“Is taste innate or can it be taught?”
This problem was one that Johann Joachim Winckelmann understood and worked to solve in an aesthetic manner during his lifetime
Johnann Joachim Winckelmann has long been recognized as a founder of modern methodologies in the fields of art history and archaeology. He contributed considerably to studies of classical Greek architecture and applied empirically derived categories of style to the analysis of classical works of art and architecture.
The concept of imitation was central to Winckelmann’s theories and writings. It became a a linchpin for modern ideas about the diffusion, appropriation, and musealization of art.
In his writings he advised people to look at things to try to understand the essence of the things that are being seen and suggested that artists and architects alike use the operation of imitation. Imitation was understood as a need to not simply reproduce something already seen, a carbon copy so to speak, but to understand the driving principles at its heart. The next step was to find new and innovate ways to appropriate and use these driving principles in new contexts, with new criteria and materials in order to create new ideas. It could be akin to the compositions that use theme and variation – the theme being the original piece of art or architecture; the variation being that which the architect or artist had imitated from the original. Both utilising the same basic principles of compositions, and beautiful in the uniqueness of the composition.
It was Georg Friedrich Hegel who suggested how to imitate in the most productive way – Perhaps the greatest of the German idealist philosophers, he is credited with creating the notion of “Dialectic” – also known as how to take the lessons of history and culture and transform them into something new:
An idea called a “thesis” is countered by an opposite “antithesis” and a new idea is forged from the union of these two concepts, called “synthesis” The most elegant modern example of this is probably the spork.
What can a spork teach us about architecture?
The thesis of a fork is countered by an opposite, a spoon, and a new useful creation – the spork – is created when a fork and spoon are brought together in synthesis. The ambition of the synethis is to overturn and lift up, something Hegel referred to as “aufhebung”
Hegel had an overarching idea that the dialectic was always progressive. Something that outclasses and is better than that which came before it which in architectural terms is about moving from an idea of matter to spirit. The more the dialectic advances, the more history progresses, the more it discards the material and becomes pure philosophy, pure idea or in his terms, “spirit”
Looking at these 3 images it is easy to see thesis, antithesis and synthesis in form:
The pyramids of Ancient Egypt are haptic singular simple platonic forms, whereas if you forward in history to Greece, the Hera Temple in 5th century BC Sicily perhaps, there is a stronger spatial sensibility and a notion of viewing things in the oblique, a sense of relationship between subject and object; assemblage of parts and ratios are much more apparent and there is a complex union of ideas. Hera’s Temple is dialectically opposed to that of the Ancient Egyptian Pyramids. In Rome we see a synthesis of sorts – The Parthenon is huge but encloses space rather than displacing it. It uses platonic form as void. This idea of the dialectic is embedded in how we understand architectural history.
The Parthenon (Ichtinos & Calicrates 438 – 2BC) is beautiful, it has optical corrections and entasis which has to do with the perception of the object – its disposition of parts and articulation of parts in its logic is very clear. It derives its form not from the whim of an individual but from the collective consciousness of an age.
It is unsurprising that Athens, the city widely considered to be the cradle of Western civilization, would have made as celebrated a contribution to architecture as it has to countless other human pursuits. History was imaginatively transformed into something new by the modernists and any projects of the modernist era were initially successful. The public came to associate this strong aesthetic with prosperity and progress
Early modernists like Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
loved antiquity and the operation of imitation. There are several photos of Le Cobusier wandering around Greece sketching and learning how to imitate in Winckelmann’s sense of the word. Looking at the Parthenon, it’s easy to see how modernists like Mies subverted the classical culture of antiquity – the modus operandi of modernism.
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