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Universal man

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review - Gottfried Semper and the Problem of Historicism By Mari Hvattum. Cambridge University Press, 2004. £65

With the circumstances of Semper's life and intellectual influences clarified, and much of his writing now available in quite lucid English (see review below), the field is open for serious study of this extraordinary figure, whose fertile career comprised extensive practice of, profound thought about, and a huge contribution to education in architecture.

Hvattum treats Semper as a way of studying indelible modern dilemmas. 'His thinking embodies a tension, characteristic for the modern period, between reliance on tradition and a dream of a clean slate, ' she writes. Born in 1803, university-educated and well-travelled, Semper was at the heart of the generation that tried to splice together the Enlightenment belief in reason with the rapid expansion of intellectual territory that sprang from empirical research and field work.

It was a period when the idea of some universal key to all knowledge became untenable under the weight of new discoveries in biology, geology, philology and archaeology. Yet, paradoxically, there were attempts to produce new syntheses, and this urge had various fascinating consequences and corollaries, which Hvattum traces through Semper's writings.

Her tripartite hypothesis reflects Semper's approach to the problems he faced.

In the first part she outlines his attempt to define a 'poetics' of architecture. Armed with empirical evidence as well as reason, he gave Neo-Classical theory an original twist, which went far beyond the segue from Laugier to QuatremÞre de Quincy.

Having seen a 'real' primitive hut from the Caribbean at the Great Exhibition, he recognised that architectural ideals might reside in principles and processes rather than models, so the techniques of making - craft - became crucial. Architectural expression, its 'poetry', became the perfection of processes and their inter-relationship: architecture as the ennoblement of function and construction.

Hvattum goes on to explain Semper's equally original definition of beauty. Having rejected the idea of outright mimesis, he had to come up with an idea of 'formal beauty' that lay in following the principles of artistic creation. Contemporary botany offered a precedent as it began to describe the laws of growth, which Goethe, conveniently, had already sanctioned as the physical springboard for artistic endeavour that could touch the 'spirit'.

Semper, though, brought the extraordinary insight to architectural theory that climate, topography and prevalent cultural practices might all have some bearing on the creation of 'style' - even if he went slightly too far in suggesting that these laws, though generating change, were somehow immutable and would unfold teleologically to one 'correct' end.

In these two sections Hvattum helps to explain why Semper is so often misunderstood. His thought is so febrile, and his expression so wordy, that it is easy to overlook some of the strands he so consciously sought to integrate.

In the book's third part, Hvattum shows how Semper's work came out of a particular intellectual condition of the 19th century - a belief that history could ultimately be codified, understood and predicted. It was as if the realisation of change over time, having shattered the unity of belief promised in the book of Genesis, took the place of stasis as the one inevitable determinant.

Ultimately it is this, says Hvattum, that sets the flaws in Semper's work, and by extension into some of the beliefs that became entrenched within Modernism.

It is a compelling thesis, well argued, and - given the complexity of the ideas and poor prose style of its principal subject - very well written. And, like all satisfying arguments, it poses as many questions as it answers. Left unexamined, for instance, is Semper's possible debt to Hegel. After all, Hegel makes the expression of 'spirit', first manifested in social rituals that we might even call 'function', the starting point for architecture - a point close to Semper's recognition of cultural factors in determining style. And for Hegel, architecture is the starting point for all aesthetics.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher

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