Heaven and Earth
Festschrift to Honor Karsten Harries

Vol. 12, No. 1
August 2007


___Dalibor Vesely
  From Typology to Hermeneutics in Architectural Design



It is not a long time ago that typology was seen as a most promising new approach to design.

The interest in typology as a new design strategy was probably one of the most influential challenges in the post second world war development of architecture. In a situation dominated mostly by a narrow modernist agenda, based on structural and functional determinism, typology appeared as a healthy corrective to the deterministic vision of architectural order and even more to a growing relativism of design principles and values. However the new, more subtle and critical thinking, did not in the end change the naïve objectivism of most modern trends. What brought typology on the scene and to such a relative prominence?

We have to look for an answer to 18C, when the transformation and to a great extent suppression of traditional architectural thinking created a vacuum filled with new instrumental principles. Among the most influential were character and type. Character was known already to the Greeks particularly in its relation to ethos. It played an important role in Aristotle's Rhetoric and Poetics, was developed more explicitly in Theophrastus' Characters, and in that form had a great influence on the development of the rhetorics of Cicero and Quintillian and the poetics of Horace. Character became an important critical term again at the end of the seventeenth century. In 1688, Jean de la Bruyere published his Les Characteres de Theophraste, traduits de Grec, avec les Characteres ou les moeurs de ce siecle, followed by an important second edition of Le Brun, Conferences sur l'expression generale et particulier, published in 1698 (originally it was a lecture delivered in 1669). Architectural character as a critical term was derived mostly from the rhetorical tradition and from the treatises on painting (study of individual expressions and physiognomy).

Both terms, character and type, acquired new importance during the second half of the 18C. It was at that time that type emerged as a result of the historical and aesthetic transformation of an older term character.

The historical origins and nature of character

The deeper meaning of character was not entirely lost. Its presence and significance is still apparent, though sometimes only indirectly, even today, for instance in our concern for a proper relationship between the purpose of a building and its appearance, or in our care for the right choice of materials and structures in relation to the overall nature of a particular building or space. What the 'presence and significance' of character really means, is nevertheless very often obscured and partly lost in the introverted and highly personalised version of character accepted today. Nonetheless, we cannot ignore the fact that it is the prime, if not the only link still preserved with a more authentic tradition of representation. It is important to remember, that character is still closely linked with its earlier equivalents convenance and bienseance. Both terms are inherent to a tradition which originated in classical decorum and of which they are simply later equivalents. In one of his earlier texts, J.F. Blondel mentions this correspondence: 'convenance (suitability) ought to be regarded as the most essential aspect of building; by means of it the architect ensures the dignity and character of the edifice. What we mean here by convenance is called by Vitruvius bienseance (decor) '. In character we clearly see a tendency to move towards the surface of a building or its interior, towards the experience of appearances, while in convenance and bienseance there is a tendency to move into the depth of architectural reality, towards its order understood still in terms of ethos. It is interesting to recall that the Greek term for character is ethos. This points also to the Greek equivalent of décor (decorum, bienseance), in the term prepon – expressing what is proper. Only that which is good can be proper and, in that sense, 'the morally good is nothing else than a harmonious fulfillment of human nature, which becomes part of the beautiful, manifested in the particular as prepon' In its fully articulated sense, prepon (decorum) means a harmonious participation in the order of reality, and the outward expression of that order.

It is to that tradition, radically changing in the eighteenth century, when it became for the first time the dominating concept in architectural thinking, that character explicitly belongs.

The dominating role of character was categorically emphasized, among others, by Germain Boffrand when he wrote 'a man who does not know the different characters, and who is unable to sense their presence in his buildings, is not an architect'. The eighteenth century notion of character was derived in the first stage largely from contemporary rhetoric and from the treatises on painting. The renewed interest in individual expression and physiognomy, treated in the earlier tradition as secondary issues, was probably one of the main motives behind the modern study of character. The introduction of character into architectural thinking was not without difficulty.

It was a notion which has emerged from a vast cultural field encompassing not only architecture and painting, but also rhetoric, poetry and philosophy was loaded with a range of meanings which architecture on its own could not readily absorb ( remember the loss of the traditional close relation and cooperation between architecture and other arts). The simplification of the earlier modes of representation was a first consequence. The aestheticization of character was a second. This is clear in Boffrand's statement, which may even be taken for a definition of character:


Architecture, although its object seems only to be the use of that which is material, is capable of different genres (characters or types?), which serve to animate its basic solutions by means of the different characters that it can express. A building expresses through its composition, as if on a stage, whether the scene is pastoral or comic, whether it is a temple or palace… It is the same in poetry: here also are different genres, and the style of one does not contradict the style of the other. Horace gave us excellent principles for this in his Art of Poetry.

The ambition to subsume the traditional nature of architecture into the aesthetics of character created an illusion of order, but in the long run proved to be the basis for relativism, arbitrariness and confusion. The general aesthetisation of character made it vulnerable to the operations of taxonomy in which it became possible to isolate individual manifestations of character from the context of tradition and from the culturally established norms. This was already evident to J.F. Blondel, who wrote 'after all it matters little whether our monuments resemble former architecture, ancient, gothic, or modern, provided that they have a satisfactory effect and a character suited to each genre of edifice.' (The critical turning point in the development of modern art was the transformation of traditional poetics into aesthetics.)

The nature of the transformation was most clearly summarised by Hans Georg Gadamer: 'for now art’, he writes, ‘as the art of beautiful appearance, was contrasted with practical reality and understood in terms of this contrast. Instead of art and nature complementing each other, as had always seemed to be the case, they were contrasted as appearance and reality'. In aesthetic experience the work of art loses its place in the world to which it belongs in so far as it belongs to aesthetic consciousness. On the other hand, this is paralleled by the artist also losing his place in the world'. In aesthetic experience nothing is known about the objects which are judged as beautiful. The nature and meaning of the object does not affect the essence of aesthetic judgement. As a consequence the work of art has nothing to do anymore with truth, it is only a beautiful form, a "mere nodal point" in the possible variety of aesthetic experiences'.

The deeper relation of character and the inherited culture was eventually replaced by a detached image (type) which could be manipulated with a much greater degree of freedom and persuasive power. As Blondel admits, 'a building can by its appearance (aspect) take away, move and so to speak raise the soul of the spectator, carrying it to a contemplative admiration which he himself would not be able to explain at first sight (coup d'oeil) even though he were sufficiently instructed in a profound knowledge of art. The emancipation and formalization of character requires a more focused and precise definition of appearances, a demand fulfilled by the notion of type in its relation to the modern notion of style. J.F. Blondel was one of the first to use this term in its modern sense.  In his understanding style can be seen as a culmination of the history of character.  'We have tried', J.F.Blondel writes, 'to present a precise idea of what is to be understood by an architecture whose ordered arrangement (ordonnance) distinctly presents a style, an expression, a particular character (i.e. type).

It is clear that in this context type is only a partial representation of the deeper structure and content of architecture. In contrast with the depth and richness of the situational nature of architecture, type, seen as a self-sufficient notion, may be instrumentally useful but remains culturally problematic. How problematic the instrumental notion of type, particularly in its relation to style became, is particularly clear in the period of historicism, anticipated by J.F. Blondel, who writes: 'There is no doubt that one can arrive, aided by rules, by reason and by the taste for the art at the true style, that assigns to each building the character (type) that is proper for it and it is by that alone that one can sense masterpieces.' The history of the nineteenth century shows what the expected masterpieces were like. The emancipated nature of type as a condition for its possible manipulation was expressed very clearly by Ribard de Chamoust (1783) in his treatise on the foundation of the new French order: ”I mean by this word type the first attempts of man to master nature, render it propitious to his needs, suitable to his uses, and favourable to his pleasures. The perceptible objects that the artist chooses with justness and reasoning from nature in order to light and fix at the same time the fires of his imagination I call archetypes.”

The transformation of character into a type via typicality of character can be seen in the so called ‘l’architecture parlante’  for instance in the works of Boullee. Court de Gebelin speaks about the image of physical objects that “speak to the eyes”.

The dream of enlightment to construct artificially a new perceptual and intelligible world of typical forms – typology, determined in different ways and very often under a different name the development of architecture in the last two hundred years (see historical revivals, modern elementarism, industrial object typique, neue sachlichkeit, modern design methodologies and morphologies etc.). The most problematic assumption behind all typologies is the belief that explicit knowledge embodied in the fixed a priori image can substitute historical tradition, and that this tradition can be replaced by a direct imitation of types, which represent only idealised essences of historical experience in itys density. Once the type has been isolated from this density it becomes a derivative representation – a mere illusion of reality.

Type may appear at the end of the creative process but not at the beginning.

The typololgy of Aldo Rossi

One of the best illustrations of the true nature of type and typology, is the work of Aldo Rossi. What is most clearly illustrated in his work is the ambiguity of type, its oscillation between its origins in the culturally situated character and object-like reality which can be defined and classified. This oscillation is clearly apparent in the contrast between his drawings and executed buildings and even more in the contrast between the final version of his projects and the richness of their background which consists of sketches, collection of curiosa and surreal setting of the personal space of his flat and studio. The oscillation, mapping the ambiguity of the type and typology, can be seen as a result of the modern crisis of an object of Breton and de Chirico.

It is rather characteristic, that in the works of Rossi the individual design steps end up almost without exception in the domain of typology and type.

In his autobiography Rossi recollects his early intentions and emerging philosophy of design, he writes: ”I searched for the fixed laws of a timeless typology. I saw courts and galleries, the elements of urban morphology, distributed in the city with the purity of mineralogy. I read books on urban geography, topography and history, like a general who wishes to know every possible battlefield – the high grounds, the passages, the woods. I walked the cities of Europe to understand their plans and classify them according to types.

In his Architecture of the City he writes: “We must begin with a question that opens the way to the problem of classification – that of the typology of buildings and their relationship to the city. This relationship constitutes a basic hypothesis of my work and one that I analyse from various viewpoints always considering buildings as moments and parts of the whole that is the city. This position was clear to the theorists of the Enlightenment.“

Type is thus a ‘constant and manifests itself with a character of necessity; but even though it is predetermined it reacts dialectically with technique, function and style as well as with both the collective character and the individual moment of the architectural artefact. …Typology is an element that plays its own role in constituting form; it is a constant’.

Though Rossi does not explicitely acknowledged the sources of inspiration of his own position, it is clear that the architectural discussions in his time and the influence of some older contemporaries such as Muratori for instance was decisive.

Foundations of typology in the work of Savero Muratori

Muratori Saverio (1910-1973) was one of the first to formulate the typological interpretation of cities and is considered to be also one of the fathers of the international studies in urban morphology. Muratori responds to the impoverishment of the discipline, of technical planning in contrast to the richness of historical foundations. His background sources and inspirations was the generation of Gustavo Giovannoni, Calandra, Fasolo, Piacentini. The main idea of his approach was ‘Operative history’ (operante storia)used first consistently in the study of Venice published as Studi per una operante storia urbana di Venezia (1959). The controversial nature of his approach was apparent already in 1954 during his first teaching appointment in Rome where he became professor of architectural composition, followed soon by student revolt and boycott. His closest disciples were Caniggia and Maffei who published his writings under the title Ragionamenti di Tipologia.

Muratori studied what he presumed to be a cohesion between the form of a site, the houses and the quarter in a given part of the city. This, according to Muratori, was an important key in revealing the ideal structure of the city in question. Muratori spoke of ‘Il valore fondativo dell’architettura come proiezione concreta ed organica del mondo spirituale dell’uomo’.

In his morphological analysis, Muratori used two instruments. Firstly, for a precise
historical reconstruction of the houses in a given quarter of the city, historical maps were of great importance to him. For Muratori, these maps not only contained geographical or historical information, but in an almost mystical way, the maps also enabled an intuitive perception of the cultural individuality of a city. For example, in Venice he reconstructed the form and structure of its quartieri and sestieri during the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque period: the decisive moments in the history of the city, Muratori argued, that each period contributed to the ideal form enclosed in the buildings of the city. Secondly, with his theory, Muratori took a stand against the fragmentation and the loss of unity of modern times. It is also from this perspective that the study of cities was so important for him. The historical city was the summa of unity, a spiritual unity, or an expression of a collective consciousness, which became manifest at the level of material reality. The challenge of modernity was important to regain the ability to perceive this essence, according to Muratori. It was all a matter of ‘la lettura del reale’ – a correct reading of reality – leading the architect to recognize the ‘truth’ hidden in the urban texture.

The idealist and systematic nature of Muratori’s thinking had led him to transform a positivist concept into an a priori notion. Due to a longing for synthesis and wholeness, Muratori was found to have turned the notion of the organism into a meta-historical, absolute form. For Muratori the organic form of a chapel, for example, was the reflection of a meta-historical archetype – and these archetypes should dictate each concrete architectural form in the present. Thereby the positivist notion of organic form, which by its very nature is immanent, is falsely given a transcendent interpretation.

The relation of typology and form

Form is a very elusive term. On the one hand, it belongs to sensible reality and may appear as its very essence, but it is also an invisible concept. The oscillation between the visible and invisible, real and the possible, the imaginative and the imaginary, the concrete and the abstract is what makes form such a powerful and at the same time elusive and difficult concept.

As a concept, form has its origin in the Aristotelian understanding of creativity (poiesis) in terms of matter and form. Matter (hyle) is everything that can be formed, while form was originally seen as idea (eidos), which in the sphere of visual reality appears as icon (eikon).  In the process of creation or making the forming power of idea was known as morphe hence morphology and the process itself as hylemorphism. Morphe is a change – a process of coming into appearance. Throughout most of the history of the visual arts, form, (Latin translation of morphe) as a critical notion, was hardly used. The attempt to reduce the diversity and richness of the visual world to 'visual form' took place only in the late eighteenth century. Until then a whole spectrum of terms such as paradigm, typos, schema, symbolic imagel, allegory, emblem, impresa, figura, were used to grasp the meaning that was later given to the simple notion 'form'. All these terms should be seen as particular revelations of a primary (transcendental) reality (divine order, the world of ideas, etc.), and only in that sense were they also revelations of the invisible forms (ideas) and their particular visible manifestations and embodiments. These need not be discussed in detail. Suffice it to understand that all these terms participate – in one way or another – in the formative power of invisible forms (ideas). This property we may describe as their structural (or morphological) aspect, which becomes visible as a recognisable and meaningful representation. This in turn may be described as their physiognomic or iconic aspect.

The critical and rather problematic tendency in the development of the physiognomy of representation, particularly in architecture, is a tendency toward idealisation. i. e. formalisation Through idealisation (formalisation) visible representation moves closer to ideal forms which thereby acquire a status of appearance rather then substance of reality.

Urban morphology

Muratori and Conzen were the founders and fathers of urban morphological studies, that became already in their lifetime an influential international movement, International seminar of urban form (ISUF) or, Seminaire internationale des forme urbaine(SIFU).

New centres soon emerged in Genoa, Florence, Venice and in US at Berkeley, Penn State, in France it was mainly the Versailles school, (Panerai, Castex and also Lefevbre, Chastel, Boudon).

There is a common assumption, that city or town can be “read and analysed” via the medium of its physical form. Morphological analysis is based on the following principles:

  1. Urban form is defined by three fundamental physical elements: buildings and their related open spaces, plots or lots, and streets.
  2. Urban form can only be understood historically since the elements of which it is comprised undergo continuous transformation and replacement.
Thus form, resolution and time constitute the three fundamental components of urban morphological research.

From typology to hermeneutics

Even the most recent “reformed” typologies and morphological studies do not offer more then encyclopedias of forms and formal configurations devoid of true historical context and understanding. Typology relates to a historically evolved architectural order and physiognomy in the same way as historicism does to tradition. In both cases the primary reality of meaning is exchanged for a secondary reality of problematic and very often meaningless certainties. The restoration of tradition from the domination of historicism must be therefore completed by the restoration of historical reality of experience and its typicality from typologies.

The typicality of experience in contrast to a type is a historically evolved phenomenon which cannot be understood by reference to form only. It is a sedimented and embodied meaning which always precedes a particular form. Reading, for instance, is essential to the vision of a library, but always transcends it, it can take place elsewhere or even without it. On the other hand the concept of a library without a vision and understanding of the conditions of reading, borrowing of books and the inner life of the library is empty. Library seen as a type is not an original reference, it is always preceded by the typicality of particular experience of using the library.

The typicality of experience has its origins in a situation which is also the source of its stability and meaning. In a situation people are not only doing or experience something, but it also includes things that contribute to the fulfilment of human life. Situations represent the most complete way of understanding the condition of our experience of the surrounding world and the human qualities of the world. They also endow experience with durability in relation to which other experiences can acquire meaning and can form a memory and history. The temporal dimension makes the process of differentiation and stabilisation of situations more comprehensible. The deeper we move into history, the more situations share their common precedents until we reach the level of myth, which is their ultimate comprehensible foundation. Myth is the dimension of culture which opens the way to a unity of our experience and to the unity of our world. In its essence, myth is an interpretation of primary symbols which are spontaneously formed and which preserve the memory of our first encounters with the cosmic condition of our existence. The mediated persistence of primary symbols, particularly in the field of architecture, contributes decisively to the formation of secondary symbols and finally to the formation of paradigmatic situations. The nature of paradigmatic situations is similar to the nature of institutions, deep structures or archetypes. Paradigmatic situations have their ultimate source in the praxis of everyday life and in the tradition of common sense.

The role of common sense

Situations are dependent and closely related to habits, tradition and customs.

Gadamer sees the primary role of humanist tradition in bildung, common sense, taste, and judgment. Common sense links the modern hermeneutics with the work of Giambatista Vico. Gadamer “I have rightfully claimed for my own work the testimony of Vico”.

And further in Truth and Method: “There is something immediately evident about grounding philosophical and historical studies and the ways the human sciences work on the concept of the sensus communis. For their object, the moral and historical existence of humanity, as it takes shape in our words and deeds, is itself decisively determined by the sensus communis.”

Common sense is a knowledge of the concrete and it is concrete knowledge because it is a sense acquired by living in a concrete community and determined by upholding the value of communal traditions. Common sense is historical in that it preserves tradition and not just as a datum of knowledge but as a principle of action.

Common sense is related to the meaning of common place and thus to the topology of being.

Vico writes: ”Human choice, by its nature most uncertain, is made certain and determined by the common sense of men with respect to human needs or utilities, which are the two sources of the natural law of the gentiles.” (NS 141)

“Common sense is judgment without reflection, shared by an entire class, an entire people, an entire nation, or the entire human race.” (NS 142)

(Vico common sense and Heidegger pre-understanding, the structure of the latent world).

The example of typical situation

If we look closely at a concrete example – a French café for instance – it is obvious that its essential nature is only partly revealed in its visible appearance; for the most part it is hidden in the field of references to the social and cultural life related to the place. Any attempt to understand the character, identity or meaning of the situation, and its spatial setting, using conventional typologies is futile. The essential reality of the situation is not entirely revealed in its visible appearance, it cannot be observed or studied just on that level.

Its representational, ontological structure can be grasped through a pre-understanding based on our familiarity with the situation and with the segment of world to which it belongs. Pre-understanding in this case is a sedimented experience of the world acquired through our involvement in the events of the everyday life. The identity of the French café is to a great extent defined by its institutional nature, rooted in the habits, customs and ritual aspects of French life. The formation of identity is a result of a long process in which the invisible aspects of culture and the way of life are embodied in the visible fabric of the café in a similar way as is language in the written text. The visible ‘text’ of the café reveals certain common, deep characteristics, such as its location, relation to the life of the street, transparency of enclosure, certain degree of theatricality expressed in the need to see the life of the outside world, but also a need to be seen in it like an actor, the ambiguity of inside and outside expressed not only in the transparency of enclosure, but also in the choice of furniture etc. These are only some of the characteristics which contribute to the identity and meaning of the French café as a culturally distinct typical situation. In hermeneutical understanding of design the typicality of primary human situations are not only a point of departure but a constant measure of the success or failure of the results.



Vol. 12, No. 1
August 2007