The quest for the legitimacy of architecture in Europe (1750-1850)
This programme aims to identify the intellectual contexts that were of importance for the architectural theory of the period, and especially to clarify the relation of architectural theory to primitivism.
Since antiquity, people have believed that good societies need good buildings. After all, civilization and architecture are supposed to have arisen together. The Renaissance brought new ideas about the origins of civilization. In this project, the researchers will look at the influence these ideas had on architecture.
Architecture emerged as an autonomous discipline in the Renaissance with the publication of theories of design: treatises defining the architect’s knowledge, and the principles and models for designing buildings. These principles were founded on the conviction that to become works of art, buildings need to acquire meanings that, transcending the structural, spatial and functional aspects of architecture, are cultural in the widest sense of the word.
Design theories substantiated this claim by invoking the authorities of Vitrivius’ treatise on architecture and the ruins of antiquity, examples of good design incorporating the values of an exemplary civilisation. At the end of the 17 th century, however, the authority of antiquity was eroded, while developments in science and technology changed building practice and design.
As a result, over the period 1750-1850 new design theories emerged. Whereas the majority of these texts are well known, it has rarely been noted that they aimed at repositioning architectural design within culture writ large. After all, the architectural profession still required design principles which promised to produce buildings of cultural relevance. Moreover, after antiquity had lost its authority, architectural theory sought new intellectual foundations in emerging discourses such as primitivism. Finally, in search of cultural legitimacy, the reflection on architectural design expanded outside the realm of the treatise.
By examining this process, the programme aims to redefine the body of architectural theory of the period in Europe, and to consider in detail how at a time when attitudes towards the past fundamentally changed, architectural theory sought new ways of explaining how buildings acquire wider cultural meanings by turning to new theories of the origins of society. Thus, the programme aims to identify the intellectual contexts that were of importance for the architectural theory of the period, and especially to clarify the relation of architectural theory to primitivism.
The main questions this project wants to answer are:
- What are the substitutes for Vitruvius and antiquity to serve as the foundation for architectural design’s ambition to give wider cultural meaning to built forms in the period 1750-1850?
- How does architectural design endow built forms with meaning, what are these meanings, and in what manners do buildings signify according to the sources studied here?
- What are the intellectual contexts in which the sources studied here developed in the years 1750-1850, and how do these contexts help to shape the answers to questions 1. and 2.?
Two hypotheses are used to answer these questions:
- Architectural theory transforms profoundly over the period 1750-1850 because the foundations of earlier design theories, Vitruvius and antiquity, had become problematic.
- Primitivism plays a crucial role in the transformation of architectural theory of the period, because it becomes a pervasive model of thought in the entire field of humanities, and connects with an important kernel of architectural theory, the myth of origin.
The aims of the programme are:
- To redefine the body of architectural theory of the period in Europe.
- To consider in detail how at a period of fundamental change in attitudes towards the past, architectural theory sought new ways of explaining how buildings acquire wider cultural meanings by turning to new theories of the origins of society.
- To identify the intellectual contexts that were of importance for the architectural theory of the period, and esp. to clarify the relation of architectural theory to primitivism.
- And thereby to address an issue fundamental to all architectural design and theory, viz. to define how built forms acquire cultural meanings that transcend the material, structural and functional aspects of building, and transform building from an utilitarian practice into an art.
The programme consists of research projects that examine three different answers to the erosion of classical antiquity and in particular Vitruvius as a design authority, in order to gauge their impact on design theory and to understand how they reshaped the nature of architectural discourse: new ideas on the primitive hut and its status as a design model; the substitution of the primitive hut as the first building by the building considered as a book; primitivism as a new foundation of design theory. Thus, the first project studies architectural theory in the conventional sense of the word, the second the discourse on architecture writ large, while the third gauges the impact of an emerging discourse on architecture and its theory. A synthesis will relate these historical research projects to the contemporary debate.
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