back

02/17 ATHENS: FORMAL/SPONTANEOUS

Editorial

Georgios A. Panetsos

 
The ‘formal/spontaneous’ pair are not literally opposite poles. Nev-ertheless, in a search for the synonyms for its two constituents with architecture as a field of reference, the impression of a dipole seems to be reinforced, and shades of meaning emerge which make them jointly appropriate, as a culmination of attributes, to describe and interpret Athens and its architecture, and when theoreticised, to serve as a starting-point for new planning.

‘Formal’ means suitable for a function or occasion with strict re-quirements (particularly a ceremony), occurring in public, deriving from a public authority, generally acceptable, proper, in accordance with the rules – therefore planned, official, ‘normally’ customary, actual, substantive, strictly rational. Anything formal has to do with the sign and the form, with the public and the whole.

‘Spontaneous’ means impulsive, unsolicited, therefore not subject to external definitions, rules, plans, therefore varied, informal, arbitrary, therefore perhaps unlawful, not widely accepted, not entirely normal. It can refer to people, actions, or events. Anything formal has to do with the impulse of self and the absence of external prompting, with the individual and the private.

This issue of DOMES collects data from the history and topicality of the formal and the spontaneous element of Athens, on an architectural and urban scale, with the proposal of Karl Friedrich Schinkel for the building of a royal palace on the Acropolis as its point of departure – clearly a formal proposal, but also informal in many of its details, spontaneous in its variable features, such as the screens and the sunshades, marginally spontaneous even in the mentality of the preceding age, hence its rejection by Ludwig I of Bavaria, who was known for his modesty and his frequently shabby clothes.

Nevertheless, the city ever since antiquity has been the place of civilisation and reason, the place of purpose and order, in contrast with the countryside, where the –primary, unexplained, and magical– spontaneous dominates. Serlio reminds us of this with his scena tragica, scena comica, and scena rustica (or satirical), at the end of his second book, ‘On Perspective’, when speaking of the analogous theatre space. There perspective is a devised reality perceived by the few, while the calculated impressions are addressed to the many. The scena tragica alone has ‘noble’, that is, formal, official buildings, whereas the comica points up the contrasts and contradictions of style, including a ‘modern’, that is, Gothic, building, even an advertisement, the inscription ‘ruf[fiana]’ outside the pimp’s door. The ‘rustic’ consists of a landscape with a few ‘rustic huts’ for variety. Serlio himself ‘canonised’ the classical orders in his treatise, with its practical orientation, addressed to the architect, builder, and craftsman.

Modern Athens is divided as few other cities are between the formal and the spontaneous. In spite of its homogeneity, it is, in the end, orientated towards the ‘comic’ scena. The security of a typological architecture, that of the architectural type of the domino, is recognised as supplying it with whatever quality it possesses. This genetic, typical/typological repetition was, paradoxically, practised during the contradictory period of Modernism, that is, of –in principle– non-typical and, most importantly, non-typological ‘solutions’, but also of prefabricated (or not) repetition.

The minimum-degree standardised architecture of Athens becomes, in the end, the base for variety, either with non-homogeneous conservation or free unco-ordinated intervention. And if the spontaneous, traditional vernacular of the countryside or the vernacular spontaneous of the urban periphery –with their mutations– have been the invariable models for a new (radical?) architecture from the inter-war years to the present, what is happening with the totality of them today? How spontaneous can the city be? What is its relationship to the productive city, which does not respect architectural styles and has no need of rhetorical support?

How formal is or can be the formal, how spontaneous the spontaneous? The non-approved is ‘photographed’ in the law, becomes technically lawful, becomes in the end normal. 

The trained and the cultivated architect can only act the part of the anonymous craftsman or technician if he has learnt to judge, to choose, to combine, instead of merely repeating given combinations. As soon as building departs from the satisfaction of rudimentary need and the determinism of primary technique, it enters the field of meaning, it lays claim to becoming architecture. Then it must be treated on the preconditions and criteria of art, not by means of the moralising –still less guilt-ridden– invocation of policy or the epistemologically abusive employment of sociology. Art can have a consciousness only of itself. It exercises from the start freedom of expression and checks its boundaries. Architecture is located only where there is a will for form, and consciousness – the result of (symbolic) representation. 

back