Gottfried Semper’s Perplexity Before the Crystal Palace: Stoffwechsel as Osmosis be-tween Decorative Objects and Architecture
- Journal Article
Gottfried Semper’s approach triggered the shift from an understanding of the ornament as artefact to an experimental model. It contributed to a reorientation of the concept of ornament for both design and architecture. Pivotal for this shift was Semper’s text entitled “On the Formal Principles of Adornment and Its Meaning as a Symbol in Art” (1856), which marks, firstly, a relocation of the quest for demonstration to theorization, and, secondly, an intensification of the interaction between graphic illustration and abstract speculation. Semper’s conception of the ornaments suggests a “methodological shift from demonstration to theorization”, which is based not only on the tension between graphic illustration and abstract speculation, but also on the dialectics between vision and theory. The distinction between the notion of «ornament» and the concept of «adornment» is of great significance for understanding Semper’s approach. Semper refers to the notion of «adornment» in the aforementioned text, part of which was published in “Prolegomena” to his magnum opus Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts: Or Practical Aesthetics. The specific term that Semper employed, in its original German version, is Schmuck. Two special characteristics of this notion, which distinguish it from the notion of decoration, are its embodied nature and its cosmological dimension. Semper believed that “[a]ll the decorative elements attending to architecture [...] owe[d] their origin to the adornment of the body and, closely connected with it, to a few techniques of the most primitive family industries”. The way he designed the adornments shows that he conceived them as extensions of the human body. For instance, his sketch of a dancing maenad after a neo-attic bas-relief is telling regarding his interest in the osmosis between the human body, the textile and the adornment. Semper conceived the notion of «oscillating movement» and the aforementioned three notions as closely connected. The human bodies inhabiting space were of great significance to him. This becomes evident not only in the way he used to sketch human figures in the architectural spaces he designed, as we can see in a sketch he made for his proposal for the Canadian section in the Crystal Palace, but also in his following words: “Determined by the individual who inhabits the room, then come jewelry, clothing and furniture, and finally we have the decoration of space in which the measurements of the ceiling, of the floor and the wall are considered”. Semper drew upon the ancient Greek word kosmos to explain his understanding of adornment, placing particular emphasis on the four meanings of this word: world, order, hierarchy, and adornment. It is worth-noting that when he moved to London, he took with him Alexander von Humboldt's book entitled Kosmos. Semper’s conception of adornment was based on his intention to understand it as a bridge between the humans and the cosmos. Show more
Journal / seriesFaces
Pages / Article No.
SubjectGottfried Semper; ornament; history and theory of architecture; Stoffwechsel
Organisational unit09643 - Avermaete, Tom / Avermaete, Tom
02655 - Netzwerk Stadt und Landschaft D-ARCH
Related publications and datasets
Is new version of: https://doi.org/10.3929/ethz-b-000389885
Is original form of: http://hdl.handle.net/20.500.11850/426626
NotesAlso published in French.
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