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Composition as a Pedagogical Method in Architecture. Or, How to Make It Look Pretty
by Katy Purviance on 11/26/10 @ 09:10:05 pm
Categories: Articles, Grad School | 2096 words | 1500 views

Curtis Wayne, host of Burning Down the House, sent me this essay by Colin Rowe on composition.

The shelves of any representative architectural library in the United States or Great Britain might suggest that between 1900 and 1930 the major critical interest of the architectural profession throughout the English-speaking world lay in the elucidation of the principles of architectural composition. Certainly a surprising number of books on this subject were published during these years and, if few have appeared since the last date, it is equally evident that very few were published before the first. A Discussion of Composition, Architectural Composition, The Principles of Architectural Composition: - the titles are familiar and the publications, all showing allegiance to closely related critical patterns, now have a flavor of the period. The aim of such books as these was avowedly pedagogic, and (using the word in no derogatory sense) their authors evidently entertained an academic ideal. Sharing a common critical vocabulary, and apparently enjoying a common visual experience, these writers felt no compulsion to lead an attack on either the present or the immediate past; and while they had no inherent connection with the modern movement in architecture, they were not always insulated from contemporary development - nor necessarily without enthusiasm for it. Making no overt display of bias and by no means simply committed to retrospective attitudes, they were preoccupied with the survival of certain standards of urbanity and order, certain received ideas which for them were identifiable with tradition; but above all, as the titles of their books continuously reaffirm, they were anxious to extract from historical and current precedents a formal common denominator - the quality which they recognised as correct composition.

These books are usually to be found in close proximity with, and often on the same shelves as, the manifestos of the specifically modern movement which were published during the same years; and, apart from the obvious differences in temperature between the two styles of publication, there are other differences which invite notice. Thus the most cursory reading of any of the pronouncements of the great innovators of the 1920’s suggests that for such figures as Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Gropius, the existence of any such principles of composition as the academicians presumed was not only dubious but irrelevant. These men were convinced that an authentic architecture could only be a rationalization of objective facts. One might believe that for them “composition” implied a regard for mere appearance, had suggestions of subjectivity, of formalism. And however highly formed their buildings may have been, they were certainly unanimous in asserting their innocence of formal intention. “We refuse,” writes Mies, “to recognize problems of form; but only problems of building’"; and, even though this statement may be no more than a matter of polemics, the assertion of such opinions is enough to indicate a state of mind which could only regard the idea of composition as a discreditable one.

It is for reasons such as these that around this apparently innocent word inhibitions have gathered thick, so that except in its esoteric sense, as a reference to a composition within the post-Cubist tradition, a tendency might be noticed to use it only with considerable reserve. Sometimes, indeed, it is positively anathematized; and then, as for instance when Frank Lloyd Wright pronounces: “Composition is dead that creation may live"; then there seem to be evoked echoes of similar scruples already experienced by architects and critics of the nineteenth century. “I am always afraid to use this word composition,” Ruskin announces, and when, as the major apologist of the mid-Victorian epoch, he was obliged to use it, he guarded himself against possible misinterpretation by means of elaborate footnotes: “The word composition has been so much abused, and is in itself so inexpressive, that when I wrote the first part of this work I intended to use in the final section of it the word ‘invention’ and to reserve the term composition for that false composition which can be taught on principles."!

That a single word can be productive of such alternatives of damnation or involved reserve no doubt says much for the meanings with which it has been endowed; and possibly the evidence of such elaborate semantic diffidence does bring us face to face with a recurring critical dilemma, important not only to the mid-nineteenth century, but also to the present day.

Now the composition books are partly, but not completely, discredited; and the pronouncements of the innovators of the nineteen-twenties are partly, but not completely, accepted. Thus one group of critical standards survives with diminished prestige, while another has not achieved comprehensive definition. Modern architecture has professedly abjured composition; but the composition books recognize no situation in which their theory could become an irrelevance. The composition books are judiciously disinterested, catholic, temperate, and pragmatic; the classic manifestoes of modern architecture are partisan, exclusive, inflammatory, and doctrinaire. In any final analysis of its theory, modern architecture seems to rest upon a conviction that authentic architectural form can only be engendered by recognizing the disciplines which function and structure impose. But the authors of the composition books find that this thesis cannot engage their convictions. For them it is by no means an article of faith, rather it is an interesting supposition; and while they are indisposed to quarrel with it, they are definitely unwilling that it should form the focus of their critique. A truly significant building for these theorists is not an organization derived from functional and structural disciplines - although these may have contributed to it - but pre-eminently a structure, organized according to the principles of architectural composition and infused with a symbolic content that is usually described as character. According to this doctrine the presence of both good composition and appropriate character is essential in a successful building, and the presence of the one is not automatically productive of the other.

Proper character does not necessarily accompany the securing of good composition …. A factory may display all the correct graces of classical architecture but may look like a public library. On the other hand a church may be recognized as a church on account of the associated elements - the spire and stained glass windows ~ but be entirely lacking in the principles of good design. Proper character and principles of composition are not synonymous; they appear together only by a conscious effort of the designer. They must both be present in a successful piece of architecture.”

Character is seldom, if ever, defined, but it is generally implied that it may be at once the impression of artistic individuality and the expression, either symbolic or functional, of the purpose for which the building was constructed. Often, however, it is admitted that the presence of character has not always been a necessary attribute of architecture; and when this admission is recognized, and when it is observed that the present day has imposed critical tabus on characterization also, a further dimension to the problem is suggested. And since both words are now somewhat suspect to strictly orthodox contemporaries, their suspicions do prompt some investigation of a possible relationship and the ideas which this relationship has involved. It is perfectly clear that in the strictest meaning of the word any organization is a composition, whether “correct” or not; it is also evident that any building will display character, whether intentionally or otherwise; but if such general definitions of both terms are to be accepted then further inquiry will be blocked; reactions such as Ruskin’s or Wright’s to specific meanings of the word composition will become inexplicable, and the expression of character will be assumed to represent an interest of all architects at all times.

But as might be expected, the introduction of both words into the critical vocabulary of architecture seems to have been an achievement of the eighteenth century. Certainly after 1770 both become fairly frequent, whereas before 1700 one is apt to look for either of them in vain. Thus neither Alberti, Palladio, nor the elder Blondel, to select three crucially important theorists, seem to have envisaged the working out of an architectural theme to have been a matter of informing composition with character. For them the process of design was a Vitruvian one involving “invention,” “compartition,” “distribution,” “ordinance"; while, what the later eighteenth century understood as “the arts of composition,” earlier critics usually described, with somewhat different meaning, as “the arts of design.”

Possibly the word composition makes its first decisive English appearance with Robert Morris’ Lectures on Architecture in 1734. “Architecture is an art useful and extensive, it is founded upon beauty, and proportion or harmony are the great essentials of composition,” writes Morris; and with this idea of a “composed” architecture it is interesting to notice that much of what was later referred to as character is already implied, for architecture “is divided into three classes, the Grave, the Jovial, and the Charming [and] these are designed to be fitted and appropriated to the several scenes which art or nature has provided in different situations.” While “A Champaign open Country requires a noble and plain Building…A Situation near the Sea requires the same, or rather a Rusticity and Lowness…The Cheerful Vale requires more Decoration and Dress, and if the View be long or some adjacent River runs neat by it, the Ionic Order is the most proper.”

But in spite of Morris’ example, neither composition nor character seems to have enjoyed an immediate success; it was not until the later eighteenth century, with such figures as Robert Adam, that the use of the first became more general. With Adam, composition is associated with “movement,” and from his preface to his Works in Architecture it may be seen how “movement” was connected with the appearance of a diversified form. In his well known definition, “Movement is meant to express the rise and fall, the advantage and the recess, with the other diversity in form, in the different parts of a building; so as to add greatly to the effect of the composition.” While “movement” also serves to produce “an agreeable and diversified contour that groups and contrasts like a picture and creates a variety of light and shade which gives great spirit, beauty, and effect to the composition.”

Thirteen years later in his celebrated advice to the architect, Sir Joshua Reynolds gave a more august confirmation to these pictorial points of view: the architect should take advantage sometimes, to that which the Painter should always have his eyes open, - the use of accidents to follow where they lead, and to improve them, rather than always look to a regular plan…As buildings depart from regularity they now and then acquire something of scenery…”

By this shifting of emphasis from the work of architecture in itself to the effect of the work upon the spectator the late eighteenth century was able to accommodate a conspicuous dominant academic theory and a powerfully subversive undercurrent. But, however significant was the complex of new ideas which now demanded expression as “composition,” even as late as 1906-9 Sir John Soane’s Royal Academy Lectures still observed the standard academic pattern. In his lectures Soane very briefly alluded to the “principles of architectural composition” (possibly the first English appearance of the term?); but for him the arbiters of architectural form still remained the orders, and the problem of architectural design a problem of ordinance…

This is an interesting article, and it answers some questions for me. Largest is a question I had on my mind the entire time that I was at Harvard, namely, WHY we’re we asked to design the way we were. Why were we supposed to reject “pattern,” avoid “historicisms,” and not to even consider the, for lack of a better term, “user experience"? We were told to make “diagrams,” which I never understood, wherein we were to take arbitrary data points, for lack of a better word, and some how connect them into some sort of ridiculous geometry, and from that monstrosity, somehow derive a design. Well, it smelled like horse shit the first time I encountered this preference for Retarded Design (if I may?), and when I realized that the academics were quite serious about this method, I fell into a sort of heartbroken despair.

This article helped to place my experience into the larger continuum of architectural history. What I was subjected to was perhaps the effuse of deconstructionism, where everything is intentionally stupid-looking. But what I yearned for is a way to make sense of things, not a way to destroy it.

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