Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Voids and Bodies: August Schmarsow, Bruno Zevi and Space as a Historiographical Theme

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Voids and Bodies: August Schmarsow, Bruno Zevi and Space as a Historiographical Theme

Article excerpt

The understanding that the concept of space should constitute one of the major concerns of architectural theory was first articulated in the work of August Schmarsow, and from Schmarsow's writings this notion came to dominate twentieth-century modernist architecture. In this paper I analyze the historiographical implications of this emphasis on spatial concerns by comparing Schmarsow's theoretical positions with Bruno Zevi's historiographical work. Schmarsow and Zevi are separated by half a century; while they lived and worked within different cultural contexts, they both emphasized the notion of space and theorized the implications of this emphasis for architecture and its historiography. Their juxtaposition consequently enables wider discussions on the role of abstract and embodied aspects of spatiality and how these aspects can be treated within the field of architectural history.

The power of the spatial experience

August Schmarsow is known as the first architectural theorist to insist on a spatial approach in the study of architecture. His horizons were formed by the discipline of architectural history as it was developed in Germanic countries during the late nineteenth century, and he is here introduced in relation to Jacob Burckhardt and Heinrich Wölfflin. The Italian Bruno Zevi is well-known for his vision of an 'organic architecture', a vision based on his understanding of space as the essence of architecture through which rigid architectural forms could be shaken and (as he thought) authoritarian political systems overthrown. Zevi's understanding of space is here introduced in relation to Geoffrey Scott's and Sigfried Giedion's.

The embodied human individual has a central position in Schmarsow's and Zevi's historiographies. Both described how the dimension of depth encourages humans to move through architectural space and both proposed that it is this movement that gives the individual the capability of not only experiencing but also forming architecture. This proposition led them to speculate about ways spatial experiences can catalyze the individual's interest in, and desire for, architecture. While Schmarsow permitted his reader to interpret if and how his ideas could be assimilated by practising architects, Zevi presented theoretical invariables and instrumental guidance as to how architectural history should be taught to students of architecture. Zevi used his ideas on spatiality in architecture to propose a polemic program for architectural and societal change, while Schmarsow stuck to asking questions about what it might mean to understand architectural history from a spatial point of view.

August Schmarsow and the shaping of space

An academic structure for research in the fields of art and culture was established in the Germanic countries during the late nineteenth century. The boundaries between the disciplines were not yet strictly drawn, and a basic idea connected them: the aim of understanding how humans interact with each other and their surroundings. The historian Jacob Burckhardt laid the foundations of a 'scientific' framework for studying cultural expressions, a Kulturwissenschaft. The human individual has a central position in his historiography. The microcosm of the individual human being, Burckhardt said, may be understood through the macrocosm of the culture he is in, and vice versa.1 History, to him, involved both everyday life and artistic masterpieces; it gave cultural explanations to artistic expressions.2 The human was seen not as a passive reflection of his context, but as an active agent who had the power to change himself and the world. Burckhardt's views on history and culture have inspired many, including his disciples Heinrich Wölfflin and Friedrich Nietzsche.

The unpredictability of the individual might disturb those who want to organize history, yet on the other hand, common agreements on what history is may cause passivity among historians. Nietzsche condemned historians who, through their search for historical truths, motivated by their beliefs in the powers of morality and science, create a distance between history and actual remains of past events. …

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