Monday, September 27, 2010

Coherency and superstition

An assumption which has congealed as a principle - that the human figure is the ultimate frame of reference for a distributive system we name, proportion - has also furnished most people in the West in the last 500 years with their first experience of depicted nudity. An anthropomorphic tool, an idol of the cave if ever there were one, is so embedded that its corollaries and incidental extrapolations in music, poetic metre, and even the cartography of empire (Iraq, Colorado) are quite hard to trace to the underlying superstition that they represent.

Philip Johnson, New Canaan
At the back of our mind, we never stop being aware that the human form is a most sentimental deus ex machina for the intangible ideal we summon it to depict. Yet it is unsettling to be reminded that da Vinci's quadranted figure, for all its inspiration of the sonata style in Classicism, is a folly in the pond of a dreamt estate.

But the mortal reference point is verifiable, even if the presumption of an ideal in proportion is plainly not. It is an aspiration in search of a compliment, projected as an analogy: desire reduced to dogmatic excuse, codification, lyric approbation. We know what we mean when we say of Mr Jefferson's Monticello, that the building "dances" as our perspective upon it revolves, proceeds, recedes, its wings extending or dissolving by adherence to Palladian scruple, which is to say to Vitruvius, which is to say, to the heroic. We say that it is humane for our built world to mime us; this deference pleases us as its reference. The plantation is ourself.
The impulse gives rise to numeric allusion, reaching its baldest and most knowingly ironic state in Colin Rowe's title of recent referencethe mathematics of the ideal villa. In fashion, architecture, music, poetry - everything graphic, everything mechanical - we see da Vinci's figure quartered and strapped to this odd scruple of symmetry as not merely definitive, but prescriptive.

The idea supervenes its antecedent. Innovation, in the music of Cage or Boulez, or the Modulor of Le Corbusier, enacts the same tautological habit: the search for a recognisable paradigm rooted in the concept of the human. We see this habit as an exercise of genius, and it is an act of permission.

It will get us an architecture, and it will get us through the night. Lector, si monumentum requiris circumspice.


Epitaph for Sir Christopher Wren


  1. I'm laughing only because, in this day of debauched superlatives, I honestly don't know how mediocre this score is; but I'll submit to it, and hope to do better. :)