Colin Rowe applies the conception of Mannerism to the architecture of the Modern Movement
Originally published in AR May 1950, this piece was republished online in March 2011
The term Mannerism cannot yet be said to have become a necessary part of the vocabulary of every educated man or woman, but it should not be assumed that its uses are limited to those of a plaything for art historians. As Nikolaus Pevsner showed in his article on Wollaton Hall (March, 1950), it may be used to throw light on the fascinating enigma of the Elizabethan style in architecture; it is Colin Rowe’s contention, in the following article, that it provides the key to a fuller understanding of the architecture of the Modern Movement.
But how precisely did the term arise, and what does it mean? To answer this question it is necessary to glance back to the 1880’s, when the term Baroque came into being to make it possible to distinguish between styles represented by Raphael and Bramante, say, on the one hand and Rembrandt and Vanbrugh, say, on the other-styles which had hitherto been lumped together indiscriminately as Renaissance.
This distinction between Renaissance and Baroque received its final form in the writings of Wolfflin and Sehmarsow in the ‘90’s and after, but it very soon became clear that a simple dichotomy was not enough to meet the case; for there still existed an art which was emphatically not Renaissance, but: equally emphatically not Baroque either - the art of such painters of the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries as Bronzino, Pontormo, Tintoretto and Greco. Basically this art was cold, perverse, intricate and intellectualized; more superficially it was consciously imitative of the manner of Michelangelo - and hence the term Mannerism.
The isolation, so to speak, of Mannerism in painting was achieved in the early 1920’s by Dvorak, Pinder, Pevsner and some others; the fact that this should have happened in the age of Picasso, Chirico, Mondrian, etc., has a significance which will be appreciated when it is remembered that the first awareness of the Baroque as a distinct style had coincided with Impressionism’s re-discovery of Dutch and Spanish seventeenth century painting and with the most baroque phase of nineteenth century architecture. Attempts to apply the term Mannerism to architecture have been more recent; in fact the only general attempts in English have been Nikolaus Pevsner’s article in The Mint for 1946 and Anthony Blunt’s lecture at the RIBA in 1949. In applying it to the architecture of the Modern Movement Colin Rowe breaks completely new ground - and turns a number of stones which have been hiding other things than some people thought.
The villa built by Le Corbusier at La Chaux-de-Fonds, his first considerable work to be realized, in spite of its great merits and obvious historical importance, finds no place in the collection of the Oeuvre Complete. This building, in a sense, is out of key with his later works, and by its inclusion, the didactic emphasis of the collection might have been impaired; but the omission is all the more unfortunate, in that six years later, the design was still found sufficiently serious to be published as an exemplar of proportion and monumentality.
The house is of nearly symmetrical form, and in spite of a general lightness deriving from its concrete frame, its conventional character is fairly emphatic. The principal block is supported by flanking wings; and a central hall, rising through two storeys and crossed by a subsidiary axis, establishes for the plan a simple, balanced, and basically cruciform scheme. Externally the appearance of these same characteristics of restrained movement and rational elegance seems to invite appreciation in Neo-Classical terms.
Thus the elliptical windows are part of the stock furniture of French academic architecture; and while the lack of ornament with the simplified cornices suggests the influence of Garnier, and the expression of the concrete frame in the flanking walls indicates an obvious debt to Auguste Perret, the building as a whole, compact, coherent and precise, is an organization which the late eighteenth century could have relished, and a work towards which a Ledoux, if not a Gabriel, might have found himself sympathetic.
One may, it is true, admit innovation in the simplification of elements, although adequate Austrian and German prototypes could be suggested: one might also perceive in the two bedroom suites of the first floor a premonition of later spatial complexity; but having made these observations, in plan and in three façades at least, there is little to be found, which detracts from a conventional, conservative excellence. But the fourth and entrance elevation presents quite distinct problems of appreciation.
Behind its wall, the presence of a staircase continued to the second floor has led to an increase in height, which somewhat detaches this part of the building from the rest; and this elevation affects a severe and obvious distinction from the mass behind, with which on superficial examination it seems, indeed scarcely to be related. Its succinct, angular qualities are foreign to the curvilinear arrangements of the block, and its inclusive, rectilinear, self-sufficient form seems to deny the type of pyramidal composition, which reveals itself from the garden.
The flat vertical surface of the two upper floors is divided into three panels. The outer ones, narrow and vertical, are pierced by elliptical lunettes, while the central one, elaborately framed, comprises an unrelieved blank, white surface. It is towards this surface, accentuated by all the means within the architect’s control, that the eye is immediately led. The low walls, screening service rooms and terrace, are curved inwards rising towards it; two entrance doors prepare the duality to be resolved; the projecting marquise with its supporting columns completes the isolation of the upper wall, where the composition is to be focused; the emphatic elliptical windows in the outer panels increase the demand for a dominant; and with the mind baffled by so elaborately conceived an ambiguity, the eye comes to rest on the immaculate rectangle and incisive detail of its brick frame.
Contemplating this façade for any length of time, one is both ravished and immensely irritated. Its mouldings are of extreme finesse, lucid and complex; the slightly curved window reveals are of considerable suavity: the contrast of wall above and below the canopy is permanently exciting; the sharp and dogmatic change of texture refreshes and soothes; but the blank surface is both a disturbance and a delight. The masses and the modelling impel the eye towards it, but it is the activity of emptiness, which the intellect is called upon to enjoy.
Since this motif was presumably intended to shock, its success is complete, for it imbues the façade with all the qualities of a manifesto. In this abrupt composition, if nowhere else in this villa, there appears a tension which seems to foreshadow the later development; and it is the panel with its intensifying frame which establish for other elements of the façade columns and canopy - their apparent precocity. Distinct and deliberate, drawing attention to itself, and yet without apparent content, at once distributing attention over the rest of the house; by its conclusiveness the whole building gains significance; but by its emptiness it is, at the same time, the problem in terms of which the whole building is stated. Thus, as an apparent outcome of its systematically opposite values, there issue a whole series of disturbances, of which it is both centre and periphery.
Behind the panel lies the staircase, the lighting o f which can only be impaired, and one must assume that an architect as apt as Le Corbusier, could, had he wished, have chosen some alternative and functionally more satisfactory organization; while even if it were to be supposed (improbable as it appears) that the frame was intended, to receive some fresco or inscription it is still a motif sufficiently abnormal and recondite to stimulate curiosity and encourage a hunt for possible parallels. The most probable and certainly the most rewarding field of investigation seems to be Italian; not that with Le Corbusier any direct allusion could be expected, but that in general terms he so frequently appears to be descended from the architectural traditions of Renaissance humanism.
In early Renaissance loggia and palace façades, sequences of alternating windows and panels do not appear to be uncommon. In such more frequent sequences from the sixteenth century, panels and windows acquire almost equal significance. Panels may be expressed as blank surfaces, or become a range of inscribed tablets, or again they may form the frames for painting; but whatever their particular employment may be, the alternation of a developed system of panelling, with an equally developed system of fenestration, seems always to produce complexity and duality of emphasis in a façade.
This quality must have given considerable pleasure to the generation of architects subsequent to Bramante; and in the pages of Serlio, for instance, panels occur in an almost embarrassing profusion. Sometimes they are to be found in the typical alternation, or on other occasions absorbing entire wall surfaces; in elongated form they are used to intersect two whole ranges of windows, or they may appear as the crowning motif of a triumphal arch or Venetian palace. It was probably Serlio who first employed the panel as the focus of a façade. In some cases he has groups of windows arranged on either side of this reduced but evocative form of central emphasis; but it also seems likely that in only two instances does the panel make a central appearance within an elevation so restricted as that at La Chaux-de-Fonds.
Although comparisons of this sort are frequently tendentious and overdrawn, the so-called Casa di Palladio at Vicenza and Federico Zuccheri’s casino in Florence do show a quality sufficiently remarkable to permit their interpretation as sixteenth century commentaries upon the same theme. Dating from 1572 and 1578 respectively, small houses of a personal and distinctly precious quality, it would be pleasant to assume that they represented a type, a formula for the later sixteenth century artist’s house.
Palladio’s building is apparently generated by the combination of a domestic façade and an arcaded loggia, which in its ornaments assumes the role of a triumphal arch. Unlike the conventional triumphal arches of antiquity, in this instance a developed Corinthian superstructure is included; and although on the ground floor the two functions of the loggia as part of a house and as part of a triumphal arch are closely integrated, in itself the arch is even more intimately related to the panel formed by the Corinthian pilasters above.
The breaking forward of the Ionic entablature about the arch provides a direct vertical movement through the two orders, emphasizing their interdependence, so that the panel retains the focus developed by the arch below, but seems otherwise to read as an intrusion projected upwards into the piano nobile. Its anomalous character is further increased by details which suggest a respect for the functions of the domestic façade; and thus such a feature as the balcony rail of the windows, which emerges from behind the pilasters’ to appear in the panel as a continuous string course, only serves to exaggerate, as it was presumably intended it should, an already inherent duality.
It need scarcely be pointed out that we are here in the presence of a formal ambiguity of the same order as that which Le Corbusier was to provide in 1916; although in lucid, academic dress, the disturbance is less perceptible and perhaps more complete. Palladio’s inversion of the normal is effected within the framework of the classical system, whose externals it appears to respect; but in order to modify the shock to the eyes, Le Corbusier’s building can draw on no such conventional reference. Both state the problem of their complex duality with an extreme directness and economy of means, which by comparison, causes Federico Zuccheri’s essay in the same composition to appear at once redundant and bizarre.
His approach is altogether more violent, his building a jeu d’esprit conceived as part of a programme of personal advertisement, and illustrating his triple profession as painter, sculptor, and architect. Unlike Palladio, his two elements of focus, the void of the entrance below, and the solid of the panel above, are not placed in direct relationship; but each, as the dominant interest in strongly contrasted stone and brick surfaces, appears set within an arrangement of incident, which, both diminishes and accentuates its importance. Two triangles of interest are established.
That below is formed by the three tablets with their reliefs of mathematical instruments, and has as its apex an heraldic cartouche. That above is organized by windows and niches about the central panel, in this case, as in the Palladio house, intended to receive a painting. This diffused incident, which is still concentrated within the strictly triangular schemes, establishes a form of composition different from Palladio’s, so that with Zuccheri, the particular ambiguity of the panel is of less importance, when compared with that of the entire façade.
The composition of the lower wall is framed by rusticated pilasters, which seem to restrict its detail between quite rigid boundaries; but these pilasters receive no downward transmission of weight. Two advanced surfaces in the upper storey carry a form of triglyph or bracket, which seems to suggest for them a function of support; but they are displaced by niches from the position above the pilasters, which reasonably they might be expected to occupy; while the insertion within them of elaborately framed windows invalidates still further their apparent function.
The niches in themselves, on first examination, seem to expand the interest of the upper wall and create there the appearance of an organization as open, as that of the wall below is compressed; but, within this organization, it becomes clear that the different elements-niches, windows and panel-are crushed in the harshest juxtaposition, so that on second analysis, the contrast compels one to attribute to the supposedly compressed basement an almost classical directness and ease.
The complexities and repercussions which such schemes provoke are endless and almost indefinable, but patience perhaps exhausts itself in the explanation. It would seem to be abundantly clear that it is a dilemma of dual significance, a distinction between the thing as it is and as it appears, which seems to haunt all these three façades; and if Zuccheri’s building by comparison with the more lucid expositions seems to be something of an exercise in genre, its second-hand qualities perhaps enhance its value as a document, almost as a text-book illustration of deliberate architectural derangement.
The two examples from the sixteenth century are characteristic late Mannerist schemes, the most apt registers of that universal malaise, which in the arts, while retaining the externals of classical correctness, was obliged at the same time to disrupt the inner core of classical coherence.
In so-called academic, or frankly derivative architecture, the recurrence in 1916 of a form of composition, which at first glance appears intrinsically Mannerist, need perhaps cause no undue surprise; but, occurring as it does, in the main stream of the modern movement, it is remarkable that this motif at La Chaux-de-Fonds should not have aroused more curiosity. It is not in any way suggested that Le Corbusier’s use of the blank panel is dependent on the previous instances, and it is not imagined that a mere correspondence of forms necessitates an analogous content. Such a correspondence may be purely fortuitous or it may be of some deeper significance.
Apart from Nikolaus Pevsner’s article ‘The Architecture of Mannerism’ and Professor Blunt’s recent lecture at the RIBA, in its accepted sense as a style Mannerism has been the subject of no popular discussion. Such discussion must obviously lie beyond the scope of this present essay, which for a frame of reference relies to a great extent on the article and lecture already cited. In the most general terms, works produced between the years 1520 and 1600 are to be considered Mannerist, and it is hoped that the particular analysis of two sixteenth century schemes has provided some illustration of types of ambiguity that are characteristic.
An unavoidable state of mind, and not a mere desire to break rules, sixteenth century Mannerism appears to consist in the deliberate inversion of the classical High Renaissance norm as established by Bramante, to include the very human desire to impair perfection when once it has been achieved; and to represent, too, a collapse of confidence in the theoretical programmes of the earlier Renaissance, which it is able neither to abandon nor to affirm.
As a state of inhibition, it is essentially dependent on the awareness of a preexisting order: as an attitude of dissent, it demands an orthodoxy within whose framework it might be heretical. Clearly, if as the analysis of the villa at La Chaux-de-Fonds suggests, modern architecture may contain elements analogous to Mannerism, it becomes essential to find for it some corresponding frame of reference, some pedigree, within which it might occupy an analogous position.
Among sources for the modern movement, the characteristic nineteenth century demand for structural integrity has rightly received greatest emphasis. Dependent to some extent on the technical innovations of industrialism, this demand was unexpectedly reinforced by the Revivalists, both Gothic and Greek; and it was they who transformed its original rational basis and imbued this structural impulse with a dynamic emotional and moral content. In this possibly fallacious form, the structural tradition has remained one of the most crude, indiscriminate, and magnificently effective forces which we have inherited from the nineteenth century.
But it remains apparent that a system of architecture cannot enjoy a purely material basis, and that some conception of form must play an equal and opposite role. Although formal derivations for the modern movement often seem to impose too great a strain on the imagination, at a time no more remote than the later nineteenth century, it is noticeable that advanced architecture from the seventies onwards belongs to one of two discernible patterns.
The programme of the first is certainly closest to our sympathy, and its outlines clearest in our minds. It was the heroic process of simplification, representing an intense and consistent aesthetic effort, the direct assault upon nineteenth century pastiche of a Philip Webb, a Richardson or a Berlage, and it would seem that the central tradition of modern architecture does proceed from the personal conflict, which such individuals experienced between the authorities of training and reason.
Obedience to the nature of materials, to the laws of structure, consecrated by the theorists of the Gothic Revival and everywhere recognizable in the products of contemporary engineering, seemed to offer an alternative to purely casual picturesque effects; and from within such a framework, it was felt that an architecture of objective significance might be generated. For architects of this school an inevitable tension is clearly experienced between a pictorial education and the more purely intellectual demands which a structural idealism imposes. Trained in pictorial method, but insisting on an architecture regulated by other than visual laws, their forms frequently bear all the marks of the battleground from which they had emerged.
The alternative tendency apparently owes nothing to this dialectic; but equally concerned with the rational solution of the mid-nineteenth century impasse, it found in physical attractiveness its architectural ideal. Without either the former school’s consistent vigour or narrow prejudice, the architects of this second school look down the perspectives of history with a liberal eye and are anxious to coordinate its suggestions. From an analysis of function, there emerges a discipline of the plan; and from the impressions of a visual survey, that research into architectural composition which has engrossed so many subsequent theorists.
Adhering to no distinct formula of revival, there is willingness in this second school to combine motifs from several different styles, and in the resultant amalgam, they appear as ‘telling’ features in a composition, rather than for any further significance which they might possess. Thus we find Norman Shaw is able to support late Gothic effects of mass with detail from the school of Wren; and concerned chiefly with broad effects of movement, mass, silhouette and relationship, architecture is valued more completely as a source of visual stimuli.
Neither of these two schools can be considered as completely independent, nor as completely unaffected by, the other’s activities; but while for the one, an architecture objectively rooted in structure and craftsmanship is an emotional necessity, the other neither finds such objectivity possible, nor perhaps desirable. For the first school, architecture still possessed a certain moral quality, among its purposes was that of imparting a truth; for the second its significance was more exclusively aesthetic, its purpose was to convey a sensation. The architects of this second school saw the possibilities of a rational manner to lie in the expression of the sensuous content common to all phases of art, and in this emphasis they are perhaps more typical of the late nineteenth century.
The great distinction of this period, its insistence on purely physical and visual justification for form, appears to separate its artistic production from that of all previous epochs - from’ the Renaissance by its failure to represent public ideas, from the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century Romantic phase, by its elimination of private literary flavour. For although in intention the architecture of the early nineteenth century was romantic, pictorial and literary; in practice, particularly through its Neo-Classical exponents who have with justice been interpreted as the legatees of the Renaissance tradition, it inherited a good deal of earlier academic thought. For the later, nineteenth century, the Renaissance is no longer a positive’ force but an historical fact; and it is by the absence of the Renaissance theoretical tradition, with its emphasis upon other values than the purely visual, that particularly the academic productions of this time are most clearly distinguished.
Just as the Renaissance, in opposition to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, conceives Nature as the ideal form of any species, a mathematical and Platonic absolute, whose triumph over matter it is the purpose of art to assist; so in painting it seeks an infallibility of form. Scientific perspective reduces external reality to a mathematical order, and in so far as they can be brought into this scheme, the ‘accidental’ properties of the physical world acquire significance. The artistic process is not the impressionist record of the thing seen, but rather the informing of observation by a philosophical idea. In its architecture, imagination and the senses function within a corresponding scheme, proportion is the result of scientific deduction, and form by these means becoming a visual aspect of knowledge, typifies a moral state, acquiring the independent right to existence, apart from the sensuous pleasure which it might possibly convey.
It was not until the later eighteenth century that with Romanticism and the empirical philosophy of the Enlightenment, there emerged their corollary, the direct pictorial approach to architecture, and its evaluation according to impact on the eye. When Hume was able to declare that ‘all probable knowledge is nothing but a species of sensation,’ the possibilities of an intellectual order seem to have been demolished; and when he could add that ‘Beauty is no quality in the things themselves;’ but ‘exists merely in the mind which contemplates and each mind perceives a different beauty,’ rationalism, by emancipating the senses, appears to have provided the stimulus and apologetic of the great nineteenth century free for all.
Eclecticism and an individual sensibility emerged as necessary products; and personal liberty was as effectively proclaimed for the world of forms, as in 1789 it was asserted for the political sphere. But just as politically the ancien régime lingered on, so with earlier attitudes persisting, the Romantics saw indirectly according to the associational value of their forms- and it was not until the furore of the movement had spent itself, that late nineteenth century ‘realism’ regularized the situation.
After the mid-nineteenth century, with Liberalism and Romanticism no longer in active and revolutionary association, that moral zeal which had once infused their programme is less frequently found; and in all activities with a spirit of analytical detachment, the attempt now seems to have been made to systematize the Romantic experience, to extract ‘scientific’ formulae from Its subjective enthusiasms. Thus in architecture the Romantic forms and their sensational implications are codified. While the earlier phase had been sensible of literary and archeological overtones for the later these suggestions tend to be discounted. An eclectic research into elements and principles of architecture arises, which is distinguished from the analyses of the Renaissance theorists by its exclusively functional and visual frames of reference.
The development of the idea of architectural composition might be cited as typical of these generalizations. The conception of architectural composition was never during the Renaissance successfully isolated, and while Reynolds and Soane were alive to the scenic possibilities of architecture, architectural composition as such does not play a large part in their lectures. A developed literature upon the subject is of comparatively recent growth; and as representing the co-ordination of a subjective point of view; the idea seems to be characteristic of the later nineteenth century.
Apart from an expressed antagonism to the exponents of the late nineteenth century, modern architects have still not clarified their relationship to its ideas. Although these ideas now usually called academic have never been effectively replaced, modern architects generally have expressed a decisive but undefined hostility towards them. ‘Moi je dis oui, l’académie dit non,’ Le Corbusier inscribes a drawing; and in the same spirit functional, mechanical, mathematical, sociological arguments have all, as extra-visual architectural sanctions, been introduced to provide counter-irritants to the prevailing theory. But mere reaction from a system of ideas is scarcely sufficient to eradicate that system and it is more than probable that in the sense of providing a matrix, the attitudes of late nineteenth century analysts were historically effective in the evolution of the modern movement.
It is a defect of the pictorial approach, taking account chiefly of masses and relationships in their effect upon the eye, that frequently the object itself and its detail suffer a devaluation. Subjected exclusively to the laws of human sensation, it is seen in an impressionist manner, and its inner substance, whether material or formal, remains undeveloped. It is a defect of a universalized eclecticism that it must inevitably involve a failure to comprehend both historical and individual personality. Its theorists perceive a visual common denominator of form, but are unable to allow the non-visual distinctions of content; indisposed to permit the internal individuality of particular styles, but affirming the idea of stylistic reminiscence, the late nineteenth century academy destroys the logic of the historical process, while insisting on the value of historical precept.
By all-inclusive tolerance history is neutralized, and eclecticism, which as a principle demands a fundamental prejudice, is seriously weakened. The specialized eclecticism of the early Romantics no longer convinces, and the reduced effects of the eclectic method are rationalized in order to support a more abstract investigation of sensuous properties in mass and proportion. Thus almost by negative action a most powerful solvent of revivalism is provided; and in advanced circles, by the early twentieth century, with the identity of the past destroyed and revivalist motifs reduced to mere suggestion, there is in general circulation a developed and systematic theory of the effects of architecture upon the eye.
With this conception the Art Nouveau, the more expressionist schools of contemporary architecture, and the current of Neo-Georgian taste could certainly be associated, and in their direct sensory appeal, those Mendelsohn sketches representing film studios, sacred buildings, observatories and motor-car chassis factories, might be considered a logical conclusion of the idea of architecture as pictorial composition. Within the terms of this vision it seems probable that advanced architects of the structural tradition came to interpret the formal suggestions of ‘the styles,’ and in Mr. Philip Johnson’s recent monograph there has been demonstrated the partial dependence of Mies van der Rohe’s early designs on the works of Schinkel.
Schemes of Gropius have suggested a descent from the same sources; but it should be noticed that this early twentieth century admiration for. Neo-Classicism was not exclusive to the modern movement, for so many commercial palaces and domestic monuments betray the same affinity. In these buildings although attempts are made to enforce classical detail, the necessarily increased scale or elaborated function leads either to inflation or a too discreet suggestiveness; and it is in reproducing the blocking, the outline, the compositional elements that greatest success seems to have been experienced.
The Edwardian Baroque in fact offers admirable examples of the impressionist eye brought to bear upon the remnants of the classical tradition, and outside the strictly academic limits we find architects functioning within the structural tradition whose point of view remains decisively impressionist. With the early Gropius a compositional norm rather broadly derived from Neo-Classicism is actively balanced by the promptings of a mechanized structure.
As arising from such an antithesis between newly clarified conceptions of vision and structure, those early buildings which are rightly considered to belong to the modern movement can be understood, for by other means it seems difficult to account for the stylistic differences which separate the works of these years from those which appeared in the 1920’s. The buildings of Perret, Behrens, Adolf Loos, to name architects illustrated by Professor Pevsner in his Pioneers of Modern Design, are not naive, nor primitive; they are evidently precursors of the later development. But comparing for instance the Adolf Loos house of 1910 at Vienna with any typical production of the twenties, it becomes clear that there are differences of formal ideal, which neither nationality, nor the temperament of the architect, nor technical innovation, nor the maturing of an idea, can fully explain.
Loos, with his fanatical attacks on ornament, might possibly from one point of view be considered already as showing Mannerist tendencies; but allowing for an elimination of extraneous detail and a certain mechanical excellence, this house with its extreme severity and ‘its unmitigated contrast of receding centre and projecting wings, the unbroken line of the roofs, the small openings in the attic,’ even in the horizontal windows, is not entirely remote from the more naked types of Neo-Classical villa as projected by Ledoux. Without injustice it can be evaluated by the pictorial criteria which we have discussed; and although a late nineteenth century academician might not be overjoyed in the contemplation of this façade, there is nothing here to which he could raise theoretical objection.
Such is certainly not the case with the villa at La Chaux-de-Fonds.
A work of art lives according to the laws of the mind, and some form of abstraction must clearly form a basis for all artistic achievement; but it is apparent that over and above this minimum, a work may possess those specifically cerebral qualities to which the term ‘abstract’ is more conveniently applied, and it has in this sense been commonly employed in the definition of the Cubist and subsequent schools of painting. The Cubist experiment which can now be seen, not as an arbitrary break with tradition, but as the necessary development of an existing situation, is the single most striking artistic event of the early twentieth century.
Its influence and that of abstract painting in general upon the modern movement in architecture has been consistently emphasized, and its effects are obvious -simplification and intersection, plane as opposed to mass, the realization of prism-like geometrical forms, in fact the developed manner of the modern movement in the twenties. But it is clear too, that though working with a visual medium, the abstract art of today is working with a not wholly visual purpose, for abstraction presupposes a mental order of which it is the representative.
Here it is important to distinguish between its process in the Renaissance and at the present day. Abstraction occurring in Renaissance art makes reference to a world of ideal forms, asserts what the artist believes to be an objective truth, and typifies what he considers to be the scientific workings of the universe. Abstraction in contemporary art makes reference to a world of personal sensation, and typifies the private workings of the artist’s mind.
There is thus in both cases a reluctance merely to report the outward forms of the external world: but, in the one it is related to a world of public, in the other of private, symbolism. That private symbolism might form a basis for art is clearly a point of view inherited from the subjective attitudes of developed Romanticism; and thus, while on the one hand contemporary painting, in abandoning the impressionist programme, denies the value of sensational schemes which had developed since the eighteenth century; on the other it affirms an attitude derived from closely related sources.
This reaction to sensation, at the same time positive and negative, is as characteristic of the output of our own day as it is of certain works of the sixteenth century; and the analogy of the development in painting might conveniently be applied to architecture. Here one might notice how characteristic are Le Corbusier’s reactions towards the intellectual atmosphere of 1900. His ‘Oeuvre Complète’ is a production as developed and as theoretically informed as any of the great architectural treatises of the sixteenth century; and his published writings form perhaps the most fertile, suggestive and exact statement of a point of view which has emerged since that time. Contradictions in a work of this scale are inevitable, and they are public property. It is not these which require exposition, but rather those more specific contradictions, which emerge vis-a-vis the pictorial, rationalistic, universalized premises of the opening century.
In affirming, through the medium of abstraction, a mental order, Le Corbusier immediately dissents from the theory of rationalized sense-perception which was current in 1900; but disgusted by the inflated insipidity of Beaux Arts practice, he yet inherits its whole rationalized position in connection with the ‘styles’; and the notes of travel from his student’s sketch book represent an eclectic principle which that institution would have fully endorsed. There is here a fine lack of distinction which only the liberalism of the late nineteenth century could have permitted; and although each example is experienced with a passion of personal discovery, this is still the characteristic theoretical programme of the time.
The Venetian Piazzetta, Patte’s Monuments Eriges a la Gloire de Louis XV, the forum of Pompeii, and the temples of the Acropolis offer the material for a deduction of the bases of civic space; while impressions of Stamboul, Paris, Rome, Pisa, and the temples of Angkor Vat are jostled alongside notes from the plates of Androuet du Cerceau - apart from the late nineteenth century, no other phase in history could, with so magnificent a lack of discrimination, have comprised so wide a field.
If Towards a New Architecture is read from time to time, and the reader can avoid being absorbed by its legitimate excitement, a fundamental dilemma becomes evident as an incapacity to define an attitude to sensation. An absolute value is consistently imputed to mathematics, which are ‘sure and certain,’ and order is established as an intellectual concept affirmative of universal and comforting truths; but perhaps even with the word ‘comforting’ the senses are involved, and it becomes apparent that cubes, spheres, cylinders, cones and their products are demanded as objects governed by and intensifying sensuous appreciation.
At one moment, architecture is ‘the art above all others which achieves a state of Platonic grandeur’; at the next it becomes clear that this state, far from being changeless and external is an excitement subsidiary to the personal perception of ‘the masterly, correct, and magnificent play of masses brought together in light.’ The reader can never be clear to what conception of rightness the word ‘correct’ refers. Is it an intellectual idea, apart from, but infusing, the object (the theory of the Renaissance); or is it a visual attribute. If the object itself (the theory of 1900)? Its definition remains elusive to the end.
Mathematics and geometry are, of course, not the only standards which Le Corbusier erects against the theory of the Beaux Arts and 1900. Towards a New Architecture proposes programmes of social realism, within which architecture, generated by function, structure or technique, is to acquire objective significance as symbolizing the processes of society. But it becomes clear that for reasons of the same indecision the essential ‘realism’ of these programmes cannot be converted into a system of public symbolism. The attempt to assert an objective order appears fated to result in a kind of inversion of the aestheticism, which was in the first case so much deplored. The mathematical or mechanical symbols of an external reality are no sooner paraded than they are absorbed by the more developed sensuous reaction which they provoke; abstraction, far from making public, confirms the intensification of private significance.
This spectacle of self-division is not peculiar to Le Corbusier. In varying degrees it is a dilemma which the whole modern movement appears to share; and in it the mental climate of the sixteenth century receives its clearest parallel at the present day. Internal stylistic causes for sixteenth century. Mannerism seem chiefly to lie In the impossibility of maintaining the majestic balance between clarity and drama which had marked the mature style of Bramante; but external factors of schism are also represented, and Mannerism’s architectural process is to a great extent determined by those religious and political conflicts which devastated contemporary Europe.
The Reformation and Counter-Reformation emphasis of religious values opposed to those of the humanists; the threat to the Papacy, and the European schism, which the Reformation itself provoked; the resulting increase of Spanish influence in Italy; all both represent and contribute to the emotional and intellectual disturbance. If, in the sixteenth century, Mannerism is the visual index of an acute spiritual crisis, the recurrence of similar attitudes at the present day should not be unexpected, and corresponding conflicts should scarcely require indication.
In an architectural context, the theory of 1900 might be interpreted as a reflection of the tolerant liberalism of that period; and in our own inability to define our position towards it, we might observe our contempt for the nineteenth century liberal’s too facile simplifications. Eclecticism is essentially the liberal style, and it was eclecticism which created that characteristic product, the detached and sophisticated observer. He is a personality who seems to be in fairly constant demand by the modern movement-the Ville Radieuse exists for him to enjoy - but this town also embodies a society in which it seems likely that his detached observation could have no place.
It is by conflicts such as these that the drama of Le Corbusier’s architecture is promoted, and while the villa at La Chaux-de-Fonds might be presented as a first step in such a process of inversion, it would perhaps be more apt to return to the distinctions between the modern movement before 1914 and the modern movement in the 1920’s.
In his Space, Time and Architecture, Dr. Giedion makes a comparison between Gropius’s Bauhaus building of 1926 and a Cubist head, Picasso’s L’Arlesienne of 1911-12. From it he draws an inference of which the correctness cannot be denied. In the Bauhaus, ‘the extensive transparent areas, by dematerializing the corners, permit the hovering relations of planes and the kind of overlapping which appears in contemporary painting.’ But if, as has already been suggested, the programme of Cubism is not wholly a visual one, are we to assume that these works, apart from a similarity of form, are animated by a deeper similarity of content? If so we shall be obliged to admit that Gropius’s aims are partly independent of visual justification; and if not we shall be obliged to deduce that either the comparison is superficial, or that Gropius himself had not fully understood the significance of Cubism. Of these conclusions it is surely the first which demands our assent.
A professed lack of interest in formal experiment and the possibility of extracting an architectural lyricism from the application of rational techniques to the demands of society, appear to form the bases of Gropius’s system. Yet Dr. Giedion’s successful comparison between the Bauhaus and Picasso shows that in Gropius’s work of 1926 abstraction is not wholly denied, and it is this ‘abstract’ element which most clearly separates the Bauhaus from the productions previous to the 1914 war. Apart from Gropius’s Ahlfeld factory, the Fabrik for the Deutsche Werkbund Exhibition represents the most advanced attempt before 1914 to extract architectural feeling from a building’s structural skeleton.
Specific architectural effects of the past make the slightest contribution, and detail is reduced to the simplest geometrical form; but, although in this building, mass is contracted to an ultimate limit, there appears to be no decisive break ‘with the pictorial ideals of 1900. The motif of the famous staircases, a corner cylindrical element, which appears as wrapping round or bursting through flat façades, can be paralleled in academic architecture before this date; and although the transparent masses of this building represent the supreme affirmation of a mechanistic idealism, they contain in themselves no single element which appears to contradict the dominant academic theory. The famous element of space-time does not enter into this building, and unlike the Bauhaus its complex can be summed up from two single positions.
Even as late as 1923, the experimental Haus Am Horn at Weimar, a simple pyramidal composition of geometrical masses, can be interpreted in these terms, and a parallel with a Neo-Classical monument, Goethe’s garden house, could still be maintained. But in the previous year certain schemes suggest that approach, which has come to be considered as characteristic of modern architecture. We notice in these an abandoning of the idea of mass and masses, a substitution of plane, an emphasis upon the prismatic quality of the cube, and at the same time an attack on the cube, which by disrupting the coherence of its internal volume, intensifies our appreciation of both its planar and its geometrical qualities. These are projects which appear as complete illustrations of that Giedionesque concept of space-time for which the Bauhaus is so justly famous. They are compositions which ‘the eye cannot sum up … at one view;’ which ‘it is necessary to go around on all sides, to see … from above as well as from below.’
In itself the idea of physical movement in the observation of a building is not new. It formed in fact the Baroque’s typical mode of observing the rise and fall of masses, and is even more apparent in the irregular schemes of Romanticism. However, even they, let alone such symmetrical compositions as Blenheim, are usually provided with a single dominant element, and seen through the media of distance and atmosphere, the interrelationship of freely disposed masses is combined as a picturesque whole. It is clear that though intellectual limitations do not enter into the romantic megalomania of a Fonthill, the limitations of the eye, of human vision, are scrupulously observed.
At the Bauhaus one registers mental appreciation of both plan and structure, but the eye is faced with the disturbing problems of simultaneous impact from widely discrepant elements. A dominating central element is eliminated, subsidiary units are thus unable to play a supporting role; and in a state of visual autonomy they are disposed around the void of the central bridge, which neither provides visual explanation for them as a consistent scheme, nor allows them to assume independence as separate units. Clearly the activities of this bridge as the functional core of the conception, and as the negation of the visual function of a central element, are closely related to those of the blank panel at La Chaux-de-Fonds. In a similar way, it is both central and peripheral; and it is significant that only from a non-visual angle, the ‘abstract’ view from the air, can the Bauhaus composition become intelligible to the eye.
In this idea of disturbing rather than giving pleasure to the eye, the element of delight in modern architecture appears chiefly to lie. An Intense precision or an exaggerated rusticity of detail is presented within the bounds of an overall complex of planned obscurity; and an intellectual scheme- is offered, frustrating the eye by intensifying the visual pleasure of individual episodes, which in themselves can only become coherent as the result of a mental act.
Sixteenth century Mannerism is characterized by similar exaggerations - a deliberate and insoluble spatial complexity is, for instance, offered equally by Michelangelo’s Cappella Sforza, and a project of Mies van der Rohe’s, the brick country house of 1923. Michelangelo, working in the tradition of the centralized building, establishes an apparently centralized space, but within its limits every effort is made to destroy the idea of focus which such a space demands. It is invaded by columns set on the’ diagonal, supported by apses of a form both indefinite and tense; and, with the central space Cappella Sforza in actual competition with the plan space of the sanctuary, distraction rather than ideal harmony is the necessary and intended result.
Mies by comparison appears to invert the irregular and freely disposed space of the Romantic plan, but once more there is neither conclusion nor focus. The disintegration of a prototype is as complete as with Michelangelo, and here again form is both precise and undefined. Visual incoherence is apparently an ideal in both schemes, but, where Michelangelo in his use of the orders offers a statement of conventional intelligibility, the recognizable clarity of Mies seems to lie in the private abstraction of his plan.
Similar correspondences could be found between two such widely differing schemes as the Mies project of 1935 for the Hubbe House, and the Villa Giulia of Vignola and Ammanati. Both are developed within the bounds of a tightly defined courtyard scheme; and although in neither is there the exaggerated complexity of the last two examples, in both, elements are neither clearly separated, nor is an unimpeded flow of space permitted. The general layout of the Villa Giulia is axial, emphasizing the hemicycle of its corps-de-logis, but the unifying quality of the axis is not allowed to appear. As an agent of organization it is constantly interrupted by light screens and small changes of level, which are sufficient to create ambiguity, without making its sources in any way too obvious.
At the Hubbe House, Mies imposes a T-shaped building upon his courtyard, but like the axis at the Villa Giulia its role is passive. It is both subordinate and contradictory to the rigid organization of the bounding wall; and while the idea of the T-shape suggests a geometrical form, by an unaccountable advance and interception of planes, the purely logical consequences of the form are studiously avoided. Thus in both schemes, precise compositions of apparently undeniable Villa Giulia clarity offer an overall intellectual satisfaction, within which it seems neither to be desired nor expected that any single element should be visually complete.
It is particularly the space arrangements of the present day which will bear comparison with those of the sixteenth century; in the arrangement of façades Mannerist parallels must be both harder to find and less valuable to prove. The Mannerist architect, working within the classical system, inverts the natural logic of its implied structural function; modern architecture makes no overt reference to the classical system. In more general terms the Mannerist architect works towards the visual elimination of the idea of mass, the denial of the ideas of load, or apparent stability. He exploits contradictory elements in a façade, employs harshly rectilinear forms, and emphasizes a type of arrested movement. All these are characteristic occurrences in the vertical surfaces of contemporary architecture; but comparison here is perhaps of a superficial, a more general than clearly demonstrable order.
In the choice of texture, surface and detail, aims general to Mannerism can also be detected. The surface of the Mannerist wall is either primitive or over-refined, and a brutally direct rustication frequently occurs in combination with an excess of attenuated and rigid delicacy. In this context it would certainly be frivolous to compare the preciosity of Serlio’s restlessly modelled, quoined designs with our own random rubble; but the frigid architecture which appears as background to Bronzino’s portraits is balanced by the chill of many interiors of our own day, and the linear delicacy of much contemporary detail surely finds a sixteenth century correspondence.
A further Mannerist device, the discord between elements of different scale placed in immediate juxtaposition, offers a more valuable parallel. It is familiar as the overscaled entrance door; and it is employed alike by Michelangelo in the apses of St. Peter’s, and with different elements, by Le Corbusier in the Cite de Refuge. The apses of St. Peter’s alternate with large and small bays, extracting the utmost poignancy and elegance from the movement of mass and the dramatic definition of plane. They are of a perfection beyond the ordinary, and side by side with the gaping, overscaled voids of window and niche in the large bays, there appears the violent discord of the smaller and dissimilar niches, which seem to be crushed but not extinguished by the minor intercolumniations.
In comparing the apses of St. Peter’s with the building for the Salvation Army perhaps we really measure the production of our own day. In a composition of aggressive and profound sophistication, plastic elements of a major scale are foiled against the comparatively minor regulations of the glazed wall. Here again the complete identity of discordant objects is affirmed; and, as at St. Peter’s, in this intricate and monumental conceit, there is no release and no permanent satisfaction for the eye. Disturbance is complete, and although in this mechanized composition there is no element which replaces the purely human poetry of the sixteenth century organization, there is a savage delicacy which makes explicable Le Corbusier’s éloge upon Michelangelo and St. Peter’s, which ‘grouped together the square shapes, the drum, the dome,’ and. whose ‘mouldings are of an intensely passionate character, harsh and pathetic.’
The quality of this appreciation penetrates beyond the mere externals of appearance. Even in his choice of adjectives Le Corbusier involves the observer on a plane other than that of visual discrimination; and, although such discrimination may assist the appreciation of Mannerist and Modern architecture, through the standards of the eye neither can be fully understood. St. Peter’s as conceived by Michelangelo, Le Corbusier finds the embodiment of ‘a passion, an intelligence beyond normal, it was the everlasting Yea’; an eternal scheme, which is beyond the limitations of any time. But it is surely not accidental that it is the Mannerist excess and conflict of this building by which he is most deeply moved; nor presumably is it by accident that this capacity of a modern architect to perceive stridently incompatible details should so closely coincide with the beginning of their investigation by historians of art.
For Burckhardt in the nineteenth century, Michelangelo’s Laurenziana, embodying some of his earliest Mannerist experiments, was ‘evidently a joke of the great master.’ For a subsequent generation the joke became less clear, and although for a time it was only a proto-Baroque sixteenth century which was visible, for the nineteen-twenties an epoch curiously reproducing contemporary patterns of disturbance became apparent. At this time it is as though the eye received a decisive twist, by which, since it demanded visual ambiguity, it could produce it in contemporary works, and to discover it in a previous age, even in works of apparently unimpeachable correctness.
Thus, at one time the classicism of the whole Renaissance movement seemed completely clear; and at another the impressionist eye of the Edwardians was everywhere enabled to see the comforting qualities of their own baroque; so the present day seems to be particularly susceptible to the uneasy violence of Mannerism, which marks both its own productions and its historical admirations. It is perhaps inevitable that Mannerism should come to be isolated and defined by historians, during those same years of the nineteen-twenties, when modern architecture feels most strongly the demand for inverted spatial effects.