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Posted 15 Mar 2003

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Joost Meuwissen, ‘Growth of Knowledge in Architecture’, Piso 01 ciudad al ras. Revista de arquitectura y cultura urbana (Guadalajara, Jal.: Taller Piso, [2003]), 78-80.

Joost Meuwissen, ‘Growth of Knowledge in Architecture’, Autonomous Architecture and the Project of the City. Oase No. 62 – Architectural Journal (Rotterdam: Nai Publishers, [2003]), 6-18.

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Growth of Knowledge in Architecture

Joost Meuwissen

In architecture, development and improvement are generally considered to have been prompted by external factors such as new building materials or new social demands, which arose independently from the architecture that existed at a certain time, and to which it despite itself eventually had to respond[1]. Architecture seems to be rather passive, and to not have an inner urge for renewing its own aesthetics. Classicist forms were persistent over the centuries, even to the point that the new modernist architecture of the twentieth century could be at best analysed as some sort of charade Classicism[2]. While there is every reason, therefore, to consider architecture to be the art of repetition rather than of difference, the question remains how a growth of knowledge was organised or might be so within this repetitiveness as time went by. Even if we could agree with Giorgio Grassi’s tautological, culturally isolationistic definition of architecture as merely the sum of all the architectures from the past and from the future, the inevitable accumulation of forms, solutions, and building types over time would raise the question if and how a growth of knowledge – or its absence for that matter – is structured within that very accumulation. In that, discourse on architectural education plays a key role.

Structures of Education
Architectural education grew out of two completely different role models: the arts and the military. As much as the master classes of the arts were always highly individualised, those of the military were not, since they had a mission, be it bridges and roads in the Napoleonic era or social housing in the twentieth century; the result being that in the organisation of architectural education the military – its topics changing over time – had less continuity than the arts, which remained the same. It is from this continuity that the arts always seem to win in architectural education, not only at the academies which derive from the Ecole des Beaux Arts but also at the universities of technology which derive from the military polytechnic schools.
From the Ecole des Beaux Arts onwards, the arts tradition initially focussed predominantly on public buildings or rather the way people were distributed across buildings. The basic idea was difference: the difference between public rooms for everybody, as in hallways, staircases, and corridors on the one hand, and semi-public rooms for specific functions, such as office rooms and restaurants on the other[3]. Just as how one corridor served many rooms, buildings became organised axially along the corridors and staircases[4].
Following this main hierarchically organising distinction, further finishing of the building became a matter of design, of taste, and style or rather, searching for the transitional hybrid space where the corridor stopped being a corridor and yet was still not a room, with Aldo van Eyck’s treshold idea as a late echo of this. Whether the organisation would show or not was considered to be highly important at the time but does not matter to the general approach. Charles Garnier’s entry for

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the 1860s Paris Opera House competition, for instance, with its highly visualised circulation did not differ significantly from Viollet-le-Duc’s hidden corridor structure since both schemes were based on circulation. In fact, all schemes were based on circulation[5]. In urbanism, the question of whether a street network should show, and express the people’s mobility, as in the case of Otto Wagner, or should not show but spotwise orientate, as Camillo Sitte argued[6], was discussed in a similar manner at the end of the nineteenth century, mobility still being at the basis of both approaches.
Manuals from the arts tradition mainly focus on general compositional rules, neglecting analysis. This is due to the fact that the basic distinction, by mutually excluding one kind of space from another kind of space, already portrays the whole of the building in a reduced diagrammatic way. This was the architecture of representation. Twentieth century social housing followed a different course. Both financially and programmatically, social housing was about optimisation, it was not about distinction. The garden cities were called cities but were essentially conceived of as being endpoints of circulation systems. There is no clear distinction between circulation and residence or, for that matter, function. The Frankfurt kitchen, for instance, is as much about circulation as it is about function. The concept of function almost coincides with reduced, ergonomic circulation. Circulation is only there to be reduced as much as possible, the result being that in the social housing tradition no basic exclusive distinction between different kinds of space was formulated, and that, therefore, during the design process of a social housing neighbourhood the designer would not rely upon representational thinking or image thinking. Rather than putting pre-existing elements together within a space which had to be pre-established in the mind, the social housing engineer was searching for the best solution that could be reached among all the alternatives that were available; that is, searching for a solution that might change over time during the design process, and which did not require a spatial mental image by itself. Instead of putting A and B together, just as the Beaux Arts did, the housing question was to conceive of A or B. In this way, the representation of social housing thinking did not lie in a distinctive but as yet vague image of the building or the neighbourhood, but, in order to enforce the either-or capacity of design, it tried to find a representation of all buildings and all neighborhoods. But this representation could only be found outside the design process for a specific building or a specific neighbourhood. The representational thinking of social housing did not take place under constraint of a design process; it had to find a way to collect all possibilities free from such constraint, and free from the pressure of having to choose. The result being that, rather than the hobby and pleasure manuals from the arts which tried to represent an ideal building through some sort of grand design – thus interbreeding research and design, no matter how elementary their presentation might have been – the manuals from the social housing tradition or, more generally, from the military tradition, represented multitudes of possible buildings, neighbourhoods, and their composing elements. They did this by means of arranging them on the basis of the most simple and common categories, influences, vectors or

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directions, such as width, depth, height, costs, materials or juxtaposing of composing elements, that might effectuate the difference from one solution to another.
At a time when any thinking was still considered to be necessarily representational, architectural thinking had to find a logic in dealing with social or technical problems, that is with new developments which were not yet part of the ruling aesthetic routine. Therefore, the polytechnic manuals are more independent from design[7], show the more elaborate research in architecture and urbanism, and are more numerous. That way, within the polytechnic tradition, if a design problem is encountered for which no design solution is available or, more importantly, can be devised, it is always

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possible to shift from design towards research or rather, to conceive of a certain multitude of solutions instead of striving for only one solution and, furthermore, to find the right solution in the very way this multitude is composed, through its specific logic rather than by selecting a solution from this multitude – as the Beaux Arts would do.
While education in architecture tends to follows the arts master class model from the academies using, if at all, the manuals from the polytechnic tradition merely as a source to select a design solution from, at the universities the polytechnic research model always offers the possibility of deepening a design through research. Since analyses of site, programme and costs are normal design procedures, as a research method analysis might be extended towards form, composition, and character, either inside or outside a designing involvement.

Analytical Research
In order to systematise alternatives, manuals from the polytechnic tradition had to define sequence or repetition. That the listing of various shapes through category, for instance the orders, would exert a certain influence over the singular shapes themselves was established by Vignola as early as 1562 by rejecting the Renaissance architects’ idea that any shape should have ideal proportions of its own. The shift from proportion theory, which did not involve much empirical research, and is still obscurely practised by some architects today as the kind of secret knowledge which to some extent cannot be shared with the public, towards a simple and comprehensible system of comparability (for instance Vignola’s constant relationships between pedestal, column, and entablature) established Classical architecture through a contemporary understanding which was to be very popular for centuries to come especially amongst non-architects[8]. The well-tempered taxonomy of the orders proved to be a research tool with which to analyse buildings and to invent new orders as well, not through designing buildings but right from the taxonomic sequence as it was. Each new demand might not only be met by designing a building but also by elaborating existing taxonomies.
While the multitude of solutions which were classified that way or rather, collected, were representing architecture or urbanism from the single viewpoint of the selected category, the taxonomical method itself, its structure, stayed irrelevant with regard to the resulting representation,

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and subsequently could have any serial form or use any serial technique[9]. Repetition might move from small to big, as in the case of the orders or the collection of Parisian houses on the basis of their parcel widths in Muet’s Manière de bien bastir, be temporal like the comparative analyses of a building element from antiquity and the same one in modern times, and even be alphabetical, listing various building elements on the basis of their names, as did Viollet-le-Duc in his Dictionnaires. Since such series did not represent one single building but were representing all buildings through a multitude of them, such representations might imply a certain reduction with regard to the totality of possible solutions. However, just as Vignola’s well-temperedness established a compatibility between the various orders which freed itself from the proportion system from which their importance would still be derived – the result being that all orders, both the ones that were listed and the ones that were not listed because they were either forgotten or not yet invented, could be, as he said (thereby incidentally defining representation) “imagined at a single glance”, that is, be directly and non-mediatedly there – ironically such a reductive representation would still be there and still function but stop being a representation if no example at all would be listed into its series. Through such a series or multitude with no entities or only entities which were forgotten or were yet to be invented, research would act directly as a design tool. In order to increase the amount of design methods or make existing methods more flexible, it might be important, therefore, to understand the specific nature of taxonomic classification in architecture and urbanism or rather, how it came to be formulated as it was.
Since parcel width would seem to be a matter of real estate economics or urbanism rather than something architectural, and the alphabet would not likely be considered a form of architecture at all, to classify houses on the basis of their parcel width or to list building elements alphabetically on the basis of their names might at first sight boil down to classifying architectural solutions through parameters which do not properly belong to architecture. They would, rather, belong to other systems than the architectural one which is the very subject of the classification. This, though, is a question of definition. Since architects do speak language, architecture might as well incorporate the alphabet. To affirm or deny something to be an architectural element or not would be a matter of choice[10], for the simple reason that to architecture, any definition is possible. This does not mean, however, that the difference between the classifying parameter and the classified architectures might not play an important role. Just as the parcel width in Muet’s Manière relates the Parisian houses to a non-geographical, extendable but not extensive urbanism which simply consists of the presence of streets, Viollet-le-Duc’s alphabet underlines the pre-eminence or even permanence of discourse in his description of the building elements without describing – within the frame of describing each element – the very building to which they might belong. In this way, such parameters tend to de-territorialise architecture and urbanism or break them up. In the Dutch so-called ‘Neo-Realistic’ social housing of the early 1980s, parameter thinking could even lead to a whole design system in which everything

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might be looked at as being a parameter from another system, and become optimised within its own system instead of being optimised within the extension of the design as a whole – the result being that the actual social housing building, its scheme, would be and could be highly divergent[11].
In the manuals only one parameter or a few would vary, the result being that no connection whatsoever is established between these parameters themselves. If one manual uses parcel width and the other one uses the alphabet, and both are genuine architectural researches, no mediation between parcel width and the alphabet would be defined architecturally. At the level of manuals, width, depth, height, costs, and juxtapositions of elements are not interrelated. Instead of regarding the parcel width as belonging to the geometry of the building on that parcel, it might be taken independently. If a building lot is not broad enough, parcel width might be considered a design constraint; but as every parcel has a width already, it need not be designed, because it is already there, and a solution may come out of the idea of varying the width, that is by conceiving of it as a mere coincidence instead of considering it to be a constraint. Since the same applies to all other vectors which are always present, any solution results from a multitude of coincidences, which does not form a whole. As Giorgio Grassi argued in 1967, classification parameters such as width, alphabet, and costs, are common vectors which are substantially irrelevant, neutral, and even not the producing factors, with regard to the multitude of solutions they collect[12]; yet, he thereby overlooked the fact that there is a reason to this, which is that in such a way width, depth, height, even costs, are conceived of as being fundamentally asymmetrical, because as a classification parameter, a certain parcel width would be a variation point between the smaller and the bigger opportunities, which differ from each other, and form a difference. Parcel width would not be the simple distance between left and right anymore which according to a naturalistic space conception would have a symmetrical relationship; or rather, even left and right might be considered to have an asymmetrical relationship from the manual’s point of view. That way, in architecture and urbanism the symmetry any shape necessarily has in natural space might be replaced through a far more active asymmetry any shape would underlie, even in natural space, so that any dimension gets a direction, and any plane might act as a vector. In this way, analytical research might introduce far more open, active, intensive, and flexible design possibilities.

Empirical Research and Experimental Design
As taxonomic classification might still be relevant, even topical, to architecture today be it only through the implications it might have on design (if it is conceived of as being a design tool rather than a research system), as a research model it seems not precise enough through its highly reductive character. There is no point either in maintaining a scientific paradigm in architecture which in other sciences was abolished long ago. Yet, little attention has been paid to the question of empirical research in architecture and urbanism. Reduction of reality by hypothesis

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would play a different role in architectural research than it does in design.
Since specific research was prompted by new design questions to which there were no answers yet (for example restoration in the 1830s or social housing in the 1920s), such a research, because of the specificity of the problem would not, however, only necessarily mean a reduction of the whole range of possible solutions but through that already be a further step towards finding a solution. However, in general to design through reduction by removing every possibility wich seems irrelevant at the time would also run the risk of removing the right solution. In the end, the original question might have been put falsely, and probably was. Hence, to put such a question into a falsifiable state was a logic step, which was made in the early nineteenth century, introducing the negative into architecture and urbanism. Restoration, according to Viollet-le-Duc in that respect, has nothing to do with bringing back a situation from the past, because such a situation might have been false anyhow; therefore, if restoration should avoid failures, it might bring back a building into a state which could be right but might not have occurred in the past at all[13]. This well-known definition, which was severely criticised only after historic investigation had become a common part of restoration procedure, provoked falsifiable historical as well as architectural investigation. That way, the taxonomy of listing examples from the past by category was replaced by a more empirical and open questioning in much the same way as Schinkel did in his listing of architectural errors, which were common design solutions from the great architectures of the past which had become false ones – and therefore always had been! – according to the new design approach that tried to adapt architecture to the new technologies and the development of public programmes during the Industrial Revolution, and for which the new approach itself did not yet offer solutions. Although Schinkel in his Lehrbuch used a lot of taxonomies, the ‘errors of architecture’ (Fehler der Architektur) already belonged to another, more modern and more negative methodology. As a taxonomy, the list of failures did not have a consistency of its own and seemed to be in search of an argumentation still to come. According to Schinkel, what made these old shapes into errors now was mostly a lack of efficiency, that is of optimisation – the main item within the military tradition. A column standing apart with all the entablature it would have as a part of a building was criticised as being senseless just because the piece of beam on top would not be needed when there is no building or nothing to support[14]. It is the Beaux Arts building image thinking, the idea that the logic of a building element can only be derived from the building itself, which is criticised that way. Yet, the right solution – a column standing apart with no entablature at all – would also be senseless, were it not through a specific context, and subsequently could not be drawn as a part of a taxonomic system. That way, the really right solution could only be prompted through a specific question or a specific context, 

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and the power of the falsifying hypothesis of architectural errors would lie in its giving direction to a research which would be far more empirical than the reductive system of taxonomy could ever be, and to a design where this direction might develop hypothesises for experiment.


[1]  The most famous example being the development of concrete tectonics by Auguste Perret: Peter Collins, Concrete. The Vision of a New Architecture. A Study of Auguste Perret and His Precursors (London: Faber and Faber, 1959).

[2]  For instance Reyner Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (London: The Architectural Press, 1960), and Colin Rowe, The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays (Cambridge, Mass., and London: The MIT Press, 1976).

[3]  “… you will establish your composition with rooms, vestibules, exits and staircases. These are the Elements of Composition”: Julien Guadet, quoted by Banham, 20.

[4]  See The Architecture of the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Edited by Arthur Drexler. Essays by Richard Chafee, Arthur Drexler, Neil Levine, David van Zanten (London: Secker & Warburg, 1977).

[5]  Monika Steinhäuser, Die Architektur der Pariser Oper. Studien zu ihrer Entstehungsgeschichte und ihrer architekturgeschichtlichen Stellung (Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1969).

[6]  “Ein Straßennetz dient immer nur der Kommunikation, niemals der Kunst, weil es niemals sinnlich aufgefaßt, niemals überschaut werden kann, außer am Plan”: Camillo Sitte, Der Städtebau nach seinen künstlerischen Grundsätzen. Vermehrt um “Grossstadtgrün”, Reprint der 4. Auflage von 1909 (Brunswick, Wiesbaden: Vieweg, 1983), 101.

[7]  As Carel Weeber argued, research and design in that respect might be either thought of as being autonomous activities which are completely independent from one another or, as Giorgio Grassi argued, the fact that architecture finds its logic of representational thinking outside the realm of design and inside research or, as he calls it, “analysis”, would mean design might better adopt the logic of research, since it lacks a logic of its own: Giorgio Grassi, De logische constructie van de architectuur. Met een nabeschouwing van Umberto Barbieri, François Claessens en Henk Engel. Vertaling: Marieke van Laake en Henk Hoeks (Nijmegen: Uitgeverij SUN, 1997), 187.

[8]  Architectural Theory and Practice from Alberti to Ledoux. Edited by Dora Wiebenson, foreword by Adolf Placzek (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), III-A-4.

[9]  Giorgio Grassi, La costruzione logica dell’architettura. Seconda edizione (Venice: Marsilio Editori, 1976), 61.

[10]  Giorgio Grassi, L’architettura come mestiere e altri scritti (Milan: Franco Angeli, 1980), 42-43.

[11]  See my Architectuur als oude wetenschap. Architectuurtheoretische aspecten van het rationalisme in de Nederlandse bouwkunst (Amsterdam: Stichting Wiederhall, 1988), 52-54.

[12]  Grassi, La costruzione logica dell’architettura, 61.

[13]  ‘(…) dans un état complet qui peut n’avoir jamais existé à un moment donné’: [Eugène Emmanuel] Viollet-le-Duc, Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle. Tome huitième (Paris: F. de Nobele, 1967), 14.

[14]  “Säule mit Gebälk einzeln stehend etwa eine Figur tragend”: Goerd Peschken, Das Architektonische Lehrbuch, Karl Friedrich Schinkel Lebenswerk. Herausgeber: Margarete Kühn (Munich – Berlin: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 1979), 98.

 

 


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