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Between the building and the street

Gottfried Semper was neglected by facade-averse Modernists, but he still has something to say about the face of architecture

It is almost certain that facades caused headaches for their designers long before the Renaissance, but the adoption of orthogonal drawings in that period paved the way for new levels of complexity to emerge. As the drawn elevation became the principal tool for designing facades, as well as for communicating how they would look to clients and how they should be made to artisans, it became conceptually possible to detach the facade from its associated forms in a way that Gothic masons would have found unthinkable. The rise of orthogonal drawings over the perspective confirmed this split.

Certainly, the Renaissance did have a whole panoply of theory about space and proportion that just about held the facade in its place for a century or two, so it took some time for the logic of the orthogonally drawn facade to acquire a life and set of conventions of its own. Though just as the 19th-century Beaux-Arts tradition was trying to yoke rigidly plan and elevation together in the face of unfamiliar challenges, such as supreme courts in colonial capitals and opera houses, new ideas, construction technologies and building types made this ambition increasingly untenable. 

Perhaps fed by the Beaux Arts privileging the plan as a device for developing architecture, which itself led by tortuous descent to Le Corbusier’s statement that ‘the plan is the generator’, Modernism found facades difficult. In between pretending that they did not exist or could only express the building’s function, there were many contortions. Post-modernism – think of the front of Venturi’s Mother’s House – raised a brief flicker of interest in facades; more recently architects with impeccable Modernist affiliations such as Herzog & de Meuron, Caruso St John, Farshid Moussavi, WOHA and Richard MacCormac have addressed the issue.

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Riba3488 61

Abbé Laugier’s primitive hut in Essai sur l’Architecture, frontispiece by Charles-Dominique-Joseph Eisen, 1753. Courtesy of RIBA Collections

As early as the mid-18th century, Neoclassical theorists had challenged the whole notion of the facade. The primitive hut proposed as the model for all architecture in Marc-Antoine Laugier’s influential Essai sur l’Architecture of 1753 has no facades at all, while George Dance had to pull out all the stops in his imagination to devise facades for his vast Newgate Prison. These go beyond any normal rules of proportion and convention of ornament in the design of its immense, forbidding walls. By the time new construction technologies such as iron frames, and building types such as railway stations with their need for permeability came along, the facade was set to enter new territory.

Here at deeply subliminal levels are three functions of the facade that exercise contemporary architecture. The first is its symbolic effect, often overlooked by Modernist architecture, but clearly demonstrated in Dance’s macabre, Piranesian effects, intended to deter wrongdoing. Dance also highlights another important role of the facade: security. Penetrating the facade can be easy or difficult, but should never happen without being marked in some way.

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Gate of Newgate Prison, taken from Walter Thornbury’s Old and New London, 1881. Courtesy of World History Archive / Alamy

By doing away with the facade entirely, Laugier clearly disregards this aspect of facadism. And this absence highlights in negative, as it were, the third important contemporary function of the facade: climate control. A great deal of the capacity for hunter-gathering, presumably the survival model for inhabitants of his primitive hut, would have gone on fuel to keep warm, rather than on food. 

How architecture evolved from these embryonic conditions to modernity followed various and sometimes contradictory paths. But they tend to coalesce around the nature of the facade itself as an architectural device. As the means of separation between inside and out, public and private, its tasks are both practical and functional, and representative in that they give the only impression that outsiders are allowed of what goes on inside. The facade is the crux of what makes architecture, so to speak, architecture, as opposed to other respectable ways of making buildings: it is the place where the functional and symbolic combine.

Traditional architectures had sophisticated ways of handling this duality. Most ancient Greeks had no access to the interior of their temples, but the decoration around the frieze left them in no doubt of the significance of what happened there. Modernity, however, found this a serious challenge, as can be seen in the contradictory views of Ruskin in 1849 and Adolf Loos less than 60 years later. 

For Ruskin, architecture lay in the unnecessary. ‘No one would call the laws architectural which define the height of a breastwork or the position of a bastion’, he wrote in The Seven Lamps of Architecture. ‘But if to the stone facing of that bastion be added an unnecessary feature, as a cable moulding, that is architecture.’ That too is what determines the nature of the facade.

Wa rs ref 120 a p crop

Wa rs ref 120 a p crop

John Ruskin’s watercolour of south-west facade of Florence Baptistery, 1872. Courtesy of Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford 

Ruskin’s ideas at least allow for the possibility of the facade as a conveyor of meaning by balancing sculptural decoration with architectural forms and proportions. But when Loos challenged the whole concept of decoration in his semi-satirical essay ‘Ornament and Crime’, the facade became a mere meaningless divider between different types of space. 

It is no surprise that Modernism had such trouble with facades, making them transparent or even non-existent right up to Denys Lasdun’s absurd claim to have ‘abolished’ the facade at the National Theatre. To Lasdun and his fellow Modernists, the facade’s role as a conveyor of ideas was redundant; meaning, in Sandy Wilson’s misleading paraphrase of Wittgenstein, would lie in use rather than visual communication.

Lubetkin got rather closer to ‘abolishing the facade’ at Highpoint II, almost 40 years before Lasdun tried. Using what was probably just about the largest sheet of glass available at the time (1938), the actual perimeter is made most apparent in the presence of subtropical plants inside and temperate ones outside. But in using casts of a caryatid from the Erechtheion to support the porch, he diverted attention from this Modernist dream and caused paroxysms of confusion among young Marxists at the Architectural Association. The ensemble, however, had its effect. Robert Furneaux Jordan wrote that arriving at Highpoint was ‘to be ineffably abroad’.

Somewhere between Ruskin and his need for unnecessary decoration and Loos’s nascent nihilism is an underlying question that vexed many architects and theorists from the 19th century onwards: what is architecture’s capacity for conveying ideas and how does it compare with other artistic media? It remains one of architecture’s most intractable and architectural theory’s most fecund challenges.

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01 caricatura michaelerplatz

Fischer von Erlach, architect of the adjacent palace, looks at the Looshaus with scepticism in this 1911 cartoon by R Herrmann from Der Morgen

One of the first and most comprehensive theorists to explore this territory was Hegel. His most interesting comments on architecture are in his Aesthetics, published posthumously in 1835. For Hegel, art gives physical form to the Spirit on its journey from an inchoate to a realised, self-reflecting entity. ‘Art’s vocation’, he suggests, ‘is to unveil the truth in the form of sensuous artistic configuration, to set forth the reconciled opposition’ between theory or subjective thinking, and objective existence or experience.

Art itself breaks down further: architecture is the beginning point because it is the earliest moment where ‘spirit’ and form take account of each other. In the early phase of the aesthetic project that architecture inaugurates, the spiritual content comes essentially from social rituals. These conditions, in typical Hegelian dichotomy, make architecture both vital and flawed: later arts could not exist without architecture, but it cannot reach their heights of expression.

As he wrote, ‘Architecture confronts us as the beginning of art, a beginning grounded in the essential nature of art itself. It is the beginning of art because, in general terms, at its start art has not found for the presentation of its spiritual content either the adequate material or the corresponding forms. Therefore it has to be content with merely seeking a true harmony between […] the two. The material for this first art is the inherently non-spiritual, ie, heavy matter, shapeable only according to the laws of gravity; its form is provided by productions of an external nature bound together regularly and symmetrically to be a purely external reflection of spirit and to be the totality of a work of art’. 

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Riba2461 5

John Outram’s water pumping station, Isle of Dogs, London, 1988. Photograph by Reid and Peck / RIBA Collections

There are times when Hegel’s idea whirls around like some manic vision out of Escher with a Faustian spin. But his point is persuasive, at least against the backdrop of 19th-century Romanticism. It is that architecture is incapable of expressing the spirit ‘freely’ – free in the German Idealist sense of self-realised – because it has to deal with the real, that is, the physical. Its forms and effects are affected by non-spiritual influences like gravity and so cannot be the invention of ‘pure spirit’.  

If Hegel pinpoints a problem that has dogged architectural thought ever since, he has little specifically to say about facades. But a great German theorist of the following generation, Gottfried Semper, did. Semper’s direct connections to Hegel are tenuous, but Hegel cast a long shadow over the century following his death, so some degree of influence is almost certain. 

One possible (if historically insecure) reading of Semper is that he accepted the challenges to architecture that Hegel set out. He sought to show that architecture was not redundant as a vehicle for artistic expression, and in his association with Richard Wagner came close to achieving what Hegel considered to be the final fusion of all artistic media in what Wagner called a Gesamtkunstwerk. He also argued that the physical matter that constitutes built form and so irked Hegel could, through artisanal endeavour, be animated by something akin to spirit. 

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Dresden hoftheater j c a richter

Semperoper, opera house of the Sächsische Staatsoper Dresden, Germany by Gottfried Semper, 1841. Image courtesy of Andreas Praefcke

In his seminal work The Four Elements of Architecture, published in 1851, Semper gave masonry or earthworks, carpentry, ceramics and metalwork, and weaving more or less equal billing in their contribution to making the base, frame and roof, hearth and walls of a building – with a nod to Hegel’s notion of architecture originating in social rituals, the hearth emerging as primus inter pares. In his later magnum opus Der Stil, weaving and so the facade takes over this status: ‘We might see the pen – the fence of interwoven and tied sticks and branches – as the earliest partition produced by the hand.’ 

Here Semper provided a rich vein for development. Through the craft of weaving and textile-making techniques, the facade could be a conveyor of ideas. If those ideas might initially be limited to demonstrating from what the building was made, traditions of craft that sprang from a similar root to those of folklore could gradually add extra levels of meaning. 

Semper’s reputation has suffered for many reasons. Some of them, such as what TL Donaldson referred to as allowing dislike of kingly rule to overcome his natural common sense (he took part in the revolution in Dresden of 1849) and his prolix and inelegant German, were self-inflicted. Others, fed by Pevsner’s disdain for his grandiose buildings or his association with Wagner, are less fair. In any case, his work largely lay hidden to all apart from Wolfgang Herrmann, and subsequently Harry Malgrave who has done much to revive interest in Semper for a contemporary audience.

What is certain is that Semper’s ideas about facades are extremely complex, with many and more obvious origins than Hegel. He leapt to widespread attention in 1834 with a paper on polychromy, the then burning issue of whether Greek buildings had ever been painted, which challenged the ‘pure form’ theory that had held sway and certainly charged the reading of facades. He was also aware of excavations in Mesopotamia that led the archaeologist Karl Boetticher to postulate the idea that walls consisted of Kernform and Kunstform, the former being the inner mass and the latter the outer surface which carried meaning conveyed through decoration. 

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Semper designed one of the barricades during the May 1849 uprising in Dresden; this image shows the one at Wildsdruffer Gasse

Semper was very critical of Boetticher. However, as Wolfgang Herrmann wrote, the archaeologist’s theories did force Semper to clarify his own. Semper accepted that walls did divide into Kern (core) and Kunst (art) forms, but argued that the former sprang from necessity and the latter from the expressive potential of crafts, and in particular weaving.

This line of thought provided one defence of Hegel’s dismissal of architecture’s capacity for artistic expression: the process, techniques and materials of making were inherently and in themselves expressive – and in a far more coherent and defined way than Ruskin’s rather nebulous view that the workman was the essence of great architecture. 

With this argument Semper pinpoints one of the issues that goes on to inform modern architecture, that its expression comes from how and from what it is made. Several contemporary architects reference Semper. Caruso St John’s ornamental patterns at the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood in London and Herzog & de Meuron’s Eberswalde Technical School Library in Germany, in applying imagery to the otherwise blank external face, both owe something to Semper, and perhaps even Boetticher. The first uses precisely cut stone in a diagrid pattern that is both flat and apparently volumetric, which at the very least gives the facade richness and depth that goes beyond mere construction. At Eberswalde, Herzog & de Meuron collaborated with the photographer Thomas Ruff to make a facade that is recognisably ‘architectural’ in its organisation, but with skin-deep figurative motifs.

Cdm facade (2015) print 02

Cdm facade (2015) print 02

Detail from the brick facade of the House of Memory by baukuh, Milan. Photograph by Giulio Boem

Richard MacCormac’s design for Broadcasting House, in London, shows a subtle understanding of the role of the facade in a public institution. MacCormac believed that the BBC’s obligations to the public included visibility of its workings. In designing the facade he extended the curve of Val Myers’ original building, bringing it into the site and creating a deep, narrow courtyard in which the public can, without entering the building, feel part of the institution. The power of his ideas becomes apparent in particular on election nights, when the courtyard comes alive with a digital ‘constituency map’ of the country as the results are declared. Here the facade takes on many characters, from abstract but evocative stone, through semi-choreographed human activity to digitally broadcast information – a life of which Semper hardly dreamt.

Another trend in facades that would have been unthinkable to Semper is the use of vegetation. Among the leaders here is the practice WOHA, which is based in Singapore, where admittedly the climate opens possibilities that drier or cooler locations do not have. Its School of the Arts and Oasia Hotel Downtown both use plants as an integral part of the design – both symbolic and functional – to create facades that moderate the climate and mitigate climate change. 

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Oasia downtown pbh 026

Oasia Hotel Downtown, Singapore by WOHA. Photograph by Patrick Bingham-Hall

Farshid Moussavi has more explicitly acknowledged and gone beyond Semper in her own designs and writings. Faced with the challenge of designing ‘faceless’ buildings such as sports halls, shopping malls and convention centres, which all have demands for plant that imply ever greater blank envelopes, she delved back into Semper. For Moussavi, ornament is the way such buildings can connect to their cultural context. But this is through ‘affects that seem to grow directly from matter itself’. In seeking an expressiveness from this relation rather than from craft which could be applied to many buildings, Moussavi shows how Semper’s ideas can be developed in the present day. 

It is axiomatic that buildings are becoming more performative, as digital and biological technologies allow them to change and evolve. As this potential grows, the facade’s components, roles and resonances will change too. It could become many-layered, with almost invisible security through CCTV and infrared beams providing one tier, holographics another and M&E engineering using vegetation to ensure energy efficiency. Dalibor Veseley rued the implications of such ‘divided representation’, but we may need another Semper to codify its potential.

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Colors 7

Transmogrifying facades at the Allianz Arena, Munich by Herzog & de Meuron. Courtesy of Allianz Arena / B Ducke