Why Are Some Buildings More Interesting than Others?

Kurt W. Forster

Any claims we make for buildings that fascinate us and that we find worthy of reflection prove hard to substantiate when our audience has little or no knowledge of the subject or does not incline to our point of view. Being methodical in our effort at persuasion—as I shall attempt to be here—prompts us to adopt a manner of discourse that has become customary in history and criticism, although it may not make us more persuasive as a result: even though the conventions of historical and critical discourse are no less rigorous than those of other disciplines, we tend to preach to the converted, or at least, to the enthusiastic novice. Nevertheless, there is no reason why we should speak about architecture as if it took nothing to grasp the subject or command a personal view, when we routinely concede that people cannot know anything about the stock market, the legal system, or the psychology of delinquents unless they immerse themselves in these subjects. As a first step, we should identify exactly what the object of our fascination is, which traits of a building define its character and suggest connections with the experiences and ideas it elicits. Clarity (of exposition) and knowledge (of history, perception, and thought) are indispensable but hardly sufficient. We depend almost as much on intuition, on hunches we can test, and on a venturesome taste for things we haven’t set out to find.

Extensive knowledge alone cannot produce serendipitous finds. Occasionally, our hunches lead nowhere, but at other times they help free us of conventional views. Still, extensive knowledge has precious little to do with elitism, and everything to do with the rise in the 19th century of the professions and with the complexity of their activities, which has created a world of extreme specialization.

Everyone specializes—as Marilyn Monroe sang so coyly in Let’s Make Love—not just people like opera singers, manufacturers, architects, and surgeons. Most specialists are specialists because they remain reluctant to share their knowledge with “outsiders.” Have you ever met an expert on audio equipment who would stoop to give you a full version of his knowledge? Why should we expect architects and their critics to do what others clearly cannot do without sending us to the library? Perhaps it is because architecture is so omnipresent in our lives that buildings have become our “second nature”—so much so that, affecting us unconsciously, they seem frequently to obscure both nature and our own predicament.

In its mediating role between nature and artifice, architecture is capable of representing natural phenomena and our ever-changing perceptions and images of them. To single out one aspect of this capacity: natural and artificial materials have been employed in diverse ways to “stand in for” nature and artifice. Even after spending more and more of our time in highly artificial environments, we remain amazingly alert to the properties and effects of materials, as if we retained a kind of reptilian capacity to feel, without touching, the warmth of a stone. Idly waiting at a bus stop, we may suddenly notice the effects of weathering and decay on a building we otherwise pass by heedlessly. A brief pause on the street tempts us to reconfigure broken architectural parts and imaginatively reassemble them in an image of their original whole. Much of what we do in such moments relies on sidelong glances and approximations, and on memory and imagination, but the inadvertent way a street corner or a campus gateway imbeds itself in the mind can tell us much about the potential of architecture. As we recognize how firmly architecture guides our steps, frames our views, and makes material things intelligible, we are more able to gauge the abundance of meanings that emanate from every building. Architecture has become our habitat and therefore—to emphasize the point—one of the principal mediators between nature and human civilization. Where the respective weights of nature and civilization are located in such mediations depends as much on how we construct these notions as on the fabric of architecture itself.

I am hoping to convey how building materials are perceived within a web of ideas and how unusual, even startling, features in their display can challenge our understanding. Some puzzling aspect can make a building resist our usual rush to classify it, until we recognize just how this irritant feature inflects the relationship of nature and artifice. After all, materials can be employed in diverse ways, either to reveal or conceal certain qualities, to impart or repel notions we wish to form of their meaning. As we project our reading on a building, we articulate and continually adjust our interest. The “value” we derive from our perceptions will make our interest in a building wax or wane (and not always in predictable ways). A key monument from the history of architecture may offer us a swift passage to the heart of this matter.

It would have made no sense for Sebastiano Serlio to describe the recently erected Palazzo del Te (1526-34)—Giulio Romano’s fabulous estate for the Gonzagas of Mantua—as “a mixture half of nature and half of artifice,”1 if nature had not meant raw materiality, uncouth labor, and potentially destructive force. “Artifice,” on the other hand, is implied in the definitive transformation of materials in accordance with an idea, a work accomplished by means of extreme refinement. Neither nature nor artifice holds full sway over this building; rather, a mingling of the two creates a sense of tension. This tension arises from discrepancy, a discrepancy Giulio Romano pushed to paradoxical extremes in his later work. What makes those works paradoxical is that more than one place and several different purposes must be assigned to their component parts for them to make sense, and yet they continue to resist resolution within the logic of the design. Broken pediments with no trace of the forces that fractured them and irregularly placed windows that are nonetheless equidistant from adjacent pilasters are cases in point. The specific character of the Palazzo del Te derives from the incongruous presence of the raw in the refined. The gap between the two also reveals a deepening divide in the ways in which nature was conceived by philosophers and artists, creating an ever-widening breach between observation and explanatory schemes, between intrinsic function and attributed meaning. That contemporary scientific thinking had begun to change fundamental conceptions of human anatomy and the cosmos—to mention only the most revolutionary domains of 16th-century science—casts a raking light over the antinomies that Giulio Romano belabored in his architecture. Parallel to the study of human anatomy—called a fabrica, an edifice, by Vesalius—in which bones were classified in categorical ways, independent of their local functions, an architectural vocabulary evolved in which new meaning could be constructed by altering architectural syntax and inflecting its idiom.

Where natural processes are being imagined within architecture, they begin to make sense as both radically different from, and rhetorically integral to, their subjugation in artifice. Crude rustication and inexplicable gaps, falling triglyphs, irregular bays, and fantastic decor fall into place in the Mantua palazzo—an architecture that raises the curtain on a novel kind of theater: the spectacle of nature as incessant change, measured by its own limitless time. A fresh look at a Renaissance building like the Palazzo del Te suggests meanings quite different from those prevailing in modern interpretations. Where Ernst Gombrich, Nikolaus Pevsner, and many others in their wake rushed to psychological explanations, seeking the basis of Giulio’s design in the (hypothetical) domain of his private feelings and experiences, my reading returns to references current in the architect’s time. Responding to these clues, we can examine the conventions of design, its linguistic elements, and their wider implications. These implications bring the significance(s) of those contemporary references to the surface. On this surface of meaning, concepts of nature and fate are bonded to materials and time by means of new combinations. Where rusticated blocks retain an erratic presence within smoothly stuccoed walls, or modest openings cause compressions beneath them, conventional architectural parlance yields to forces outside of its domain.

It would be shortsighted to speak of willfulness, fancy, and insider jokes—although they too have a share in the mix of impressions. What tips the balance in favor of another reading is the emotive power evoked by the cast of architectural characters Giulio brought to the arena of his design. Were he less ingenious in his manipulation, and less inventive in his harnessing of tensions and contradictions (the glue between the fractured parts of his buildings), we might be tempted to dismiss the operation as a piece of effrontery. But because the conjunctions he has created so disarm our logic while engaging our imagination, we vicariously experience the collapse of one world and the adumbration of another. Giulio Romano’s architecture demonstrates at once a process of dissolution—as he undermines the architectural assumptions of the early 16th century—and a new hypothesis about the very content of architectural design. What surfaces in his designs is nothing less than a manifestation of the ever-irresolvable mediation of apparently inert matter and experiential time. Giulio did not simply translate a notion that already existed as such in the scientific terms of his day, but instead made analogous notions visible and tangible within architecture. This is a step that might provisionally be called an act of imaginative transmission.

If I now jump to an altogether different place and time, I do so to make a distinction about the nature of such transmissions by comparing two projects by Peter Eisenman. Both have remained on the drawing board and both were made for Frankfurt am Main. The first, the 1987 Bio-Center, translated graphic symbols used in genetics into their volumetric equivalents; the second, a 1990 development scheme for an area near the Frankfurt Fairgrounds, subjects a field of nearly half a million square meters to a process of transformation. Whereas the Bio-Center gives a schematic illustration (rationalizing its abstract matrix as a network of functions), the Rebstockhelände actualizes the notion of geological process. The earlier project closes a fairly long search for schematic translations of fixed charts (Romeo and Juliet, 1985; the 1986 University Museum at the California State University at Long Beach); in contrast, the Rebstockhelände is a kind of flow-chart. The decisive difference lies in the fact that Eisenman abandoned the static types of mapping—which, as it were, freeze-dry any sense of time—in favor of the tracings of precisely their temporal relationships. The key factor in their genesis is time, or rather the times of different processes, not the fixed schemes of their representation. Eisenman sought to surpass an abstract order, whose parts are twice removed from the reality they designate (as in the Bio-Center, where a molecular structure is transcribed into symbols, and these, in turn, are translated into the three-dimensional parts of a building), through an eminently physical manifestation of the imaginary—the imaginary being a landscape within the natural setting of the Main Valley, occupied by buildings whose shapes emerge directly from the implied notion of gradually subsiding flux. One sees affinities with the work of the artist Robert Smithson, whose Spiral Jettyprompted Craig Owens to observe that “the work appears to have merged physically into its setting, to be embedded in the place where we encounter it.”2 This particular merging does not abolish, however, the dialectic between work and site; on the contrary, it exploits it for “allegorical” ends.3 We shall need to return later to this prickly term.

The main thread in Eisenman’s transformation of his architecture leads us to reflect on natural processes and their representation within architecture. The processes I’m speaking about occur almost always within time spans too slow or fast for observation with the naked eye. Through an imaginative leap, and increasingly with the help of technology (such as photography used to capture movement, or CAD software used to “rotate” and illuminate a design), motion is represented as a series of points in time. Recording such processes not only reveals unobservable moments, but also imparts an imaginary dimension to them. It could be said that all visualizations (of natural processes) produce new images that are often quite remote from the things they represent. As a celebrated case in point, Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) visualizes movement in a way that would be unthinkable without photographic technology. The advantage of this visual fiction lies in its overlay of moments in time, and therefore in its capacity to trace motion. Throughout the century, architects too have sought to deploy stationary elements so as to simulate motion and the flux of time.

As early as his series of houses, Eisenman initiated a process of geometric transformation from an initial split, a separation of the cube from itself. By making a fairly neutral form discrepant with itself, he blocked off the idea of a unitary origin, for one could cling to the notion of the cube’s identity only by abolishing the constitutive distance of form from itself. At the very moment when he put his assumptions forward, Eisenman suggested a fundamental cleavage of form from meaning. Dichotomous to the core, his proposition raised an issue within architecture that had come to inform contemporary life in general. From his very first projects, he wanted his architecture to accomplish a transmission between hidden conditions and overt experiences. This recognition could articulate itself in many different ways, as indeed it did, when Robert Venturi reacted to the same basic condition by opening the volière of historic birds and declaring a new mating season of form with form, indifferent to the meaning of their offspring.

The new options that Eisenman later opened up for his architecture broke with his early iteration of geometries and engendered work of equal internal complexity but even greater significance. The projects for the Reinhardt Haus in Berlin (1992) and the Visitor Center on Staten Island (1998) deploy their structural properties as manifestations of a postindustrial understanding of production. To be sure, the transition from serviceable structure to its image has been amply demonstrated in works by Jean Nouvel, Herzog & de Meuron, and many others. English high-tech architecture paved the way to an imagery that offers a facsimile of its conceptual conditions (even at great structural expense), and the widespread treatment of facades as computer screens—and the corresponding accommodation of functions as if they were the letters of a keyboard—only goes to show that tectonics in its classic sense can no longer be claimed as the fulcrum of architecture. On the contrary, structural mechanics become either invisible (just as typewriters shed their mechanical claptrap and transmogrified into laptops) or transformed into mere rigs on which to suspend the equipment for atmospheric effects.

A building by Herzog & de Meuron is a telling example of such transformations—the electronic Signal Box (designed 1988-89; built 1992-95) in the railroad signal yard at Basel. The architects decided to emphasize the delicacy of its equipment and the distance of the building from the operations it controls by means of an image: like a Faraday cage that renders its inside immune to the surrounding electric discharges, the Signal Box is wrapped in horizontal bands of copper. Only toward the middle of each facade are these strips raised like the blades of a vertical blind, allegorizing the jealous protection of the inside while allowing a glance down to the rail yard. Wrapping a thing to protect it must be one of the oldest activities of our species. In his 1860 book, Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts, Gottfried Semper made the point that “the decoration of the strap is partly dependent on its band-like form and should be consistent with this form. Above all, it should remain surface decoration and not disrupt the intent of the strap; it should imitate its function as a band.”4 To the extent that this ancient idea of protecting an object through wrapping is now transposed into the realm of invisible forces, a distant datum of human experience (of nature) is transmitted into architecture.

On the other hand, in Herzog & de Meuron’s silk-screened leaf silhouettes on the facade panels of the Shipping Center at Mulhouse-Brunstatt for the Ricola Company (France, 1993-94), the architects merely apply a familiar organic image on a building for a manufacturer of herbal throat drops—this is an instance of a rather mechanical translation of form. When they perform the aboriginal act of wrapping an object they consider exposed to the forces discovered by Faraday, however, the architects suggest something about the invisible workings of electricity and our perception of them. Electrical currents are harnessed to advanced technical ends, but their housing is still fashioned from one of the oldest textile techniques. As if the ghost of Gottfried Semper’s theory had returned in this shroud for electricity, the Signal Box gleams during the day in its impenetrable metallic sheen and coalesces at night into a spectral monolith. No literary tropes and ornamental flourishes are pressed into service in order to effect this transmission of meaning.

How could the creation of a mere image—of organic continuity between nature and edifice, in the case of the Shipping Center for Ricola—be considered on a par with the genuine idea these architects produced about the functioning of a railroad signal box? As a matter of fact, their exceptional building, which remains as inaccessible to the viewer as it is indispensable to railroad operations, betrays a host of implications about control in general, and about its increasing invisibility, just when its deployment has reached ever more massive proportions. Never mind the science of Faraday, which is transposed into the infinitely more ancient practice of protective wrapping; never mind the mysterious presence of a metallic hive in the midst of passing trains. Its contents have little rapport with its bulk, and its operations even less with its physical structure; thus an essential enigma remains. This impenetrable quality rewrites the equation of all its functions, invisible and symbolic, and yet preserves a fundamental impenetrability for the traveler’s passing glance. The Signal Box assumes the silent presence of a sanctuary in the desecrated terms of our time: what we have harnessed continues to escape our grasp. In its discrepant manifestation as architecture, the Signal Box codifies the powers it seeks to abolish by housing them in an inviolable shroud.

It is impossible to disregard what art has contributed to the making of this building. I would not hesitate to say that it derives much of its impact from a dual transmission: first, by a passage from ancient to modern technology (wrapping to copper banding), second, by extending the compass of contemporary references to include a transition from art to architecture. The Basel art community has long been interested in the work of Joseph Beuys. The former director of its municipal Museum, Franz Meyer, was among the first to acquire major works by Beuys for the collection. From their very beginnings as architects, Herzog & de Meuron have made a practice of culling much more from artistic practice than attitude and imagery. The work of Jannis Kounellis and Joseph Beuys lefttel quel (and telltale) traces in their architecture, even before Herzog & de Meuron began sustained collaborations with artists like the painter Rémy Zaugg. Beuys, moreover, had made inducing current in copper a favorite element of his work. In his shamanistic practices, Beuys enacted the invisible power of electricity in a manner that bears striking resemblance to Aby Warburg’s anxious perception of electricity in modern life; in 1923, Warburg, recalling his impressions of America in the 1890s, wrote, “the lightning captured in a wire, captive electricity, has created a culture that puts an end to paganism. What has taken its place? Natural forces are no longer seen in anthropomorphic or biomorphic shapes, but as infinite waves obedient to human touch.”5 One of nature’s still mysterious manifestations, electricity, and the high artifice of its domestication, electronics, fuse in the shape of the Basel Signal Box. This building recalls the hypothetical leap of homo faber from an instinctual life to a calculating existence as its copper wrapping momentarily gleams in enigmatic silence within the mechanical wasteland of the rail yard.

Herzog & de Meuron thus reconstruct nature and artifice in a manner that holds, balanced, the distinctiveness of each in the difference of the other. Beyond all obvious disparity of building type and historical time, we can still recognize how decisively architectural ideas interact with material conditions and imaginings about their nature. If Giulio Romano’s Palazzo del Te could be considered, among other things, as a site of conflict between nature and artifice, Herzog & de Meuron’s Signal Box locates an enigma in our own understanding of nature and artifice, of control and fate. Peter Eisenman’s concept for the Rebstock site in Frankfurt am Main, on the other hand, inscribes an imaginary geology within the natural one, and literally generates buildings from the myriad interferences among the forces he imagines on the site. A clear sign of change in the cultural significance of current architecture is the fact that architects are no longer content to articulate symbols of utility or the mechanics of construction. Other forces, chiefly invisible ones, have begun to manifest themselves through the physical properties and the experiential effects of buildings. A name for these transmitted meanings is hard to find, for they are as inseparable from the material nature and tangible qualities of a building as they are never fully coincident with them. Discrepancy, as a condition from which new meaning can emerge, suggests, however, the constructive use to which Craig Owens and others have put the concept of “allegory.”

Architecture of every kind answers to purposes, but we also make distinctions between the kind and the quality of purposes. Utility is only one among our expectations, and rarely the main, and indeed never the only purpose. Where architecture merely aligns itself with its own conditions—exhibiting little more than economy, efficiency, and ambition—it fails to mediate between its own material existence and our need to locate ourselves in the world. Only acts of imaginative transmission allow us to figure out how we came to fall into the place we occupy and what prospects lie before us. The value we attribute to any building also implies a recognition of imaginative acts. Imaginative buildings speak about the realm of nature as a domain of civilization, not as something infinitely removed or heedlessly replaced, and they engage our senses by means of ingenious inscriptions of many-layered meanings no one can grasp, much less exhaust, at a glance.

Harvard Design Magazine Issue No. 1
Issue No. 1