Part one: Rationalization of architecture

In exchange for a year of instructions he received here in Goa, a Portuguese student of mine recently sent me a catalogue of works of Santiago Calatrava,1 the prolific architect from Valencia, Spain. I believe I have the better of the exchange.

Apart from the enormous size of the oeuvre (approx. 200 projects, 60 of these have been built, within the last decade) and the furious productivity, what strikes one about this body of work is the fact that the young architect has successfully bridged the chasm between architecture and engineering and in the process has made one think about the very nature and identity of architecture that we have come to accept Luca Molinari, “Santiaqgo Calatraqva” Skira Architecture Library, 1998, unquestioningly since the eighteenth century. “The polemical controversy surrounding Calatrava’s work, comparable to that provoked by only a handful of other contemporary architects (e.g. The bitter debate over the Eisenman-Serra monument in Berlin, the international uproar that accompanies every work by Gehry or Libeskind), immediately draws our attention to the impasse at which much of the architectural community presently finds itself, and at the same time emphasizes the difficulty of transcending the traditionally rigid separation of architecture and engineering by way of an approach that might be defined, among other thing, as artistic.”2

The Modernist Project which began in the late seventeenth century can be characterized by a number of defining traits. These were secularization of culture, establishment of the autonomous individual (individuation is the term coined by Eric Fromm)3 Universalization, aculturation of ideas and ahistoricism. The significance of the separation of architecture and engineering which this project led to must now be reflected upon at a theoretical level in light of these traits to understand the modernist thought and discourse in the last two centuries. The aesthetic language produced by this discourse has in turn produced a perceptible alienation between society and its build environment.

It is obvious by now that the Modernist discourse, founded on an intense desire to rebuild society by replacing the existing visual and material culture by a universal built language4 was never able to earn the social recognition for the Modernist esthetics. Barring a few exceptional examples, such as Ronchamp, the Sydney Opera House or the Pompidou Center in Paris to name a few, modern architecture has failed to produce exemplary constructions which can function as recognizable signs in the territorial landscape of their cultures. And more often than not these structures are exceptions precisely because they have departed from the mainstream modernism.

Calatrava’s work compels us to investigate the present state of architecture at three different but related levels: 1) the necessity to redefine the relationship between architecture and engineering, 2) the crisis of identity and its social credibility that the profession is facing at present and 3) the difficulty one faces in devising a language that would allow us to interpret architecture which seeks to address the need for iconic representations. The need for establishing linguistic and interpretive parameters capable of dealing with an alternative architecture becomes ever more compelling to ward off being labeled as formalist. Such accusations invariably derive from the internal contradictions and theoretical limitations of the rationalist/functionalist approach incapable of unburdening itself of the heavy yoke of its own founding principles. In this essay I intend to show that the rationalist architecture was never able to reconcile its own fundamental assumptions with the timeless objectives of architecture as a knowledge system. Thus it becomes imperative to review the theoretical and ideological shifts that have taken place since the eighteenth century to arrive at a clear understanding of the roots of the present fissures between architecture and its making.

In the last two centuries architecture gradually came to be represented, in the popular perception, as a quasi-technical discipline, with measurable criteria and valid only to the extent of its capacities to contribute positively to the activities it contains. The Modernist illusion which equates the beauty of an object with its minimalist morality has resulted not only in the shrinking of the public space but also has lead to society’s definitive rejection of the power of technical knowledge to change the world. A significant number of architects themselves seem to share the popular belief that architecture is a technical discipline with a bit of aesthetic content; this being the only difference between architecture and civil engineering. This is not limited only to the lay society at large. This has serious repercussions not only in terms of the students aspiring to become future architects and the curricular program of the schools but also on the quality of the built environment we end up building.

Vitruvious gave architecture three legs to stand on; firmitas (structural integrity), utilitas (usefulness) and Venustas (appearance). It is interesting to note that he did not ascribe any priority to any one of these qualities nor was there any order in which they can be mentioned. But it is safe to state that in the Vitruvian scheme of things, “Good” architecture was “useful”, “stable” and “beautiful” all at the same time. Each one of these qualities is independent and can not be fused into one. Architecture’s identity as a profession depended on the acceptance of Vitruvius’s trichotomy. In his identification of the four elements of architecture, namely earthwork, hearth, roofwork, and screen wall, Vitruvious formulated what amounted to an aformal and socio-cultural theory of architecture. With very few exceptions, most theoreticians as well as practitioners of architecture until mid-eighteenth century tried, albeit with various degrees of success, to reconcile the three objectives. However, as we shall see later, in the last two centuries a significant displacement of the objective of architecture has taken place from that of erecting significant markers in the man-made landscape to that of building objects of use at first, and then later merely for the visual pleasure of a few by indiscriminately combining elements of our visual dictionary from the past. But, in the words of that sensitive architect Romaldo Giurgola, “all great architecture of the past came to be as a result of a desire to make good architecture first and foremost. They are the places where aesthetics and ethics were inextricably joined in the same practical system which provided the basis both for the construction of buildings and the creation of a work of art” (italics added).5

In 1747 a Frenchman by the name of Perronet established, Ecole des Ponts et Chaussees, a School of Civil Engineering (literally translated, it would mean School of Bridges and Roads).6 It marked the end of traditional guilds in Paris. Until then the term “Architect” implied both a builder, well versed in the craft of construction and engineering, as well as an artist. With this seemingly innocuous event architecture seems to have suffered its first crisis of confidence. What was taken for granted earlier as inseparable, namely construction of buildings and the creation of a work of art, now was sheared into two separate compartments, each with its own independent practitioner. The representation of architecture and civil engineering as two separate disciplines with their own methods and myths replaced the earlier unified whole. Civil engineering defined for itself and occupied the space of the measurable rationality while architecture, by default, had to contend with its opposite, namely the immeasurable and indefinable.

What is more pertinent to our inquiry is the fact that not only architecture came to be measured and evaluated in comparison with Civil Engineering but also its validity came to be questioned only on the basis of criteria of efficiency and universality, which are central for engineering but ended up alienating architecture from its cultural context. Thus, for example in the eighteenth century, architecture was for the first time declared to be in a state of decadence, dishonesty, confusion and disintegration. In the nineteenth century it was blamed for “labor wasted misapplied and vulgarized”.7

Reaction to this took the line of least resistance and developed two distinct and parallel strands both centered around the idea of efficiency. Architecture, initially relegated to address only taste and custom, had to present itself in measurable terms. Architectural theory had not only to incorporate this new objective and the new techniques in its practice, but also a new justification, a new scientific method, the “rational design”. However, this did not happen as a normal historical development, a natural progression from lack of information to knowledge or from innocence to wisdom; supposedly the normal progression of history. On the contrary, these developments constitute an alternative identity of architecture characterized by a radically new definition of design and environment. The eighteenth century formulated new objectives and methodologies for architecture in a conscious desire to replace the old one. This could not have happened in a cultural void; the eighteenth century European society was already fast emerging as a society based on exigencies of the marketplace, the capital. A new and radical view of man was emerging; the rationalistic economic man whose objective would henceforth be maximization of “profit” by increasing efficiency.

Efficiency, the natural child of rationalism, manifested itself in architecture both as ‘structural efficiency’ as well as ‘functional efficiency’. Pure technology with its emphasis on efficiency came to be seen as the potential savior of the world and was invested with a certain ethics and morality. St. Augustine’s dictum “Beauty is the splendor of the Truth” effectively appropriated the space of Venustas in the Vitruvian triad and reduced it to an unstable dichotomy of firmitas and utilitas. The Calvinistic horror of anything that can not be rationally justified resulted in the difficulty of acknowledging the possibility of an architecture that can also be a free artistic expression of form, be it natural or abstract, with its visual and communicative potential.

It was in this context that the objective of structural efficiency was constituted by theoreticians of eighteenth century. Lodoli, the Franciscan thinker from Venice, rejected any form that is not a direct derivation of “its own essence” and “the nature of the materials”. Reversing the historicism of Renaissance, Lodoli writes “The famous Greek architects are the first ignorants since they operated contrary to the Vitruvian principle which considers it necessary to distinguish one material from another”8 What Lodoli in fact was doing is changing the Vitruvian triad by giving primacy to structural efficiency as the essential objective of building. From now on beauty (venustas) was to be a function of “the expression of the precise proportions of the materials which are put in use in a fabric.”9 In other words engineering efficiency, according to this polemics, is not just one of the variable facts in the system but also an objective which could actually replace “beauty” and “utility”.

Laugier, a contemporary of Lodoli, devised a more powerful visual metaphor of a primitive “rustic hut” as justification for the new rational architecture. “The little rustic hut is the model on which one had projected all the magnificence of architecture. It is in coming close to the simplicity of execution of this first model that one avoids the essential faults and seizes upon true perfections.”10

The immensity of the role of science and technology in the Modernist Project of secularizing the European culture cannot be underestimated. The liberating universalism of the techno-scientific world view must have been seductive enough to cause a definitive rupture with the classical thought. “The concept of fabrication, in which the process of building became a determinant of the cultural values of the final product,”11 was an important result of this project.

If rationalism in the form of structural efficiency effectively merged Venustas with Firmitas in the Vitruvian triad, it was functional efficiency that effected a similar merger between Utilitas and Venustas. Functional efficiency is the manifestation of the urge for utility, or the potential for utility. A design product was considered acceptable when it was “comfortable to the principle of utility”12 An architect was expected to evaluate and select elements of his buildings which are “conformable to utility” and not be guided merely by his senses. The message was clear; “Self-restraint … indeed one of the first lessons that the architect has to learn” since “design is not some curious contortion of form, or some super-added atrocity, but it should rather be conceived as the fitting of means to ends in the production of works which are good each in their own order”13 (italics added).

If Laugier’s rustic hut provided a model for the proponents of structural efficiency, machine provided the quintessential metaphor for the functionalists. As in the machine, the form of the edifice was expected to be the imprint of the forces that generated it. Conversely, the form of the building has to ‘fit’ the forces that generated it or were contained within it. Both consisted of interrelated components subject to verification. It called for an organizational structure valid for design, dictating design decisions and accordingly structuring the architectural product. In a mid-19th century illustration by architect Cesar Daly, a steam engine called progress, symbol of the new machine age, is seen leading the way towards the rising sun leaving behind architectural debris of the bygone ages.

Elevating utilitarianism as the focal point of architectural theory is problematic in that it reduces architecture as an artifact of use. The gradual loss of public domain and the consequent absence of meaning can be directly attributed to the fact that the user of the artifact came to be the autonomous individual. The autonomy of individual was a function of the secularization of culture, one of the motivating forces behind the Modernist Project. It was this self referential individual abstracted from society, and not the society as a whole, that has preoccupied the modernist discourse throughout the last two centuries. However, as Hannah Arendt puts it “the perplexity of utilitarianism is that it gets caught in the unending chain of means and ends without ever arriving at some principles which could justify the category of means and ends, that is, of utility itself… other words, utility established as meaning generates meaninglessness.”14 The greatest paradox of Modernism is that while it claims to have descended from the Cartesian desire to create a man-made world based on the universal rules of the mind, its investigations ended up removing the individual possessor of this mind from social references and thereby privatizing the very public domain it wanted to rebuild.

The point I want to make is that the way in which the late eighteenth century intellectuals represented the objective of architecture was closely linked with the notion of architecture’s identity that they wished to establish. This was a radical break from the past and not a historical inevitability. It was a deliberate project of identity formation for architecture to suit the prevailing popular demands on the profession and also to be able to stand up to the challenge from civil engineering. It is entirely a different story though that some of the most communicative and visual icons of the modern times were created by engineers such as Paxton, Eiffel, Maillart, Freyssenet and Nervi.

The crystallization of the popular perception of architecture as a quasi-technical activity happened gradually from thereon. Beginning with the revolutionary romanticism of Boullee and Ledoux to the rationalism of Viollet-le-Duc, Labrouste, and Auguste Choisy, to the Arts and Crafts of William Morris and finally ending up in the functionalism of the twentieth century architecture went through a series of identity changes, which was nothing short of an amnesia of destination. This was accompanied and legitimized by clever slogans such as “A house is a machine to live in” and “Form follows function”.

I believe the process of designing took on the qualities of a logical, step-by-step, problem-solving method when architects, looking for legitimacy, felt that they too, like engineers, must be accountable to the strictly rational qualities of mind. Architecture came to be perceived more as a technical activity than a design activity. Measurable efficiency replaced expression of order as the objective of architecture and rational, linear analysis displaced the “patient search”.

The brief historical perspective presented above tells us that there has been a definite and deliberate break in the historic continuity in the nature of the activity we call Architecture. Our present understanding of what architecture constitutes and its relationship with technology is founded on these conscious attempts at its identity formation undertaken by the theoreticians of the last two centuries. Architecture has not always been a quasi-technical activity with scientific, logical, problem-solving methods. At the same time, it is also not fair to represent the alternative to rational and technical as undefinable and fuzzy. Rationality is not the exclusive domain of technology alone. A rational action is often understood as an action which takes place according to the basic rules of the mind, the basic operation of logic. However, as Karl Polanyi has remarked, “the logic of rational action applies…to all conceivable means and ends covering an almost infinite variety of human interests. In chess or technology, in religious life or philosophy ends may range from commonplace issues to the most recondite and complex ones.”15

It is also in the inherent nature of rationalism to categorize the world and all human endeavors into neat and unambiguous entities. If Perronet’s School of Civil Engineering sheared the traditional unified role of architect as builder/artist into two independent professions, it also, in similar vein, split the audience of architecture into either a user or a viewer with primacy accorded in favor of the former. The last two centuries of utilitarianism has so conditioned us that our first reaction at seeing a building is to subject it to functionalist verification; how well it works. The language and categories of criticism have been so perfected as to disallow any formal analysis or if offered, consider it as frivolous and immaterial. With the devaluation of the visual and communicative qualities of architecture the concurrent devaluation of its public role was inevitable for utilitarianism celebrates the “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” of the individual at the expense of the collective.

I contend that architecture failed to grasp its own soul, and lost its public persona, when confronted with a crisis of identity. The separation from engineering and subsequent search for identity missed the point that architecture is a knowledge system. A closer study of pre-eighteenth century Western as well as several non-Western design methods reveals that it is distinguished from technology, both in its objectives and methodologies, by a different system of logic rather by an inferior or inadequate one. Both Science/Technology and Architecture produce tangible images at the end of the day and are informed by ideas and concepts. However, while the former is concerned with erecting the man-made world around us, the later is concerned with ordering it. The ultimate aim of this ordering process is first and foremost to maintain the equilibrium of society. And social equilibrium is not a function of technological means or stronger and sharper logic. This is because social disequilibrium does not ever stem from the materials of which buildings are made, or the colors of their rooms, or their structural stability. “The oppressive environment is an environment within which, first and foremost, man oppresses man. The development of the man-made environment is interconnected with man’s development as a freedom-seeking being rather than as a being in search of rationality”.16

Part Two: The rational and the sensuous

The concepts and vocabulary with which the present architectural discourse is carried out is self perpetuating and do not allow a critical reevaluation of the last three centuries’ developments and its primary assumptions.

Implicit in the separation between architecture and engineering, and all that followed, is the confusion about the relationship between Thinking, Doing and Contemplation on one hand and the very nature of Design as sensuous representation, as an act of Ordering, which is the very objective of architecture on the other hand.

Perhaps the most momentous of the consequences of the separation of engineering and architecture has been the devaluation of construction and design. In order to understand how compelling the motives for this devaluation were, we must first of all rid ourselves of the current assumed prejudices and assumptions about the meaning and the role of technology in architecture. “It is a matter of historical record that modern technology has its origin not in the evolution of those tools man has always devised for the twofold purpose of easing his labors and erecting the human artifice, but exclusively in an altogether non-practical search for useless knowledge….If we had to rely only on man’s so-called practical instincts, there would never have been any technology to speak of, and although today the already existing technical inventions carry a certain momentum which will probably generate improvements up to a certain point, it is not likely that our technically conditioned world could survive, let alone develop further, if we ever succeeded in convincing ourselves that man is primarily a practical being”.17

Technology had its origin in architecture as construction; as a process of putting a building together, as fabrication. In its original sense, its connotations are similar to those of craft. Although modern man has stopped associating construction with craft, such an association is important for our present discourse if we want to free construction from the realm of the practical. Craft conjures up images of things made by human hand (as in handicrafts) and thus brings in the sensuality of the bodily involvement in the act of making. It also is closely related to art (as in arts and crafts) suggesting its transcendental role. Interestingly, in the Greek language both art and craft are referred to by the same word. Martin Heidegger has pointed out that “ the Greeks, who knew quite a bit about works of art, use the same word techne for craft and art and call the craftsman and the artist by the same name: technites.18 Thus the word techne symbolized a relationship of inseperability between construction and design well understood by the ancients. As Gevork Hartoonian has noted, “…the Vitruvian trinity is not a theoretical abstraction on the aesthetic function of architecture. Rather venustas, utilitas and firmitas are the formative themes of an architectural knowledge in which style is integrated with the rules of gravity and the property of materials. In fact they provide the conceptual means of transmuting the contingent reality of construction, elevating building into architecture.”19

Thus techne, the root word for technology, did not refer to the instrumentality of construction: construction as means. It in fact referred to the unity of means and end symbolized by the word Design. Design thus presupposes, and incorporates, construction: it was the process that brought about the product. The technites knew that the production process necessarily precedes the actual existence of every object but will always be absorbed by and disappears in the object. Design thus is a far more inclusive word and Making is an integral part of it. Devoid of tectonic design looses its meaning for thus it will not have the mandatory concrete, sensuous presence which only can offer bodily experience.

But such sense experience is not enough by itself. It must inevitably lead to contemplation of an idea in the subjects’ mind. This implies that the sensuous environment is not only organized, that is to say deliberately and willfully designed, but also that the objective of this design is aimed at communication and contemplation. But here we run into a curious paradox; while the rationalist renunciation of the senses for the purpose of knowing severed the connection between thought and sense experience, all the discussions regarding the meaning in architecture of the neo-rationalist avant-garde ended up revolving around the relationship between form and function, whereas all considerations of design, as a way of communicating and contemplating an order of the built environment, was altogether eliminated. Function has been held to give meaning to form, while form has been held to express function.

Such a proposition is founded on an assumption that modern architecture is the culmination of an historical process in which the natural relationship between form and function has been constant. But as we have seen above, one of the most persistent claims of modern architecture has been its deliberate and radical break from the past and its almost authoritarian prohibition of all historical, stylistic and rhetorical reference in its task of discovering a new universal language “which would reconcile the demands of “nature” and “reason’ with the fact that culture was subject to historical evolution”.20 The protagonists of the Modern architecture contemptuously divided the history of architecture into a wholly irrational past and a wholly rational future. Questions of representation, figuration and ornaments were relegated to the category of irrational and prohibited. Abstraction, a non-figurative ‘mapping of essences’ became the order of the day.

Thus, to quote Hannah Arendt again, the paradox of “utility established as meaning generates meaninglessness”, has come to take its revenge in the Post-Modernist reaction against the functionalist doctrine by returning to the use of stylistic elements borrowed from the past.

But rhetoric and figuration, as aesthetic tools, are not to be underestimated. It is only when their use is syntactic, as in the case of “quotations” from our academic dictionary of elements together with functionalist plan forms, that it becomes problematic. To the extent that it is motivated by a need to reintroduce cultural meaning into architectural configuration, one can have no argument with the tendency. But these “quotations” tend to be independent of the culture, i.e. the specificity of the place and time of their use.

The classical theory of rhetoric mandates a distinction between what can be imagined and what can be thought. It also presupposes complementarities between the two modes of knowledge; neither can be substituted for the other. Both must co-exist as a necessary pre-condition for the advancement of knowledge. This duality of the modes of knowledge was one of the crucial casualties of rationalist renunciation of the senses inherent in the Cartesian revolution. This distinction between imagination and thought is the basis for considering architecture as a knowledge system whose language is the sensuous forms of our built environment.

Here I must hasten to correct a possible (mis) impression that Modern architecture was so abstract as to be completely devoid of any sensuous immediacy. That is certainly not the case and It will be wrong to assume this. A single example will borne this out. The reflectivity of the highly polished marble and the equally reflective chrome platted cladding of the steel columns at the German pavilion at Barcelona deny these materials their inherent materiality of being impenetrably solid. This, together with the part opaqueness of the tinted glass suggests an ambiguity, which has nothing to do with functionalism. As Demetri Porphyrios has remarked, “…in the aesthetics of Modern architecture reinforced concrete and the curtain-wall remain what they are: facts of industrial production. The conception of Modern architecture as dealing with facts and nothing but facts may seem rational enough but has nothing to do with abstraction. If anything, the ‘facts’ of technology carry an unmistakable realism that is dated and, therefore, not general enough to warrant the use of the term ‘abstraction’. ……architecture always works with the ‘facts’ of technology. But the sympathy architecture always has with technology is not instanced by the literal adaptation of technological ‘facts’. Instead, architecture receives from technology ‘facts’ and returns to the world forms.”21

The polemics of the Modern architecture, however, suggest a more positivistic view of technology. Writing in the bauhaus journal, its newly appointed head, Hannes Meyer writes, “architecture as an ‘emotional act of the artist’ has no justification. Architecture as ‘a continuation of the traditions of building’ means being carried along by the history of architecture. This functional, biological interpretation of architecture as giving shape to the functions of life, logically leads to pure construction: this world of constructive forms knows no native country. It is the expression of an international attitude in architecture. Internationality is the privilege of the period. Pure construction is the basis and the characteristic of the new world of forms.”22

Clearly, seeing technology through the filters of functionalism and the abstraction inherent in internationalism, seems to have prevented Modern architecture from realizing the true relationship between technology and architecture and between construction and design.

While rational representations, by their very nature, rely on definitions, bounding and completeness the sensuous on the other hand, demand ambiguity and are necessarily incomplete. The incompleteness is the function of the different mediums of execution of all arts. Painting, for example, represents reality through the medium of line and color, sculpture through relief, music by means of sound and poetry by means of language. Architecture, thus, represents reality through the medium of tectonics.23 The limitations as well as the potentiality of each of these art forms, the limited range of means, materials and techniques used by each, determine their uniqueness in being a unique yet limited representation of reality. The use of rhetoric and figuration is best made within the bounds of this uniqueness. Modern architecture, by discarding representation, blurred the distinction between the facts and forms while Post-modern architecture sought to saturate the imagery by expanding the boundaries and encroaching on other forms of arts. The ‘saturation’ of imagery was supposed to ‘mirror’ the life in the late 20th century bombarded with supposedly disjointed images.

But such literal interpretation of ‘realism’ misses the point. Cubism ‘represented’ the same reality of disjointedness by creating a visual order which tells us about the impossibility of seeing life steadily and seeing it as a whole. Literature too represented it as a ‘stream of consciousness’, without beginning, middle or end, by creating a literary order. Giacometti’s lean bronze human figures conveyed the essential loneliness of modern man. Each one of these is a partial representation within the limits set by the medium of execution specific to the art form. Thus representation necessarily involves taking the given reality to a higher level of generality, of abstraction, and re-presenting it through the means specific to the art. The medium of representation specific to architecture is tectonic construction. It is far from creating a mirror image of life as it is.

At this point I would like to propose a tripartite ‘definition’ of architecture. Architecture is initiated by a people’s need for shelter, is sustained by the logic of construction and is made meaningful by being rooted in the time and the place of its making. From this several consequences follow the most important of which is that not all buildings we see around us can be called architecture. A building must transcend the initial conditions of its utilitarian cause of providing shelter. Seen in this light, may be the causality inherent in Louis Sullivan’s famous jingle, “form follows function” does make sense though not in the same way as the functionalists wanted it to be understood.

The second consequence concerns tectonics. The logic of construction implies that the particularities of individual solutions to any shelter needs are superceded by an empirical judgement about the ‘right' way of putting a building together. That is to say that of all the various building solutions tried out by a society in response to the specific needs of shelter and occupation of space, a few emerge over time that carry currency and agreement about their being more appropriate than the others. The particular experience of a people is sublimated and it emerges as ‘type’ which in turn forms part of the collective memory of a people. This is the first tentative transformation of a building into architecture. The Ionic or Corinthian capital of the Greeks, the Papyrus column of the Egyptians and the ribbed vault of the rock-cut Chaitya hall of Ajanta in India are the evidences of such transformations. They are celebrations of the collective memories of similar construction using different materials. In that sense, they constitute the rhetoric in architecture. The facts of collective experiences sublimated into rhetorical forms.

The very act of conceptualizing an idea and its crystallization into temporal forms is a far more complex process than we realize. It is synchronic and cyclical in nature as opposed to diachronic and linear as in the case of technical inventions. Such a process requires a catalyst - a metaphor or a model - that can trigger a revelation. In other words, a designer is not expected to start with a clear knowledge of what he is looking for – a sense may be but not knowledge, which calls for a clearly definable, a priory statement of an idea. Nor is he aware of what may guide his choices. Remember Corbu’s famous proposition “Creation is a patient search”? I believe, what he meant was that an artist is searching for that sense of order and this search ends precisely at the moment he arrives at an image, which shows him in temporal and sensuous form what he has been searching for. Thus making of the image precedes the articulation of the idea. The making itself is the search and it follows no logical path. It is full of exploration, struggle and frustration requiring patience. The memories contained in the tectonics of earlier construction practices, collectively agreed upon as appropriate, provide the model which is transformed as figuration. It is the re-presentation of an idea, which itself was realized through the making of tectonic images. But the important point is that this representation is done without violating the boundaries of tectonic discipline.

The third consequence of my tripartite definition has to do with meaning. Here I want to use an example to make a point; Mies van der Rohe’s corner detail at the Crown Hall in Chicago. It has all the qualities of tectonic rhetoric. The fact that, soon after its execution, it was appropriated by the American construction industry as a standard, “readymade” detail, implies that its immediate utilitarian origin was soon transcended and it had received the node of ‘agreement’ from the society about it being an appropriate way of doing things. In a span of a few decades, it has gone beyond being merely a well detailed corner and has acquired an iconic status. Though, unlike the Greek, Egyptian or Indian examples mentioned above, there is an absence of a direct stylistic reference from a time-tested precedent. However, it must be remembered that, the very denial of the need for such historical sanction, inherent in all forms of eclecticism, was one of the corner stones of the modernist ideology. Denying cultural relativism, the avant garde of the early 20th century had “sought a new definition of style which would reconcile the demands of “nature” and “reason” with the fact that culture was subject to historical evolution”.24

Still Mies’s corner detail is not without precedent. Its model can be found in countless examples of well crafted buildings such as the Shaker celebration of making . The logic of construction sustains all such architecture. Their meaning is derived from being rooted in the time and the place of their making.

The role of reason in design has to be defined on its own terms rather than that of science or technology. There are enough reasons and studies in the last several decades to conclude that the methods employed by science and technology on one hand and the creative arts on the other are diametrically opposed to each other in their relationship between the concepts and the tangible, corporeal forms that are produced by both. While science begins with ideas and concepts and, through technology, seeks to create objects and events (transformation of the physical environment) , arts seek to project an idea (of order, unity, a society built on a different set of value) through the sensuous forms.25 In other words “thinking” and “doing” have different relationship in science and in arts.

Almost all our high schools, and the family too, have taught us to think before doing anything. Thinking through anything prior to doing has become a second nature. But in architecture the sequential relationship between thinking and doing is often reversed; in fact it is so in all creative disciplines. An architect often explores through a sketch or a model (an action) and then ponders (thinking) about its consequences. Doing precedes thinking or rather they both are reciprocal and feed on each other. I have a name for such a process. Let us call it “reflective action”; an action that critically reflects upon itself;a design action, which is both a cause as well as a consequence of a well-considered critical evaluation of its suitability and supportability in a given situation. This critical evaluation does not come in abstraction. In fact imagination is never stimulated in abstraction; it needs a concrete image, a model or a precedent.

Thus architecture must regain it destination and direction lost in the mid-eighteenth century and reclaim its legitimate position as a Design discipline. This is not to devalue the role of technology in architecture but only to place technology in the context of design. Nor does it advocate against the application of reason in design. Rational architecture is “characterized so not only because of its capacity to employ the rules of rationality, the rules of logic. It is more related to the application of induction, analysis, comparison, observation and experimentation (aspects which are derived from the nature of the mind) to design activity.”26 Design must take the centre stage. Just as a textile designer has to be proficient in textile technology and a product designer must internalize all the materials and technologies he has to work with, an architectural designer will have to continue to be good at all the technical requirements of his profession. But that will have to be the minimum requirement and not an end in itself. It will have to be seen in the context of design, i.e. design, through the medium of tectonics, bringing order to our built environment.

A chance encounter with the works of Santiago Calarava triggered these arguments. Let us see how they fare against the application of my tripartite definition. One of the earliest works, the doors of Fabbrica Ernstings in Coesfeld, Germany, contains the beginnings of a development, which culminates in a series of mobile roof elements transcending the relatively modest size and programs of these building. Similarly, the imaginative and yet rigorous application of contemporary construction practices make the larger projects such as the Cathedral in New York, the Reichstag in Berlin or the series of bridges all over Europe regain their role as unmistakable public markers in our urban landscape regaining the public space for architecture. Their existential rootedness in the ‘here and now’, the uncompromising contemporariness of their construction suggesting a self-confident coming together of architecture and technology in these works, are significant steps in removing the infirmities set in the body of architecture since the eighteenth century.

  • 1. Luca Molinari. “Santiaqgo Calatraqva” Skira Architecture Library, 1998.
  • 2. Ibid. P. 9.
  • 3. Fear of Freedom Eric Fromm.
  • 4. Ulrich Conrads. “Programs and manifestoes on 20th Century architecture”, The MIT Press, Cambridge, 1970
  • 5. Romaldo Giurgola, “Praxis” Journel of Columbia School of Architecture. 1976.
  • 6. Kenneth Frampton, “Modern Architecture, A Crital History”. Oxford University Press. 1980. p. 12.
  • 7. Tzonis, Alexander. “towards a non oppressive environment”. ipress. Boston, (1972) . p. 12.
  • 8. Andrea Memmo “Elements of Lodoli’s Architecture…” Quoted by A. Tzonis. Op.cit. p. 68
  • 9. Ibid
  • 10. M.A. Laugier. Quoted by A. Tzonis. Op Cit. p. 69
  • 11. Gevork Hartoonian. Ontology of Construction. Cambridge, p. 5
  • 12. Jeremy Bantham, An Introduction to the Principles on Morals and Legislation. Quoted by A. Tzonis. Op. Cit. p. 78
  • 13. W.R. Letharby, Design and Industry.
  • 14. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition. Chicago, 1958. p.154.
  • 15. G. Dalton ” (ed.) “The Economy as Instituted Process” in “Essays of Karl Polanyi (1968)
  • 16. Tzonis, Alexander. Op cit. p.13
  • 17. Hannah Arendt, “The Human Condition”. Chicago Press. 1971. p. 289.
  • 18. Martin Heidegger, “Poetry, Language, Thought” .Harper, 1975. p. 59.
  • 19. Gevork Hartoonian, “Ontology of Construction”. p. 7.
  • 20. Alan Colquhoun, “Form and Figure” Opposition 12, 1978.
  • 21. Demetri Porphyrios, Building and Architecture, AD.
  • 22. Hannes Meyer, “Building”, Bauhaus, year 2, No. 4. As quoted in Ulrich Conrads, Programs and manifestoes on 20th. cent. Architecture.
  • 23. I owe this line of argument to Gevork Hartoonian and Demetri Porphyrios, Op. Cit.
  • 24. Alan Colquhoun. Op. cit.
  • 25. Claude Levi-Stauss, “The Savage Mind”.
  • 26. Tzonis, Alexander. Op cit. p.59