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Law and Heart. Analogy and Composition in Architecture

DOI: 10.12838/issn.20390491/n39.2017/edit

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Law and Heart.
Analogy and Composition in the Construction of Architectural Language

Lamberto Amistadi, Francesco Primari

In his Dictionnaire historique d'architecture, Quatremère de Quincy observed how the concept of dispositio offered “a meaning so general and unlimited, that the entire theory of architecture could be reduced to this article” (1). Yet the French theoretician, in attempting to give a more stringent and fungible meaning, stressed that this term applied “almost always to an idea of general order” and precisely because of this, was distinguished from the concept of distribution, limited to the particular order of premises; characteristic of the dispositio was the embracing of “all parts of the architecture and the relationships of a building”, being “with respect to a building, what shape is compared to a body”. A structural idea of form therefore appears intrinsic to this concept, which indicates the law with which architecture finds its composition. Leon Battista Alberti entrusted this structural quality of the conception of a work to the lineamenta, the real constituent features of the form and essential lines of an idea, whose raison d'être “lies in the search for a universal setting to adapt and mutually join lines and corners, by means of which the appearance of buildings is perfectly defined”, (2) searching for “an appropriate location, a satisfying proportion, an appropriate architectural genre and a harmonious order, so that the form and the figure of the building lie entirely in this design”. The abstract character of the lineamenta gave Alberti the possibility to “design whole shapes regardless of the material”, freeing the project from the model and the “figurative citation”. Therefore, one characteristic of the dispositio would seem to be its immateriality, namely, its being a law that orders material – or if we wish, the construction – without being constrained by it, however.
In his Autobiografia Scientifica, Aldo Rossi left us a beautiful fragment, in which he wrote: “What struck me about Dumal’s analogy, perhaps more than anything else, was his statement about “the stunning speed of the déjà vu”, which linked up to another definition by Ryle that analogy is the end of a process” (3). The succinct form of this aphorism expresses various truths, in addition to Aldo Rossi’s disappointment with the “intermediate steps” (4): if a process is to be dealt with, let us at least not keep it pending for too long, let us appeal to the “stunning speed of the déjà vu” at the instant of the analogical association and finally deposit its form. This form is not, then, the product of any consequent development which, starting from an abstract scheme, is gradually embodied in an architectural accretion; rather, it is a composition by fragments, whose nature is inherent from the outset in its factuality, in the extreme realism of the object torn from its context, i.e. those “figurative quotes”, that Benjamin wished to use to compose an entire work.
The articles in this issue 39 of FAMagazine move – flowing entirely or at least defining the opposite ends – along the theoretical space that covers the distance between composition and analogue mounting, both grasped, and not exclusively, as tools to construct the language of architecture. If we wish, it is still a matter of time, the time of the architectural composition process and its swinging between the instant in which the “déjà vu” is called more or less consciously to mind – following the reasoning of the heart – and the development of a path whose route is addressed by a method – observing the rigour of a law. Law, order and rationality support and promote the unceasing quest for a method, whose formulation became one of the obsessions of the Enlightenment.
Caballero retraces some salient moments in the evolution of the laws of compositional thought through the teachings of three great architects and theorists of the 19thC – Durand, Guadet and Wagner. If for Durand composition could still aspire to new totalities through the reductio of form to geometry and its infinite combinatorial possibilities, Guadet focused his attention on the elements, independently from the ordering of any legislation. Starting from this elementary atomism of constructive elements, Otto Wagner would be able to supplant the stylistic composition of architecture in the name of a new tectonic synthesis of a Moderne Architektur. In the face of disillusionment inherent in elementarist, functionalist and technicist thinking, in relation to the possibility of the dispositio to present itself as a law of architecture through which to represent the unity of the world in the unity of architecture, Gorgeri detected the “changing horizons” within which to recognize unexpected dispositiones to recover composition’s role as a science in an understandable and transferable discipline. On the one hand, this is possible by trying to reduce architecture to a few elements – the plans and surfaces of Mies, the never fully completed rooms of Kahn, but also the classroom type in the architecture of Monestiroli, which Rossi’s essay talks about – and by re-establishing the laws of a tectonics which, like a sort of basso continuo, provide the basis on which to try out a new economy of form. On the other hand, in a shattered universe devoid of credible lineamenta capable of with-holding, it is possible to appeal to the productive role of imagination. The images retrieved from mnemonic collections emerge in the consciousness as figures available to an “atonal assembly” consisting of oppositions and disagreements, positioned and relocated in fractures of space and time, now no longer continuous. They seem to fluctuate like fragments on a blurred background, pending the deciphering of the rebus they draw. The transgression of which they are the bearers involves viewers in a task of decoding and recoding the analogue law that underpins their staying-together and calls upon them to recognize the grammar and syntax of a brand-new language. Sorrentino evidences how, in the analogue process, the image is not only the static reference of a reproduction of “déjà vu” but, in the decanting of memory, in the selective filter of oblivion and in the contamination of unforeseen associations, it constitutes the driver of a real poietic reproduction of reality. And again: if the analogy is founded on a free association that is not subject to the mimesis of a prearranged ontological law – and yet seeks to assert itself as an ordering – what will the field be within which the figures and their associations must occur? Will we need to limit ourselves to an association of images that fall within the disciplinary field of architecture, or will it not be precisely the analogue process to use heteronomous materials, i.e. is a trans-disciplinary vocation not already inherent in the analogue process and in its transgression? This question seems to be answered, in part, by Primari's essay, in that Giovanni Muzio’s drawing on Sebastiano Serlio’s figurative repertoire to compose his Ca' Brütta could not help assuming the value of a choice that was a “trend”. Indeed, the Lombard architect was the author of an analogue reinvention of architectural language which, starting from the selection of a defined architectural repertoire, beloved and studied for its formal and urban value, ultimately rediscovered a principle of order that allowed him to free architectural language from the constraints of Umbertine eclecticism. This recovery of the classical patrimony, identified by Muzio in its numerous rebirths – by the Comacine masters, heirs of Roman construction wisdom, the great treatise writers of the 15th and 16th centuries right up to the Milanese neoclassical experience – clarifies the genuine attempt to retrace the furrow of a sharing – by now merely a “trend” – within the architectural discipline. The 14th Venice Biennale of Architecture, as we are reminded by Belloni’s essay, relived (ironically?) the drama of the definitive loss of “aura”, that the society of technique had reduced the elements of architecture to (in this case quite another type of reduction, and certainly more painful). Re-proposed within an exhibition where Koohlaas showed without showing items in a catalogue of building products (already “bare” from the start), even the façades of the Strada Novissima (5) seem meaningless.
The type of collection Benjamin talks about is something very different. For him, it is about saving – in the impossibility of restoring the world’s lost integrity – those objects, elements or forgotten “little things” that have maintained their significance and authenticity. It is about separating and retaining what is more “precious and rare” such as coral and pearls, freeing them from the slavery of the useful and making them a material with which to regenerate the world. Which is then the torment of every civilization, the rationalism of the Enlightenment as much as that of the Baroque era which the Revolution tried to supplant and which placed imagination at the centre of the project of salvation: “Art is the product of imagination and its purpose is to teach us how to exercise our imagination. It is important since without imagination there is no salvation. Purporting salvation means admitting that salvation is possible, imagining ourselves as saved: it means imagining ourselves beyond the contingency of everyday reality.” (6) This double road to salvation – that of the law and that of the heart – is reflected in the consistency assumed by the materials with which architects give form to language: element, piece, fragment, part. It means, in any case, sieving the reality of architecture, i.e. the eyes that look at it, the filter that is applied to our perceptual apparatus, the “analysis style” (7) adopted. What remains at the bottom can be the element of that “austere abstraction” and “mere algebraization” mentioned by Le Corbusier (8) in respect of the plan, while that composed and erected according to gravitational tectonics and a skilful Alberti-style dispositio gives rise to the articulation of language in the syntagmatic column-column-architrave; otherwise this “leftover”, this “what remains” has the corporeal consistency of the piece, pre-prepared and available to be assembled and mounted in a new and different semantic configuration. And between them emerges the fragment with its mysterious charm and all the ambiguity of a Topica, which – like all topicae – is half-coded and half-projective. Roland Barthes explained this well in his work A Lover's Discourse: Fragments: “What we have been able to say below about waiting, anxiety, memory is no more than a modest supplement offered to the reader to be made free with, to be added to, subtracted from, and passed on to others: around the figure, the players pass the handkerchief which sometimes, by a final parenthesis, is held a second longer before handing it on. (Ideally, the book [the work, the architecture] would be a cooperative: To the United Readers and Lovers).” (9)

1. Quatremère de Quincy, Dizionario storico di architettura, edited by V. Farinati e G. Teyssot, Marsilio, Venice 1985, under “Disposizione”, p.192.
2. Leon Battista Alberti, De re aedificatoria, ed. pr., fol. 4r e 4v; italian. transl. in  L’arte di costruire, edited by V. Giontella, Bollati Boringhieri, Turin 2010,  pp. 11-12.
3. A. Rossi, Autobiografia scientifica (1981), Pratiche Editrice, Milan 1999, p. 116.
4. "This ‘arrival’ contains a beginning and an end and thus without thinking more of this, years later I was to reflect on the value of the beginning and the end regardless of the intermediate steps." Autobiografia Scientifica, p. 117.
5. Effimero: or the Postmodern Italian Condition, the 14th Venice Biennale of Architecture
6. G. C. Argan, Il Barocco nelle arti, in Storia dell’arte italiana, Florence 1968.
7. Cfr. A. G. Gargani, Stili di analisi. L’unità perduta del metodo filosofico, Feltrinelli, Milan 1993.
8. Le Corbusier, Verso una architettura (1921), Longanesi, Milan 1999, pp. 35-37. Cf. L. Amistadi, Il disegno della città, in Architettura e Città. Saggi, Festival Architettura Edizioni, Parma 2016.
9. R. Barthes, Frammenti di un discorso amoroso (1977), Einaudi, Turin 1979, p. 6,7.
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