Thursday, February 23, 2006

Sforzinda and Levittown

With mass production and the industrial revolution came mechanized travel, warfare, and production. When the construction industry became standardized and mechanized, America got it’s first tangible look at the sublime limitless space implied by tract housing landscapes. (Here BldgBlog spotlights a photographer whom has done some frightening work documenting seemingly limitless rows of these things.) One would think that this is a problem unique to modern time: that it was a dystopia first dealt with recently because it is uniquely the byproduct of the machine age.

Much to the contrary, Hanno-Walter Kruft documents renaissance thought on the subject his book "A History of Architectural Theory: From Vitruvius to the Present." There in Chapter Three, he has a remarkable paragraph about renaissance architectural theoretician Antonio Averlino’s (Filarete) view on repetitive row-housing. This is about a two-page passage written arount 1450…

"Alberti's notion of "varieta"" as the expression of human individuality leads Filarete to the further claim that, just as one human being differs from another, so each building is unique: 'You will never see any building or .. house or dwelling that exactly resembles another either in appearance, in form or in beauty.' At the same time he formulates -- for the first time as far as the present writer can see -- the possibility of limitless rows of identical houses: 'If he wished, man could build houses that resembled one another in form and appearance, so that they all looked alike.' But he stigmatizes this as an offence against the divine plan of Creation."

This passage is valuable because it demonstrated the timelessness of some architectural theories -- and the rich past we inherit. At stake here is a reason to react to the banal, everyday work that is done, sometimes as a byproduct of larger forces. In that search, in that justification, are present the core values for what we do. In Filarete's 14th Century text, that justification naturally bows towards divine motivation, and percolated into his plans for Sforzenda. And today? Comments are, of course, always welcome...


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