Gottfried Semper

The collected theories of Gottfried Semper provide deep insights to the art and craft of building. However the ways in which he formulated his theories varied and this can give rise to difficulties when trying to read them as a piece. For instance, when analysing the materials and crafts of building (designated by him as the Four Elements), he is penetrating and straightforward; when dealing with his theory of ‘Stoff-Wechsel’ (literally changing material) he introduces a symbolic mode of description;and when expounding his theory of ‘Bekleidung’ (dressing or cladding) he takes off into flights of fancy. This means that one has to pay close attention to the minutia of the strands of his arguments in order to weave them all together. I felt that a good way of mastering his diversity of approach might be the practical method and I was led to build a shelter based on his theories so as to put them to the test.
During this exercise two outstanding ideas assumed importance. Taken together, these two ideas throw light on the task of assessing a work of art; not only when considering the value a civilisation may put on its own works of art, but also in aiding later generations to weigh up the worth of the motifs embedded in those works of art. The pair of ideas were a particular definition of style, and the above mentioned theory of Stoff-Wechsel. In order understood these two ideas they need to be set in relation to the main body of his work. This is not easy since the work was written over many years, was extensive, and in some cases appears self-contradictory. Inevitably the short outline of his theories set out below is spuriously coherent, but necessarily so for somebody wishing to put those theories to the test.
Dresden: Semper’s Opera House right with Art Gallery behind centre
Gottfried Semper was a teacher of architecture and of industrial craft, a well travelled historian, a designer, a theorist, and an architect who built major projects. This rounded experience informed his long-term interest in the properties of materials, in the methods and tools used in working each one, and in the appropriateness of the purposes to which each material could be put; it also informed his other abiding interest in the origins and symbolism of early architecture.*1

The main thrust of his work was to develop a theory of style (or practical aesthetics). The title of his great work Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts*2 makes this evident. Although Semper did not spell out a specific definition of style in this book he did define it variously at different stages of his life. The particular definition which grips me was given by Semper in a lecture of 1869, namely ‘the correspondence of an artwork with its history of origin, comprising all the conditions and circumstances of its creation’.*3 In order to fill out the implications and meaning of this statement, one has to refer to an earlier lecture in which Semper presented three aspects of any definition of style: *4

a) the internal – this concerns the material from which a work is made and its method of production;
b) the external – this reflects the local, temporal, national and personal forces acting upon the work; and
c) the ideal – this aspect relates to the artistic interpretation of the idea; the idea was, for Semper, a precondition of form. The internal and external forces play their vital role in the genesis of an artwork but both give precedence to the ideal. *5

Help towards understanding this definition is at hand from a comparison Semper made in Der Stil between Ancient Egyptian and Greek ceramic forms.*6 He chose the situla and the hydria. If one considers these two artefacts under his three aspects:
(a) internally, the material aspect of both vessels is expressed in their rounded thin walled clay shapes,
b) externally, whereas the situla was used to scoop water from the Nile and was carried on a yoke, the hydria collected water from a spring or fountain and was carried on the head, and
c) the ideal in these forms, Semper speculates, is a recognition of the awe with which the 'Nile' and the 'spring' were held in the two different cultures; he also saw in the lotus shape of the situla and in the form of the hydria the basic features of Egyptian and Doric architecture respectively.

By this example Semper is referring not just to the vessels’ correspondence with their genesis but of how the very knowledge of this correspondence helps us to appreciate those later styles which were influenced by the ideas forming the vessels. For him the style of any artefact is defined not just in terms of its material form and use but of its symbolic place in society. I believe that this becomes clearer after looking at his views on the origins of architecture.

It was to nature and to ancient artefacts that Semper looked when formulating this and other ideas. ‘…where man adorns, all he does more or less consciously is to make the law of nature evident in the object he adorns’.*7 In setting out his general principles, he also physically identified artefacts and buildings with living beings who, along with all nature, are subject to the pull of gravity. The force of gravity seems to be vital to the structuring of his four collective concepts which he called ‘Authorities’.*8&9
These concepts were posited to show how the diversity found in nature can be ordered into unity and are:

1) Symmetry – this refers not just to form, but to dynamic principles of growth and development, and concerns the placing of parts around a vertical axis, e.g. how the human body is arranged to the left and right of a spine.
2) Proportion – this is the ratio of elements in their positioning between earth and sky. Relating the human analogy to architecture, the base of a building would correspond to the feet and the dominant element with the torso; other parts are in proportion to these and to the whole.
3) Direction – this is a force acting usually at right angles to (1) and (2); and in the case of man and animals it is actual bodily movement. For a building it is the potential of movement towards it or through it.
4) Fitness of Content – for this Semper cites the example of a crowning pediment on a Greek temple which derives its form from the first three concepts but falls under this fourth category because of its reflection of, and receptivity to, the approaching procession of worshippers. It could be epitomised by the way outstretched arms welcome a loved one.
These Authorities represented for Semper the essential response to nature when dealing with the overall organisation of artefacts and buildings. When breaking this organisation down into its constituent parts, he saw there were two sides to any such analysis;*10
i) their making, which process includes the materials used and the methods and tools employed
(ii) the use to which they were put, which use may be actual or symbolic.

Starting with item (i), he classified raw materials into four categories according to their particular qualities.*11 Those which are:
1) flexible, tough, and highly resistant to tearing.
2) soft and mouldable, which, after working are able to be hardened and stay in shape.
3) rod-shaped, elastic, and strong in tension.
4) unyielding, dense, and strong in compression; use in construction being by manageable pieces in regular courses.

The individual natures of the materials described under these four categories gave rise to four crafts in the working of them. These crafts, while respecting the qualities of the particular material with which they are concerned, transform it into useful form. (Working as he did during the Industrial Revolution, he had in mind that the machine in particular should be used in a way which shows awareness of the natural properties of materials.) He numbered these four crafts to correspond to the numbers of the four materials as follows:
1) textile
2) ceramic (or metal forging and casting)
3) framework (carpentry)
4) masonry.
Semper collectively called these the ‘Four Elements of Building’, and he recognised some flexibility in the categories.*12

Moving to item (ii) and the use to which the constituents are put, his interest in the origins of building comes to the fore. He believed that it was weaving and the tying of knots which formed the basis of the earliest of artefacts*13 and that perhaps after observing such things as the construction of nests, primitive man wove branches and vines into protective covers and screens.
He also believed that the hearth (a ceramic artefact) had a primeval role in the development of human settlements and culture.

*14 He saw the screen as serving to contain the group gathered around the hearth and thereby forming a habitat. Further developments were the framework which roofed it and the mound to protect it from flooding (the mound developed later into a masonry platform). As a result of these primitive efforts man was no longer at the mercy of the forces of nature but had created his own microcosm.

On the basis of these beliefs, he challenged the view, held by the Abbé Laugier, that the primitive hut was the original model for the development of architectural monuments. His own view was that man’s skill in making artefacts provided the prior models from which he developed the construction of the first buildings. Further, and importantly, when ornaments were hung on and fixed to these buildings, and thus became static, ‘monumentality’ occurred.*15 It is at this point in his explanations that Semper shifts into a symbolic mode by the introduction of his theory of ‘Stoff-Wechsel’ which was a concept he borrowed from contemporary biologists who were developing ideas of metabolism.*16 He used this word to explain the transformation which can occur when the construction of an artefact in one material, (perhaps perishable such as wood), is subsequently transposed into another medium, (perhaps something more permanent such as stone). This transformation, as well as bringing monumentality, can endow the resultant artefact with a symbolic significance by virtue of the fact that its form carries with it a vestigial content of an earlier culture.
Semper illustrates this by showing a Greek stone capital deriving from a basket form.*17 For him it is more than a copy, the imitation in the different material brings along cultural baggage of former times. The theory of ‘Stoff-Wechsel’ is thus an amplification and enrichment of Semper’s definition of style where he speaks of an artefact having ‘correspondence with the circumstances of its creation’.
During his time in London (when he was a political exile) Semper was commissioned to design stands for the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition. This brought him into contact with an exhibit containing a Caribbean Hut.*18 He observed that the material forms of this hut corresponded to his Four Elements, and further that these Elements were discretely identifiable. He noted that the woven screen, which divided the dwelling and enclosed the ceramic hearth was distinct from the bamboo framework, which in turn was distinct from the masonry base. This observation confirmed for him his theory of the Four Elements.
In taking his theories further Semper engages in a yet another manner of thinking about building. The tectonic property of the screen in the Caribbean Hut is synonymous with his textile ‘Element’. His view of the primacy of weaving drew him to a conclusion that the polychromatic painting of Greek temples derived from the dyed and woven wall hangings common in earlier buildings.*19 Replacement of these hangings by coloured render, he argued, transformed the actual surfaces resulting in the monumentality of the temples. From this claim he developed his ‘Bekleidungs’ theory*20, in which he seems to endow the surface of the screen with a life of its own.*21 This theory of ‘cladding’ is, in essence, a theory of ornament and can be seen as a contradiction of his theories of tectonics, since Semper himself referred to it as an ‘annihilation of reality’.*22

Whereas in his description of the Caribbean hut Semper pointed out that the screen which defines the space enclosure is discrete from the structure, in the Bekleidungs theory he takes this idea of space definition further. His claim is that even where load bearing masonry itself is inscribed or decorated with ornament, the actual ornamentation is still to be read as symbolically separate.
As precedence he cited Assyrian wall-carving which, again he claimed, derived from earlier textile hangings.*23 This Semper called a ‘Verhuellung’*24 (veiling) of the structure which allowed, for him, the genuine space of architecture to be revealed: ‘Solid walls are but the internal and unseen scaffolding of the true and legitimate representatives of division’.*25 He did add, in mitigation of the rather devastating effect this remark has on those parts of his work dealing with tectonics, that, ‘only after proper treatment of material can material be forgotten’.*26

The Bekleidungs theory led him to reject both cast-iron construction and the gothic style as a way forward for modern architecture.*27 This was because their emphasis was on the expression of structure rather than cladding.

He personally embraced mainly a ‘neo-renaissance’ style in his built work and his buildings such as the Hoftheatre and the Art Gallery in Dresden and the Art Gallery and Museum in Vienna do not reflect in any obvious way those parts of his theory such as the ‘Four Elements’. I, personally, do not see this as inconsistency on his part. Just because his theories are closely concerned with the circumstances of the origins of the
892theatre dresden349
elements and surfaces of architecture, there is no reason that evidence of this ought to be read directly from his buildings. It is consonant with his views that his architecture should derive via the sensibilities of Renaissance artists, as, in turn, their work reflects their forebears, and so on. These, after all, comprise some of the circumstances of their creation. His ideas, however, did find more direct expression in the work of other architects. Arguably the two most tangible areas of influence are (a) where Semper’s emphasis on the separation of the Four Elements can be seen in the clarity of distinction between ‘structure’ and ‘infill’ widely found in the modern movement, and (b) the way in which the development of the curtain wall in Chicago can be traced from his Bekleidungs theory.*28

The idea of ‘veiling’ or ‘masking’ is also to be found in Semper’s interest in the theatre and in his studies of ancient Greek dress and drama.*29 He saw theatricality in the relationship between architecture and its users; a relationship equivalent to that between a performer and a spectator. One can glean this from his theatre plans: in his obsession with the manipulation of the proscenium between stage and audience, in the controlled acoustics, and in the galleries for promenading. Indeed, the development of the theory of ‘Gesamptkunstwerk’ by Wagner appears to have been influenced by such ideas from Semper.*30

When coming to the construction of a shelter based on Semper’s ideas, his Four Elements were uppermost in my mind. Partly because these are not expressed directly in his own work and partly because of his reference to the Caribbean Hut. However, when deciding on a system of construction, a variation of the Stoff-Wechsel theory prompted the use of materials which would bring cultural information about their originally intended use albeit incorporated in a manner different from that original use. The actual choice was ad hoc since to hand were two discarded fence panels (which had overtones of weaving), timber telegraph poles which were being replaced locally (framework), bricks (ceramic or masonry), and gardening cord (textile). The need (the use) was for an arbour facing an avenue of fruit trees.

When assessing the completed shelter in terms of Semper’s work:

Firstly, the ‘Four Authorities’ can easily be read in the simplicity of the building, as indeed they might be in a garden shed. To establish the quality of their application one has to attend to the small print of the theories: namely the references by Semper back to nature and ancient artefacts, and to the whole question of style.
892semper fid
In this case Authorities no. 1 ‘symmetry’ and no. 2 ‘proportion’ are self-evidently at work, and Authorities no. 3 ‘direction ‘ and no. 4 ‘fitness of form’ both chime here with his concerns of theatricality. The spectator/performer roles are neatly reversed during use. On approach one feels that the building is on show but when seated inside one definitely feels oneself to be onstage.

Secondly, the Four Elements of the shelter may appear superficially to coincide with those of the Caribbean Hut, but when considering the origins of each element, it becomes clear that a ‘special theory ‘of Stoff-Wechsel is required. As suggested earlier this is because, for example, the ‘woven’ panels are actually employed in this hut as the framework rather than textile elements; the step irons of the telephone pole (inverted to form roof brackets) which were originally forged become framework elements; the cord, by origin, a textile (and thus a cladding element) is used as a wind brace; and the brick backing to the seat (with its woven-like bonded texture) is in essence a screen.

Thirdly, Semper was flexible enough to accept that not all elements could fit precisely into his categories of the Four Elements , and he would surely have taken on board the fairly common phenomenon of transfer-technology. That is when, as here, artefacts are used in a way different from that intended by the process which gave them their form? His theory states that artefacts, originally of one material, by being reproduced in an alternative material can be endowed thereby with a symbolic significance carried by the earlier form. In architecture clearly the substitution of a complete artefact, originally intended for a particular use, into a role where it has to perform an alternative function, can also carry with it cultural information albeit in a different way. Transfer-technology is exploited in other artforms, such as in my sculpture which transmutes old agriculture items into creatures in a deliberately self-evident way.
Being in tune with Semper’s ideas about the Caribbean Hut, one is conscious not only, in the shelter, of an element produced as a screen being used as a roof or framework element, but also that in primitive times a woven panel may well have been similarly commandeered for just such a purpose. This visual interaction, which one can have with such an element and which can set us off pondering, partly explains for me the richness of Semper’s definition of style.

Fourthly, my simple ‘Semperhaus’, like the Caribbean Hut, clearly lacks the elaboration necessary to take the Bekleidungs theory very far. However, as mentioned, the bond of the brickwork screen can be seen as surface weaving. Indeed, the roof itself can be read as a hanging suspended from poles, and the timber beading which stiffens the panel can be likened to a hem around a hanging. This rigidity through a change of material is at the heart of the monumentality which Semper said comes into existence when an artefact becomes static. However, what is difficult in the case of this roof (even conceptually) is to separate the ‘veiling’ and the ‘tectonic’ when interpreting the nature of this particular space enclosure. It does, however, show that, as with the idea of Stoff-Wechsel, the concept of Bekleidung can be pushed into areas beyond the original theory.


My conclusion from all this is that the straightforward parts of the theories of Semper, namely the ‘Four Authorities’ and the ‘Four Elements’ can focus our attention respectively on the fitness of the arrangement of a building’s parts or on the way, and with what materials, a building is put together. The more recondite Stoff-Wechsel theory helps us interpret any symbolism sustained by these elements.. and the fanciful Bekleidung theory gives us a special reading of the space of architecture.*31 The four parts of the theories can therefore be seen, in this way, as working together as a whole. However, only after applying Semper’s proviso that while ‘masking’ reveals the true space of architecture, one should only mask good construction. Notwithstanding this last point, I feel that the description by Semper of solid walls as being ‘but...unseen scaffolding’ of the true ornamented divisions of space’ does reveal a contradiction of his general position. For Semper, presumably, the original dwelling with a woven screen provided a habitat where the enclosing element confronts weather conditions one side and induces cosiness to the other. Any supporting framework was indeed scaffolding. It is when this woven quality is reproduced in a solid material that a contradiction is brought out. Conceptually one can separate ornament from the solid wall, perceptually there are problems. Physicality is central to Semper’s position either when he is explaining his theories of the Four Elements, or of Stoff-Wechsel. To say that the true space of a building is the ‘veiling’ which annihilates its support is to say that physicality is also annihilated. But. surely, the essence of the space generated by an Assyrian carving derives from its solidity. This seems particularly important since Semper himself says that it is precisely the move to substantiality and fixedness which brings about monumentality (and allows the shift into a realm of architecture). In this respect physicality is a problem with the Bekleidungs theory, regardless of his comment that one should only mask good construction.

I hope that I have shown that Semper’s definition of style and the vitality given to this by the concept of Stoff-Wechsel goes a long way in explaining the processes of creating a work of art, and that it is more helpful than the use of words such as ‘poetic’ or ‘magical’ in describing the results. Consider, for example, Pierre Koenig’s sparely designed Californian houses, where adjectives like these are often used to describe certain juxtapositions of his elements.
What of their style? When Koenig’s substitution of an RSJ for the sort of support which in earlier times would be in timber or masonry is looked at as an example of Stoff-Wechsel then a transformation is found which indeed carries with it symbolic significance. The RSJ holds the roof in a similar way to traditional supports but in doing so it brings an industrial component to a domestic situation, demonstrating a commitment to contemporary technology. This muscular leanness of structure enables wide expanses of openable glazing thus relating the inside of the house with the landscape in a way more directly than with former construction. Knowing what was not possible earlier makes us appreciate this achievement. The icon of the RSJ brings out the overtones mentioned above and more besides. I believe that it is Koenig’s rigorous personal development of this and other transformations which gives rise to his style as defined by the two Semperian concepts.

These, to repeat in summary are ‘style is the correspondence of a work of art with the history of its genesis’ and ‘the production of an artefact in a new material can carry a symbolic significance of the artefact in its original material’.
1 Biographical details, see Harry Francis Mallgrave, Gottfried Semper, Architect of the Nineteenth Century, Yale University Press 1996.
2 Der Stil in den technischen und tektonischen Kuensten oder praktische Aesthetik; 2 vols., Munich; Bruckman 1878 and 1879
3 Mallgrave, p. 304. G. Semper: Ueber Baustil, Zurich Friedrich Schieltheiss, 1869, 'Stil ist die Uebereinstimmung einer Kunstercheinung mit ihrer Entstehungsgeschichte, mit allen Vorbedingungen und Umstaenden ihres Werdens'
4 Mallgrave, ibid., p. 207
5 Der Stil, vol. II p. 237 'Denn der Stoff dient nur der Idee'
6 Der Stil, vol. II, pp. 3 & 4
7 Theorie des Formell-Schoenen, MS 179 – one of five manuscripts translated by Wolfgang Hermann in Gottfried Semper, in Search of Architecture, MIT Press, 1984, p. 219
8 Der Stil, vol. I, p. xxxvii ff.
9 Herrman, ibid., p. 233 ff
10 Der Stil, vol. I, p. 7 'Jedes technische Produkt ein Resultat des Zweckes und der Materie'
11 Der Stil, vol. I, pp. 8 & 9
12 Der Stil, vol. I, p. 11
13 Der Stil, vol. I, p. 169, 'Der Knoten ist vielleicht das aelteste technischee Symbol…
14 Joseph Rykvert, Necessity of Artifice, Academy Editions, 1982, p. 129
15 Professor Semper, ‘Origin of Polychromy in Architecture’ essay (appended to Owen Jones: Crystal Palace, Bradbury & Evans, London 1854): '…drapery…the motif…on which ancient art has been principally founded.' Also, Herrman, ibid., p. 224 (Theorie des Formell-Schoenen)
16 Mallgrave, ibid., pp. 284–5. I have added a hyphen to Stoff-Wechsel throughout to stress that Semper is referring to a symbolic and not a physical metabolism (which the unhyphenated word means in German)
17 Der Stil, vol. II, pp. 33 and 34
18 Der Stil, vol. II, p. 263 (illustration) also Rykwerk ibid., p. 129
19 Prof. Semper, ibid., p. 48
20 Der Stil, vol. I, pp. 196 ff. and 213 ff.
21 Professor Semper, ibid., p. 48 'The difference between the ostensible…and the constructed separation' and 'The Germans, in the word wand (of the same root with gewand, meaning texture) recall still more the ancient origin and type of a wall'
22 Der Stil, vol. I, p. 217 fn. 'Vernichtung der Realitaet, des Stofflichen, ist notwendig, wo die form als bedeutungsvolles Symbol als selbstaedige Schoepfung des Menschen hervortreten soll.'
23 Professor Semper ibid., p. 49 '…exact copies in stone, after originals in tissues…'
24 Der Stil, vol. I, p. 216 ,'Prinzip der Verheullung der struktiven Theile'
25 Professor Semper, ibid., p. 47 'solid walls are but the internal and unseen scaffolding of the true and legitimate representatives of division, that is to say, of drapery richly varied with ornamental work, inter-lacings and colours.'
26 Der Stil, vol. I, p. 217 fn. '...nur....wohl verstandene richtige Behandlungen des Stoffes....koennen den Stoff vergessen machen
27 Mallgrave ibid., p. 288
28 Kenneth Frampton, Studies in tectonic culture, Graham Foundation/MIT Press, 1995, p. 94
29 Mallgrave ibid., p. 299
30 Idem, p. 128
31 For a wide ranging discussion on Bekleidung see Mark Wigley, White walls, Designer Dresses, MIT, 1995, and essays in Architecture in Fashion ed. Deborah Fausch, Princeton Architectural Press, 1994. At a Semper seminar at the AA on 18 March 2000, Andrew Benjamin proposed that a solution would be to take Bekleidung in a 'literal' way.