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Architects re-interpreting the theories of Semper

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Last week's conference at the AA reaffirmed the relevance of theory to practitioners of architecture, in a discussion of the work of the nineteenth-century German architect and theorist Gottfried Semper, and its significance in the evolution of contemporary European architecture.

According to architect Thomas Duda, of oma, 'architecture after Semper has to be completely rethought.' Semper was the first architectural theorist to privilege the surface or external appearance of architecture over structure, a position which grew out of his commitment to the principle of polychromy in the architecture of the ancient Greek temples.

As Gordana Korolija explained, Semper believed that the use of colour on an architectural exterior served to clarify form. He regarded abstraction and whiteness as unnatural, while polychromy represented the 'feelings of the masses'. To support his theory, he traced the etymology of 'wall' to its origins in the term 'pares', signifying a soft, woven partition made of coloured textiles, in opposition to the later term 'mures' meaning a tough, defensive, external structure.

This understanding led him to develop a strong argument for the primary importance of the decorated surface of architecture, in opposition to the position of his fellow theorist Karl Boetticher, who stated that structure was the primary element.

Semper reasoned that it was the surface of architecture which made an impression on the viewer, summoning forth particular responses or feelings in the presence of a building. He also drew an analogy with the adornment of the body defined as a 'privilege of man', which, as an expression of individuality, is central to the formation and maintenance of human relationships.

These views resonate in architectural practice today, because of the persistent influence of Modernist dogma, which took Boetticher's viewpoint to an extreme, and, couched in highly moralistic terms, rejected entirely the surface or decorative elements of architecture in favour of the 'honest' expression of 'undressed structure', and the paradigm of whiteness.

Duda argued that a radical break with this tradition, based on Semper's ideals, is represented by the exploration of surface, particularly through the use of text and images, in the recent work of Herzog and de Meuron. The architects have explicitly referred to these treatments as 'building materials' equivalent in importance to concrete, bricks and glass - that is, structure. But they take Semper's argument a step further, arguing that the physical materials used in dressing architecture are less important than the phenomenon of dressing itself, understood as a physical presence which exists only through our perception of it. Thus they open up the possibility of a physical dissolution of walls going beyond anything that could ever have been contemplated by Semper.

The 'Gottfried Semper Today' conference was held at the Architectural Association, London, Saturday 18 March 2000

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