Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Architecture of Humanism

After a reading of Geoffrey Scott's seminal book, The Architecture of Humanism, an analysis of modern architectural criticism, I have condensed the six fallacies attending the assessment of buildings that he posits, as well as his own: the fallacy of empathy. Though published almost one hundred years ago, they are still as relevant today, if not even more so in the current debate of traditional architecture. The essential error of all of these fallacies is that they make those under their thrall take for granted the fallacy’s most essential qualities. Critics and architects have been so caught up in the frenzy of of whatever trend is popular at the time that they do not notice the weakness and oversimplification of its argument. 

Romantic (Poetic) – In regarding architecture as symbolic the romantic fallacy takes a detail from an era and spins it into a complete vision of that era. This is accomplished through the essentially literary association of significant experiences which can be different for every viewer in every age, rather than the necessarily direct and sensuous experience which Scott claims architecture requires.
Romantic (Naturalism and the Picturesque) – Here, as in the poetic fallacy, architecture is increasingly judged on moral grounds. The degree to which architecture conforms to the literary ideal of nature demonstrates its sanctity and thereby its worth to the romantic. However, nature is not an absence of rule. Architecture without rules is nothing more than “slovenly art.” As such, the result of following Nature is simply to justify the artist’s caprice.
Mechanical – Following the growing trend of specialization demanded of the arts in order for their successful subservience to the new god of Science, the most beautiful architecture is seen as that in which the structure is the best and in which it is most truthfully displayed. Once again the facts contradict the assertion. Neither Doric or Gothic architecture—the architecture praised by this fallacy’s advocates—use “good construction truthfully expressed,” but rather construction that is based in an aesthetic demand.
Ethical – Once the romantic interest in what architecture indirectly signified was established, it was a natural progression to seek for a moral reference in architecture. Architecture which was insincere “signified” a corrupt era or regime and was inimical to the morals of its viewer. To say this is, however, to confuse a moral failure with an aesthetic judgment. An artist’s moral rectitude does not dictate the aesthetic value of the product of his skill.
Biological – With the advent of the theory of evolution came the corollary dominance of the desire not to appreciate, but to explain. Thus, the focus of a biological criticism is no longer on the worthy events or terms of a historical sequence, but on the uniformity and gradual progression of the sequence itself. This places all parts of the sequence on an equal footing, the best with the worst, the mediocre with the excellent. More importantly, it focuses, with an intellectual interest, attention on the insignificant moments since these serve to complete the sequence. When a given moment in the sequence refuses to fit it is ignored or skirted over because it fails to illustrate the idea of artistic development within the more important concept of the sequence itself.
Academic Tradition - Simply put, this is the idea that the imposition of rule and order, specifically the five canonical orders, is accompanied by a stultification of the discipline. But this is not the case in any worthy building until the Romantic movement. “Architecture requires a principle of permanence.” It requires, like all art, a cannon against which it can judge itself. The rules and orders of ancient Rome served to ground art in truth, through the example of the past. In the Renaissance the rules of Vitruvius are “quoted illustrated, venerated, praised” and entirely disregarded.
Empathy (Scott’s Fallacy) – Through the transcription of architecture into terms of ourselves we are able to identify ourselves with its apparent state. What this means, however, is that in the projection of human functions on the outside world the viewer is simply imbuing the object with qualities which he, the subject, desires it to have. Once again, there is an attempt to alter reality to fit the requirements of our caprice.

Additional Fallacies that may be added to the the list:
The Zeitgeist