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by Werner Oechslin
Third Colloquium on Architectural Theory at the Werner Oechslin Library Foundation, Einsiedeln, 24 - 27 April 2014

Architectural Knowledge: Transmission, Exchange and Translation

=> German version

History writing prefers straight lines; it aims to describe developments, and loves determining and highlighting decisive changes and new beginnings.  And when geographical points of view come together with the imposition of modern nation-state concepts, we have total chaos.  So we continue to proceed from the “rinascita” of the arts, freely according to Vasari; we celebrate the “renouvellement” as overcoming medieval decadence, as Seroux d’Agincourt established in his monumental art history, and juxtapose the Gothic with the modern! A concept of progress codified a posteriori determines the direction.  But here, at the latest, the equation cannot be solved.  Because from the “modern” point of view, architecture concentrated on construction and thus solidly united the concept of style together with the knowledge and meaning of technical building procedures, as based on Gothic architecture – according to the authors of International Style (1932).  Ars is again τέχνη and art comes from know-how; it primarily regards a “making, creating” as K. O. Müller in the long-authoritative Handbuch der Archäologie der Kunst (1830) noted at the very beginning.

That was also the way one read Vitruvius, who appeared with the claim that the architect should master mathematics as well as philosophy, medicine and literature.  With this all-encompassing gesture, one often overlooked that Vitruvius accentuated certain topics, for example with the “graphidis scientia,” which was attentively read by Scamozzi.  That Vitruvius expressly opposed the utterly comprehensive program of Pytheos was hardly noticed, and shows how necessary it is to consider more precisely that which architectural knowledge might and must be.  Therein are contained all the questions regarding content, scope, and transfer of knowledge, including those of the “translations” that Alberti already linked to the particular “oscurità” of the Vitruvian text.

Early writings, inasmuch as they are presented in printed books, understandably bore connotations of Italy, suggesting that architectural knowledge as a whole spread from Italy according to Bramante’s dictate and a new architecture “all’antica.”  One must examine the case of Fra Giocondo more carefully in order to recognize the fatal effects of such prejudices.  Even Quatremère de Quincy still reported that Fra Giocondo had explained the most difficult passages in Vitruvius to Budé in Paris not just with words, but also with drawings. His Vitruvius edition of 1511 ultimately emerged from this, the first edition that really addressed architects.  In 1980 Giuseppe Fiocco was still accussed of calling Fra Giocondo an “architetto senza architetture,” although it was he who directed attention to the northern Italian “Gothic” contexts with Fra Giocondo’s early project for St. Peter’s.  Yet an engineer who is celebrated for his bridge over the Seine does not fit into an art history that presents Bramante and Raphael as the ideal alliance of ideas, with a view to “the genius and the power of volition of the greatest masters.”  Jacob Burckhardt, for instance, also writes “In the south, the great and the beautiful is sacred in and of itself.”  The artist-architect did not first appear in the modern era with Peter Behrens, he originated in Rome.  The engineer, though, is Gothic and belongs in the north, where construction and “building” are found interesting.

Of course this contrast is linked to corresponding forms of knowledge, and the polarity is often enough summarized in a “whole.”  From this, Muthesius formulated a fateful question for – future – modernism in his much-noted 1901 book Stilarchitektur und Baukunst. Since naturally it affects the entire “condition humaine” of all building.  A look at the situation around 1500 shows that such polarizations do not just correspond to a historical image, but rather possessed and possess a fundamentum in re.  To this – not just superficial terms and “purely” theoretical concepts – are tied the questions regarding the respective knowledge that directs and determines such things: “Whether the architect is an artist or not…”, or, reformulated, what is to be understood by Vitruvius’ highlighted “scientia” of architecture?  And how does it happen that the “ratiocinatio” is translated as “discorso” and “discours”?

In relation to architectural knowledge, the question immediately arises about the type of content intended: construction knowledge or knowledge of forms?  Depending on the emphasis, other circumstances and traditions, or other contacts come to the forefront, and additional questions arise.  What about the situation between Paris and Northern Italy or north-south connections?  How does transfer of knowledge occur, and how is knowledge fixed and recorded – beyond individual contacts and exchanges?  How much of this is “science“ and enjoys a privileged treatment?  And how much was mathematics – and more extensively, the system of the artes liberales with their branches – a recognized, virtually “universal“ foundation, spanning all cultural borders?  Isn’t Ryff’s “second volume” of his Vitruvian corpus rather a “mathesis universalis,” as the Sturms – father and son – and Christian Wolff were still authoritatively promoting in the early eighteenth century?  And how convincing is D’Aviler’s excuse justifying his very partial translation of Scamozzi, that the latter wrote in a chatty, fashionable Italian?

The topic is almost limitless.  And as so often in such questions, the explosive power sometimes lies hidden in the smallest concrete event, the case study.


12 September 2013