This is a story about an excursion I went on with my colleague Maarten and a group of students beginning on their final project. The project is called M 4 Detail and sets out to explore the notion of rich and poor detailing. The M stands for the fact that society appears to be slowly losing its middle classes, dividing into an increasingly polarised spectrum, where the rich are becoming richer and the poor are becoming poorer and the middle is sinking away. That detail is a question of money nobody with any experience of building would deny; Rem Koolhaas famously quipped: “No money, no detail". The 'no detail' he threatened with meant not an absence of detail, but a lack of attention to detail. In fact in his case it meant a celebration of “punk-detailing” which has its own charms. The detail is what connects the concepts of structure and construction to architecture proper. The detail is the vehicle for architectural presence. It is where architecture becomes architecture in our experience of the surfaces that define our spaces. No detail, no architecture.
The Bavarian church-builders of the 18th century built fantastic decors with plaster and string. They worked with a moral abandon and scenographic lightness that is very different from the heavy, dutiful morality with which the architecture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries became affected, where buildings lost their assumed innocence, were asked to participate in society more fully as responsible moral creatures and duly accused of lying when they failed to meet the requisite standards of honesty. Honesty became an architectural virtue, a special category of its aesthetic repertoire. The detail thus became the symptom of a building’s moral health but only because it determines the nature of the space in our appreciation of it, the nature of the atmosphere we create with our feeling body. For some it is easy to enjoy the raw nakedness of rough details, for others this goes against every (moral) fibre in their body. The detail is closely related to our way of appreciating the world around us.
Karl Bötticher conceived of a now famous distinction in architectural structure in which he tried to clarify the relationship between the surface and what lies beneath, the deep-structure of architecture. The Kernform or core-form is a concept he used to denote the skeletal structure of a building, the way a structure resists gravity while providing the framework for the ordering of space while the Kunstform or art-form was the way that this skeletal resistance and ordering was expressed in the visible, audible and tactile surfaces of a building. The way these two ‘forms’ connect in architecture still constitutes the magic of the detail. But there is a problem with this distinction, which I will come to in a minute.
Following Aristotle’s concept of Hylomorphism, we have always known that form helps determine the way the forces work upon the material of a structure and vice versa and we also know how the environment helps shape the tension between form and behaviour, in the contingencies of the everyday. Form and the behaviour it shows, affords and suggests are two sides of the same coin. Behaviour is form in action. Form is behaviour observed. When Louis Kahn asked a brick what it wanted to be, he knew what he was doing; bricks give inherent feedback: they suggest possibilities and exclude others, just on the basis of their shape and material characteristics. Those characteristics are however given by the environment in which they are asked to perform. That is Deleuze’s contribution to Aristotle’s concept: things behave the way they do within their environment. Form and matter work upon each other reciprocally and help transform each other and the environment of which they are part and by which they are affected.
That brings me to the difficulty with the neat distinction that Bötticher proposed. It is, in fact, impossible to expose the kern-form except through representation. Its presence, as a diagram of structural work, lies hidden within the material structure of the form. It is determined by the form that material structure takes, but can never be revealed, it can only ever be represented through code. As such the Kernform lies hidden within any form. A skeletal structure, that appears to trace the diagram of forces in its own being, is no more than an approximation of the actual Kernform. If you like we can distinguish between the contingent form, the form that is merely left to its own devices and the Kunstform in which an intention has been expressed to do something about this. The Kunstform can then take a stand and choose to express the Kern-form of ignore it. Whatever the case, anything shaped by human hands is the product of artifice and as such made present in an art-form which either mediates with the Kernform or fails to. The Kernform cannot ever be fully extracted from any form after all it is not the form but its structural behaviour, which is so intimately bound with the form but only reveals itself when that form is put under such environmental pressure that it is transformed. When the Kernform is stable, the form is stable, but the form is not to be confused with the diagram of forces. The form is merely what presents itself to us as what Deleuze calls the part-object. Even the most naked details, the most denuded structures, show only their surfaces and never the actual diagram of forces, but only ever a representation of that diagram. Every form has its effect on the Kernform, determines its work. Structures work, matter, whatever its nature will turn out to be, works, forces work within and upon the material and its presented form and act upon both. The form of the skeleton partly determines the working of the structural forces that we represent with the working form. This working of structural forces within a skeletal structure can be made visible through all sorts of modelling techniques. But they are representations: Artforms, however useful they might be from a scientific point of view.
How do we, in the light of all this, give expression to the surfaces we design? If someone were to tell us to express structure in our architecture, we do not have to obey them, it is our decision to do what we do, as long as we are prepared to face the consequences of our actions. Design is fundamentally free, free in an importantly trivial sense. We can do a and we can do b. Which should we do? Our choice is our freedom, and how we would love to exchange that freedom for the right answer! So this studio was set up to explore the relationships between material and form as both help shape architecture in the detail, it is an exercise in thinking about the making, as the Smithsons put it. But what makes it special, is that it explores the notions of rich and poor detailing from an aesthetic as well as an economic point of view.
Why Dresden? Well, Semper, who more than any other architect-theorist thought carefully about the nature of detailing, started his career in architecture there. Semper was the one who made us think theoretically about the tectonic, about the wall and its cladding, the idea of dressing and fashioning. The idea of style as a product of the thinking about the making. In Dresden he met Richard Wagner whose aesthetic of the Gesamtkunstwerk led to revolutionary approach to opera, some of which were premiered in the first theatre Semper built. Wagner's idea of th gesamtkunstwerk shows a family resemblance, or at least a similar way of thinking to Semper’s concept of style. Style, as defined by Semper is the correspondence between an work of art and the history of its becoming. That process of becoming is determined by three coordinates upon a field of tension. The material-technical, the social-cultural and the ideal-personal. Technology origintes and evolves in and through the crafting of materials, these crafts develop within a social and cultural environment and are pushed along by the creativity and serendipitous search of individuals who work from the basis of a personal world of ideas. This field of tension gives works of art and technology in so far as they differ in this (which I would contest) their specificity, their Style.
This at least partly inspired Nietzsche’s view of Greece and its style, the distinction between the Dionysian and the Apollonian which has a wonderful bearing upon Bötticher’s problematic distinction. At the same time Semper helped inform Nietzsche’s own concept of style. To make the circle complete, Nietzsche was of course an early friend of Wagner. So why Dresden? Well, I suppose none of us had been there properly. I had passed through a few times on my way to the Czech republic. Maarten spent a day or two there last year, but felt there was room for more. All we knew for certain is that it had one of the most remarkable urban assemblages in the history of architecture, an assemblage I often teach, but had never properly studied in person, an assemblage moreover that is not designed through misguided obedience to some preordained game-rule or grid, but on the basis of an urban scenography based on the movement of the perceiving body. In fact we might call its design principle theatrical. (Mallgrave, Semper) Mallgrave in his discussion of Semper’s work in Dresden, cites Charles Garnier:: Tout ce qui se passe au monde n’ est en somme que théâtre et représentation (…) Voir et se faire voir, entendre et se faire entendre, c’est le cercle fatal de l’ humanité; être acteur ou spectateur, c’ est la condition vitale des êtres; c’ est le but en même temps que le moyen. (Le Théâtre, 1871) Theatricality in this specific sense is an important architectural and urban design principle, far more rational than any gamerule imposed from God’s view, after all it takes account of the shape and abilities of the human body, and its need to present itself to others for the purposes of communication.
Buildings within the Altstadt were placed by the judgment of a body in that space working with the space as it appeared at that moment. That the notion of the theatrical as described by Garnier underpinned the careful orientation, placement and detailing of each building in turn may be taken as a given, Kings need theatre to exercise power. Power without its manifestation dissolves into nothing. And Semper, like Jacopo Sansovino and Palladio in Venice, finished the composition off with a flourish. The result is truly and wonderfully spectacular. The Hofkirche set at a slight diagonal right in front of the palace of the Saxon Kings and then across a wide space it greets the Theatre, which itself is flanked by the large, finely detailed screen of the Gemäldegalerie, with its central portal leading to the ultimate statement in party-architecture, the Zwinger by Matthäeus Daniel Pöppelmann. The whole is a complex fabric of surfaces and axes, punctuated here and there by smaller buildings such as Schinkel’s Wache and a small set of buildings on the waterfront, which themselves act as a screen as you cross the Elbe over the Augustbrücke, which lies off axis with regard to the square, so that the whole is revealed in phases and never ever fully in one panoramic sweep. The panoramic sweep is the skyline with its towers and domes, with the Frauenkriche doing its bit to frame the left flank. What is a bit of a shame is that the modern architects did not finish the composition on the right. Instead they can be seen to be doing their own thing. All meant well of course. But if I were king, I would quickly scrap everything built to the right of the Semperoper and begin again with proper Modern Architecture, something that does not feel ashamed of itself, is isn’t loaded up with the heavy morality laden nonsense modern architects are usually high on. Architecture needs to be useful and what is more useful than delight? Anyway. What is wonderful about this riverfront is that there is always much more than meets the eye. It is in a true sense urban theatre of the best sort. Everything is presented to everything else, everything plays a well-crafted part.
After the cultural holocaust inflicted upon Dresden during the madness of the Second World War, in which not just the Germans lost their sanity, the Altstadt was carefully, if only partially rebuilt. All the important public buildings have been lovingly reconstructed. That is what brings us to the detail. Take the Frauenkirche which lay in ruins for fifty years, all through the period of communism. Now it stands, a bold and elegant reconstruction, performed with extreme and mind-boggling care, using the old stones that were available and new ones when necessary. The process of reconstruction itself was more sophisticated than the initial design which was itself no mean feat, throwing a dome of sandstone up so high that it would complement the skyline as seen from the bridge mentioned earlier. The interior is spatially extraordinary, even if its colouring is somewhat saccharine. But the exterior is like a pixelated image the original. Old dark stones set within light new ones. What I like about Dresden, is precisely this: it is a phoenix city, which celebrates its past and glorifies its material structure. That material structure has now acquired a depth it would not have had without the bombing. It is not that I am advocating the bombing of cities. On the contrary, destruction is the reverse side of civilization, its antithesis, it is the civilization of the alpha-male, a creature who does not score high marks in my estimation, for what that is worth. We should be able to overcome our evolutionary strictures here. Hitler ordering the destruction of Paris, Churchill and Eisenhower ordering the destruction of Berlin and Dresden, the Taliban destroying the Giant Buddha’s and the monuments of Timbuctu, it is all on a par; there is no difference between them on that score. Their deeds are all as loathsome, as unforgiveable, as counterproductive in that such destruction merely feeds resentment and determination. The only thing that can be said for destroying defenceless culture is that it is not as bad as murdering defenceless people. Well, hurrah….
What is also true is that culture can be produced. Culture allows no vacuum. Destroyed culture is replaced by another form of culture. So are people. We breed. As if that legitimizes destruction and murder! Destroying that which is the very being of civilization: its material structure upon which its spiritual life builds, always constitutes an act of the vilest barbarism; all destroyers of culture, for whatever purpose they destroyed what they did, should hang their heads in shame and stop what they are doing so stupidly. If I had it my way they would be made to pay for its replacement with more delight! Fat chance of that ever happening. It is always the alpha males and now the alpha females who want power. So history is not over yet! So, when the idiots have done their thing, what is there to do but begin again? Dresden begun again, not like Rotterdam by deliberately rubbing out its past and investing exclusively in a heroic if rather sorry idea of the modern, which, curiously enough, has also worked rather well in its own strange way, but by reconstructing that which made Dresden special from the time of Augustus the Strong. That too works, if one does it with due care. And the people of Dresden did, even though it took a long time and a fabulous amount of money.
So why Dresden, well Dresden has, together with Venice, arguably the most beautiful river-front event in the history of urban and architectural design. Completed not until Semper built the first of his two theatres on the spot where the third version now stands. It is a game of theatrical design with shifting axes, carefully placed screens and their occluding edges, hiding surprises until the right moment, and dressed in a detail that plays its part in the play as a whole. It looks almost haphazard, as all good design does when it is designed from the perspective of the moving body, rather than from some distant god-eye view imposing its Apollonic order and working its surreal magic in the experience of it in three dimensions. The details of the on-going reconstruction are not hidden, they are left in plain view. So the whole city centre has become a collage of old and new materials, a mottled masterpiece. That in itself is worth a detailed study. What is more, Dresden, because of its history, is a wonderful example to study the M-shaped phenomenon in detailing. It boasts the ridiculously over the top details of the Zwinger, the gorgeously disciplined hierarchies of Schinkel, the light touch of stuccoed facades with painted shades as well as the considered work of Semper, beautifully crafted. But it also boasts the Plattenbau of the DDR and now the modern details of Libeskind, Foster, Coop Himmelb(l)au and lesser gods. All in all, it is a wonderful object for the study of surface, detail and structure, of the relationship between Kunst- and Kernform.
And then there is grafitti. Once I had shown a slide shoing a big work of graffiti in Rotterdam. It said "KNOW YA HISTORY" I thought it was relevant to a lecture on architectural precedent. One of the men in the lecture hall, stood up and was visibly angered by that slide. He shouted at me: "How dare you romanticise graffiti?" I was taken aback, the more so when I heard that he had been the designer of the viaduct from which I had taken the photograph. I wish I had replied: "How dare you design that viaduct!" but of course I did not have the presence of mind. It brings me to an instersting problem. How does graffiti relate to architecture and the detail in particular? If sculputered detail is part of the argument and if painted stucco is part of the argument, then graffiti must look in somewhere. My own relationship to graffiti is this. I hate everything that is slovenly uninspiring, run-of-the-mill, boring and mediocre. That goes for architecture and it goes for graffiti. That means I feel pretty annoyed and heavy-minded about most graffiti and most buildings.
The biggest delight came in the form of a tour of the Semperoper given us by a well-informed if rather draconian lady, who told us not to touch anything, which may have been understandable from her point of view, having to deal with the thoughtless throng rather more often than one would wish on one’s worst enemies, but it was cruel to us, who were anything but thoughtless about the things we wanted to touch. How else can we get to understand things? She told us about the green marble columns that weren’t made of marble, but a special paste that needed 300 hours of polishing and thus cost even more than real marble ones would have cost. That is what Semper wanted! He wanted imitation marble! I love it. Fuck Ruskin and Pugin and their moralising nonsense. I enjoy morality, but prefer mine well thought through. I enjoy their theories for what they enjoy, but I dismiss their theories about things they are unable to enjoy and so condemn. Their joy is wonderful, their condemnation small-minded. (I like marbling and I like St Paul’s, if you can paint the lilly well, go for it I say!) She told us of the imitation wood of the lobby that was hand-painted plaster so as to lessen the fire hazard which had already once destroyed Semper’s first theatre. She told us of the man who did it and how long he took and what he did. How good he was at his job. How is he not part of the lamp of life? She told us of the marbled walls coated in bees-wax. She told us of the plastic chandelier that weighed a ton where a proper bronze one would have weighed five. Now this last was not Semper’s doing, but a decision made at the time of the most recent reconstruction. Looking at the chandelier, a rather puffed up, pompous old man declared to everyone who wanted to hear (and he very much wanted everyone to hear) “Oh, now that I know it is made of plastic, I am rather disappointed. I don’t find it beautiful anymore.” I told him he could get over such primitive nonsense if he wanted to. He gave me a bitchy look and passed out of my life. Good riddance. Snobbery gets in the way of thinking. This man suffers from Hegelianism, the hegemony of the concept of time, the idea that time can be calibrated into periods and authenticities. Sure it can. But it does not have to be! Anyway, what is wrong about being honest about something being an imitation? She told us it was plastic. No one is hiding it. What is in fact the difference between lying and holding silly, untenable restrictive ideas sincerely? I suppose that the first provides the road to hell with signage, the second with paving stones. We are all on that road. There are no innocent people. Children are innocent, they are not yet people, or at least should not yet have to be. Of course I do not want to be fooled. But it is up to me to know the difference or not to care.
The Gemäldegalerie is beautiful too, especially its richly detailed exterior and the well-crafted twisted arches connecting the vaulted passages to the main central domed space in the portal connecting the theatre square to the Zwinger. I am sure Semper let himself be inspired in some of his detailing by the painted architecture in the collection, particularly the Botticelli and the Francesco del Cossa. Mind you I may be talking rubbish here. I don’t know how long either have been part of the collection. At the same time many of the ornaments on Semper’s façade appear to show a family resemblance to their work. Having said that, they are all part of the stock-in-trade of a knowledgeable artist so… perhaps I should just keep quiet.
Inside the Gemäldegalerie the architecture neatly fades to the background, apart from the friezes in the lobby and the paintings come to the fore. And what a collection! The Titian showing Judas resembling Christ in all but the hardness of his eyes, Giorgione’s reclining nude with its soft outlines and gorgeous colouring, the della Messina with the weird mis-en-scene of the young aristocratic ladies symmetrically placed on either side of Saint Sebastian’s underpants, seated over a carpeted balustrade of a bridge over a street; the mind-blowing Raphael with its frightened Christ-child looking at his own fate, the Cranachs with their weird serpentine beauty, the Barthel Beham portrait of a man so carefully observed that looking at him intensely becomes an uncanny experience, like looking into the eyes of an alpha male gorilla. And the Holbeins of course, there is too much to mention. I particularly enjoyed the Vermeers, although I was disturbed by the brothel-scene more than when I see it in reproduction. It is so much larger than I imagined it. I loved the red, flushed, innocent cheeks of the healthy girl in het bright yellow top. She appeared to me the victim of all that is horrible in the world; how I hated the lecherous, greedy, and nasty expressions of the others in the painting, the dumb lips of the man paying her, the nasty eagerness of the older woman who had probably got her drunk, and the knowing innuendo of the musician making us complicit. Hateful, all of them. Looking at that picture is like the best melodrama; you end up forgetting yourself and wanting to do something to the baddies despite the fact that you know that they are mere lifeless actors. I also loved the Frans van Mieris, the young lady reclining on a chair showing her gorgeous two-tone dress and jacket. What a feast. I mustn’t forget the strange and dramatic Belotto, showing the dismantling of the Kreuzkirche. Then there were the Dutch still-lives and the Ceasar van Everdingen, with his flaccid white- skinned drunken nymph and her funny but totally convincing boob. The Liotard for which there are no words: the crumpled linen apron, the sheen of her dress, the glass of pure water and the lustrous porcelain cup of hot chocolate, her concentrated face, all of it is exquisitely painted, so refined, so gorgeous. High-tech painting, never losing sight of itself and its purpose to bewitch and capture all our loving attention. But the ultimate prize must go to Jan van Eyck. I don’t know why. The skill is one thing. The tininess is another; the sheer fullness is a third, the expressions and delicacy of the actors a fourth; its sense of delicacy and fragility a fifth. There are so many layers to the appreciation of this painting, it never stops being wonderful, from whatever perspective you look at it. The rich miniature details must take centre stage, if only because of the theme of the excursion: the rich carpets, the baldachin, the interior of the church, its patterned floor, its sculptures, its mis-en-scene of a church as a house of God, with visitors…
In the evening we went to see Alcina by Handel which was a pleasant surprise as I do know Handel’s opera’s at all, and a wonderful opportunity to see the theatre doing its best.. Alcina has some beautiful solo’s particularly by the witch Alcina herself and one or two by her sister. Of course I spent some minutes chuckling maliciously at the chandelier and trying to make my own mind up as to what I felt about it. And then I decided that I was glad the woman told us about it. What is dishonest about a plastic chandelier doing its best to act the part of a bronze one. If people help us through acting. If role-playing is an inevitable part of what we do, why then is a plastic chandelier not allowed to play a role? Give me a good answer. None of you cheap anally retentive analogies please!
The next day was reserved for the other stuff. We went to see the Hauptbahnhof as pimped by Foster, and enjoyed the girders and the joists and the hinge-joints and the Teflon and the brick being brick. We went to see the UFO cinema by Coop Himmelb(l)au and enjoyed the weird spaces but enjoyed disliking the cheap detailing. We went to seen the new synagogue which we couldn’t get into, which was a shame. We dove into a bit of the DDR legacy. What to say about all this? Well the haubtbahnhof was easily the best. The Synagogue might have become the best, but we weren’t allowed in. The Cinema was roundly disappointing. Sure the space was very UFO-like, but the way it was made was rather shamefully. It was not deliberate dirty detailing, nor was it nice and raw, it was all just rather slovenly done.
I spent the afternoon alone in the Albertinum, looking at the new masters, particulary enjoying the Friedrichs, the Dahls and the Constable sketches. After that I visited the Porcelain Collection at the Zwinger, a real an eye-opener. I have learnt to love the lustre of china -he said pompously. Be that as it may, it is exactly what I meant to say. I have had to learn to love it, to invest in it. It does not come naturally to me, probably because I was badly affected by the concept of Kitsch. I have always enjoyed knowing about its stories, particularly about the alchemists exploring the possibilities of making porcelain and the secrets that were or were not let out about certain techniques, and of course about the fabulous amounts of money exchanging hands. But to see the things themselves and enjoy them on their own terms, or at least on my own terms, is something I have had to learn. I think Victoria and Reino helped here, their sensibility is superior to mine. The top piece in the collection as far as I was concerned was one that would be soonest dismissed as Kitsch no doubt. It was the vase of porcelain flowers sent over from France. Porcelain flowers normally cannot charm me. But these were in a league of their own. Never have I see such virtuosity in the detailing, such delicacy in the treatment, such beguiling realism in the effort to trick my eyes, such joy in the art of making. It was mind blowing (I think I have used that word before). Mind you so was the rest and what was particularly fun was the setting of the collection in the Zwinger. All that stuff, all its surfaces, beautifully set in scene. The gold consoles were still somewhat freshly painted and the Chinese pergola housing the white Meissen monkeys was a bit tacky. But all that is compensated for by the porcelain itself and its setting in the gorgeous and gorgeously light spaces of the Zwinger.
The last day was reserved for the Military Museum as done up by Libeskind. That was disturbing. I must say it cannot have been easy to set up a military museum in Germany: bad memories in the country which I am sure would love to forget. They have done it well. At the same time war and its attributes cannot help but glorify war through its attributes. After all wars are given shape first and foremost by those who want to fight them. War is dominated by the aesthetic of the war-hungry: the Achilles’, Patroclusses and Agamemnons of this world. They make sure their uniforms look good and their arms are effective and mesmerising. A large part of being effective is looking effective. Having said that, the museum designers have done it all rather well. I was particularly disturbed by an exhibition on recent right-wing extremism in Germany. When I saw the posters advertising the exhibition on my walks through Dresden I was rather horrified. The posters appeared to romanticise the iconography of aggression. And they did, after all this is a case where if you think they do, they do. Posters are there to make you think things and then act upon them. But the exhibition itself soon put a stop to all that. Amazing, awful and extraordinary stories. I know of no other exhibition where I spent so much time reading the stories accompanying the photographs. What intrigued me was the story of a girl who let herself be taken in by it all. What ultimately got her fed up with the whole thing was men being men. They talk good talk but then fail to deliver the goods. Right wing extremists have exceedingly bourgeois ideas about family life. But when push comes to shove they prefer drinking, pushing and shoving, daring each other into violence. That is more fun than being a good father and husband. They are lost souls, to be pitied; fear is what they want, their aesthetic of hate is merely leverage to a sense of belonging, to a sense of being included. Their hate is real enough, but they hate their ideas of what their hate is directed towards. They live in a virtual world of bad ideas that have a real and horrible effect in our real world, one that diminishes it, making it poorer. But even they create gaps where the heroic perform the good they do. I was astonished by the heroism of one couple who refused to move out of the village that was being taken over by a group of extremists. What was most special about them is that they did not become extremists themselves…
A last word about our Hostel, Lolli’s: brilliant. Go there and give the girl in the round hat, and the tall chap with the beard, and his dog Schnudi, my regards when you see them.