Cultural Space for Architectural Poetry

“Expression: Architecture and the Arts” is a new book from Parks Books and the University of Chicago Press. Three concrete examples in Switzerland have been studied: a Giacometti museum in Stampa, a Cinémathèque in Locarno, and an Elias Canetti library in Zürich.  The book shows the differing influence that film, literature, and visual arts can have on architectural thought and design. It also reveals the knowledge to be gained from combining arts and architecture.

A+A recently interviewed Dr. Florian Sauter, who wrote a chapter called “When Light Paints” in the new book:

What do you mean when you say that only man makes deliberate use of the useless?

If we look at the natural world, it appears that mankind is clearly an exception. While other creatures seem to follow exclusively an evolutionary logic – a logic of survival, where behavior is ruled by strict necessity – the human race has liberated a cultural realm, a space of psychological value that in extreme cases also allows us to regard a heap of garbage as something worth something. In this regard I view the creative act as a moment of breaking out of the evolutionary logic in order to create contributions to this treasury, this ‘free space’ we all share and guard. Surely, there are limits to my statements – for instance when looking at the bowerbird, a bird that builds very sophisticated nests to seduce his female partner. One could almost say that he rearranges his flower and berry-patterns like a painter. In the bowerbird’s case artistic expression clearly influences the species’ evolutionary trajectory, and notably it was Adolf Loos who extended this sexual argument to architectural creation, too.

How does artistic expression operate between the two poles of idea and matter?

The creative act is a marvelous process. An idea, a gaseous, formless strata of energy concentration gets translated – finds expression – in some sort of material form. In the experiences I have had with students, I noticed how difficult it is for many to “jump” – to leave clear analytical analysis behind and leap into the unknown, to follow one’s original ideas, and try to give them some sort of expression. For that reason I also highly appreciate the ‘instantaneous’ notations of Elias Canetti in our book. He often wrote in shorthand, and one recognizes a very direct linkage to his mental thought process – the hand almost being an extension of his brain. In general we firstly express ourselves through gestures and speech, secondly through slower communicative tools like writing, sketching and molding. These are different modes of shaping the inner voice as an extension of the mind into something that has form. In that instant of ‘realization’ the ‘world’ of the creator enters the realm of the ‘earth.’ In architectural regards, during the consecutive design, planning and building phase issues of craftsmanship and coordination gain increasing significance while the abstract ideas gradually concretize into real, experiential spaces and objects.

How does architectural expression differ from other arts?

In basic terms architecture is more limited than the other arts. This is mainly due to the complexity of the profession’s realization process – one that is notably also tremendously slow when compared to other art forms. While “building” seeks to overcome these practical obstacles and forces, “architecture” attempts to keep the original ‘world’ alive – a “world” that allows for shared associations within the realm of human ideas. Hence, “architecture” goes beyond issues of function and shelter: certain of its elements might be useless in pragmatic terms, but not necessarily in psychological ones. The ruin is an interesting case in point: oscillating between its sculptural and architectural presence, it is a built structure that has ceased to exist for a certain use, but remains clearly alive in its engagement with the “world.” One could also argue that in order to assemble a crowd of people one doesn’t need to build a huge cupola, and yet it’s precisely this excessive provision of space that helps the Pantheon transcend its measurable limitations. Altogether, it is in the thoughtful forming of inner and outer spaces where architecture finds it greatest freedom, and simultaneously its greatest distinction from the other arts.

How does it unfold the world´s riches?

Great architecture for me is selfless. The traces of the individual artist somewhat disappear as the work transcends his or her idiosyncrasies and tangents a larger pool of communal comprehension. It may sound contradictory, but I regard as the ideal result of architectural expression not the building with the most personal style or ‘signature’, but rather value carefully orchestrated ‘backgrounds’ that silently frame and harbor, and in the best case bring to expression, the poetical energy and beauty that inherently slumbers in a given task and locus. In this regard architecture may in a tremendously powerful way activate the natural elements, and in so doing paint with light, sing with water and sculpt with earth and air.

How can architecture be both familiar and new?

I believe that certain buildings relate in a very mysterious way through their spatial organization and formal arrangement to feelings and thoughts that many people share; in other words they possess inherent archetypal qualities. Already the term “arche’-type” is quite interesting through its relation to “archi’-tecture.” Hence, I believe that “architecture” has the capability to express sentiments that essentially remain the same throughout time, and which through their continued re-expression give time and again fresh meaning to the “world.” Yet, this consistency of certain primordial human notions is not simply an invitation to reproduce what has been done in the past: each generation must re-penetrate to these original poetic resources and find its own ways to express and give architectural shape to them.

What is the intent of your chapter in this book?

It is ultimately a defense of the cultural space that permits architectural poetry to exist.

Where did you find your inspiration for it?

Basically in the statements of such architects that have fought for the freedom of “architecture” in relation to “building” – Le Corbusier or Aldo van Eyck being two examples. Important sources of inspiration have also been Gaston Bachelard’s literary studies on the natural elements, and Gordon Matta-Clark’s invitations to build a more “ruinous” future.

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