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The architect as genius

Text by
Cees Dam

In the James Ivory film A Room with a View, we see a room with a view, with a window facing out into the distance, or perhaps into the future. A beautiful space, with special qualities, and at the same time a completely anonymous space, which has never prompted the question of who designed or built it. This anonymous space is the crowning achievement of craft, made by artisans who knew exactly how to build: how to make a window in a wall or secure a frame to the masonry.

There is a huge difference between this stance and the popular idea of the  architect as a genius. Instead of the nameless artisan of the room with a view, we encounter a very different image: the architect as visionary, with the power not only to see but also to shape the future. The architect as creator, a near-god, forming  a world in his mind. The architect as celebrity. The architect as revolutionary.

This image is cherished by architects. Architecture students learn the names of the celebrity architects whose projects are featured in glossy magazines and take their fame and greatness as a shining example. This creates and perpetuates a  cult of the genius, which bears little relation to reality. Architecture never simply appears out of thin air. Nor does it just pop into the head of a genius.

This perspective on architecture is very complex. That may be why not only architects like to think of themselves as geniuses; people with no connection to the field often see them the same way. Architectural designers who show distinct, innovative energy in their public lives are of great interest to critics and journalists. After all, the new is almost always newsworthy (and for that purpose, it hardly matters whether the new is really better). The genius enchants us with his ritual dance and provocative play – a much more amenable subject for a writer than the complex process that usually underlies a successful building. Furthermore, the romantic image of the architect as an artistic genius is a simple explanation, and simple explanations are tremendously appealing.

In short, the architect as genius is a romantic idea. It goes together with the image of the creative artist as a rebel, fighting bourgeois narrow-mindedness with his visionary talent. The architect is therefore celebrated, especially in today’s world, as a modern knight, battling all the conventions that constrict our lives and from which we ought to free ourselves. This idea, an ongoing thread in historical writing about modern architecture, is what I would like to examine and question here.

Firstly, it is naive to assume that buildings can play a liberating, revolutionary role. Secondly, the image of the architect as genius is itself profoundly bourgeois. After all, genius is inimitable and never has to account for itself. The work of  geniuses takes place on a different plane from everyday life and has no connection to it. But buildings are quite everyday things, literally in the midst of life. In short, if we wish to understand how buildings of quality and significance come about,  the image of the architect as artistic genius is completely unhelpful. Architecture emerges from the interplay of factors that require both a rational and an emotional approach, both analysis and dialogue. Not only is the result of construction influenced by dialogue with the other parties; but architecture itself is enriched by the designer’s dialogue with more abstract elements: craft and tradition; the sciences and arts; the context of the society, the city, and the landscape; and the architect’s own personal experience.

To illustrate this point, let me discuss a few examples. These are buildings  that have gone down in architectural history as remarkable solutions, solutions resulting from an individual architect’s exploration and transcendence of the limits of his age. These solutions are acts of genius, and as such usually emerged from a completely unconscious process.

As Filippo Brunelleschi was working on his design for the famous cupola of the Duomo in Florence, he was probably only half-conscious of the revolutionary  influence of the artistic and technical innovations he introduced in this dome. He certainly could not have anticipated that his design would mark the beginning of a new architecture, the start of the Renaissance.

Brunelleschi had learned medieval mathematics but approached architectural problems in a highly pragmatic way. He was a craftsman who had mastered the  elements of his trade. Drawing on his comprehensive knowledge of the ancient Roman masonry tradition, he developed new techniques for building a dome  with a larger span. Brunelleschi’s most breath-taking invention was his design for the curve of the dome, which required no buttresses or reinforcement. Through detailed studies and models, he developed a dome that satisfied his ideal of geometric purity. External supports such as scaffolding were no longer required.

Brunelleschi’s contribution to European architecture is an individual accomplishment, the result of one man’s ingenuity – yet it would never have been possible without a craft tradition. The Florentine master builder was a product of the medieval guild system, and the discoveries that allowed him to build the dome rested on a treasure trove of collective experience. Generations of builders laid the foundation for his achievement.

Giorgio Vasari describes how Brunelleschi’s ingenious work was completed  in the face of great resistance and after much hesitation. At first, Brunelleschi’s foremen and clients did not have much confidence in him, and it was only by continuing tirelessly down his chosen path and making detailed drawings and models that the architect could finally win them over. He thought of everything: the staircases that gave access to the cupola; the placement of openings in the walls; and even iron hooks to which the scaffolds for the frescoists could be attached. Nothing escaped Brunelleschi’s attention; he inspected everything, from the kilns for firing bricks to the composition of the clay. Ghiberti’s handbook Zibaldone contains detailed drawings of the lifting mechanisms Brunelleschi developed for the construction of the dome. These drawings once again reveal his mastery of the builder’s craft and expose the wealth of professional skill and discipline that went into the cathedral’s cupola.

Unlike Brunelleschi, Leonardo da Vinci did not stem directly from the craft  tradition. He alternated his architectural activities with his work as an inventor, scientist, painter, and draughtsman. Leonardo may well have been the ultimate uomo universale. His approach to every individual activity was shaped by his  protean interests, which had nothing to do with genius and everything to do  with his open mind. As an artist, he was an engineer; and as an engineer, he was  an artist.

If we take a closer look at Leonardo’s projects, we notice that they range over many disciplines. This is true not only of his well-known flying machines, which seem to have arisen from his anatomical studies. Other surviving drawings by Leonardo depict architectural details and schemes for city planning. One series investigates the possibilities for expanding the city of Milan.

The Italian architectural historian and theorist Manfredo Tafuri regards  Leonardo as an organizer above all. This perspective is supported not only by  Leonardo’s myriad sketches for buildings, but also by his magnificent studies of traffic control methods: beauty that seeks to be useful, in the service of humanity.

Leonardo’s thinking about the organization of space and about building was fuelled by this continual dialogue with the sciences, a process of constant analysis and reanalysis, of researching isolated aspects and then reintegrating them into the whole.

Four hundred years later, Gerrit Rietveld designed a house that is generally seen  as a turning point in architectural history: the Rietveld Schröder House in Utrecht. Rietveld started out as a furniture designer. Most of his designs were for furniture and shop interiors, until he was asked to build a house for the Schröder family.

When Rietveld met his client for this project, it was a turning point in his career. Together, the two of them hammered out the spatial terms of reference and the organization of the house. The intensive collaboration between architect and client resulted in an interior that is exceptionally open. Thanks to this partnership, Rietveld was able to put his ideas about space into practice. In fact, the project incited him to go further than he ever had before: the Schröderhuis became a textbook example of new architecture, which did justice to the realities of a new democratic society.

Like the other works discussed here, this Rietveld design cannot be viewed in isolation from the social context of its day, which included the artistic experiments of not only De Stijl but also the Bauhaus. In fact, Rietveld himself was keenly aware how much his ideas depended on so many others, and was sometimes surprised  by all the fuss other people made over his work. In his heart, he always remained  a craftsman and an architect. Genius, he felt, had nothing to do with it.

While for Rietveld design was connected with openness and the childlike naivety  – in the best sense – of the creative process, Berlage’s angle of approach was clearly more academic. Berlage had received a good education at the technical university in Zurich. When he took part in the competition to design an exchange building on Damrak in Amsterdam, his initial designs still displayed the strong influence of the Beaux-Arts tradition. The final building, however, was a fantastic breakthrough. He had succeeded as never before in giving shape to his ideas about the sound  integration of construction and architectural space.

Yet the building that, to my mind, best illustrates Berlage’s mastery is a much later work: the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague. Berlage worked on this design  for some fifteen years, from 1919 until his death – an exceptionally long time. Over this period his views changed substantially, a shift reflected in the ultimate design. The museum in The Hague both sums up his oeuvre and, at the same time, is the pinnacle of his achievement, sublime in its treatment of measure, scale, and rhythm. The building radiates an easy monumentality, thin and light, while also displaying the refinement found only in the work of some exceptionally experienced architects. It shows the hand of a designer who is both old and young, and forms a marvellous detail of the city. The structure’s special qualities are also present in its unnoticed details, such as the consummate daylighting, far ahead of its time, and the climate control system, the simplicity of which still surprises engineers today.

During a trip to America, Berlage had been deeply impressed by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, thirteen years his junior. In the homes Wright had designed, he had found a response to the landscape of the American Midwest, a new culture without Europe’s history.

Wright’s houses seem to be woven naturally into the landscape. Even though houses are inevitably conscious additions to their setting, he chose colours and materials that made them seem as natural as possible. In this light, it is not hard  to see why Wright told his students to go for a walk in the woods when they wanted to make a colour composition, because everything they needed was there: the colours of the leaves, the trunks, the flowers. There is no need for any arbitrary additions.

Two of Wright’s houses demonstrate this in an exemplary fashion. Fallingwater, the famous house in the lovely Pennsylvania woods, is not merely fused organically with the landscape; the unbroken continuity between the landscape and the house extends as far as the details and the furniture. It is all one whole; the house follows naturally from what has always been there.

Wright’s own home in the Nevada desert is completely different in character, but the approach is the same. Here too, we see a continuous spatial relationship between the endless emptiness of the desert landscape and the house’s interior. This relationship extends even to the choice of materials, which follows the same pattern as in Fallingwater: the design of the house is a seamless continuation of something pre-existing and much older.

Tradition is what makes it possible for a new architectural design to be truly meaningful, and not just a flash in the pan. In our own architectural practice, we are often confronted with projects that demand an explicit attitude towards the existing situation. The design process includes the identification and analysis of relevant traditions, and may add something to them. Or as the Italian artist Salvo said about Michelangelo’s sculpture, every block of marble conceals a David.

An openness to learning from tradition is not a fixation with the past. Tradition is essential in designing a building that is not a relic, but a marvel for the future. This attitude is not opposed to change. Architecture must always have room for  the surprising and astonishing. At the same time, the field demands broad, multidisciplinary interests that take in every aspect of construction. The response to  the circumstances of the project, the users, the engineering possibilities, and the craft tradition – these are what determine the qualities of the building. Only when all this is integrated and in place can there be any question of true architecture, perhaps even something of genius.

Architecture is a soiled art. Architecture is not only nourished but also creatively disrupted by society. This wondrous contradiction is where good architecture can find fertile soil and, just possibly, become a work of genius.

Lecture given in Paradiso, Amsterdam, on 17 December 1996  in the K.L. Poll Stichting lecture series on the theme of genius.

Excerpt from the book ‘On architecture: Visions and dreams by Cees Dam’. ISBN 978 94 6208 412 4

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