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The complexity of architectural form: some basic questions
V. Kulic Faculty of Architecture, University of Belgrade Belgrade, Yugoslavia Email: qulic@Eunet.yu
Abstract This paper explores some basic notions relevant for an investigation of the complexity of architectural form and of a way it changes through time. The hypothesis is that architectural forms within the same formal tradition tend towards more complex configurations with the passage of time. Relations between the elements of architectural form at early stages in the development of a stylistic tradition are simple; they get more complex with applications of methods such as superimposition and deformation of elements and by more abundant use of curving forms. Two stylistic traditions are used as examples: Classical (from the Renaissance to the Baroque) and Modern, although there are others as well.
The historical unfolding of art seems to be one of the most complex processes imaginable. Crucially dependent on cultural, technical, societal and political circumstances, not to mention the ever present subjective factor, this process is quite unpredictable, but at the same time far from chaotic. That there is a certain regularity in it is testified by the very history of art, which, as a discipline, is traditionally based upon the notions of style and movement, notions which represent the most widely recognised ways of systematisation in historical considerations of art and which introduce an element of order into it. Architecture seems to be especially convenient for such systematisation, probably because of its already inherent rationality. From Hegel to Sigfried Giedeon to Colin Rowe and others, there have been more than a few attempts to surpass purely stylistic classifications and to try to find more comprehensive ones. One such attempt, which initially inspired this work, was made by the Croatian architect, Nikola Polak, who claimed that architecture in Europe since the Renaissance has passed through three stylistic cycles, each consisting of three identical stages of degradation of three initial paradigms (Polak 1990). Although too strict and too “Hegelian”, Polak’s classification contains certain elements which can be recognized as
Received: 15 Jul 2000 Accepted: 01 Nov 2000 © Copyright 2001 http://www.complexity.org.au/vol08/kulic01/
So. Complexity and Architectural Form Our intuitive understanding tells us that some architectural forms are more complex than others. whether something is difficult to draw or difficult to build or difficult to perceive. Classicist and early Modernist architecture on the one side. The complexity depends on the type of difficulty we choose as relevant (i. because its cross-historical approach brings together the simplicity and rigour of the Renaissance. what is the criterion for the comparison of the complexity in this case? For the purpose of this problem I find very useful a very broad definition of complexity which was given by Bruce Edmonds from the Centre for Policy Modelling in Manchester. In this text I shall try to examine some basic theoretical issues of the complexity of form in architecture. 2. and then to be somehow presented to those who are actually to do the work. Art Nouveau and Deconstruction on the other.. due to the need to articulate large structures conceived by one man. we have to choose. Or is it because it is more difficult to build? A large-span suspended bridge is definitely more difficult to build than a stone gate. Edmonds (1998) says that complexity is “. here we have an interesting situation: it seems that one of the keys to dealing with the complexities of the history of architecture seems to be the complexity of architectural form and the way it changes with the passing of time.000 years ago. rather than the complexity of the actual physical system (i. but realised with the help of many others. we do not have to be interested in every little crack in the wall to discuss the complexity of a building). but in that case the complexity would depend on the eloquence and knowledge of the one who is describing it. But what exactly does that mean? Is it more complex because it takes more words to describe? Perhaps.).e. for example.Complexity International Volume 08 accurate. but as far as I know. This requires the final result to be more or less completely defined before any construction is begun. regardless of the specific styles. I shall try to replace Polak’s tripartite ideal schemes with an investigation of methods through which the complexity increases. in such considerations. some arched passage by Alberti is beyond discussion. such as Deconstruction.” This definition deals with one notion which is deeply embedded in the nature of architecture. for example. Besides that. 2.. Edmonds’s definition has three important consequences: 1. although it does not look more complex. This insight is almost trivial and can be also applied to other periods in the history of art and architecture. The centuries-long bond between architecture and geometry shows the crucial inter-dependence of the two disciplines and it is hardly surprising that it was architecture (in a very broad sense of the word) that gave an impetus for the emergence of geometry in Egypt some 5. drama and liberty of expression of the Baroque. because it is sufficiently comprehensive and suits divergent aspects of architecture.the difficulty associated with a model’s form given almost complete information about the data it formulates. The fact that Michelangelo’s motif on Porta Pia is more complex than. etc. What we measure is the complexity of the model. Architecture was perhaps the first human activity to develop the concepts of model or design. kulic01 –2– © Copyright 2001 . So. The design (as a drawn model) represents a description “in advance” and the most widely used ““language” for this description is geometry. and the formal elaboration. no one else has included the most recent developments.e.
However. the aim of the whole artistic engagement. What complicates this question is the fact that. is closely related to the desired perception of the form. while the drawings made for the building site have to describe the form in terms of building technology. this ‘distortion’ has recently turned into a completely new quality. The linguistic approach in the interpretation of architecture is very common and it deals with sets of (pre) established formal elements which. For example. just like computer science. very fashionable “distorted” forms are intended to be seen exactly that way – as regular bodies deformed by some outer force – but are not actually made that way. because they have quite different aims. Moreover. following very complex designs which are supposed to convince us of something else. and I would like here to make a distinction between the conceptual and execution design.Complexity International Volume 08 3. These two types of complexity – “conceptual” and “constructional” – besides being incomparable because of different languages. However. one of the basic problems was how to geometrically define these curves so that the prefabricated elements of the building’s outer shell could be actually produced. because their formal languages differ. This is sometimes the cause of a gap between the conceptual and actual (structural) complexity. The complexity of different models can be compared only if they are made within the same modelling language. although they naturally have similarities. like drawing an ellipse. but I would say that our perception can also be seen as a model-maker – the image we have of a building is actually the ultimate model. These two are not the same. He simply applied kulic01 –3– © Copyright 2001 . For example. in such cases have totally different structures. when combined. The design according to which something has to be built must describe the form in terms of a precise geometry and need not be necessarily connected to aesthetic considerations. Moreover. from the stylistic point of view. Conceptualisation and perception of the form are closely connected. if oriented towards form-making. since it only lays out a general idea of the form and operates with pre-established formal elements. to which I will return later. in which case it is only an approximation of the shape. The often-heard phrase “formal language” stems from this approach and implies the existence of a multitude of such languages. because the former is aimed at the latter. what are the model and the language if we want to consider the complexity of the architectural form? The design is surely one relevant model. The following example illustrates this quite clearly: Utzon’s Opera House in Sydney was conceptualised like a sculpture and its curves are a natural outcome of an “organic” design method. The complexity of this task was such that it took four years before Utzon finally found a simple enough solution using segments of the same spherical surface (Frampton 1995). it hardly makes any sense to compare two works which belong to different traditions. The relevant languages vary even more. apart from these “natural languages”. The conceptual design. between how something is perceived and how it is made. but rather operate with pre-established elements and relations between them. from those broadly used and known as styles. whose buildings are full of curves of all sorts. cannot be compared if we have a computer with some CAD program and if we have to use only standard drawing tools. although he never employed mathematicians to count them. On the other hand. they are created as positive statements of construction. we can always remember Gaudi. So. architecture also has its own “lower languages”. Conceptual design can easily be a not-veryprecise free-hand drawing. Or. create a piece of architecture. its “machine codes” and they depend on drawing/building techniques. the same task. when the construction was supposed to take place. to some very personal ones. this geometrical definition must correspond with the building technique which is in use. Both the designer and the one who perceives the work do not think in terms of precise measures and geometrical relations. there are various types of design.
it has to rest on a base and has to be finished by a cornice. Perhaps the best known among these traditions is so-called Classical architecture. paradigmatic group. What unifies each of these traditions. because it contains a set of architectural elements which stand at the architect’s disposal and a number of operations or allowed compositional rules for combining the basic elements. but their mutual combinations and juxtapositions. and only later it transforms itself into a positive statement. Classicism. etc. as in the case of the Gothic. with its numerous threads of development. Sometimes. is what was already mentioned as the “formal language”. the paradigmatic group emerges slowly and gradually and sometimes we can almost pinpoint the date of its birth. resulting in regular sequences of elements. if not a whole aedicule. To illustrate the above-said. or in more mathematical terms. It was based on two structural systems: post-and-lintel and arch (vault) and within them all the elements – columns.Complexity International Volume 08 some inventive building methods such as hanging ropes on their ends to get parabolas which. walls – got certain defined articulation. There are also others. as well as a number of other elements related to them. One of them is bilateral symmetry. The other is linear translation. a reaction against the existing practice. openings. arches. were never developed to the degree they reached in the period we are discussing here. which is indeed a long succession of styles: Ancient Greek. There are basically two ways for combining the elements or. or can be divided into smaller stylistic groups. Roman. Both of them were inherent to almost all architecture from very ancient times until recently. Mannerist. more specifically from Roman architecture. scientific paradigm. This means – in very rough terms – that if we want to build an outer wall. as was the case with Modern architecture. as in the Renaissance and later. outlined his beautiful arches. But the best example of how strictly this paradigmatic set is defined are the columns: they will have to belong to one of the famous five orders which prescribe their shape and proportions. such as the Byzantine. Sometimes it is defined very openly. more profoundly. when turned upside down. the Gothic. reflecting the symmetry of the human body. Baroque. Renaissance. let us examine the following two examples: The paradigmatic group of the Classical tradition from the Renaissance to Baroque and Classicism was largely adopted from Antiquity. the Modern. if we want to make an opening in it. Trying to avoid sometimes tricky linguistic references and paraphrasing Thomas Kuhn’s term. once formed. In any case. such as colonnades and arcades. sometimes bridging centuries and continents. when almost every major theoretician of architecture of the time had an obsession to prescribe a standardised set of architectural elements. Paradigmatic group The history of architecture recognises several large traditions which contain a number of styles each. then this opening must have at least a modest relief profile around it. etc. 1). as we shall see. kulic01 –4– © Copyright 2001 . to use mathematical term. On the other hand. an idea that such a thing as “ideal architecture” exists (Fig. or even something more elaborate. the paradigm may emerge as a negation. 3. we may call these common features a formal paradigm. with its numerous local schools. the paradigm governs and marks the whole architectural tradition until the moment when it finally gets worn out and abandoned. The fact that virtually every major theoretician of architecture of the time presented his own version of the five orders clearly illustrates the strong need to standardise ideal elements of architecture and. with its several chronological phases. a minimum of common formal features whose persistence determines the longevity of the tradition. two geometrical transformations. which itself was inherited and adapted from the Greeks.
and finally. 2). Firstly. volumes – and there should be nothing that disturbs their abstractness. Their definition of the “International style” included several principles. Once this difference was observed. and some more descriptive terms must be used because of two reasons: firstly. from the formal point of view. it was defined largely as a negation. but the most important are architecture as volume and avoiding of decorative application. perhaps the best formulation of what would become a new paradigm was given by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson in 1932. who made the first steps towards dismantling traditional quadrilateral rooms into compositions of abstract planes. However. if we abandon the need to create a totally comprehensive theory. The treatment of openings in the walls is also quite indicative. they are by no means allowed to disturb the surface of the wall – the windows and the wall are supposed to create a continuous “skin” of the house which keeps an impression of the clear volume. technologies and materials. preferably of a rectangular or cylindrical shape. lines. Another important source is the so-called “destruction of the box”. Its “language” is not so clearly defined. secondly. which united structural. the formal features of Modern architecture stem greatly from the 19th century’s realisation of the difference between structure and decoration which was a result of the invention of new building techniques. However. To put it very simply. such as long strips. it follows numerous lines of development. surfaces. some very useful lines of development can be found to exemplify the point of this paper. kulic01 –5– © Copyright 2001 . and secondly. or a combination of such bodies. It took only one step from these negative definitions to a positive expression of the new style. The five orders according to Vignola The situation with the Modern architecture was essentially different. they are arranged in an abstract order. All elements are thus reduced to abstract geometrical entities – points. it firstly inspired a search for new systems of decoration and then a complete rejection of any decoration whatsoever.Complexity International Volume 08 Figure 1. an invention of Frank Lloyd Wright (Brooks 1979). By the beginning of the 30’s it was clear that what tended to be modern. something that does not remind of the traditional openings. had to have an appearance of abstract geometrical bodies. functional and formal aspects into a very influential expression (Le Corbusier 1924) (Fig. it rests upon a variety of structural systems. The most famous and also a very rigorous definition of the style were Le Corbusier’s “Five points of modern architecture”.
Michelangelo (1475-1564) was the first one to combine different elements. but fully keeping their own integrity – they do not mix with each other and there is nothing that disturbs their shape.1 Superimposition It seems that the first step from initial simple configurations is made by the method of superimposition. while interpenetrating volumes dominated from the outside.Complexity International Volume 08 Figure 2. if it is a sequence of elements. then the credit for a major breakthrough achieved in this field goes to two men who worked around the middle of the 16th century. One of Michelangelo’s inventions was also an interplay of the sokulic01 –6– © Copyright 2001 . thanks to the use of the skeletal structural system. but in harmony and almost without exception share the same geometrical system. The domination of symmetry was replaced by a deliberate use of asymmetry and a search for new ways of creating visual balance. garlands. then we have two basic elements placed at an equal distance from the axis. be it a superimposition of element upon element. 4. Superimposition of points. the initial phase of the development of the paradigm is dominated by rather simple arrangements of elements. into compositions never seen before. such as the Modernist superimposition of grids of columns on one side. the symmetry of individual elements was not questioned. Compared with the later phases. etc. if we consider Classical architecture after the Renaissance. taking part in the composite whole of a very sculptural character. and thus it spread in two orthogonal directions. or elements of the same family but of different sizes. Le Corbusier. subordinated to a hierarchical order. and straight or curving partition walls on the other. Villa Stein in Garches. The use of simple linear or circular trajectories exceeds by far the use of more complex curves. all of this being decorated by volutes. For example. or operation upon operation. His Porta Pia displays a rather bizarre combination of the flat arch within a larger arch within a broken pediment within an even larger pediment. one of the manifestos of the “new architecture” In composition. but nor was it emphasised. The nature of this combination is such that each of these elements loses its independence. They stand by each other independently. If the symmetry is in question. Methods for increasing complexity 4. tablets. However. Finally. Compositional principles are used in their simplest form. lines and surfaces appeared in the arrangement of plans. if we examine combinations of independent systems. and the rhythm between them is uniform. we shall see that these systems never collide – they function independently. then they are all identical. such as columns and walls. geometrical translation of elements gained a stronger emphasis.
Andrea Palladio’s San Giorgio Maggiore. In some cases we cannot say whether what we see is a column or a wall. Figure 3.e. 3). A layering of structural elements. an obviously symmetrical character (we could say that he applied bilateral symmetry onto linear translation). For example. there is one specific branch of architectural Post-modernism which is of a particular interest in this discussion. because it deliberately formalises a typically Modernist “language” – that of Le Corbusier’s early villas. a sequence. modernist forms. took Le Corbusier’s purist works as their formal point of departure and transformed it in much the same way as Mannerists transformed the classical language. If Michelangelo combined elements. Superimposition is also one of the main design methods of Postmodernism. Although not very reasonable from the structural point of view. However. etc. “The Whites” or “The New York Five”. with the blended elements losing their integrity and being no longer independent. We recognise it in historicist collages where the classical elements are applied onto the otherwise pure. he reduced the ending spacings between the columns. the so-called Venetian window (applying linear translation onto bilateral symmetry). On his Basilica in Vicenza he did the opposite: he made a sequence multiplying a composition of a symmetrical character. thus giving the colonnade a clear beginning and ending and. kulic01 –7– © Copyright 2001 . it cannot be so easily summarised. a language the elements of which are clearly outlined in his “Five points”. on the porch of his Palazzo Chiericati. is further emphasised by rotating their geometrical systems. we can say that Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) investigated combinations of the two basic operations. which is basically a colonnade. Throughout his oeuvre we find him applying bilateral symmetry and sequences of elements onto each other. this combination was very influential for its interesting visual effect of the structure within a structure. exhausting possible combinations with almost mathematical precision. with an opening in it.. what is more important. already inherent in Le Corbusier’s approach.Complexity International Volume 08 called giant order (columns or pilasters ascending through two or more storeys) and orders of smaller scales (one storey high). and the whole begins to look like a sculpture rather than a house. although not an organised group. i. while in a whole series of country villas he made symmetrical arrangements of already symmetrical compositions (applying symmetry onto symmetry) or again symmetrical colonnades (applying symmetry on translation) (Fig. Superimposition of two classical porticos. where a variety of fenestration methods (mostly of Modernist origin) creates a “drawing” of an enormous stylised classical column on the building’s flat facade. we recognise it in Robert Venturi’s application of an asymmetrical composition on a volume of a very emphasised symmetry. but due to the movement’s many divergent lines of development. a frame or a wall. we also recognise it in Michael Graves’ superimposition of different scales on his Portlandia Building.
Figure 4. A Baroque pediment. because the emerging new tools make these projects incomparable to those built using traditional building methods. to Peter Eisenman’s rotated axes and Coop Himmelblau’s houses looking like they have been shaken by an earthquake. “bending”. In this way we get. However. Gehry’s piled up cubes and twisted volumes. such as “cutting”. for example. or columns and pilasters showing only their capitals. “breaking”. Let us take a look at some examples: If Michelangelo. to Frank O. The integration of CAD and CAM technologies. as we have seen. etc. cut pediments whose parts are completely omitted or set into different planes. regular shape and imply that it was changed by some outer force. but in any of these cases. Deformations are an omnipresent motif in Deconstructivist architecture. the rest being swallowed by the wall (Fig. be it Russian Constructivism. seems to add to this shift in complexity. From Bernard Tchumi’s omitted columns in his folies in Park La Vilette in Paris. such as the latest works by Gehry or Eisenman.2 Deformations Deformations of elements include a number of operations. but without restoring the initial integrity of the elements (of course. cut and curved. Recent developments. which coincides with such projects. 5). Since this is usually not the way these “deformed” elements are actually made. 4). kulic01 –8– © Copyright 2001 . we meet all sorts of deformations of the initial languages. show that what could be previously seen as deformations of recognisable forms turns into a completely new geometry (Fig. these “rhetoric” deformations are the greatest causes of the difference between the conceptual/perceptual and physical/constructional complexity of the form. then the Baroque architects again dismantled this union. “twisting”. blended different elements together. Suprematism. there is a thin line between deformation and an actual introduction of a new element or a compositional rule.. early Modernism or something else.Complexity International Volume 08 4. they presuppose the observer’s recognition of the element’s original. this does not mean that superimposition as a compositional method was abandoned – on the contrary).
or turning them into a wild play of the concave and the convex. there has never been such a variety of curving geometries in use before. the grandest example being Bernini’s colonnade in front of St. ellipses and other curves start affecting the standard geometry of individual elements. the use of other curves – ellipses. arcades and walls. etc. Modern architecture used curves modestly. Since the late 1970’s curves started appearing much more often and have been especially associated with the Deconstructivist movement. we will discover a rise of arbitrariness verging on organicism. The use of various curves is a commonplace when speaking of Baroque architecture. Prague 4. or Brazilian Modernism. they lost pace with straight lines. like pediments and openings. such as late Le Corbusier’s works. creating a multitude of convex and concave spaces. sinusoids. where straight line became an exception rather than a rule. They range from rather regular ones – ellipses. Gehry.3 Curves Curving lines are man’s most natural way of graphic expression. kulic01 –9– © Copyright 2001 . “Ginger and Fred” Building. with a small number of examples. parabolas. to those more complex and more subtly defined. Finally. simply for being more complicated to define precisely. This culminated in Rococo architecture. if we consider the geometrical defining of curving forms. Ellipses also become trajectories for the colonnades. However. Frank O. Sometimes it is connected with a wish to create an impression of deformation.. Although curves are not so widely used by all Deconstructivist architects. Peter’s in Rome. The only curve that remained ever-present in almost all architectures was the circle. In this period. ellipses and combinations of them start governing the plans. Until only very recently. either by twisting them to fit the curving walls. especially in Germany. let alone by most of the contemporary practitioners. surely due to the rather simple way of its construction. not to mention those drawn with free hand – meant a complication in the construction and consequently an increase in the form’s complexity. and sometimes they are a result of investigations of the possibilities offered by the computer. sinusoids. but as soon as geometry started dominating architecture. parabolas.Complexity International Volume 08 Figure 5. as in the case of the designs of Greg Lynn.
Arhitektonski fakultet. it is exactly this freedom to choose that suffocates the paradigm – the feeling that there is nothing more to discover within the confines of the style makes it inevitable that adventurous spirits will step outside. XXXVIII. Polak N (1990). The aim of this investigation is not to “surpass” history. where all the traditional notions of architecture are being melted and blended into each other. Johnson P. Vers une architecture. kulic01 – 10 – © Copyright 2001 . The current situation in architecture shows a coexistence of very different formal approaches. tending towards more complex forms. New York. but to increase our consciousness of the processes that have shaped it so far. Heylighen & D. This process should not be mystified. because it is a result of the natural evolution of the designer’s capabilities to treat the form. as if the processes which previously took decades and even centuries to unfold were compressed into a permanent present. A.. Edmonds B. References Brooks H. despite their very different appearances. 1. When all the possibilities are investigated. (1979). O heterotopiji izmjestene sobe. Frank Lloyd Wright and the deconstruction of the box. Museum of Modern Art. or today’s neo-modern inclinations. Once the “language” is more or less complete. The international style: Architecture since 1922. Paris. in The Evolution of Complexity. the designer has a freedom to choose and what usually appears after the phase of very saturated form is a reaction against it – a return to formal simplicity. What is complexity? . Frampton K. (eds) F. It could be said that these strategies mark a shift in aesthetic ideals: while the basics of an “architectural “language”” are being established. (1998). Le Corbusier (1924). (1995). Studies in tectonic culture. Cambridge. from simple to more complex configurations. Aerts (eds). Beograd. The MIT Press. like Neo-classical architecture. In such a situation.The philosophy of complexity per se with application to some examples in evolution. it is even more important to be aware of one’s position. from the minimalist to those oriented toward elaborate form-making. further experiments with it shift the focus to the formal side. architecture is characterised by a rather direct correspondence between form on the one side. We have also seen how they share similar strategies for the enhancement of the formal language.Complexity International Volume 08 8. Hitchcock H. London. De re Aedificatoria No. (1932). However. and its function and structure on the other. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. away from the ontological and towards predominantly aesthetic concerns. 1. Conclusion We have seen how the two analysed sequences of architectural styles follow a similar line of development. R. to predict its future development (nor do I have an illusion that such a thing is possible).