TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT Summer 1989

MIRABILIA URBIS: A WONDERFUL HISTORY

Never wonder: wonderment is the second name of ignorance.
—Indian saying

WONDER IS THE SUM OF a thought plus an emotion. It is sometimes the result of an intention, sometimes simply the way by which cultures and traditions (which, as such, are rarely conscious of the reasons for their being) manifest themselves. City and architecture have always been a source of wonders; a space, or the artistic manipulation of a space, generates a reaction in those who live there. From mirage, architecture becomes wonder.

That this is all the more true now than in the past is certain. The problem is to understand how the original architectural wonders, the wonder archetypes, have evolved, and continue to evolve. Beneath what new forms are they hidden? What are their new connotations? We would do well here to compile a kind of genealogy of the wonder, supplying for it the ancestry without which it remains an orphan.

A collectivity, a community, nurtures its own imaginary, primarily out of what it cannot fully understand. And architecture is operant here, for a building that protects and hides can produce wonder. Defining an area impenetrable to the eye and to the entry of the individual, the forbidden walls of the archaic temple are cuts in space, rifts or chasms between the everyday and the sacred. Within these cuts, the holy places reveal their mystery—their kriptein. They are the places of death, the sarcophagi of myths and legends, the martirya or sepulchers of fantastic heroes who may never really have existed outside their fame and cult. Even more, these chapels are the containers for icons of truth, which they both display and at the same time veil, disclose and simultaneously hide behind an appearance—their own misleading facades. They are cells of divinity, the mysterious caskets of a light to which only the few, the chosen priests, can be exposed. The rest of the people, the “profane” (pro fanum, before—outside—the temple), are left to admire from an exterior space, the pronaos.

The emotion aroused by the ancient temple stems from the mystery of the unseen interior, to which the priests will admit only the mistes, when his physical sense of sight is replaced by the sight of a third, supernatural eye. This theme, however, is overturned in Christian culture, which throws open the sacred enclosure and invites the believer’s entry. Yet one’s view, if now as much actual as spiritual, is no less intoxicating than when it was blocked by the temple walls: beginning with the Byzantine basilica and continuing through the Gothic cathedrals, the play of the interior space is suffused with light from outside, which penetrates in carefully ordered arrangements of brilliance. The calculated glow of the sunbeams against the iconostasis enraptures, as does the very air, suffused with the scents of incense.

Wonder is the effect contrived in secular as well as in sacred structures; the emphatic masses, orders, and volumes of the ancient palace incite a wonder that quickly turns to horror before the awesomeness of the immense. The most explicit of the many forms of dialogue between a building and its observer is majesty, the sense of power that it expresses through its bulk. The grand edifice subdues, strikes terror, dismays. It challenges time and imposes itself on space as the concrete manifestation of will. The majesty of the palatia and the domus magnae colors the popular imagination with a thousand associative shadings, and time constantly layers additional, newer meanings over the original connotations. The involvement of the architectural object with the surrounding space, a contextual relationship inseparable from the structure’s social and political intentions, may also strike powerful effects. The rock to which the fortress clings is dyed in gloomy tones, and the palace needs an audience, both to reflect back its representation of the ruler’s self and to confirm the status that its architecture claims. A site inevitably contributes to the content of an architectural signifier, whether the two engage in a dialogue or treat each other violently or indifferently. A narrow space breaking unexpectedly into grand architecture may produce wonder; some small, disjunctive architectural fragment inserted into the intricate panorama of the city may achieve a similar result, through opposite means. In situations like these, wonder is always accompanied by such emotions as surprise, or amazement, catching the spectator in the play within a whole system of relationships. Allusion, illusion, collusion—one is ensnared in all these schemes.

During the century of the Enlightenment, the architetto scellerato Giovan Battista Piranesi gloomily explores the overwhelming relation of space to the human body. His fantastic wanderings in Etruscan architecture, and, even more, his “Carceri” (Prisons) and “Antichità” (Antiquities) engravings, reduce the human form to the microscopic; no longer a criterion of comparison or measure, humanity is a disturbingly minimal presence. The images dramatize the annihilation inflicted on us by time, whose passage they symbolize in the ruins’ marvelous deterioration. The same awareness permeates the architectural visions of Etienne-Louis Boullée; in these rarefied atmospheres, studded with tiny anthropomorphic figures, the absolute geometry of the projected structural form becomes a representation of the sublime. For a long period after, running well into the following century, architecture remains shaped by the fantastic imagination. In the esthetic of the romantic Sehnsucht, everything contributes to the generation of enchantment, and we plunge into the pastel world of the fairy tale. Suspension in the coils of fantasy becomes crucial to every production.

The waning of the 19th century slowly but inexorably introduces a new sense of time. The rhythms of this monotonous scansion are always the same, as if controlled by the steam-driven pistons that drive the rods and spokes of some enormous engine—a debilitating cadence. Though always evenly measured, time starts to weigh, to pulse, to cost, to press. Between the grating of iron and the belching of the furnaces, the horizon of Modem Times begins to darken with soot. Every city becomes an immense construction site, and the swarming of people, the neighing of horses, the proliferation of buildings all contribute to a unique tension: La Città sale!, the city rises (in the title of the 1910–11 painting by Umberto Boccioni). People lose their names, faces their features; individuals become identical. What a wonder! We are seeing the beginning of the industrial processes that soon will blossom in the conveyor belts of Henry Ford and the labors of the Soviet “super-worker” Stakhanov, which never falter in their struggle to beat the quota. The day is without quality; there’s no escape from its monotony, or from the absurdity of a life that rackets along at the jerky tempo of a silent film.

The new city has no familiar, intimate places in it—nothing is more unheimlich than to roam through its passageways and arcades, one’s way illuminated by the red flicker of the gas lamps and disturbed by the quarrels of anarchists and prostitutes. In the capital of the 19th-century, Paris, as Baudelaire saw it, the individual surrenders to the constant flux of the streets, to the movement of the masses. The flâneur alone registers an awareness that individuality is being lost. Perceiving that the metropolis has no place for the intellectual, he gives in to its banality, and accepts the interior self as the only shore left uncolonized. God dies and art along with Him, according to Friedrich Nietzsche; one might add to this the concurrence of Walter Benjamin, who later argues that art is overturned by technology’s ability to reproduce and translate each unicum into a series.

The last decades of the 19th century are witness to a great urban sprawl. During this same period, however, the entire city also becomes a stage for architectural spectacle. In a series of algebraic operations, horizontal space is divided into lots, and vertical space is layered in the rapidly multiplying stories of the new skyscrapers. The wonder is now the speed with which such structures can rise. In New York and Chicago, enormous colossi proliferate, and, like James Bogardus’ 1848 Milhau Building, they can be erected in barely a few days, threatening the old inviolability of the heavens and the gods. Stirred by a true terror of the limitless, the American architect George B. Post rebels against the “yellow giants,” the skyscrapers; in a poignant attempt to reclaim dominion over these skyward-thrusting structures, he proposes an eclectic finial on their summits, delimiting their height. Thus the skyscraper is romantically identified with such former architectural instruments of wonder as the Doric column and the medieval tower.

Behind this facade, American culture is destroying the inferiority complex it feels in the face of the old world’s weight of history, and is searching for a “traditional” American language. Borrowing ostentatious details from the architectural lexicon of Europe, in a desperate attempt at self-definition, the New Babel is a frivolously eclectic pastiche. Pained by the impersonality of the capitalist metropolis, the Chicago architects, applying the structural devices introduced by William Le Baron Jenney (the uninflected steel skeleton, the curtain wall), respond to the requirements of the commercial style with an architecture not of regular surfaces but of facets and angles, all informed by careful attention to typological codes. The stunning, acrobatic architectural exercises of Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, John A. Holabird, and Martin Roche call attention to themselves as buildings in the history of building, emphasizing familiar architectural signs as much as the novelty of their construction.

The great expositions of the latter half of the 19th-century, ancestors of the world’s fairs of the 20th, are also wonders—throwing vast structures of glass and cast iron high into the air, they are, for Europe, an early sign of modernity, bridging the temporal gap between the two shores of the Atlantic. The world shows its variety in the thousand pennants of the amusement park, and finds a colored representation of itself in the gaudy circus. As change powerfully accelerates, culture begins to seem ephemeral, and nothing is both more powerful and more fleeting than the train; the railway terminus becomes the new temple, the cathedral consecrated to these monsters, which shatter the old sense of space. In this atmosphere les impressions bourgeoises explode. The city is tattooed by the spirals of Art Nouveau. In their different ways, Victor Horta, Henry van de Velde, Hector Guimard, Otto Wagner, Josef Olbrich, Josef Hoffmann, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and others all create singular spaces in which the sensory bombardment of the modem city is sublimated in a Nervenkunst, an “art of nerves,” through the mapping of fluid, tensile lines of force. Art Nouveau—the German Jugendstil, the Italian Liberty, the Catalonian Modernista—reflects an effort to preserve a spark of the old, relatively luxurious sense of time—we might call it "interior time”—in the face of the rushing rhythms outside in the streets of the new city. Sinuous sophistication is invested here with a material voluptuousness; the movement renews the aura of artisanal work, reproposing the unique object as a pleasure and a liberation. A search for wonder is perceptible in the Art Nouveau Künstlerkolonie that collects around Grand Duke Ludwig von Hessen in Darmstadt in 1899, a spiritual community of artist priests striving to create a new Athens out of rarefied atmospheres and hyperdecorated surfaces. From the smallest details of interior design to the entire architectural object, everything has the mood of a melancholy poetic swan song, for Art Nouveau cannot reconquer the urban totality.

The first decade of the 20th-century sees the rise of the most fabulous architectural wizard of this era, Antoni Gaudì. His work shows the tactile refinements and charms of Art Nouveau, but it is deeper and more complex. Influenced by the Mediterranean taste for violent colors and dramatic light, and by the Catalonian passion for the ecstatic, hallucinatory vision of the sueño, the dream, this Barcelona architect composes enamels, bricks, stones, and ceramics into delirious constructions mosaicked with grotesque figures from the popular imagination. In the uncontrolled frenzy of the Casa Milà, 1908–10, matter melts and dissolves, as if deformed by the rays of a too hot sun. In the entrance to the Calvet house, and in the incomparable Church of the Sagrada Familia, neomedieval, neobaroque elements of the Hispanic tradition deliquesce in a visual orgy. Such wonders could not have been built but for the anachronistic relationship between Gaudì and Eusebi Güell i Bacigalupi, his enlightened patron; their collaboration is a nostalgic phenomenon completely out of date in a mass society—cinerem reverterit.

Debates on how to order the metropolitan “phenomenon” are held among the members of the Deutscher Werkbund, founded in 1907 to develop a closeness between art, architecture, artisanry, and the machinery of modern industry. If one evolution of wonder, as we have seen, passes from the hermetic temple, through the imposing architecture of the palace, the cathedral, and ultimately the skyscraper, to the vast, formless conglomeration of the contemporary city, another is surely the machine—particularly in the eyes of those who do not understand its operation. The modem city and modem technology are the two great agents bearing on 20th-century life, the two unknowable mysteries, for all that they are laid out in plain view of everyone. Essentially nostalgic sociologists like Ferdinand Tönnies opposing themselves to the notions of Max Weber, chart the distress introduced by the terrible Grossstadt. And Georg Simmel vividly summarizes the contemporary situation in his 1903 essay dedicated to great cities and to the life of the spirit: Simmel discusses the “reduction” implied by the Nervenleben of the contemporary city, in which every human action is debased into a reaction to a novelty, a shock. Wonder cannot be dissociated from violence; there is nothing of the fabulous in the acceleration of stimuli focused in the metropolis. According to Simmel, the leveling of every human and material difference reflects our and the city’s internalization of an economy based on money: “[All objects] float with the same specific gravity in the constantly moving stream of money. They all rest on the same level and are distinguished only by their amounts.”

The subversive charge that develops in relation to modern culture’s processes of banalization and commodification reaches its essence in the poetics of the artistic avant-gardes. “I howl I howl I howl I howl I howl I howl. And once again I feel truly likeable.” Dada was born on February 8, 1916, in Zurich, according to Hans Arp, “while, in the presence of my twelve children, I was wearing a brioche in my nostril.” Pushing toward the establishment of a flexible program of idiocy, Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball, Arp, and Marcel Janco subsume the inevitable urban alienation in nonsense and arm themselves with its violence, hurling their poisoned darts, with Dionysian euphoria, against the restrictions of bourgeois society. In Italy, a different spirit of provocation animates the Futurists in their revolt against history (though they are also inspired by the idea of a united Italy, by the need to invent a cultural tradition for the relatively new nation). In Paris, the Surrealist manifestos echo the psycho- analytic ideals of the liberation of behavior, reaffirming the iconoclastic intention of the prëm of the Russian formalists. André Breton fires pistol shots while walking through crowded streets; “On the bridge the dew rested on the head of a cat.” And Marcel Duchamp draws his Fountain from ready-made reality, reducing creative work to a pure gesture.

It is twenty years before these ideas are translated into architecture. To the inhabitants of the new metropolis, the apologists for the Modern offer “standards,” modules, the Existenzminimum (the minimum habitation)—basically a long series of architectural silences, from Ludwig Hilberseimer’s buildings ostentatiously ohne Eigenschaft, without qualities, to the tabulae rasae of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, or, at the other pole, to the five “freedoms”—really five negations—of Charles Edouard Jeanneret, dit Le Corbusier, homme de lettres. Behind the equivocal homophony ”Citrohan/Citroen" Le Corbusier disguises the aspirations of a member of the architectural intelligentsia with his commitment to technology, which makes possible both the social models he conceives and the industrial production of these putative urban utopias. The various failures of his infinite montage are crystallized in the redents of his villes radieuses, evolutions of 19th-century paternalism on an extremely large scale. It is precisely its insensibility to place that turns this architecture from wondrous fantasy into sterile utopia. Yet Corbu and other meteors of the Modern do achieve unexpected effects; in its exasperated freedom, Corbu’s Maison Domino, 1914, the prototype of the machine à habiter, has an explosive réaction (more explosive than poétique).

The two extremes of an antithesis seem to coexist in the world of civilisation machiniste: on the one hand, a rough, violent rhythm of constant novelty and shock; on the other, and at the same time, the incessant, monotonous imposition of an Idealtypus, its origins lying in serial production. The dichotomy is a paralyzing one. Despite moments of very great lyricism, Modem architecture, imagining it is rebelling against the ancient canons, is actually concretized in a long, very silent silence; disturbed by a nostalgia for all that has been lost, every desengaño in the contemporary architectural wonder has become a very deep anguish. Modernism sets out to deny every former norm. Eventually, however, those who follow it face the paradox of the law’s eternal recurrence. “Supposing that there is a Law, you ought to salute it as a miracle!” Arnold Schoenberg admonishes, “and the fact that there are those who rebel is nothing but a trite banality.” A building can take any form; nothing is more subjective. Once a form is demonstrated, however, it can be codified, a law written, tablets handed down. And if the law is implicitly condemned to be broken, it is only replaced by another. In search of architectural meaning, recent generations of builders have again revived a multiform architecture, a broadened range of codes. Some seek nothing but the frivolous flux of pleasant memories; others are trying to bring out resonances and correspondences in the collective consciousness. The new science sinks in this turf. Contemporary architecture is no longer ideal or utopian: rather than designing the metal, plastic, or crystalline wonders of the high-tech architecture of some new world, today’s builders prefer to arrange keystones of familiar lumpen matter, carefully exorcising the genius loci and the anxiety of the zeitgeist.

Woven into the fabric of our quick reflection has been a play between the wonder of an architecture and the admiration of it: the threads of the weave—memory, surprise, amazement, violence—lie at the interstice between the object and the observer. The characteristics of wonder cannot inhabit contemporary everyday space; to grasp them one must freeze the vitality of architecture, make a building into a purely contemplative object, reduce its completeness to an exquisite esthetic judgment. Recognizing this partiality in our theme, it makes sense at this point to establish a certain argumentative distance—without in any way dulling our sensitivity to the extraordinary. In the end, with Breton, we can critically reclaim the Surrealist “intention to confront the hatred for wonder that rages in some men, and the ridiculous beneath which they want it to fall. The wonderful is always beautiful—it doesn’t matter how wonderful it is; indeed, there is no wonder that is not beautiful.” Accordingly, if we continue to construct stories, it is clearly not to derive some consoling placebo from the past, but rather to nurture our disquietude about the contradictions of the present.

Sergio Polano is associate professor of the history of architecture at the University of Udine. He is the author of several books, most recently Mostrare, 1988, and the curator of many exhibitions. Paolo Morello is a freelance critic; his most recent book is Palazzo Abatellis, 1989. Both authors live in Venice, Italy.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.