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Organicism in Nineteenth-century Architecture: An Enquiry Into Its Theoretical and Philosophical Background.

This is a valuable book, because it upsets many preconceptions. Architects are accustomed to identify organicism with anti-classical tendencies that emerged in the nineteenth century and flowered in the work of Wright and others in the twentieth. The author overturns these assumptions, tracing the source of organicism to the principle of mimesis in classical rhetoric and poetics: to Plato's Phaedrus, the Poetics of Aristotle and Cicero's De oratore. She thus locates it firmly at the core of ancient and Renaissance artistic theory, notably Alberti's concept of concinnitas. In many respects the close of the nineteenth century marked not a beginning but 'an end of the organicist tradition which had prevailed until then'.

The text is divided into two equal parts, the first devoted to the pre-nineteenth century history of this tradition: to Vitruvius and Alberti, to the undermining of Vitruvianism by Perrault, Hogarth, Burke and Laugier, and its restoration in a different guise by Goethe and Schlegel. In the second part three tendencies -- tectonic, religious and scientific -- are distinguished within nineteenth century organicism. The first is exemplified by Schinkel, the second by Deane and Woodward's Ruskin-inspired Oxford Museum, and the third by Labrouste, Semper, Viollet-le-Duc, and Root's Monadnock Building of 1890-92.

At the very point where a conventional account of organicism might begin -- with Sullivan and the early works of Wright, Horta, Guimard and Gaudi -- the author concludes with an epilogue describing 'the loss of the spell' -- the replacement of Vitruvian organicism by a fundamentally different kind based on biological functionalism.

Nevertheless, she discerns a persistence of the classical tradition in Sullivan's identification of function with 'inner purpose' or essential character, and in the palazzo-like composition of his skyscrapers. Did this persistence stop there? Or did not Le Corbusier too, like many Modernists, continue that tradition, both in his designs and in his concern with modular proportion and the human body as a microcosm, culminating in the Modulor?
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Author:Padovan, Richard
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1994
Previous Article:From Idea to Building: Issues in Architecture.
Next Article:Civilization and leisure.

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