From The Four Elements of Architecture 1851

The earlier selections from the Semper essay on polychromy (see chapters 134 and 138 above) represented the architect at the very beginning of his career. By 1851 Semper's situation had transformed itself in every which way. In 1834, in part due to his essay on polychromy, he was appointed a professor of architecture at the Dresden Academy of Fine Art. Shortly thereafter he launched a very successful architectural career, beginning with his much-applauded design for the Dresden Royal Theater (1835-41). His happy situation, however, changed dramatically with the political events of 1848-9, as the various Germanic states struggled with the issue of unification and a constitutional form of government. In May 1849 Semper, who supported national unity, was caught up in the so-called Dresden Uprising, which resulted in his political exile from Germany.

Of necessity he turned to theory. In 1851 he published the first synopsis of his ideas, which he entitled The Four Elements of Architecture. Much of the text deals with his earlier ideas on polychromy and constitutes his response to the earlier criticisms of the art historian Franz Kugler. But in the fifth chapter of the book Semper lays out two parts of his later theory, which views the history of architecture as a process of symbolic and formal development. The first is the notion that architecture derives its essential forms from four primordial or original motives found in the technical arts of ceramics, roofing (carpentry), mounding (terracing and masonry), and weaving (walling). The second notion is his so-called Bekleidung or ''dressing'' thesis. This archaeological and spatial theme suggests that the textile motive for the wall underwent an intricate process of formal development, as the conceptual rudiments of weaving evolved into textile wall hangings and later into solid wall dressings (paneling and paint) that emulated in style their original textile origin. This line of reasoning would become the start of a very elaborate theory that Semper would ultimately devise and publish in his two volumes entitled Style.

The first sign of human settlement and rest after the hunt, the battle, and wandering in the desert is today, as when the first men lost paradise, the setting up of the fireplace and the lighting of the reviving, warming, and food-preparing flame. Around the hearth the first groups assembled; around it the first alliances formed; around it the first rude religious concepts were put into the customs of a cult. Throughout all phases of society the hearth formed that sacred focus around which the whole took order and shape.

Gottfried Semper, from Die Vier Elemente der Baukunst (1851), trans. Wolfgang Herrmann and Harry Francis Mallgrave, in Gottfried Semper: The Four Elements of Architecture and Other Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 102-6. © 1989 by Cambridge University Press. Reprinted with permission of Cambridge University Press.

It is the first and most important, the moral element of architecture. Around it were grouped the three other elements: the roof, the enclosure, and the mound,1 the protecting negations or defenders of the hearth's flame against the three hostile elements of nature.

According to how different human societies developed under the varied influences of climate, natural surroundings, social relations, and different racial dispositions, the combinations in which the four elements of architecture were arranged also had to change, with some elements becoming more developed while others receded into the background. At the same time the different technical skills of man became organized according to these elements: ceramics and afterwards metal works around the hearth, water and masonry works around the mound, carpentry around the roof and its accessories.

But what primitive technique evolved from the enclosure? None other than the art of the wall fitter (Wandbereiter), that is, the weaver of mats and carpets. This statement may appear strange and requires an explanation.

It was mentioned previously that there are writers who devote much time to searching for the origin of art and who believe they can deduce from it all the different ways of building. The nomadic tent plays a rather important role in their arguments. Yet while with great acumen they detect in the catenary curve of the tent the norm of the Tartar-Chinese way of building (although the same shapes occur in the caps and shoes of these people), they overlook the more general and less dubious influence that the carpet in its capacity as a wall, as a vertical means of protection, had on the evolution of certain architectural forms. Thus I seem to stand without the support of a single authority when I assert that the carpet wall plays a most important role in the general history of art.

It is well known that even now tribes in an early stage of their development apply their budding artistic instinct to the braiding and weaving of mats and covers (even when they still go around completely naked). The wildest tribes are familiar with the hedge-fence - the crudest wickerwork and the most primitive pen or spatial enclosure made from tree branches. Only the potter's art can with some justification perhaps claim to be as ancient as the craft of carpet weaving.

The weaving of branches led easily to weaving bast into mats and covers and then to weaving with plant fiber and so forth. The oldest ornaments either derived from entwining or knotting materials or were easily produced on the potter's wheel with the finger on the soft clay. The use of wickerwork for setting apart one's property, the use of mats and carpets for floor coverings and protection against heat and cold and for subdividing the spaces within a dwelling in most cases preceded by far the masonry wall, and particularly in areas favored by climate. The masonry wall was an intrusion into the domain of the wall fitter by the mason's art, which had evolved from building terraces according to very different conditions of style.

Wickerwork, the original space divider, retained the full importance of its earlier meaning, actually or ideally, when later the light mat walls were transformed into clay tile, brick, or stone walls. Wickerwork was the essence of the wall.2

Hanging carpets remained the true walls, the visible boundaries of space. The often solid walls behind them were necessary for reasons that had nothing to do with the creation of space; they were needed for security, for supporting a load, for their permanence, and so on. Wherever the need for these secondary functions did not arise, the carpets remained the original means of separating space. Even where building solid walls became necessary, the latter were only the inner, invisible structure hidden behind the true and legitimate representatives of the wall, the colorful woven carpets.

The wall retained this meaning when materials other than the original were used, either for reason of greater durability, better preservation of the inner wall, economy, the display of greater magnificence, or for any other reason. The inventive mind of man produced many such substitutes, and all branches of the technical arts were successively enlisted.

The most widely used and perhaps the oldest substitute was offered by the mason's art, the stucco covering or bitumen plaster in other countries. The woodworkers made panels (pivaxs^) with which to fit the walls, especially the lower parts. Workers handling fire supplied glazed terra cotta3 and metal plates. As the last substitute perhaps can be counted the panels of standstone, granite, alabaster, and marble that we find in widespread use in Assyria, Persia, Egypt, and even in Greece.

For a long time the character of the copy followed that of the prototype. The artists who created the painted and sculptured decorations on wood, stucco, fired clay, metal, or stone traditionally though not consciously imitated the colorful embroideries and trellis works of the age-old carpet walls.

The whole system of Oriental polychromy - closely connected and to a certain extent one with the ancient arts of paneling and dressing - and therefore also the art of painting and bas-relief arose from the looms and vats of the industrious Assyrians,4 or from the inventions of prehistoric people who preceded them. In any case, the Assyrians should be considered the most faithful guardians of this primordial motive.

In the oldest annals of mankind Assyrian carpets were famed for their splendid colors and the skill with which fantastic pictures were woven into them. Written descriptions of mystical animals, dragons, lions, tigers, and so forth agree fully with the images we see today on the walls of Nineveh. If such a comparison were still possible, we would recognize a perfect accord not only in the objects depicted but also in the manner of treatment.

Assyrian sculpture clearly kept within limits imposed by its origin, even though the new material permitted a new means of raising the figures from the background. A struggle toward naturalism is evident, whose limits were set not by hierarchical power, but (apart from the despotic rules of a ceremonial court) by the accidental features of a technique foreign to sculpture yet still responsive to the echoes from the past. The postures of the figures are stiff but not so rigid as to have become mere characters; they only look as though they were chained. Within a composition they are already, or rather, are still pictorial adaptations of a celebrated historical act or a court ceremony, not like the Egyptian images, which are simply a means to record a fact and are really a painted chronicle. Even in their arrangement, for instance, in their adherence to equal head heights, the Assyrian figures are more distinguished than Egyptian images. Sharp, threadlike contours, the hard shapes of the muscles, a predilection for ornamental accessories and embroidery are indicative of their origin; there is exaggeration, but not a lifeless style. The faces do not show the slightest trace of an artistic effort to render the inner state of the soul; they are, even with their constant smiles, without any individual expression. In this respect they are less advanced than Egyptian sculpture and resemble more the early works of the Greeks.

In actual wall murals the same technique is evident. According to Layard, the wall paintings at Nimrud are surrounded and interwoven with strong black contours; the ground is blue or yellow. The friezelike borders of the pictures that contain inscriptions also indicate their technical affinity with carpets. The character of the cuneiform corresponds fully with this technique. Would it be possible to invent for needlework a more convenient way of writing?

Alongside these substitutes for the earlier carpets, the latter were still widely used as door curtains, window curtains, and so forth, as can be seen by the richly decorated rings with which they were secured. The simple inlaying of the wooden floors is a sign that they, too, were covered with carpets. Carpets were also the models for the art of mosaic, which remained for the longest time true to its origin.

The interior walls above the gypsum panels were lined with a lightly burned, glazed, or, as one might say, lacquered brick. They were glazed only on one side and covered with painted ornaments that were totally inconsistent with the shape of the stone, but that crossed over it in every direction. Other evidence shows that the stones were in a horizontal position when they were glazed. They were, therefore, first arranged horizontally, then ornamented and glazed, and finally attached to the sun-dried brick wall in proper order as a dressing (Bekleidung). This also proves that the glaze was a general covering and its idea was independent of the material to which it was applied. A late-Roman or Medieval use of colored stones for patterning a wall had not been conceived in these earliest periods of art.


1 At first glance the mound or the terrace appears as secondary and as necessary only in the lowlands, where solid dwellings had already been erected; yet the mound joined at once with the hearth and was soon needed to raise it off the ground. Allied with the building of a pit, it may have also served as support for the earliest roofs. Moreover, it is probable that man, not as an individual but certainly as a social being, arose from the plains as the last mud-creation, so to speak. The legends from times immemorial of all nations, which often conceal an idea of natural philosophy, agree on this point.

2 The German word Wand [wall], paries, acknowledges its origin. The terms Wand and Gewand [dress] derive from a single root. They indicate the woven material that formed the wall.

3 It is highly probable that the wish to give tiles a colored glazing first led to the discovery of burnt bricks. The glazed tiles from Nineveh that I had the opportunity to examine closely in Paris are in an almost unburnt state. Their glaze must have been extraordinarily fusible. Terra cotta dressings are the forerunners to brick walls, and stone plaques the forerunners to ashlar.

4 It is remarkable that most of the colors on the Assyrian alabaster panels of Khorsabad and Nimrud have disappeared, while it is evident that they must have existed to complete the remnants still surviving. In contrast to Egyptian and Greek paintings, the surviving traces are not thickly applied but appear as if stained into the surface; it is probable that the colors were composed mainly of vegetable matter.

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  • Semolina Boffin
    How is a roof like carpentry according to gottfried semper?
    10 months ago
  • Eugene
    What are four architectural/artistic elements with buildings?
    2 months ago

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