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Joseph Rykwert: Translation and/or Representation
Translation and/or Representation
(S. 279 – 287)

The Final Step: From the model to »the thing proper«

Joseph Rykwert

Translation and/or Representation

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Talk about translation will sometimes turn to the passage from the sketch, from a preparatory drawing to a paintingor even from the terra-cotta or plaster bozzetto to the fully formed stone or bronze figure.


Notoriously, any passage from one stage to another almost inevitably involves a loss of spontaneityeven of authenticity. Spontaneity has been valued more highly by recent critics than the monumental scale or full accomplishment and smooth finish of the final work, the higher and grander res ipsa. In that way, the passage of the work of art through the various stages from conception to completion is analogous to the filtering that a concept incarnate in the sounds and shapes of one language undergoes in its passage to the forms and feel of another one. Although this analogy is recognized for sculpture and painting, architecture is rarely mentioned in this context.


Yet it represents an even more elaborate passage or translation from one “language” to anotherwith all its inevitable forfeitures and contaminations. At the beginning of the first treatise on architecture of modern times, Leon Battista Alberti found it necessary to define the nature of the architectural operation, which, he wanted his readers to understand, is among the highest of all human achievements: and his definition was polemical. He starts by refuting a commonplace view of the architect: “It is no carpenter (tignarum fabrum) that I would have you compare to the greatest exponents of other disciplines: the carpenter is but an instrument in the hands of the architect.”


The rejected commonplace depends, at least in part, on the ambiguous status of the medieval master mason, but also on the misleading homology between the Latin tectum, which means “roof” or “covering” and forms the second part of the word architect, though this ignores the primary Greek sense of architekton, or chief craftsman.


Architectura was indeed taken to mean the roof or roofing, the uppermost covering of a structure, in the fifteenth century. The offending commonplace had the authority of Johannes Balbi’s Catholicon, probably the most popular medieval lexicon, dated by its author 1286, a book that was often copied and printed over the next 250 years.


Intent on ennobling architecture, Alberti then proceeds with his own emphatic definition: “Architectum ego hunc […] constituam,” he says, and I translate, “him I consider the architect, who by sure and admirable reason and method knows both how to devise in his own mind and through his own energy (tum mente animoque diffinire) as well as to realize in construction (tum et opere absolvere) whatever can be most neatly and aptly fitted out to accommodate the noble actions of men (dignissimis hominum usibus bellissime commodentur)by working it out in terms of the movements of weights as well as of the joining and massing of solid bodies.”


Please note, therefore, that the primary architectural operation is the employment of stable reason and admirable orderliness of methodand that it is an operation of the mind, since it is in the mind that the building project is first devised; only then can it be translated through compositional skills (the joining and massing of solid bodies) and the operations of mechanics (the movement of weights) into “whatever might beautifully shelter the noble actions of men.”


Obviously, any direct translation of the mental operation to the solid fabric is impossible. In fact, the slighted carpenter can only become the instrument in the architect’s hand when the mental construct is first formulated into a sequence of instructions. This may be reduced to verbal direction when the project is a simple one and the craftsmen are highly trained and independent; but the normal instruction will be (as it has usually been in the past) in the form of a drawing. Like the carpenter, so the stonemason and bricklayer, the blacksmith and even the more finicky joiner or plasterer had procedures that were routine and which they acquired as a matter of course and as part of their craft. No precise specification or instructioncertainly no drawingwould have been required before the mid–nineteenth century to tell a bricklayer to lay a Flemish bond (or one of his own devising), or a mason how to make scribed joints in an ashlar wall. In any departure from such typical procedures, whenever explicit direction might be required, graphic indication has always been essential. The passage from the mental conception to the built form involves a double translation therefore: first from the architect’s mind to the graphicinitially his ownpresentation, and secondly, from the drawing to the building, through the collaboration of those craftsmen who, like Alberti’s carpenter, would act as his “hands.”


Again, graphic indications may be pegged onto the site directly, drawnor perhaps more accuratelystretched with bits of string. But from very early times, instructions were condensed through scale reduction onto a surface which could be manipulatedsome kind of drawing board. The cliché “on the drawing board” has recently acquired the sense of “to do with practice,” almost as if there need be no mental operation before the drawing of the lines; almost as if the mental, the strictly theoretical part, as it weredid not need to precede drawing-board work. And yet when allegorical figures of architecture appeared in the sixteenth centurysometimes as a ladylike statue, sometimes as a lot of putti—they were usually shown handling compasses, set squares, protractors, rulerswhich were drawing instruments; not chisels, trowels and plumb linesthe instruments of the builder.


On the frontispiece of Palladio’s or Vignola’s treatises, for instance, in both of which the title is flanked by two ladies representing theory and practice, they carry drawing instruments: for theory a quadrant and a square, a scale and compasses for practice. Clearly, design was also understood as a process which is done “on the board”; it was the immediate outcome of a chain of reasoning. Work on the drawing board was considered the essential passage from thought to materiality. Moreover, drawing was most commonly done in some orthogonal form: plan, section, elevation, or even projection.


This is true at least since the time of Gudea, the Patasi or bailiff-prince of Lagash towards the end of the third millennium, who is shown, in a black diorite statue (now in the Louvre), holding a drawing board on his knees. On the board or table there is a plan of a temple building, as well as the scaled ruler and the stylus with the help of which it was drawn. Gudea was a great builder, and many of his inscriptions are concerned with his patronage.


Gudea and the sculptor of the statue seem to be alluding to a well-established practice rather than displaying an innovation. The process of scale representation on a drawing board seems to have been a familiar routine by their time. In one of his inscriptions Gudea even recorded a dream in which he saw the god Nindub draw a plan on a lapis-lazuli tablet, which the dream-interpreters told him was an instruction to put up such a building. Since then, such orthogonal and relatively abstract drawings have been the most common method of representing the project back to the architect himself, as well as forward to the builders who have to act as his hands.


Orthogonal representations therefore had always been the architects’ preferred methods of visualizing, not perspective drawings. Even though the rules of perspective construction were formulated theoreticallyalso by Alberti, in the 1430syet it was only toward the end of the seventeenth century that a few architects began to design through perspective sketches.


In the corpus of about a thousand surviving drawings by Andrea Palladio (some of them both splendid and elaborate), there is not a single perspective. There are practically none by Michelangelo. Leonardo’s “visions” of his centrally planned churches are orthogonal projections, even if his drawings for a new city are sometimes detailed in perspectivebut these are of course not “design drawings”; they are theoretical illustrations, presentation imagesas are the projection drawings that illustrate the books of Filarete and Francesco di Giorgio.


I have appealed to Alberti because he seems to me to have been among the most clear-headed and perceptive persons ever to have written about such matters: I would even venture the opinion that he was the most clearheaded of all. Alberti is particularly instructive about how the architect conceives a project (even psychologically so), and how the passage from the first notion to its representation modifies itof necessity. He confesses that he himself had conceived building projects with which he was very pleased, as long as they stayed in the mind; but once he drew them out, he found errors in the very bits which had particularly pleased him while the project was only a thought; inevitably perhaps, accurate measuring and scaling of the drawing often revealed yet further errorsand in the translation from drawing to three-dimensional model, more mistakeseven regarding numbers and dimensionswould sometimes appear. That three-dimensional model, he thought, was an essential instrument for the designerwhich is why he was so decisively opposed to prettified or overrealistic models. He wanted them almost immaterial: instruments for the full working out of the conception.


Of course, the ultimate version, the final step, is the translation from representationfrom any form of model, mental-noetic or material and scaled, to the thing proper, to the architectural object in its full physical presencewhich cannot be accomplished by its deviser or inventor alone, but requires the collaboration of craftsmen with him and with each other.


One of Alberti’s most erudite successors, Vincenzo Scamozzi, being a dogmatic Aristotelian, had to put all the varieties of form and material into categories. Inevitably he asserted that forms were excellent in actuality, while materialswhich are in themselves confused and shapelesscan only aspire to potential excellence. For all that, he warns the architect (whose job is, after all, to give form to brute matter) against doing any violence to these humbler elementsand Alberti would not, I suspect, have found his warning mistermed: “It is no matter for praise if an architect makes as if he were violating material; as if he were bending the things nature made to his own command, to give them the shape he has willed (Non è molto lodevol cosa che l’architetto tenti di far come violenza alla materia: in modo che egli pensi a ridur sempre a voler suo le cose create dalla Natura).”


Yet Alberti would have formulated this question rather differently, interested as he was in the nature of materials and methods of construction. It was not a matter of categorical distinction for him, but rather a problem of translating one kind of operation into another. For Alberti, the whole tangible and phenomenal part of building did not belong to the realm of invention and beauty, but to that of realization, of sensibilia, and therefore of ornament: it was not for him a matter of imposing one category on another, but rather of giving something that only had a notional existence a perceptible body, of enfleshing or incarnatingof absorbing the tangible and visible stuff into a mental modelor of adding the quality of perceptibility to the inherent beauty of the mental construct.


Still, even the passage from concept to graphics, from graphics to scale model can never be literal. Like many good translations it may at every stage reveal unsuspected inconsistencies and blemishes in the original: since the project has to be reformulated in the translation from two to three dimensions at that stage, the author can then correct his errorsor purge the blemishes from his original scheme. Alfred Tennyson, it is said, would never correct his poems on manuscript, but would have them set up in type by a local printer near his home, at Freshwater on the Isle of Wightnot for publication, but so as to be able to work on them as if they were not his own: a kind of alienation from the text which first the proof and later the typewriter afforded, and of which the computer has robbed us, so that the support and help of graphic translation, on which many writers have depended, has now been withdrawn. It has also eroded the limits over which we need to pass from the mental image to the graphic representation and affects all the further stages of correction that Alberti mentioned.


To return to architecture, however: once the craftsman begins to execute the project from the modelusually wooden and homogeneousand the concept has to be worked out in masonry and carpentry and through the hands of several craftsmen belonging to different trades and working in very different materials, the process of translation from the representation to the ipsa res will involve another set of corrections and pentimenti, which may sometimes be much more far-reaching than those of a painter or sculptor.


You may follow the process in some clamorous examples: imagine Michelangelo being commissioned by Pope Clement VII de’ Medici to paint the “facade” (the term used both by Condivi and Vasari for the altar wall) of the Sistine chapel. The first conversation about the commission probably took place near Florence in 1533, yet both he and the Pope would surely have stationed themselves mentally in the Sistine Chapelthe Pope presumably thinking of the wall as it then was, while Michelangelo stripped it mentally of the paintings by Perugino and Fra Angelico which were already thereand perhaps of his own lunettes as well. He must have thrown a projection, as it were a slide, from his mind through his eye onto the rough plaster.


We know a good deal of Michelangelo’s problematic return to Rome soon after, and of the preparation of the wall itself, and about Sebastiano del Piombo’s interfering suggestion that the vast painting should be done in oils (a kind of work, Michelangelo thought, fit only for women and loungers like Sebastiano), and Michelangelo’s return to fresco. He could then have had no doubt, as we also know, albeit in retrospect, that between the image he had first formed in Florence and the accomplished thing there would be many months of self-doubt, and a working out of the composition in all its details; and that there would follow the years on the scaffolding during which, with his assistants, he would painfully translate that original, primitive projection into cartoons to be brushed on the vast and very material void but expectant surface. The Sistine Last Judgment has had many enemies: prurient and overbearing, like Pietro Aretino or Galileo Galilei, or marginally more theological, like Pope Paul IV Caraffa and the Fathers of the Council of Trent; but it was also intensely admired from the beginning, frequently copied and engraved. And, many thought, it had no equal in the history of Western art. Any painter, however humble, beginning work on a plaster surface or on canvas, will have had some such intuition as Michelangelo must have had in Florence, without which the placing of a first line on a surface is impossible.


Some will arrive at that moment by working through many different detailed preliminaries, others may have the notion ready in the mind before they begin on any drawing. Long before he undertook the Last Judgment, Michelangelo had spent several painful years painting the vault of the Sistine Chapel; he would probably have known, from that first moment of Pope Clement’s commission, which of the existing paintings on and around the wall, including some by himself, would have to be removed to make way for his vision. He had long been meditating on the figure of the resurrected Christ, to which some of the preparatory drawings done just after the Pope approached him allude.


Between the first commissioning of the fresco by Pope Clement VII in 1533 and its completion (under Pope Paul III Farnese) eight years later, the original vision of the Resurrection had become the Last Judgment that we know.


From that sublime achievement I return to my primary problem of building. Yet here again, I can appeal to Michelangelo: would he have had an analogous vision when contemplating the heroic vaults of Bramante’s unfinished Saint Peter’s which he was to reshape and transform so that they could carry the dome he designed? The story of that remodeling and of the dome is central to the history of Western architecture, and has often been told. What interests me in this context, however, is that Michelangelo’s prime move was to reject all the projects that had been proposed or even partly built between his being commissioned and Bramante’s first scheme fifty years earlier. He decided to return the church (which the architects who had been in charge of the structure between himself and Bramante cramped into a Latin cross shape, with a long nave) to a centralized, Greek-cross plan. Early on in his involvement, two models of the dome were made: in fact he seems to have made the first one, of terra-cotta, himself, though it has long since disappeared; and following that, he had carpenters make a largerfifteen feet highcomposite lime wood one, which survives. This one was modified after Michelangelo’s death, first by his successor, Giacomo della Porta, and again, nearly two hundred years later in the 1740s by Luigi Vanvitelli, who was then responsible for repairs to the structure. Michelangelo’s own initial notion, therefore, went through a double plastic transformation: from the kneaded and hand-shaped one to the built-up version.


He had dismissed his immediate predecessor’s project, that of Antonio da Sangallo, with undisguised contempt. A huge model, about twenty-five feet long and fifteen feet high, had been made, and was intended as the definitive statement, the perfect contractual working document of the project; Vasari considered the model Sangallo’s masterpiece. Yet Michelangelo took his rejection so far that he actually mutilated the Sangallo model, adapting parts of the interior to try out his own proposals. This kind of working back, manipulating the representation in the interest of “another,” a different conception is no longer any form of translation, since it involves distorting the translation to correct the faults of the original. This is where my analogy between the linguistic and the built may no longer be helpful. Analogies have limited use, in any case, and should not be forced: I have already suggested one limit of mine when I mentioned Alberti’s notion that the conceptual project is in a different sphere from the materiality of construction, which belongs with other sensibilia, such as the climate or the quality of the soil and water and where the building stands, or even the name of the site. Yet, until that last category shift, the analogy of translation had been as useful in considering Alberti’s description of the design process as it was for the work of architects in earlier times, and as it would also be for many of Alberti’s successors who may not have been as clearheaded as he.


However, something more radical happens to the process in the course of the last century and a half, as the building site first, and the techniques of drawing and representation later, are increasingly industrialized and mechanized. Here again, translation provides a close and useful analogy. Perhaps the easiest way to disentangle this particular strand from the many developments with which it is enmeshed may be in a discussion of the professionalization of design. It is not so much the teaching of it or “qualifications” that concerns me, but the role of the model and the drawing. About models, Alberti had taught that austere doctrine, that they are not for showing to the client as a dinky baby-building all tarted up with colors and model trees. That would have been a mere display of what Alberti termed ornament; on the contrary, they are to be the architect’s own way of working through his project, his method of translating the mental notion or even the two-dimensional graphic account of it into the solidity proper to building.


With the industrialization of the building site, a new factor appears and another stage is reached in the process of translation: the working drawing is no longer the architect’s instruction to the builder, but becomes the document in a three-way contract between patron and contractor, contractor and architect. Not, of course, that patrons and builders were not litigious in the past: Hammurabi’s Code compiled in Babylon some three centuries after the time of Gudea of Lagash (whose statue I mentioned earlier) imposed very heavy penalties for building failureincluding the death penalty for a builder if his patron is killed when a house collapses. The Greeks exhibited building contracts and specifications, engraved on stone tablets beside the buildings to which they referred; Vitruvius counted the law one of the essential disciplines of the architectand so on.


In my generation, the building process has been locked in a tight mesh of contract and regulation that was a product of an investment economy controlled by corporate patronage and of different production and assembly methods, and a much more highly organizedbecause much more capital-intensivebuilding technology. This has thrown more weight on the drawing: the three-dimensional model is now a relatively insignificant aspect of the process of representation. It would seem that the mechanization of the drawing process using the computerwhich is very recent, barely twenty years oldwill become be another factor in smoothing that process. What is increasingly obvious, however, is that the passage from the graphic representation to the three-dimensional scale model can now be made by a relatively simple mechanical operation on the screen;and a wood or plasticor even a stonemodel can be plotted or cut directly with computer software. Yet the very ease with which computer representationsboth two- and three-dimensionalcan be altered on the screen will mean that they will no longer be regarded as reliable “documents.”


This problem has already arisen acutely in the financial world, where screen registered and transmitted information is not considered binding. Of course, “hard” copy is required for documentation, and the contractual importance of drawings and models will, perhaps paradoxically because of the very ease of computer operation, give increasing weight to the graphic quality of the drawings and the communicative power, the precision, of tangible and three-dimensional models.


I surmise that the quality and value of a translation from one language to another depends much more on the translator’s mastery of the language into which he is translating, on his judgment and skill, and less on his knowledge of the language of the original text. That is why the mirage of a literary computer-aided translation has receded out of reach. It will be no different, if my analogy holds, for building. The idea of an entirely computer-generated project seems an even more tenuous mirage to me; and the idea of conceptless designing seems logically excluded in view of what I had said before.


There is no escape from the translatative cycle of concept-representation-­realization. At each stage of that cycle choice and judgmentas well as mechanical skillhave to be exercised. It almost seems therefore, if my paradox holds, as if the mechanization of the means has focused attention on the elaboration and precision, the very quality of representation.


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Joseph Rykwert

ist ein US-amerikanisch-britischer Architekturhistoriker.

Nanni Baltzer (Hg.), Jacqueline Burckhardt (Hg.), ...: Art History on the Move

Das Thema »On the Move« ist in vielschichtiger Weise mit Kurt W. Forster verbunden, dem dieser Band gewidmet ist. Es charakterisiert die Geistes- und Lebenshaltung dieses Architektur- und Kunsthistorikers, der über epochale, mediale und disziplinäre Grenzen hinweg forscht: Mit Leichtigkeit bewegt er sich zwischen Pontormo und John Armleder, Giulio Romano und Frank Gehry, K. F. Schinkel und Mies van der Rohe, Aby Warburg und W. G. Sebald, W. H. Fox Talbot und Andreas Gursky. Er interessiert sich für den Zusammenhang von Musik und Architektur wie für den Schaffensprozess von Architekten. »On the Move« beschreibt ferner die biographische Situation Forsters, der an der Stanford University, dem MIT, der ETH Zürich oder der Bauhaus Universität Weimar unterrichtete und aktuell an der Yale School of Architecture tätig ist. Als Lehrer hat er Generationen von Studierenden für die uneingeschränkte curiositas begeistert, als Direktor des Schweizer Instituts in Rom, des Getty Research Center in Los Angeles oder des Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal den Austausch unter Forschenden gefördert. Zudem kuratierte er prägende Ausstellungen wie die Architekturbiennale 2004 in Venedig.

Die unterschiedlichen Beiträge des Bandes sind ein Spiegel von Forsters jahrzehntelanger Tätigkeit: Architekturthemen erstrecken sich von den Anfängen des Markusdoms in Venedig über Charles De Waillys Pariser Panthéon-Projekt, das Thomas Jefferson Memorial, den Barcelona-Pavillon Mies van der Rohes oder die Architekturfotografie im faschistischen Italien bis zu Achsen und ihren Brüchen in Paris und Berlin. Analysen im Bereich der Bildkünste behandeln Momente kollektiven Erinnerns in Fra Angelicos Fresken ebenso wie Pipilotti Rists elektronische Urhütte oder Laurie Andersons »Dal Vivo«. Literarische Auseinandersetzungen umfassen etwa Nietzsches Venedig-Gedichte, verschollene Briefe von Nabokov oder die Hauptstädte Walter Benjamins. Zudem enthält der Band zahlreiche persönliche Erinnerungen sowie architektonisch-künstlerische Interventionen.

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