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ON THE REAL MEANING OF ARCHITECTURE.
CERTAINLY the national taste is not a matter of little moment. Whether another planet shall be discovered beyond Le Verrier's may or may not affect the happiness of a whole country; but whether a young and progressive people shall develop ideas of beauty, harmony, and moral significance in their daily lives; whether the arts shall be so understood and cultivated as to elevate and dignify the character; whether the country homes of a whole people shall embody such ideas of beauty and truth as shall elevate and purify its feelings;—these are questions of no mean or trifling importance.
Now, the real progress which a people makes in any of the fine arts, must depend on the public sensibility and the public taste. Sensibility to beauty must exist, and there must be some means afforded of developing and cultivating the taste; for, however instinctive and natural a gift the former may be, a correct taste is only the result of education: the feeling must be guided by the judgment.
While a general ignorance on the subject of architecture among us, must be admitted, we must also avow that the liveliest interest in it is now strongly felt on all sides. And this very ignorance is mainly owing to the dry and barren manner in which architects have usually written on the real meaning or philosophy of their art. It would seem that men who work out beautiful thoughts in ponderous stone, seldom wield so slight an implement as a pen with grace and power. Why else should nine-tenths of even the educated, believe that the whole circle of architecture is comprised in the five Orders; or, at most, that a Greek temple and a Gothic cathedral are the Alpha and Omega of the art? Why should so many of the most intelligent persons imagine, that Domestic Architecture is only perfect when it is similar to that of public edifices; or, at least, when it borrows all its ornaments from such structures?
It is not an easy task to lay bare the principles of an art, compounded thus of the Useful and the Beautiful; to show how and why it appeals so powerfully to the whole nature of man—to his senses, his heart, and his understanding.
But it is, perhaps, this very compound nature of Architecture, this appeal which it makes to the sensation, the sentiment, and the knowledge of man, which has left it in so unsatisfactory a shape to the popular apprehension; which has caused it to be looked upon by some as the mere province of the builder; by others, as the object of enthusiastic admiration, and by the rest as a subject of scientific investigation; until half the world imagines the beauty of an edifice, like genius, to be a happy accident, to be enjoyed when found, but as difficult to seize as the rainbow itself.
It would be a boon to the age, if some gifted artist would show the world the secret sources of the influence which Architecture wields in all civilized nations. This is as far beyond our province as our ability. Still, we must be indulged in a brief analysis of the elements of interest which Architecture possesses for the human mind, and a glance at the partially concealed sources of that power which it exerts over our hearts and understandings.
Something of this kind seems to us to be demanded by the inquiring mind and the expanding taste of our people; and Domestic Architecture itself, which, amid the louder claims of civil and ecclesiastical art, has been too much neglected, seems to demand a higher consideration in a country where the ease of obtaining a house and land, and the ability of almost every industrious citizen to build his own house, constitute a distinctive feature of national prosperity.
THE USEFUL IN ARCHITECTURE.
The senses make the first demand in almost every path in human life. The necessity of shelter from the cold and heat, from sun and shower, leads man at first to build a habitation.
What this habitation shall be, depends partly on the habits of the man, partly on the climate in which he lives. If he is a shepherd and leads a wandering life, he pitches a tent. If he is a hunter, he builds a rude hut of logs or skins. If he is a tiller of the soil, he constructs a dwelling of timber or stones, or lodges in the caverns of the rocky hill-sides.
As a mere animal, man's first necessity is to provide shelter; and, as he is not governed by the constructive instinct of other animals, the clumsiest form which secures him against the inclemency of the seasons, often appears sufficient : there is scarcely any design apparent in its arrangement, and the smallest amount of convenience is found in its interior. This is the first, primitive, or savage idea of building. Let us look a step higher in the scale of improvement.
On the eastern borders of Europe is a tribe or nation of the Sclavonic people, called the Croats, who may be said to be only upon the verge of civilization. They lead a rude, forest, and agricultural life. They know nothing of the refinements of the rest of Europe. They live in coarse, yet strong and warm houses. But their apartments are as rude as their manners, and their cattle frequently share the same rooms with themselves.
Our third example may be found in any portion of the United States. It is nothing less common than a plain, rectangular house, built of timber from the forest saw-mill, with a roof to cover it, windows to light it, and doors to enter it. The heat is kept out by shutters, and the cold by fires burnt in chimneys. It is well and strongly built; it affords perfect protection to the physical nature of man; and it serves, so far as a house can serve, all the most imperative wants of the body. It is a warm, comfortable, convenient dwelling.
It is easy to see that in all these grades of man's life, and the dwellings which typify them, only one idea has as yet manifested itself in his architecture—viz. that of utility. In the savage, the half civilized, and the civilized states, the idea of the useful and the convenient differ, but only in degree. It is still what will best serve the body—what will best shelter, lodge, feed, and warm us—which demands the whole attention of the mere builder of houses.
It would be as false to call only this, Architecture, as to call the gamut music, or to consider rhymes poetry, and yet it is the framework or skeleton on which Architecture grows and wakens into life; without which, indeed, it can no more rise to the dignity of a fine art, than perfect language can exist without sounds.
There are also certain principles which belong to building (as this useful part of Architecture is properly called), which are of the utmost importance, since they may not be in the slightest degree violated without proving more or less destructive to the enjoyment of the finest work.
Many of these are mechanical principles involved in masonry, in carpentry, and other kinds of artisanship, which are sufficiently familiar in their nature to the general reader, and are subjects of technical expertness on the part of those employed in building.
But there are also other principles besides these, which govern the workmen in their labors, and which must always control even him who only aims at the useful in Architecture.
The first and most obvious of these rules of utility is, that the cost of the building shall not exceed the means of the owner or occupant. Out of a want of practical knowledge in the builder grow, not unfrequently, mistakes that are fatal to the use of a house, since, if too much is expended in the whole structure, the owner may be forced to sell it to another, rather than enjoy it himself: if too much is expended on a part, the economy necessary in the remainder, may render parts of the house uncomfortable from defects in their construction.
The second rule governs the quality of the materials and workmanship employed in the construction. That the materials should be of the soundest and best quality in the best edifices, and of ample strength and durability for the end in view, even in those of the humblest class, is a rule which may never be for a moment violated by the builder, without injury to the structure. Nature here, as always, must be constantly respected, or she punishes severely all infringements of her laws. A wall that is not perpendicular, a foundation that is not firm, a roof that is not tight, a chimney that smokes, sooner or later, but inevitably, shows the builder's want of comprehension or respect for the laws of gravitation or the atmosphere, and impairs or destroys the usefulness of all architecture.
The last and highest rule of utility is that which involves convenience. In all architecture, adaptation to the end in view is important; in domestic architecture it is a principle which, in its influence on our daily lives, our physical comfort and enjoyment, is paramount and imperative. Hence, however full of ornament or luxury a house may be, if its apartments do not afford that convenience, comfort, and adaptation to human wants, which the habits of those who are to live in it demand, it must always fail to satisfy us, or to merit the approval of the most matter-of-fact critic. Such a house may be compared to a column with well-moulded shaft and richly decorated capital, but composed of such flimsy material that it will bear no weight; or, to a person whose education has been that of accomplishments, with a total neglect of solid acquirements.
This practical part of architecture involves, more particularly, what is called the plan of a building—providing apartments for the various wants of domestic and social life; adapting the size of such apartments to their respective uses, and all other points which the progress of modern civilization has made necessary to our comfort and enjoyment within-doors.
The illustration of these points will be found, to a considerable extent, in the treatment of the various designs which follow. It may be remarked, however, that no absolute rules for guidance can be laid down here. Domestic life varies not only in different countries, but even in different portions of a territory so broad as that of the United States. Even different families have somewhat various habits, and therefore require different accommodations. The ingenuity and talents of the architect must therefore be put in full activity, even to meet the requirements of this humblest platform of his art. And we may add, that it is a proof of weakness rather than strength, to treat with the slightest neglect, this, its wholly utilitarian side. To the majority of mankind the useful is the largest satisfaction derived from architecture; and while an able architect will always treat the materials placed in his hands for a new design, so as to give something of the expression of beauty even to the simplest forms, he must never imagine that in his art he can largely neglect the useful for the beautiful. As in the Apollo every muscle must be found which enters into the body of the hardiest day-laborer, so in all perfect architecture no principle of utility will be found sacrificed to beauty, but only elevated and ennobled by it.
THE BEAUTIFUL IN ARCHITECTURE.
We have shown as yet, only the Useful in architecture. At least, we have endeavored to show how an edifice may combine fitness in all respects, how it may be strong, well built, warm, comfortable, and convenient, and no more. To attain this there is no need of its displaying any appreciable grace, harmony, or beauty; nay, it may be even faulty in its proportions, and unpleasing in effect. Such examples are, in fact, every day before us—buildings which completely answer the useful requirements of man, and yet give not a ray of pleasure or satisfaction to his heart or understanding. And yet there are persons who, because the Useful and the Beautiful, in some arts, may be most intimately combined, imagine that they are identical. This is the grossest error, of which, if the common-place buildings we have just quoted are not a sufficient refutation, abundant others may be drawn every day from the works of nature or art.
A head of grain, one of the most useful of vegetable forms, is not so beautiful as a rose; an ass, one of the most useful of animals, is not so beautiful as a gazelle; a cotton-mill, one of the most useful of modern structures, is not so beautiful as the temple of Vesta; yet no one thinks of comparing them for utility.
The truth then is undeniable, that the Beautiful is, intrinsically, something quite distinct from the Useful. It appeals to a wholly different part of our nature; it requires another portion of our being to receive and enjoy it.
There are many, to whose undeveloped natures the Useful is sufficient; but there are, also, not a few who yearn, with an instinct as strong as for life itself, for the manifestation of a higher attribute of matter—the Beautiful.
We have said that the Useful in architecture is based wholly on the physical wants of man; that it is a response to the demand of our senses.
We may also add that the Beautiful is an original instinct of the sentiment of our nature. It is a worship, by the heart, of a higher perfection manifested in material forms.
To see, or rather to feel how, in nature, matter is ennobled by being thus touched by a single thought of beauty, how it is almost deified by being made to shadow forth, even dimly, His attributes, constitutes the profound and thrilling satisfaction which we experience in contemplating the external works of God. To be keenly sensible of the power of even the imperfect reproduction of such ideas in the various fine arts—poetry, music, painting, sculpture, architecture, etc.— is to acknowledge the power of beauty over our feelings in another and a more personal form.
To desire to surround ourselves with such sources of enjoyment, rather than to be content with mere utility, is only to acknowledge the existence of a sentiment which, next to the religious one, is the purest and noblest part of our nature.
Looking at the subject before us, it must be admitted, that if it is a step forward in civilization to separate ourselves from our cattle, rather than share our apartments with them, like the Croats, it is a much higher step to evince, by the beauty of our architecture, that our hearts are alive to some of the highest emotions of which they are capable.
What is beauty in architecture? In order to rid ourselves of the vague and indefinite meaning which hangs about this part of our subject, like a thick mist, in the minds of most persons, let us examine it somewhat closely.
All beauty in architecture seems to us to resolve itself into two kinds—Absolute and Relative.
ABSOLUTE BEAUTY lies in the expression, in material forms, of those ideas of perfection which are universal in their application. We find them in nature as well as in art. We find them in the figures of the heavenly bodies, in the orbits of planets, in drops of water, in animal forms, in the growth of trees, in the structures of crystals. This proves not only that they are divine in their origin, but that they pervade all time and space. These typical ideas of beauty are PROPORTION, SYMMETRY, VARIETY, HARMONY, and UNITY. They may be called abstract ideas of beauty of form, and apply to all the arts, as well as to every thing in nature—to a symphony of Beethoven or a statue by Powers, as well as to the sublime curve of Niagara or the varied outlines of the Alps.
In order that the uninitiated reader may be able to analyze and understand these universal ideas of Beauty, let us look at them, architecturally, a little in detail.
A fundamental idea of the Beautiful in architecture is Proportion.
PROPORTION, in material objects, is the relation of individual parts to the whole. Mr. Ruskin has cleverly defined it to be "the sensible relation of quantities" In all the arts, it is the realization of the most perfect idea of the height, breadth, outline, and form of the object aimed at, and therefore involves the highest single feeling of pure material beauty.
In architecture, proportion is shown first in the composition of the outline or mass of the entire building. If endowed with this quality, it will neither be too long nor too broad, too low nor too high. It will exhibit to the eye, at a glance, that nice relation of all the parts to each other and to the whole, which gives to that whole the stamp of the best, most suitable, and perfect form.
Excerpted from THE ARCHITECTURE OR COUNTRY HOUSES by A. J. Downing. Copyright © 1969 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Posted March 7, 2003
Unlike any other peice on interior and exterior design of a country manor, AJ Downing's book establishes the floor that sets the standard for deciding how to live in the heart of the country.
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