The theory, methodology and history of architects and their practices have always been contextualized in written research to be used in discourse. However, there has been criticism of the nature of architectural discourse and what it can really teach those in the community abut architecture and its practitioners. Most discourse is shaped by institutional privileges, and not all architectural writers’ critiques and writings are taken into consideration. This begs the question of how architectural discourse should be perceived by those within the architectural community (Daglioglu, 2015). For instance, whether all discourse should be viewed as objective, important, necessary to enrich our understanding of architecture and its practitioners, or whether it should be dismissed as unnecessary, inherently subjective and, thus, flawed. Zeynap C?elik, Adrian Forty, and Colin Rowe all approach this issue in different ways in their articles. Using topics such as orientalism in European architecture, the importance of structure in architecture, and the role of logic and mathematics in design respectively, the different approaches in historical writing allow their influence on contemporary architectural discourse to be analyzed and compared.
Using historical writing to gain a deeper understanding of architectural discourse serves many purposes. One of which is inform readers of a particular issue, opinion or aspect of a subject that requires more attention being brought to it (Davis, 2013). Zeynep C?elik’s thesis is a critical depiction of one of the most prominent and emblematic figures in architecture: Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, commonly known as Le Corbusier, a Swiss-French architect who is celebrated as one of the pioneers of modern architecture (Flint, 2014). Le Corbusier is a figure who has been prominently discussed within the architectural community, however in regards, to discourse, much of this discussion has been commendation of his work or criticism of his design techniques. C?elik, on the other hand, creates a discussion centered a negative aspect of Le Corbusier’s works and his influences: orientalism. Her opening paragraph describes Le Corbusier’s “fascination with Islamic architecture” and numerous visits to the Middle East and Africa. However, she then begins her criticism by suggesting Islam became a “living challenge” for Le Corbusier, rather than a source of inspiration.
By contrast, Adrian Forty’s text presents itself as an educational manual, describing a different way for readers and those in the architectural community to understand architecture as a field. The ‘Structure’ chapter in Words and Buildings begins with four key quotes by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, Mies van der Rohe, Roland Barthes, and Bernard Tschumi, regarding the nature of structure in relation to architecture. All of these figures, with the exception of Barthes, were, or are, prominent figures in architecture. Viollet-le-Duc was also a theorist known for interpretive restorations of medieval buildings in France (Simon, 2012). Viollet-le-Duc’s stance on the design process was based on functional, national, and social premises (Kruft, 2004) and in regard to the importance of structure in design, he proposed that the first step is to ensure that the “outward form is an accordance with the structure,” (Viollet-le-Duc, 1872), suggesting that structure must be the center of all design. Forty’s inclusion of van der Rohe’s quote that “structure is the whole, from top to bottom…” (Rowe, 2009) also reflects this message. The placement of these quotes at the start of the chapter suggests that Forty is attempting to create a conversation regarding these quotes and figures as his tone is quite neutral. Unlike, C?elik’s tone of the thesis, Forty’s tone is less confrontational and critical, and more educational, informative and attempting to open a dialogue about this subject.
A similar tone is introduced in Colin Rowe’s essay, The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa, an essay focused on the idea of modern architecture being dictated by ideas from historical approaches. In his writing, Rowe compares Le Corbusier and Palladio’s design approaches in regard to geometry, and form. Rowe opens with a quote on beauty and architecture by Sir Christopher Wren, an English mathematician and architect who designed and rebuilt over 50 of London’s churches, the most iconic of which being St. Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London (Wren & Downes, 1990). Wren writes of geometrical figures being “naturally more beautiful” than irregular shapes. Placement of this quote achieves the same purpose that Forty’s opening quote does, in that it gives his essay a sense of authority by referring to an iconic, historical, architectural figure. This in turn gives him more credibility, allowing readers to be influenced by his writing and consider his points more favorably in the wider discussion of structure.
Influence is an important aspect of discourse as it determines how readers respond to an authors’ argument and whether or not they agree with them and the way a writer uses their sources and references increases the credibility of their thesis or argument. Each writer achieves this using different strategies. C?elik’s main aim of her essay could be argued to be to present evidence of Le Corbusier’s orientalism and his colonialist attitude and she uses evidence from Le Corbusier’s own writings to do this, allowing her to successfully challenge the historical perception of Le Corbusier and bringing to attention his “fascination with Islamic Architecture” and “the Orient,” (Le Corbusier, 1988) and critiquing it. As was the case of other European architects of the 20th century, Le Corbusier was greatly engrossed by the design principles expressed by Istanbul. Similar observations were found during his trips to Algeria, from which he remarked, “What an order, what a decision,” in response to the cellular arrangement of the city Ben-Isghem (Ackley, 2006). It can therefore be ascertained that the aesthetics of the mosque intrigued Le Corbusier as C?elik claims.
However, this fascination is suggested to be appropriative superficial and Eurocentric. According to Celik, although architectural forms were the main aspect of his observations of non-European cultures, his focus on the personal, that is the familial, religious and sexual aspects of the societal norms of these cultures prove his interest to be orientalist. For example, his comments on his observations of the Ben-Isghem, Algeria, make assumptions of Muslim belief and culture. He writes, “the key equals the cell equals men equals happiness,” as an architectural formula for happiness based on a limited worldview of Islam. This also reflects a key issue in Europe’s observations of non-western societies, which is the tendency to view the behaviors, intentions and attitudes of a society from a Eurocentric worldview. European discourse of Islamic societies often used these themes to characterize and simplify Muslim belief and historians argue that this misrepresentation of Islam derived from the sporadic and spasmodic warfare that occurred between the Islamic world and Western Europe (Norman, 1994). C?elik also presents Corbusier’s interest in Algeria as deriving from a colonial perspective, i.e. attempting to “better” and enhance the city’s beauty using his own projects (Celik, 1992). At the time of his visits, Algeria had already undergone French occupation and had become a French colony. Algiers’ architecture was also greatly affected as the traditional and cultural architectural landscape had been over taken by French colonial, and neo-Moorish architecture (Ackley, 2006).
Le Corbusier’s descriptions of the housing arrangements in Algiers also imply a colonial frame of mind. In his writing, he celebrates “thee Arabs'” preferences to live in individual houses compared to the “civilized people” of European cities who were “holed up like rats.” (Ackley, 2006). This reflects C?elik’s argument of Corbusier treating Algiers’ societal norms as a novelty, and something to be delighted by. This is further reinforced by his negative, less compassionate writings of Algiers. He writes of the “new Algiers” as being real architecture, and a “masterly, correct, and magnificent play of shapes in the light,” compared to the “leprous sore” of pre-colonial Algiers (Le Corbusier & Etchells, 2014). One can argue how this quote could reflect a colonial mentality considering his earlier positive comments about the city. However, his comparison of pre- and post-colonial Algiers suggest a celebration of the what French colonization caused. Rather than displaying appreciation of “the Arabs” as he had previously done, Corbusier is suggested to be enamored by the opportunity to change the city for the better, depreciating the architectural achievements of the native Algerians.
In Corbusier’s written works, his descriptions of these mosques often suggest them to be a project to be worked upon rather than culturally significant and existing buildings that are merits in their own right (Petruccioli & Pirani, 2013). In his book, Voyage d’ Orient, Corbusier records his visits to Ottoman mosques that were built by Sinan. Although, as an architect, he immediately describes the interior space of the buildings, his descriptions of this space imply his suggested improvement to it. He writes that the space should be “vaster than a piazza…nothing should be out of sight,” (Le Corbusier, 1984). From this it can be argued that Corbusier’s attempts to characterize these spaces and remove the cultural connections and significance they had was very anti-historical and orientalist, which supports C?elik’s stance in her thesis that his desire to create a connection with Islamic culture is within the confines of a “confrontational colonial framework,” (C?elik, 1992).
However, it could also be argued that using Le Corbusier’s own words to support her argument could do the opposite as his writings can be left entirely open to interpretation. For example, C?elik quotes a passage from Le Corbusier’s essay Poesie sur Alger that describes his observations of the city from the sea. He describes in detail the landscape and the Casbah poetically, creating a “powerful dialogue” between the city’s geography and architecture (C?elik, 1996). He also describes in detail the architectural structure of the city, relating it to an “amphitheater on a steep slope” that is “strange to the French eye,” (Le Corbusier, 1984). However, C?elik uses this quote to suggest Le Corbusier’s observations were focused on how he could “enhance the beauty of Algiers,” (Celik). However, this could be argued to be C?elik’s own interpretation of his words as another reader may view Le Corbusier’s statement as simply that of a person who was witnessing a particular landscape and city design that was previously foreign to him. As Europeans’ knowledge of Africa was very biased and limited during the 20th century, Le Corbusier’s comments about the city’s landscape would not have been uncommon (Bates, 2012), and it could also be argued that the images C?elik includes within her thesis do not adequately support her argument as they are simply Le Corbusier’s sketches of his observations. Although C?elik’s thesis is supported by various other authors and critics of Le Corbusier, her strategy of presenting her thesis can be criticized. Throughout the text, C?elik uses specific quotations that support her point. It is possible that quotes from the same text may refute her arguments however this is not fully explored within her thesis.
On the other hand, Rowe and Forty’s use of quotes are less likely to be left open to interpretation as they do not attempt to infer anything that may be deemed opinion-based. In fact, their use of statements reinforces their respective essays, and writing as an open dialogue rather than a traditional piece of historical writing. Forty also reinforces this through his use of images in his writing. For example, when discussing Viollet-le-Duc in regard to Montgomery Schuyler’s reinterpretation of his notion of “structure being basic to architecture,” within German idealism, he includes an image of one of Viollet-le-Duc’s analytical drawings which depicts masonry set to dissolve in order to reveal the building’s structure. This could be argued to be a strength of Forty’s writing as it gives more credibility to his points that are inferred from the sources he uses. Similarly, Rowe’s text is ultimately a comparison between the similarities and differences in Le Corbusier’s and Palladio’s approaches to design and their uses of geometry, logic and proportions and each stance he presents in the text is supported by both quotes and diagrams from both architects. Rowe compares the similarities between Palladio’s Villa Foscari of 1550-60 and Le Corbusier’s Villa de Monzie/Stein of 1927. Although most would argue that these two buildings are distinctly different being from two different eras in architecture and bearing no obvious similarities to each other in terms of form, Rowe uses his analysis of both architects’ building principles and diagrams of said principles to support the opposite as both architects utilize geometry in their design.
Mathematical laws played a key role in the conception of Andrea Palladio’s architecture (Wassell, 1999). Palladian architecture was prominently based on symmetry, use of perspective and the classical architecture of the temples created by the Ancient Greeks and Romans (Lees-Milne, 2001) and the design of Villa Foscari was no exception. In fact, there is a consistent relationship between the proportion of each space in the building. For instance, the central room was designed to be 48 feet in order to allow every other dimension to be in multiples of four (Wittkower & Connors, 1999). Both La Malcontenta and Villa de Monzie share this attention to geometry. While Palladio’s villa presents a spatial interval ratio of 2 : 2 : 1.5 in regards to the distribution of the facades’ support structures, Le Corbusier’s villa presents a ratio of 0.5 : 1.5 : 1.5 : 1.5 : 0.5 (Rowe, 2009). Although this could be interpreted as evidence of the two buildings being incomparable, Rowe use this information to suggest that both architects employ the same technique and principles to their work despite their different focuses.
It is also argued that Palladio as a direct on Le Corbusier’s work. His Album La Roche sketchbook details a visit to Venice and Vicenza in 1922, Le Corbusier’s first first-hand exposure to Palladio’s architecture (Le Corbusier & Moos, 1997). This could also suggest the appeal of implementing geometrical and mathematical principles into the form of a building’s design began with witnessing Palladio’s work. Le Corbusier’s interest in using mathematics and geometry in his designs have been evident in several of his works and writings, specifically his book Towards a new Architecture, in which he describes right-angles, circles, and things-axes, as “geometrical truths” that provide results we can “measure and recognize,” (Le Corbusier, 1923). He also argued that inspirations in modern architecture could be derived from past techniques. In his book, he writes that great architecture “is rooted in the very beginnings of humanity…” (Le Corbusier, 1923) which also supports Rowe’s argument of modern technological advances being used to implement past historical approaches in architecture (Tehrani, 2014).
The importance of historical writing in architectural discourse is also dependent on the purpose of the writing itself, i.e. what the author seeks to achieve through the publishing of their work. In C?elik’s case it could be argued that the purpose of her essay is to bring attention to architectural aspects in terms of cultural and historical context, as well as to shed light onto a key issue in regard to colonialism and architecture. In her essay, attention is brought to a negative aspect of Le Corbusier’s career, which is a colonial and orientalist mindset. Although Le Corbusier has been criticized by those in the architectural community for specifics of his building designs, the inspiration behind his early works and writings are not always addressed in the way C?elik has aimed to. For instance, in a past issue of the Architectural Review, Le Corbusier’s 1952 chapel, Notre Dame du Haut, in Ronchamp, France is criticized for its overuse of concrete and failing to utilize modern technology (Stirling, 1956). In fact, the chapel is described as a misunderstanding of modern architecture and Stirling’s articles of Le Corbusier’s created a dialogue within the discussion of modern architecture regarding the alignment of aesthetics with technology and the current principle ideas of modernism (Campbell, 2010). Stirling’s writings are an example of how an analysis on a historical figure’s designs can be interpreted in multiple ways that can be used for informed discussions of the methodologies and practice of said figure. For example, although Stirling criticizes the Ronchamp Chapel for its regression from modernism (Campbell, 2010), other critics praise Le Corbusier’s work for moving away from the “form follows function” motif that is a key part of modernism (Frampton, 1983). After reading Stirling’s article, readers are likely to still retain a positive image of Le Corbusier despite reading a criticism of his work as it is his design of particular spaces, not his character, being discussed.
By comparison, it could be argued that Forty’s essays serve entirely different purposes for architectural discourse. Forty, for example, discuss the work of other architects in a way that could be argued to be with the intention of making readers think differently about the subject. For instance, Forty’s Structure chapter concludes with an evaluation of Parc de la Villete’s scheme of structure and deconstruction and what it means for the future of modern architecture. He questions what each definition of structure entails and whether a biological focus would result in the “collapse of buildings, formlessness, chaos…”, or a linguistic definition would create “blindness, incomprehension…the annihilation of the subject,” (Forty, 2004). It is implied that this question is left up to the reader to comprehend, almost as if he was giving a lecture on the subject. By contrast, Rowe concludes his essay in a way that suggests a favorable leaning towards Palladian principles in comparison to Le Corbusier’s approach. He argues that while Le Corbusier’s “neo-Palladian” villa is aesthetically pleasing, Le Corbusier’s techniques became “tedious” and “pastiche” (Rowe, 2009) which suggests unoriginality, and almost reflects C?elik’s criticism of Le Corbusier. It could therefore be argued that the purpose of Rowe’s essay is similar to that of C?elik’s.
Each writer’s essays can be said to be valuable in architectural discourse. But how do the backgrounds of the writers affect their inclusion in the space of architectural discourse in the first place? The writers, with the exception of C?elik, chose to publish their writings within their own books, outside of academic architectural journals. Celik, on the other hand, published her thesis in The MIT Press, a press journal affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Academic journals play a major role in the discourse of architecture as the primary audiences are young architects. It can be argued that this allows C?elik’s essay to be more widely received and the implications of her findings to have more of an impact on modern architectural discourse as it has the influence of institutional power. This is particularly important as it allows additional voices access to the ability to contribute to discourse (Trefry & Watson, 2013). As a professor of architecture who is also of Turkish descent, C?elik considers the cultural and political context of Le Corbusier’s work in a way that is not addressed in Rowe’s evaluation. It is therefore important for groups outside of those that are more prominent in architectural discussion, to be encouraged to contribute to architecture’s discourse in order to shape and deepen our understanding of it, and allow readers to consider contextual history that is otherwise ignored.
In conclusion, the writing and evaluation of architectural history has a great impact on architectural discourse and our wider understanding of it and how a writer approaches their subject directly influences how their thesis is received. The majority of historical architectural writing is limited, and it is important for context to become the center of architectural theory in order to deepen how it is understood and what it communicates.