“Reason is a supple nymph, and slippery as a fish by nature. She had as leave give her kiss to an absurdity any day, as to syllogistic truth. The absurdity may turn out truer.” – D.H. Lawrence
Architecture is actually quite resilient.
That architects continually find crises to form theoretical duels - which eventually champion architectural development - is a given. As a profession, we seem to be caught in a cycle of “ideal” fencing matches, sometimes siding on the novel, and other times, espousing the values that preserve what we think we know to be true. In other words, the tautness of history / classicism / pursuit of categorical perfection, and the supple desires of the artistes (who see those theories as an obstacle) are in a continuum. This waxing and waning of ideology forms a cycle that continually perpetuates itself on the world of art and architecture. To be clear, this phenomenon is by no means an isolated incident. It is merely another turnabout in a series of elastic, inverted events. The difference within each cycle lies in the circumstances, and the application of form and the theories that hinge upon them. By examining the movements of the past, we can find similarities, differences, and overlaps between conceptual ideals and their eventual reversals.
The Renaissance - and the birth of humanism that took place with it in Western Culture - is an important place to begin a discussion. Before the Renaissance, architecture was caught in a struggle to define tautness. Classical Form (and its direct variants) were so prevalent that the main ideological struggle hinged, not on style, but on proportion and implementation of clearly defined elements. Palladio was one of the most successful architects who rationalized proportion, and ever since his publication of I Quattro Libri dell'Architettura in 1570, the influence of his version of classicism has held sway.
Michelangelo achieved (arguably) the greatest advancements in art and architecture during the Renaissance. The supple and sculptural values that he assigned to architecture (specifically) were forward-thinking and individualistic - and one might say, risky. The vertical proportions and double portico of the façade of the Porta Pia are deviant for their time, but they represent an obvious break from established tradition. His transformative use of space and geometry at the Laurentian Library also presents a unique historical ripple. One could say, however, that his earlier work at the Vatican represented a more symbiotic approach since - in his redevelopment of the layout - he did not destroy the essential qualities of Bramante’s original plan, he merely simplified, clarified, and fortified the ideas. (Fig 1.) In the end, his true impetus was a new elasticity and possibility, and a new sensuality that was not present in classical structures of the time.
Other architects followed the supple and elastic ways of Michelangelo, namely, Bernini, Borromini, Maderno, and Vignola, with their manneristic interpretations of expression, taking them to new heights during the Early Baroque. During this time, there was an increase in architecture based on geometric expression, and crystalline inventiveness. The highly spirited ovaline designs of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (Borromini), and Sant Andrea al Quirinale (Bernini) have come to represent some of the most salient creative expressions of the period.
The Late Baroque saw even more unfettered expression with the introduction of eclecticism and Rococo elements, and suppleness took on a new level of hysteria. Designs such as the Residenz at Wurzburg (Neumann) and the Wieskirche (Zimmerman) were probably considered undisciplined and over-the-top by the taut architects of the period. The stylistic eclecticism of buildings like the Karlskirche (Fischer Von Erlach) - even though it contains unusual juxtapositions – actually represents an attempt to find a happy (elastic) medium between taut and supple. The freedom of the Baroque eventually gave way to the stricter ideals of Neo-Classicism, with to the Rococo period creating a backlash against what was considered to be “gaudy” form. It would take almost two centuries until Heinrich Wollflin would publish Renaissance und Barock, absolving the Mannerist and Baroque movements by claiming their positive value as “painterly”, filled with movement, and pleasingly irregular.
The quarrel between Claude Perrault and François Blondel at the Royal Academy of Architecture in France was a major turning point in the elastic cycle, with the eventual emergence of taut beliefs prevailing for years afterwards. The dissonance caused by the Baroque eventually led those in the ancien mindset to question where the solidity and definity lay in architectural language. The unearthing of ruins from antiquity also caused a great sense of anxiety among architects of the time – at last, the ideals of Vitruvius could be examined in the finest detail, and it behooved architects to re-establish similar greatness in the world. Perrault, despite being a rational, and firmly on the side of the Moderne, did not espouse a truly revolutionary view towards architectural form – his Louvre Façade (Fig. 2), while inventive technologically, still sits firmly within a classicized viewpoint - as does most of the work of his peers.
The irony within the Perrault-Blondel dispute - that each of them actually idealized aspects of architecture that were both taut and supple, actually represents a nexus in the elastic cycle. While Blondel found comfort in proportions that were “absolute” within classical architecture, he also (curiously enough) abandoned such strict rationality in his definition of inspiration through “genius”, which seems more of an invention of a spiritual nature than of logical deduction. Accordingly, Perrault, believing in a “rational” and rule-based scientific method towards creativity, counteracted this with his belief that proportion was “probable”, and therefore anyone could interpret classicism how they saw fit. Alberto Perez-Gomez smartly points out this double-standard in Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science - that Perrault’s true motive was disputing “confusion” over the five classical orders, and he also reveals that many architects misunderstood Perrault’s theories, creating a new foundation for a divide. The elasticity and crossover between the two “opposing” viewpoints shows that the two sides actually were quibbling over finer details instead broadly redefining architectural thought.
Quite recidivistic in their intentions, the Neo-Classical architects of London never truly swayed from the roots of the past while building in the 17th and 18th centuries. The stalwart stance of the taut architects in England - specifically, after the Baroque - was a strong denial of the influence of wilder abandons and lack of formality. Lord Burlington found himself taking a page directly from Palladio’s playbook at the Chiswick House, and Cristopher Wren was quite firm in the rigor of his conventions, perhaps unusually so considering that his work was concurrent with the mid-to-late Baroque. John Soane was, accordingly, the most ancien of the famous English architects, his Bank of London project was quite literally, an homage to Rome. Nicholas Hawksmoor was also strongly historically influenced, but his Christ Church Spitalfields represented one of the most singular buildings of the time – his use of soaring vertical form and playful geometric overtones was a nod towards the supple.
The publishing of Piranesi’s Carceri and Veduti di Roma in 1750 were representative of idealized Neo-Classical urges of the time, and to a certain extent, they signaled the beginning of an intellectual movement towards elastic theories in Europe. His dream-like distortions of antiquity would eventually become a catalyst for the Académie des Beaux Arts to synthesize formal experimentation and classical precedent. Johann Winckelman, in his influential Reflections on Greek Works (1755), iterated that the great artists of the past copied the suppleness of the Greeks, and he established a concurrent argument against otherwise taut expressions in art. The unrealized projects of Ledoux and Boulee show an expansive thought process not entirely constrained by historical form – indeed, they represent a willingness towards the supple – the grandiose scale of the Cenotaph to Newton and the subversive humor of the Oikema brothel plan (Fig. 3) demonstrate a counterpoint to more well-known projects of the time, such as Soufflot’s classically rigorous Pantheon.
The beginning of the 1800s saw the continuation and further refinement of tautness in both Europe and also in America. In Germany, Schinkel refined Neo-Classicism by stripping it down and claiming it for German imperialism, with critics echoing that “The acceptance and the continuance of tradition is the only valid course for “art”. Schinkel’s Neue Wache and Altes Museum show both reverence of taut forms and a willingness to reduce it to its modern, simplified essence. In America, Thomas Jefferson’s Palladian influence on architecture at Monticello and the University of Virginia can be seen as the distillation and idealization of form, implemented on a burgeoning construction landscape that lacked in formality.