We all know what architecture is, yet its numerous definitions fall short of the mark, says Louis Hellman
‘Frozen music’ is the most popular but most misleading definition of architecture around.
Coined by Friedrich von Schelling (pictured), it typifies a 19th-century German romantic formalist view of architecture as sculptural art. Von Schelling’s definition ignores architecture’s utilitarian functions. Nearer the mark and equally popular is ‘commodity, firmness and delight’, Henry Wotton’s 17th-century take on Vitruvius, which sounds disturbingly like a 1960s bra advert. In other words, buildings must stand up, give pleasure and, in today’s parlance, be fit for purpose.
It was not until the Victorians that definitions addressed the social and political nature of architecture. For Ruskin it was ‘an art for all to learn because all are concerned with it’, while William Morris saw it as ‘the moulding and altering to human needs of the very face of the earth itself’. Participation and eco-housing, no less.
The modern movement masters provided their own definitions. Le Corbusier’s was ‘the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light’ – conveniently vague for an architect who would work for any regime, however unsavoury. Mies’ portentous ‘the will of the epoch translated into space’ also leaves plenty of room for political manoeuvring. Hitler, more demolition contractor than architect, understood that architecture was a political tool: ‘Stone documents, the expression of the utility and power of the nation.’
Today, definitions seem to have gone out of fashion. Monumental architecture during the profligate period from the 1990s to 2008 was more ‘commodities, futures and deregulation’ than Wotton’s sedate description. Or perhaps ‘frozen money’ would be more apt.
Our current era’s obsession is with energy conservation and retrofitting, much loved both by politicians (who see it as a source of righteous taxation) and architects (who take it as a neo-functionalist opportunity to wallow in alternative technology). The best definition for this must be AJ columnist Ian Martin’s ironic ‘architecture is frozen carbon’. Praise the Lord and pass the microwave.
Louis Hellman has been contributing cartoons to the AJ since 1967