Piranesi Mocks You

October 17, 2008

It is possible to assert that the leanings of Piranesi’s earlier writings (Della Magnificenza) posit an attitude about architecture that prefers volume to surface.  The totalizing effects of the unadorned Tuscan edifices enable us to understand Roman architecture as one that prefers spatial ideas to surface articulation.  The haranguing by Mariette in his response to Piranesi is founded in an argument that is less about architecture and more about historicism.  While it is easy to argue lineages and chronology, it is much more difficult to argue for architectural motivation.  For Piranesi architecture is principally concerned with the invention of spatial order.  The copyists, the rigorist, the historicist, all of them are necessarily nostalgic as a means of achieving architectural authority.

Perhaps the most glaring difference that arises between Grecian and Roman architecture is the aptitude of Roman builders to achieve works of a massive scale.  The critique of Roman architecture in terms ornament is equivalent to critiquing the Empire State Building in terms of which animal adorns the finials about its spire, in other words the ornament is minor in comparison to the scale of the building and has no bearing on the profundity of the architecture at hand.  The same comment might be said about Piranesi’s engraving of the Basilica of Maxentious, where in the volume of space that is captured in the engraving does more to describe the intellectual content of the work than any critique of the decorative program.

It is for this reason that I initially find it troubling that Piranesi would abandon his position of spatial primacy as means to reconnect an obviously convoluted thesis based on Roman ornamentation.  And while this thesis enables Piranesi to thread together any number of classical styles, the assertion that ‘the architect may be as bizarre as he likes so long as he does not deform the architecture’ is either flatly wrong or subversively promoting the primacy of space.  If we assume that a man of Piranesi’s talents is in fact re-introducing a preference towards spatial primacy then the bizarre combinations of surface ornament that he proposes have a logic; the designs are meant to be satirical.  They dig at the fundamentalist position that style can be “correct” based on ornament, and by extension that certain bodies of work are more correct than others.  It allows us to create an architecture that radically alters the decorative program of a building with out deforming “the architecture.”

From this position we are able to understand the more fantastical work of Piranesi as an exercise in architectural space that is detached from style and history. Piranesi’s architecture is to some extent autonomous. And it is by this measure that the concept of the architect as genius, or generator, emerges as the driving force behind the completion of otherwise fragmentary architectures.  It addresses the reality that no architect in the eighteenth century is capable of definitively stating, “what is” an ancient architecture, however an inventive architect may be able to answer, “what could it be?”

The transition from “what is” to “what could be” opens the door to the utopian visions of the enlightenment architects.  Architecture that is unbound by style is unbound by authority and free to operate as the provisional imagination of the world.

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