Semper: Two for the Price of One

2016/11/29 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1803 Gottfried Semper was born.

Semper is a double-dose of architectural deliciousness: the smooth creaminess of a theorist stuffed inside a chocolatey shell of practice, he’s two great tastes that taste great together.  He both diverged from main courses of thought (especially in his theory) and showed people how to really do the thing that had become most popular after mid-century (mostly in his architectural design).

As a theorist, Semper cut through typical ways of applying lessons of architectural history to new design through traditional cultural associations.  In 1851 he published Die vier Elemente der Baukunst: an anthropological study of world cultures–taking in more of the world than most historian-architects did at the time–in which he identified four elements common to all architecture.  Each of the “elements” was related to a craft associated with building: the roof (carpentry), enclosure (weaving–although what his German term really meant here is sort of up for grabs) and the mound or foundation (masonry).  All of these formal, physical elements built by people’s hands are put in place to guard the fourth and most important element, the hearth.  In Semper’s theory, each culture emphasized the elements differently–the Mesopotamians were all about the mound, the Chinese love a roof–but they all protect the internal hearth, which is considered a moral kind of element: the origins of human society were traced to people gathering around a fire, and the same activity was observed in contemporary cultures.

As an architect, Semper apparently believed that Europeans’ element of significance was the enclosure, as his buildings tend toward the bombastic awesomeness demanded in the spectacular nineteenth century for civic architecture in Dresden, Zürich and Vienna.  This is especially true of the great museums he built on the Ringstrasse in the Austrian capital, in which some wise friends of the Muse have identified tastiest place in the world.

Image: Semper’s Opera House in Dresden (from this source)

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