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Wittkower’s theory of architecture

Wittkower’s theory of architecture


[MUSIC PLAYING] ERIKA NAGINSKI: My name is Erika Naginski. I am Professor of Architectural History at the Graduate School of Design and the Director of the PhD program in Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Urbanism. Today, we’re going to be talking about the relationship of a book that was published in 1949 by Rudolf Wittkower entitled “Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism” and its characterization of the Renaissance architect. As we’ll see, this is a book that had an extraordinary impact on two distinct groups. The first was the Renaissance architectural historian. This book offered a new approach to the way we understand the architecture of the 15th and the 16th century in Italy. The other group was the modernist architect. It is strange to think that a book on the Renaissance might have an impact on modernist thinking, but this book revolutionized our understanding of geometry, modular pattern, and the ways in which diagrams can be used to explain the work of the architect. Two things to say about this book. The first is that it was highly invested in an abstract and intellectual approach to the Renaissance. It underscored the rise of theory in the 15th and 16th century, and the ways in which the works of a given architect might offer a coherent kind of investigation into a set of problems surrounding perspective, proportion, geometry, and the advent of ideal form and architecture. This highly abstract approach had repercussions. What it means, ironically, is that Wittkower was absolutely disinvested from the complexities of history. He was not interested in the cultural context out of which architecture arose. He does not delve into patronage, religious history, the monastic orders, particular events that might have marked the Renaissance. Instead, he steps back to analyze architectural form as an autonomous project. At the heart of this approach is the notion of the paradigm. The word paradigm comes from the Greek. It means both pattern and to show side-by-side. In the latter definition, really get a sense of a comparative approach, that to put two things together means essentially the creation of a synthesis. So the word ultimately serves to underscore the creation of an outstanding example of something. Of a model, a standard, an epitome, an ideal, a paragon. The assumption on Wittkower’s part is that Renaissance architects were after such paradigms, that they sought and developed them, and ultimately, through that process, were after the core principles of architectural form. By the same token, what’s also true is that Wittkower’s very own approach became paradigmatic. In other words, it offered a standard means of approaching the historical past, of interpreting the past, and even of generating form itself. How do we understand this book? Is it an interpretation of Renaissance architecture? Is it a template for modernist architectural thinking? What we can say is that Wittkower’s is a broad attempt to characterize the theory of architecture as it emerged in the 15th and 16th century in a distinct set of places. In Florence, in Rome, and in Venice. Furthermore, the book is broken up into four chapters that deal with issues that Wittkower took to be absolutely fundamental. First, there is the question of symbolism. In other words, how buildings mean. The second chapter looks at the problem of the appropriation of form. In other words, how did architects look back to the deep past, and in particular, to the pagan classical past, seize that tradition, reinterpret in syntax and reinvent classicism as a system. Third, the question of typology and the development of building types. Are we talking about churches? Are we talking about villas? Are we talking about institutional buildings? And lastly, the question of proportion. The geometric ideal. The question of measure. And while any number of architects, buildings, texts are invoked in his book, it’s also clear that there are essentially two key players in his narrative. The first we’ll talk about today is Alberti, a theorist and an architect. A real Renaissance man. He was also a painter. And second, a Venetian architect from the 16th century named Andrea Palladio. These two figures essentially represent the whole of the Italian Renaissance for Wittkower, and when we think about that, we understand that Wittkower’s approach was essentially reductive. What might we expect the historian to garner from a picture of the Renaissance architect or the buildings that he erected? We might assume that the historian would be after a history of patronage, for example. A history of the politics that gave rise to a particular commission. Who would consider the great events that marked the 15th and 16th century. Changes in military technology. Also, the question of politics or religion during this period. The influence of the papacy. The rise of ducal states and their sense of an autonomy from the papacy. All of these are left out of Wittkower’s narrative. To read Wittkower is to see a process of mental abstraction at work. In other words, what Wittkower was after wasn’t the discrete cultural meaning of a particular building in a particular context. He’s not after giving us some real and robust sense of the 16th century world view. Instead, he wants to bring together the classical kit of parts that make a building formalize itself, that allow it to transform into the buildings we still have today. In other words, Wittkower is looking for a kind of deep structure, we might call it, that organizes architectural form. He’s going after the identification of their component parts. What is a portico? What is a column? This is why ultimately, he relies on diagrams to explain architecture. He looks through the complex appearance of a building like this in all its three-dimensionality and distills it into its most basic elements through plan, sometimes elevation. In other words, he develops a syntax, a language, a form. He’s interested in Renaissance architecture as an explicitly– and these are his words– as an explicitly “mathematical science which worked with spatial units.” Wittkower’s whole analysis along these lines can be understood as a philosophical exercise, not an historical analysis. In which thinking and reason emerge as the defining characteristics of the architect. And this is what’s demonstrated through the diagrams. Ultimately, what emerges from this is the autonomy of architecture itself. And we see this when we look at what his diagram of the Villa Cornaro does. You can see that he’s interested only in the plan. He cuts away the rear monumental staircase. He minimizes and essentially elides the entrance porch, takes away the column, and therefore anything that might signify a supportive function. He takes away the side wings. He takes away the poche, the scale, everything, in other words, that Palladio indicates in his plan and elevation. We want to think about how these diagrams give us a certain highly particular view of the Renaissance, which privileges geometry, all the way from its basic spatial units to the general order given to the universe by God.

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