Critical Notes regarding Gottfried Semper's theoretical work, its evaluation by the history of art and the significance of his approaches for recent architectural anthropological research

By Nold Egenter

This paper was originally read at the International Seminar 'Architettura in Pietra a Secco', 27. - 30. Sept. 1987, University of Bari, Bari, Italy. It was published in 1990 in Italian under the title: Rivestimento - Incrostazione - Metabolismo della Forma nell'opera di Gottfried Semper e Applicazione della sua Tesi principale nella recente Ricerca anthropologica architectturale' in: Ambrosi, A., E. Degano and C. A. Zaccaria (ed.): Architettura a Pietra a Secco - Atti del primo Seminario Internazionale 'Architettura in Pietra a Secco', Schena Editore, Fasano, Bari, Italy. The following text has been slightly revised.


Gottfried Semper (1803-1879) was not only one of the most outstanding architects of his time, he was doubtless also the first systematical anthropologist of art and architecture. His main work 'The Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts' published in two volumes (1860/63) used methods of the natural sciences to classify and theorize art and architecture. Semper globally documented one basic paradigm: the fact that fibrous and perishable materials are widely found in art and architecture related to durable materials, mostly as texture ('incrustation' principle) or structurally. In many cases the fibrous aspects can be understood as the genetic element of form. In a pioneering act, Semper concluded anthropologically that art and architecture must have had their origins in the domain of archaeologically not represented fibrous industries ('textiles').

Semper had designed the impressive building for the then newly founded 'Swiss Federal Institute of Technology' in Zurich (ETH). And, having taught there as architectural professor from 1855 and onwards, he donated his unpublished works to the archives of the school, hoping that his new outlooks would be preserved and further developed. Though Semper's works were of great influence in various schools of architecture and even in ethnology, the art historians rather attacked him. His principles of art and architecture were considered too deterministic, leaving no scope for subjective creation. However, after the first architectural crisis in the 1960s, when many started to speak of 'architectural theory', Semper also became trendy for art historians. The newly founded 'Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture' (gta) at the ETH-Zurich became the focus point for many art historians engaged in Semper research and this produced many publications (-> References).

The following text deals mainly with an anthropological re-evaluation of Semper's theory of art and architecture. Its results are compared with the above mentioned Semper research. The conclusion is fairly paradoxical. If anthropology today is taken as the most advanced scientific domain dealing with man and culture, Gottfried Semper was much more advanced in his time than his recent interpreters. Note: this is more than 100 years ago! To be blunt, the ETH-Z gta Semper research - at least in its theoretical outlooks - is more than problematic.

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