vesely, 'Modernity and the Ambiguity of
Fragment', Architectural Associations: The Idea of the City, ed. Robin
Middleton, (London: The Architectural Association, 1996) pp. 108-121