Thursday, December 30, 2010

"Themes and Motifs in Architecture: The Dilemma of Style" by Christopher Charles Benninger, Architect.

One of the characteristics of being human, a characteristic not found in other species, is the ability to use symbols and signs to manipulate concepts within one’s mind. Here I do not mean using symbols for the mere communication of ideas. We go beyond the intellectual life of fish and birds and formulate ideas, constructions and concepts.

Our ability to conceive things is critical to human development. Symbols are used in human thought to stand for things which are not present. Words are symbols we constantly use. Imagination is the human function of making images in our heads.

Human being can imagine situations which are different from those in front of their eyes. A child can remember absent things, but only later in his development can he manipulate non-present things, even adding components he has invented, but never seen. We explore a fantasy world and experiment with the rational world in our minds.

As architects we are interested in the rational exploitation of future experiences. We want to visualize in our minds different images and alternative situations in terms of built form which can arise out of the same given conditions [site, regulations, programme, geo-climatic context, budget etc.] Though the constraints are very limited the variety of images is great! Our language of build is full of symbols which allow us to create fabrics of build in great variety.

Caught in a world of vast choice, how does a designer go about deciding on which mental image to pursue through an investment of effort in design? Unfortunately, like a child; most designers can real intellectually one with things they can remember having seen. Or thing in front of them! They have not developed their ability to manipulate absent symbols. Creating new symbols, perhaps a third stage of imagination, is beyond their consideration. Only education can overcome this gap.

The above lacunae bring forth the need for style! Styles present the designer with a ready made “kit” of images to choose from in which different assemblages appear “new” or “different”. At best the designer pulls forth in his imagination bits and pieces of absent things which he has already seen assembled according to simple rules usually in magazines.

Post modernism is the current style for the simple minded. It is a system of symbols [Greek pediments, classical columns, Palladian rose windows, and “period” windows, etc. which can be thrown together to make interesting facades. Even images from Disney World have been taken into the pantheon of readymade, post-modern, components. Whatever weakness this style may have is overcome by the application of expensive materials [granite, Italian marble, minored glass, tinted metals etc.]. A kind of make-up, like lipstic, is applied as if buildings, like an unattractive person, can be ‘treated’ for defects according to occasion of time of day.

The legitimacy of symbols is an area of debate. As a classicist I believe that our architectural language must emerge from the THEMES of construction. Quite simply these themes are:

[a] Support
[b] Span
[c] Enclosure

To explain this let’s consider the theme of SUPPORT. We are limited to bearing walls, on the one hand, and columns on the other. There are geodesic and hyperbolic alternators, but these are limited in applications due to cost, labour and constraints of techniques.

We basically have to choose between a frame structure and a bearing wall. But herein there are numerous choices as to materials, geometry, configuration. At the CDSA campus I have chosen a simple system of parallel stone bearing walls. But their orientation, rigour of spacing, and play against one another build a higher order of positive – negative rhythm. Likewise SPAN is a simple system of beams running across these walls with tiles above. ENCLOSURE is in the form of sliding glass panels. It is in the simultaneous choice of THEMES and their inter relationship that imagination is required. Motifs are stuck on later! At CDSA the motifs support the themes by locating vistas [windows], modulating wall planes [window boxes] and directing movement in space [ottas, stairs, small walls]. Directionality and orientation are confirmed [only confirmed mind you!] by statues, pots and various anqtiques. But all of the motifs we have applied are incidental to the overall effect of the building cluster. We could have successfully used a totally different set of motifs, maintaining the essential themes.

Architecture, true architecture, emanates from a language of themes, not motifs. Post modernism is constructed on a language of motifs. It does not qualify as architecture. It is exterior decoration wherein motifs are applied to wall surfaces just as interiors are “finished.” Architects are not in the business of decoration. God knows, however, that there is a great need for many buildings [inside and out] to be hidden under decoration. But this is a kind of cosmetics, rather than a search for raw beauty. Intellectually, the manipulation of motifs is child’s play. It would be better to design as birds and bees do: they use single minded fabric of build [wax honey comb or woven basket nests] and stick to their THEME. Yes, bees and birds who can’t think per force of nature, build architecture, while the thinking mind makes a mess out of motifs!


We are not the doyens of a fashion industry. We are not the slaves of an ignorant quick-rich cliental who know nothing of architecture. We are the guardians of an intellectual tradition in which principals of proportion, structural systems, appropriate use of materials, choice of meaningful motifs are the essence of art. It is the ability to make components of build into symbols and configurate them through of relation that architecture emerges; architecture of some lasting value; architecture which represents man’s higher aspirations.

Style is the illness of the feeble mind. Be it post modernist, Punjabi Baroque or Ethnic – style is merely an excuse for something which has not been conceived.


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