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Design Research Projects (DRPs)




"Clothes make the man, naked people have

no influence on society." Mark Twain



Gottfried Semper’s emphasis on the origin of architecture professes the fact that, to him any discourse should first be addressed back to the simple origin of the subject under review, followed by tracing its gradual development, which explains the evolvement of the subject as well as the variations appeared through the time by comparing them with original state. For Semper culture could have arisen from many past traditions long decayed since alien motives brought over but without their intelligible self in their original meaning, therefore Semper’s idea of original state was to be capable of tracing where the original meaning started and was carried on and at what point it lost its meaning and turned into a meaningless imitation of its originality. And by examining the past Semper argues one could discover the natural laws and principals to understand the future transformation of it, forms follow the correct transformation.

He starts by emphasizing the details and how things were made. The joins, for Semper, echoes the motifs of the knots in knitting. The knot is the first technical symbols; it satisfies very basic needs. The knot attaches the linear material together with different movement of knotting. Different way of working with textile and they have different function; one that frames the form, another that makes it stronger and the one that strengthens the whole. Molding echoes the motifs of the ribbon, textiles are the origins of art in its purest form. He asserts that these are all derived from the universal human desire to imitate patterns of nature; this is the way of “cosmic” represented by men. He rejects the ancient or so-called classical postulate of his architectural predecessors like Vitruvius claiming the origin of architecture would have been primitive hut. The original state is that without any guidance other than its natural instinct, an object owns effectuation and empirical fact. By investigating the ‘what’ Semper called original state he broke the link of classical tradition of primitive hut and the classical definition that defined architecture as civic art, what delineates meaning of architecture in representation, philosophical value and religious. Semper defines architecture as the material art of construction borrowed from ethnology.

Semper translates architecture as an ethnographical account not an imitation of “things” or “forms”. As Volk transforms over time, the form must transform as well. By adopting his cosmic genealogy stance, he explains that the source of the ritual and human action could explain the reality of things, hence the architectural rhetoric. What is going on in architecture is an example of ordering of reality which was first expressed by ritual then went into art then into craft and the architecture. Contrary to his precursors who see architectural grammar by its own, he opens up a broader scope of understanding about the origin of human actions resulted in architecture, by seeing architecture as the syntax of the semiotics of a universe-size of understanding.


Two versions of the ’origins’ of architecture: 

On the left Laugier's primitive hut (1753),

And on the right Caribbean hut observed by Gottfried Semper (1851)

He then describes the binding and joining from textile art into material metamorphic into ceramic, wood, and steel, and somewhere along this transformation they find their tectonic expression in architecture.  Semper’s study was not just for the origin of art but to create a method of invention, because he believes that the decline of taste and the decline of morals turned architecture into shameless imitation and mindless invention. His solution is to understand nature of things from outside.

Semper divides the universal principals of production into four categories and formulates its theory based on transformation of four primal elements (vier Elemente): textile/enclosing membrane (Wand: Textilkunst, Bekleidung), carpentry/framework/roof (Dach: Holzhandwerk), ceramic/hearth (Herd: Keramik, Metall), and masonry/earthwork (Fundament: Maurerhandwerk). Textile and carpentry represent the tectonic and mobile material; textile speaks about elastic-like fiber material weaving, Carpentry echoes the stick-like elements joined together, light and mobile. On the other hand ceramic and masonry echo the heavy and earthwork material. They have the mineral quality that ensures and speaks about ‘the permanent’. He starts with the primordial – the simplest knot – then he follows the transformation of this motifs to the more sophisticated motifs like weave to “Bekleidung” to see how the motifs of art metamorphose into other materials; for example the cladding of the wall with tiles or panel cladding. All primordial techniques of making can be traced in this way from their simplest to the most sophisticated expressions and that is an index to the history of culture.

Weather one attempts to understand architecture ontologically or phenomenology, the two most important elements of architecture for Semper were structure and surface (mask). He privileged surface over structure, and that made him the first architect who thought about architecture from its outermost appearance, albeit with the annotation of inscribed inside by the same elements of mask, but surprisingly different from that outside.

Semper illustrates the potential for structural arrangements and space-defining qualities that textile crafts possess.

Semper describes the wall with two elements; “Kernform” that is the inner structure which is structurally necessary, and “Kunstform” (mask) which is the dressing, which gives an expression to the inner structure. He describes the essence of architecture not by its inner structure but from the essence that is from the color of the surface. The form is not complete without the color, purity for him did not mean being naked a form, but in the unity of form and color.

“Kernform” and “Kunstform” are inseparable elements of the same form. It was this very idea that was later taken by the modern functionalists out of its context and turned into Body and its covering Ornament. Due to the limitation of functionality, later the adornments was removed from the body by justification that the lack of adornment shows the proof of functionality. Bare structure became the modern ideal form, pure meant naked, for the modern functionalists.

The “Der Stil” (style) theory of Semper goes against modernist tectonic of “Mauer” (wall) and “Wand” (dressing). Mauer is the inner part which has nothing to do with the space of enclosure. For Semper Wand has more priority than Mauer, therefore he reverses the hierarchy of the modernist elements; Mauer is now secondary to Semper’s theory.

Semper transforms every natural and man-made surface and component into a reflective device that mirrors the principals of hierarchy, adornments then is a process of accenting certain aspects in the formation of a body so that it becomes more expressive of its correspondence to the world. Semper argues that structure serves to support the dressing, therefore architecture lies in the dressing and the effect of the dressing. The desired effect of the dressing stands above everything. He argues that the transformation of social structure can be read on the dressing and the “Bekleidung” that wraps the building.

Semper believed most architects do not make space, they make walls. Space for semper was the creation of the mask: only the mask has the power to create space; space that is autonomous from the mask itself. Only in that space can then material be forgotten for the space effects to appear. Space is created by the dressing of the wall which makes the space symbolic and not geometric. The dressing does not occur in space, the dressing is the space. Space is an effect of the perception of the viewer but the space which is in the viewer at the same time is where the viewer is located, the viewer not only constructs the space but s/he is also constructed by the space.

Piranesi's etching of the view of the Arch of Constantine the Great on the right and remains of the Tomb of the Metelli on the left shows the permanent and heavy effect of masonry and ceramic materials.

For semper function is not a construction requirement but a space requirement, and it is because of that that the space that drove man to become artist, poet, architect, sculpture. The Die Wand (woven wall) and the Mauer (constructive wall) makes the enclosed space, therefore they require to have a meaning. Behind the mask is the Mauer to carry the Die wand and it has a little importance. The Die Wand holds the architectural meaning. Die Wand indicates a screen-like woven fabric and Die Mauer signifies a massive fortification. In other words, Die Wand epistemologically emphasize its own existence although for being kept up – ontologically perceived – requires the other existence called Die Mauer. Whilst Die Mauer which is ontologically perceivable, for being epistemologically comprehend needs Die Wand. Die Mauer is not an architectural episteme at all. 

To him mask is the dressing; it is the condition of civilization; it is the mask that makes the material transform into an affect. The mask then is able to make the structure wall and its self disappears and makes its form self-sufficient and autonomous from the material. The truth and the meaning lies hidden in the mask; underneath it is deeper and must be discovered.

Semper sees the mask as a basic, for human culture is necessary. Necessity is the mother of the arts and the purpose of the arts is to turn that necessity into a symbol. Symbol first appears in the improvised scaffolding then into the permanent structure that later transforms throughout the history. We can see an example of it in the triumphal arch; the trample arch used to welcome the soldiers back to the city from the battlefield; the arch, which was made out of the shields of the defeated enemy. Later they build the arch with marble as a permanent structure and we still can see the shields and weapons, now transformed into marble but still keeping the memory of original structure. This transformation shows that details and adornments are originated in a deferent material.  It is the mask that is transforming throughout the history with different materials. This mask for Semper was the theme and constant element; symbols that could not be expressed by the inner structure. Masking was a way for human to represent himself as the “God”, it was about reveling the truth that there is more to reality, and only by technical perfection and treatment of the material according to its properties and origin, and by taking those properties into consideration to create the form, the material itself be can be forgotten and the creation of space can be liberated from it.

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