Rationalism and Authorship in Architecture

An assignment for an architectural history class at The Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), instructor Todd Gannon, 2013

Within the Enlightenment, central figures in European philosophy gathered to reengage a manifold set of ideals previously held in complacency during Medieval times. Of these, beauty arose to prominence towards the canonization of a new era in the arts. Alongside a contemporaneous shift from another Medieval practice, having centralized the arts as a form of craft, often following nascent principles such as iconography, Enlightenment thinkers set to demarcated art, as well as architecture, in their own rights. As a natural intersection of these two progressions, divergent beliefs formed from as various systems of thought gained momentum. In respect to the comprehension, advocation and subsequent implementation of beauty, the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes comes to typify the keystone of contention for centuries to come, addressing the fundamental rift between those who looked upon beauty in the capacity to be understood or academized and rival stalwarts set in the notions of born genius and latent talent. In particular, the comparison of two mascots for the oppositional sets of philosophy in the time, those respectively of Claude Perrault and François Blondel and subsequently those of Edmund Burke and Johann Joachim Winckelmann, sheds great light on the discourse surrounding beauty in the arts during the era. Broadly, these dichotomies harp significantly to the divide between intuition, bespoken to the Roman and Greek classics, and a universally oriented search for deeper truth, irrelevant to personal talent or genius.

These strokes, for and against the natural intuition, further connect to the larger contexts of the Querelle, centralizing around the ideals of an inherent beauty which could with rational analysis be understood and replicated. While Blondel and Winckelmann espouse a belief in God-given genius (Pérez-Gómez 41, Winckelmann 5) Perrault and Burke arguably go to the utmost extents in finding a universal, which, in the latter case, further emerges into an enquiry of the sublime (Burke 72). During the Enlightenment, such an exploration was of crucial standing, its spoils accumulating to propel the human understanding of the world beyond the Medieval standard of the time.

On one side, Burke pontificates to great extents in establishing the basis on which this argument might be formed, proposing that, because “[all men] concur in calling sweetness pleasant, and sourness and bitterness unpleasant” (Burke 21), the grounds for human perception can be mapped. If beauty, as apparent through taste, were based on perception, then, logically speaking, the predisposed inputs could be coordinated to guide man in the quest to explicate the fundamentals of what was beautiful. In so doing, the formula for the replication of the beautiful could be codified. Hinged in the pursuit of generality, a hypothetical common denominator to the ends of underlining all human behavior with certain universalities, Burke goes so far as to expound the probability that “the standard of both reason and taste is the same to all human creatures” in his very introductory stance.

By comparison, Blondel, a firmly set Ancien, finds himself inherently in opposition to both the inquisition for such a standard between all men and, if found, the mere importance of its presence. Instead, the emphases of his views align towards talent as a catalyst for beauty. It is for Blondel the task of an individual to coax beauty into things, and, as is such, it is not possible to teach a standard, the ends of which might appeal to some common-held beliefs within mankind. As notes Alberto Pérez-Gómez in Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science of the architect, specifically regarding perspectival correction of ancient buildings such as the those at the Acropolis, Blondel believed “[it] was precisely the aspect that revealed the architect's strength of intellect” (Pérez-Gómez 39). Where Burke and his cohorts among the Moderns would eagerly seek a rational foreground for formal decisions in architecture, art and the like, the Anciens muster great expectations for the hand of the master in order to bring forth beauty. It can be neither standardized nor disseminated at will, instead bound to the unpredictable erudition within the genius.

This notion of an aptitude by birth further catalogues the rift between the two groups. As expressed by his investment in the thorough study of the both the finer examples of ancient architecture and the masters of his time in his Cours d’Architecture, Blondel clearly values the thorough study of those predetermined as talented (Pérez-Gómez 39). By far the antithesis to this approach, his contemporary, Perrault, contends that the duplication of the beauty within the ancient orders of columns holds as its most basal principle the manifestations of ideal proportions in their geometries (Allais 61). Though the implementation of these systems of aesthetically choreographed relationships may have been done by the hands of their respective authors, a larger system persists by which the beauty of the results might be standardized into a universal à la Burke’s subsequent propositions.

In respect to this issue of the ancient methods, Winckelmann takes prominence. His culminated observations put him sharply in contrast to the beliefs of both Perrault and Burke, a die-hard crusader for the lore of a master over the possibility of a greater, more ambiguous truth. In retrospectively casting Greek society as a bucolic, semi-clothed lark scattered with wrestling and ramped nudity, Winckelmann purports that the Greeks had approached a picturesque state of nature, perfecting it within their replications in art (Winckelmann 13). Thus, his proposal to rely on imitation to learn from the ancients in crafting beauty diverges slightly from the Anciens while, for the most part, staying largely within their framework. Although he notes that one might find in Greek art “not only nature at its most beautiful but also something beyond nature, namely certain ideal forms of its beauty” (Winckelmann 7), an endorsement of a somewhat more universal ideal for beauty, his stabs at the rejection by the Moderns of the arbitrary method and authorship present in such elements as the intricate folds of statues’ dress divulges a clearly Ancien track in his assertion of the sculptor’s talent as integral to the work (Winckelmann 31).

When accumulated, these views form two coherent halves to the rife of the Enlightenment. From them, the contemporary observer might both posit a rendition of retrospective history and at the same time project forward the possibilities of what might emerge in the understandings of beauty. Though they differ as to the means by which beauty is to be found, the important conceptualization of its rhetoric through their work stands still as a basis on which human understanding can forge forward.

Works Cited

Allais, Lucia. “Ordering the Orders: Claude Perrault’s Ordonnance and the Eastern Façade of Colonade of the Louvre”. Future Anterior 2.2 (2005): 53-74. Print.

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers. 1860. Print.

Pérez-Gómez, Alberto. Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science. Cambridge. 1985. Print.

Wincklemann, Johann Joachim. Reflections on the Imitations of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture. La Salle: Open Court. 1986. Print.