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Essay on the Metaphysics of Architecture

The Architectural Magazine and Journal, Volume III (1836)

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Art & Architecture


Metaphysics if Architecture.

it becomes a matter of great importance that we should so regulate the order and appearance of those things which are within our power, that they may produce a favourable influence. Of those things is architecture; an art which, in my opinion, is less understood, and worse practised, than any other; as our great cities, towns, and public buildings only too clearly prove: but of this anon.

Architecture, as an art, may be compared to music and poetry. Like them, it requires a vivid imagination, and an exquisite sensibility to the beautiful and sublime. Yet it is an art of far greater importance than either music, poetry, painting, or sculpture; for from all these we can escape, if the impressions which they cause be unpleasing; but how shall we escape from the impressions received from architecture, unless we banish ourselves from society, and live only amongst the unassisted productions of nature?

Such, then, being the importance of architecture as art, it becomes. pre-eminently desirable that architects, nay, indeed, that all persons possessing the least sensibility, should well understand those principles by the application of which beauty and sublimity may be produced in its works, not only in single buildings, but in whole streets —yea, cities — to such a degree, that the united effect of the structures may be harmony without monotony.

Architecture, in every gradation of style, may be classed under these four denominations : the Beautiful, the Sublime, the Grand, or the Magnificent. Of the Beautiful in architecture, we draw our ideas from the works of the Great Architect of Nature, and from the tastes which He has given us. Yet there are four principles, Grace, Expression, Proportion, and Harmony, which are absolutely necessary to its perfection, and an infringement of them will invariably produce a harsh and revolting effect. But, as beauty in nature is infinite in variety of character, so in architecture it would be absurd in the highest degree, to attempt to establish rules or standards which should limit, to certain prescribed principles, the power of producing all that can be called beautiful in it. Yet, as far as the beautiful comes within the cognizance of our reason, we may affix rules which can never be departed from without destroying it. The attributes of Grace and Expression can hardly be said to come within these rules, but must be principally judged of as to their analogy with the forms of nature. By grace and expression, I mean those indefinable principles by which we form and arrange the various members of architecture, so as to charm the eye, in addition to the pleasure produced by proportion and harmony of parts; and without which all that would be produced by the latter would be dulness or monotony. These are what may be said to give to any style of architecture its peculiar character and expression, accordingly as they are applied; and I think they are more particularly analogous to grace and expression in the human form and countenance. The principles of Proportion and Harmony come more immediately within the cognizance of our reason, and may easily be decided upon. Proportion is that by which we regulate the size of the various members, with regard to each other, so as to produce symmetry in the whole. To illustrate the importance of this to the production of beauty in a whole, let us suppose a large column to be raised to support something very light and mean in comparison : how revolting this would be to our common sense ! and let the grace and proportion of the column itself be ever so beautiful, yet all its effect would be lost in the ludicrous idea presented by its disproportion to the thing which it supported. Harmony in architecture is the agreement of the character of its various parts, and a unity of expression and purpose in the whole. To illustrate this, we have only to suppose a structure in which lightness and heaviness of expression, simplicity and intricacy of style, contend together in grotesque confusion; and we shall see at once what is meant by harmony, and how the want of it annuls all beauty.

Of the various styles of architecture, and of their various capabilities of beauty, it is impossible to say much in a short essay. The Gothic style is, in my opinion, capable of the highest degree of lightness of effect, and the

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