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thoughts_on_a_non-arbitrary_architecture.pdf

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Thoughts on a Non-Arbitrary Architecture
Karsten Harries
Perspecta
, Vol. 20. (1983), pp. 9-20.
Perspecta
is currently published by Yale School of Architecture.Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available athttp://www.jstor.org/about/terms.html. JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtainedprior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content inthe JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use.Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained athttp://www.jstor.org/journals/ysoa.html.Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printedpage of such transmission.The JSTOR Archive is a trusted digital repository providing for long-term preservation and access to leading academic journals and scholarly literature from around the world. The Archive is supported by libraries, scholarly societies, publishers,and foundations. It is an initiative of JSTOR, a not-for-profit organization with a mission to help the scholarly community takeadvantage of advances in technology. For more information regarding JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.http://www.jstor.orgSat Sep 22 22:34:44 2007
 
Karsten Harries
9
Thoughts on
a
Non-Arbitrary Architecture
Caspar"Worna~David Friedrich,
n
at the Window".1822.fipecta:
The Yale Architectural Journal,
Volume
M
W79-0958/8312W09-01S3.WIO
O
1983
by Perspecla: The Yale Architectural Journal. Inc., and the Massachusens nstitute of
Technology
 
Karsten Harries
10
1Hermann Broch. "Hofmannsthal und seine Zeit."Gesammelte Werke, Essays, vol. 1 (Zurich: Rhein,1955).
p.
43.
2
See Helen Searing and Henry Hope Reed, Speaking a
New
Classicism: American Architecture
Now
(Northampton: Smith College Museum of Art, 1981).
3
Arthur Drexler, Transformations in ModernArchitecture (New York: The Museum of Modern Art,1979). p. 17.
1
Building at Linke Wienzeile
42.
Vienna.
1896-97.
street facade.
4William Hubbard, Complicity and Conviction: StepsToward an Architecture of Convention (Cambridgeand London: MIT Press, 19811, p.
5.
1
The Austrian novelist Hermann Brochsuggested that we may read the essenceof an age from its architectural fa~ades.'Applying this suggestion to what wasbuilt in Vienna in the last decades of thenineteenth century, he arrived at a verynegative judgment: only a decadentsociety could have produced such anarbitrary, eclectic, and theatrical architec-ture. This had been the heyday of neo-baroque, neo-renaissance, and neo-gothicbuilding. To Broch such a turn to the pastseemed the cynical attempt of a rationalage to cover up its own poverty. Reason,and this meant first of all economic con-siderations, determined what and howone built. But reason proved not enough,something was felt to be missing. So, anornamental dress was thrown over funda-mentally utilitarian structures, and lackingthe strength and conviction to create anornament and a style equal to what ear-lier ages had produced, architecture tookto borrowing. The riches of the past hadto compensate for the poverty of thepresent.Such negative comments on the eclecti-cism of the nineteenth century are part ofthe situation that led to the rise of themodern movement. Think of Adolf Loos'smuch more vehement attack on the samearchitecture criticized by Broch, or of thehopes that led to the establishment of theBauhaus: the modern world would finallyfind its own proper style. Gropius prom-ised to heal the rift between beauty andreason, form and function; once morearchitecture was to be all of a piece.Today, those dreams also belong to thehistory of architecture. We have learnedto look with different and more lovingeyes at architecture that to Broch dem-onstrated cynicism and the decadence ofthe age. But was he wrong? Or have wegrown only more resigned, not to say,more cynical?Today, the age that built Vienna's Ring-strasse, the age of operetta and the
Back-hendl
(the Vienna fried chicken), seemsquite wonderful if irretrievably lost;slipped away into a past when the Dan-ube was always blue (figure
1).
And,strangely enough, today we find archi-tects returning to the eclectic architectureof the nineteenth century somewhat asthe nineteenth century returned to thestronger styles of the preceding centuries.Eclecticism has been raised to a higherpower; so has arbitrariness. Historicismhas become meta-historicism. Considerwhat has been called "post-modernclas~icism."~There is an important difference betweenthis post-modern eclecticism and theeclecticism of the nineteenth century. Thenineteenth century took seriously the his-torical paradigms it had adopted, just asthose who insisted on the neo-gothic ar-chitecture of so many American collegecampuses still took its medieval precur-sors seriously, not only or even primar-ily as artistic models, but because theywanted to preserve at least a trace of theethos that produced the original. Todaysuch reverence for the past seems a bitna'ive. Not that we side with the harshcriticism directed against nineteenthcentury eclecticism by the ModernMovement; we lack the conviction suchfervor requires. Today most would agreethat Gropius and his co-fighters failed toresolve the tension between the func-tional and the aesthetic as they hadhoped. As Arthur Drexler remarks in
Transformations in Modern Architecture,
"We are still dealing with the conflict be-tween art and technology that beset thenineteenth centuryu3Once more there isa willingness to accept such tension andan architecture of decorated sheds; onceagain there is an attempt to relieve thedreariness of functional architecture withborrowed decoration, although todaythere is little conviction in such borrowing(figures). This may be put positively:post-modernist eclecticism takes itselfless seriously than its nineteenth centurypredecessors. It is freer, more playful, lessintimidated by the past. But, by the sametoken, it is also less convinced by its bor-rowing and less able to convince.2In
Complicity and Conviction
WilliamHubbard writes that "If there is onecharacteristic that links the diverse artmovements of the modernist period, it isperhaps a hyperawareness of the fact thatone's personal sensibility could havebeen otherwise. A modernist artist isso deeply aware of this possibility ofotherwise-ness that he feels a deep un-ease about simply accepting his own sen-sibility. He feels a need for some reasonthat will convince him that he ought tofeel one way and not an~ther."~hisstatement invites challenge: to be sure,there is greater awareness of the "pos-sibility of otherwise-ness," and it is notconfined to artists, but is simply a corol-

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