From On the Meaning and Power of Space in Architecture 1869

n 1869 Semper was not the only one contemplating the significance of space as a new architectural medium. Within weeks of his lecture, the Berlin architect Richard Lucae, a great admirer of his and later the director of the Berlin Bauakademie, coincidentally delivered a lecture on the same theme. Lucae was obviously impressed with the new spatial experiences of railway stations, the Sydenham Crystal Palace, and Alpine tunnels. His remarks -phenomenological in their twentieth-century character - make him one of the first modern architects to discuss the psychological experience of perceiving large spaces: their form, lighting, character, and our movement through them. It might be compared with earlier British discussions on the sublime. This lecture helps to lay an important cornerstone of what would later be seen as twentieth-century modernism. It also stands at the beginning of writings on the meaning of iron and space that dominate German theory in the last quarter of the century.

Let us take an example from modern life. Let us take the hall of a recently built train station in a large city. We receive a very different impression depending on whether we are embarking on or returning from a trip. If we are embarking we walk along the broad avenue among the thousands of people who also want to depart; we crowd along here and there and we see the building only where we are carried into an opening. We are oblivious to the impression of the tension of the broad glass roof when we arrive; here the hall with its protective roof becomes the friend who pleasantly and hospitably greets us. The lasting impression that the space has on us, however, is that of the security with which the colossal roof is supported on two side walls, how it floats freely above our astonished eyes, and the bold and overpowering effect of the breadth of space without supports. It is the same feeling that we experience when we stand before the tunnel that has been bored through the Alps, namely, that the same ingenious spirit who has created this has created that. Unfortunately almost scale alone exerts its power here, for we have mostly relegated the space to a prosaic purpose and thereby had thought we could do without art. Surely other spatial factors, such as light and form, could be artistically used to raise this space to a higher aesthetic level. If a meaningful idea of beauty were at the same time added to the great structural ideas of these roof forms, our eyes might find rest and pleasure in the confusing iron bars and iron chords crisscrossing each other in every direction. Then we would not notice, figuratively speaking, the individual instances of this mathematical calculation translated into iron and simply organize it into a clear sum, into a system appearing as a beautiful form. For the purely mathematical structure is not a finished achievement of art, but only a skeleton, like the human body [ . . . ]

Richard Lucae (1829-77), from "Über die Bedeutung und Macht des Raumes in der Baukunst" [On the meaning and power of space in architecture] (1869), trans. Harry Francis Mallgrave.

If we are in the Pantheon in Rome, we find ourselves in a space in which the architecture was originally not created for the purpose that it serves today, and yet probably no one has experienced it who has not had a powerful impression.

In the Pantheon we are fully isolated from the exterior world. Nothing connects us with it other than a windowless opening at the top of the powerful half-globe, which majestically but heavily sits on the giant rotunda. We become forced into a kind of self-communion, although the uniformity of the space has a somewhat soothing effect on our feelings. It is a magical circle in which we seek the way out. Here a force overcomes us, of which we know not what it wants with us. We are in the sway of a mysticism against which our free sensation might resist; although we are magically drawn in, we yearn to be beyond it and back among people. Even if the space of the Pantheon is more solemn than any other, in its seriousness it is almost demonic and at the same time scarcely allows us any edification.

The feeling that we find lacking in the Pantheon's uniformity of form and perfect unity of the light and that gives our thoughts no decisive goal - this feeling of edification overwhelms us in Saint Peter's in Rome.

We stroll down the central nave like down an enormous street - involuntarily to the point at which the idea of the whole building resides. We do not stand simultaneously at the beginning and the end of the space, as in the Pantheon. The powerful barrel vaults lead our eyes there, where the half-light around us suddenly withdraws into a supernatural force of light. Surely an inhabitant of the primeval forest, someone who had not heard of Saint Peter or Christianity, would not pause before he arrives under the dome of Michelangelo. Here is a space that seals us off from the profane world of commerce. Here the source of light leads us into a region that shields our eyes from the banality of life.

And yet our sensations here are different from those of the Pantheon. In the latter, between the fully enclosing walls, we had the feeling of being in an impressive underground grotto, in which the light flows down to us along the fine lines of the ceiling; in Saint Peter's, its spiritual rays have been compressed under the gigantic vault and lift it high, taking us with it into its supernatural habitat. Freely the glance wanders through the wide arches of the church nave, bringing itself to a point of blissful consciousness as we experience always anew the wonder of the space that opens itself here.

If we accept the tenet that "the sublime is only that toward which we experience the small and the large at the same time,'' we must also accept the fact that unfortunately modern art has lost sight of the concept of the sublime. Nevertheless, architecture could have preserved it, for surely the gigantic dome of Saint Peter's exerts this power. Here we stand under the impression of a work of the human hand that in its appearance approaches the sublimity of creation.

We cannot conclude our survey without touching on a space unique in its kind - the Crystal Palace in Sydenham, near London.

Whereas in the powerful train hall we had the feeling that it, taken in the strict sense of art, was not a complete space, the magic of Sydenham for us resides in the fact that we are in an artificially created environment that has already ceased to be a space. We are separated from nature but yet we are scarcely conscious of it; the barrier that separates us from the landscape is scarcely perceptible. If we reflect on it, it is as if one has poured air, as it were, like a liquid; thus here we have the sensation that the free air has kept its solid shape after the form in which it had been poured was again taken away. We find ourselves, so to speak, in a piece of sculpted atmosphere. The sun's rays come to us not through individual openings. They fill the space with a completely beautiful naturalness. And as the sun of this space does not give or allow the light to be anything special or particular, so we must also be content with the fact that its colors borrow their limits from the objects outside. In this way it is like a magical, poetic form of light, which always works most beautifully in surroundings such as these, where it crowns a gentle hill in open landscape.


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