Everyone today confesses his/her own belief in the Renaissance and humanism; however, the Middle Ages are less popular. This period is usually undervalued in many ways, but this is not a scientific perspective, and it distorts our knowledge. The Middle Ages were very important as an objective historical condition.
Wittkower's Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism (1963) is considered a standard work. In a previous study, I strongly questioned this merely historically supported work. Wittkower's basic thesis is that Renaissance architecture equals mathematics and geometry. This is, however, definitely wrong. Wittkower's conclusion is a product of his strictly historical method. Architectural history is much more than written history. My opposing thesis is that the architectural philosophy of the Middle Ages and classical Rome continues to live in the factual architectural tradition of the Renaissance. This opposition is based on illuminations which document a type of architectural thought widespread in various regions of medieval and Renaissance Europe. They show an architectural thought which, in its whole essence, is non-mathematical and fairly non-geometrical. They propagate a world philosophy (coincidentia oppositorum) which organises its views in contradictory units with harmonious intentions.
These polar contradictive units communicate their messages through harmonious analogies. In regard to proportion, balance and harmony, the rectangle (below) and arc (above) are equal to the earth and the heavens respectively. This is a relational system of thought. Evidently, we have to deal with a tectonic order that is more ancient than the Christian one, and forms the nucleus of the world view derived from it (coincidentia oppositorum). Nota bene: Architecture speaks with man.
Thus, Wittkower has completely distorted the factual situation. He deals only with a very secondary characteristic which he then raises to absolute validity. From the new viewpoint, it can be understood why sacred buildings were socially so important, in the Ancient Near East, Greece and Rome, into the Middle Ages and later; they were philosophical models. Also, it can be further understood that this type of knowledge has been lost through the diffusion of analytical sciences. Harmonious models of the world existed long before Christianity (regarding Hagia Sophia, see Egenter, 1998). On the other hand, new critical positions are also suggested. With his analytical method, the art historian necessarily deforms objective architectural conditions. He rationalises the history of architecture. These processes can be demonstrated with various architectural topics (sacred plans, doors, portals, windows, facades, dwelling rooms etc.). In other words, the analytical history of styles produced by the history of art paved the way for the industrially rationalised architecture of modernism.
From such viewpoints we become aware to what extent functionalism has changed the pre-modern orders. The outside of modern buildings now had to express their innards or entrails. Nota bene: The Renaissance palaces hid their functional facades in the dark, stinky, back lanes. Facades served as representation using the access-place sequence throughout all pre-modern architecture. Now they had to resign. The access-place sequence, one of the most ancient spatial organisation schemes, was already active in the most primitive huts and, surprisingly, rose into the most elitarian architectural forms, including cathedrals and churches. It disappeared from modern cities; what a loss! Gates and portals have always been related to man. Now, curtain walls and slabs celebrate technology, and man is lost.
Composition, the art of composing larger architectural forms using various autonomous evolutionary strings to conserve a truth which is characteristic for the whole history of building, that brilliant piece of the history of architecture, disappeared as well. Even in the most primitive hut, the open hearth was a building within a building. Dispersed wood does not burn itself; one has to build the fire. In pre-modern times, the roof was always somehow readable as a building on top of a building. In the sacred domain, it was, consequently, often interpreted as analogy to the heavenly vault (which also was conceived as a building). Similarly, portals, doors and windows always remained as buildings within a building. Composition, in the widest sense, means that each form is autonomous and that it is composed of contradictory elements, thus longing for harmonious balance. This was the basic philosophy of all pre-modern architecture. Modern analytics has dissolved it. It could not be discovered by the history of art because it was incompatible with analytics. Thus, in this context, too, we gain an argument which explains the uniform monotony of our grid facades.
Beyond these disastrous processes of rationalisation and abstraction, there is a further theoretical fossil, namely the autocratic symbiosis between architect and art critique (or art historian). Since the Renaissance, a pseudo-sacral momentum has been involved which can clearly be recognised as "post medieval myth of the profaned creator genius" (Aretino).
Of further importance is the work of Mircea Eliade (1954, 1957). He argues that the religious dimension within the sacred domain space is not homogenous. The most important insight found in Eliade's books is the idea that pre-modern (religious) space is not void, but fully packed with ideas. We can understand quite a lot about a certain culture if we know how it was organised in space, and related ideas.
The phenomenological Anthropology of Space of O. F. Bollnow (1963) is of equal importance. Bollnow meticulously describes a concept of space which is still related to material. Humane space is not void. It is inseparably and categorically related to conditions of the environment. Surprisingly, this type of space is of a highly philosophical kind. The intention, as in art, is harmony. The formation of the environment as a whole--artificial and natural--defines the human world on all levels. In addition, Bollnow says something which is very important for our scientific understanding of space. He maintains that universal ideas of space are a late event in cultural history (Europe: 14th century in close relation to the so-called history of discoveries, in its geographical and cosmological sense). The history of cartography and the etymological relation of cosmos and cosmetics indicate the same; human perception of space has evolved. Originally, space was cleared space. That is to say, the original term space appears closely related to the human history of settlement. Nota bene: Settlement research also gains a central importance in the domain of cultural anthropology. Very roughly, we could say that, if Bollnow is sequentially related to Eliade, we gain a scientific basis for research into the evolution of human perception/conception of space.
We have touched on several strategic points in this essay. We indicated the sensual losses of the modern built environment. This contributed to the central topic of this jubilee meeting of the Swiss Association for the Biology and Ecology of Building. In a broader sense, we managed to uncover some hidden mechanisms active in the mainstreams of the Zeitgeist as ontological processes or developments of world views. Somehow, this led to the fatal emptying of architectonic forms and urban orders with regard to meaning. The apparatus outlined here remains basically fixed to superficial imitation of exterior forms which are increasingly de-artified by the evaluations of art critiques and art history; they are rationalised. The process goes on to theoretically exclude man and his own specific space from architectural and urbanistic theories, and an important empirical momentum is abandoned. Lacking this humane paradigm, the theories run into the purely virtual, which increasingly demands greater functional adaptations from man. This is absurd. Man is forced to adapt to the means, while it is evident that the reverse should be true.
In conclusion, what is strongly postulated here is a new type of research which focuses on the deepest and innermost structure of the triangular field of man built form and space. This new research attempts to present its results in the form of guidelines for a modern humanistically founded discipline of environmental design. The timeless meanings of a truly humane built environment might, in this way, be rediscovered.