In the framework of recently reenacted discussions about architectural theory, Semper is considered as one of the most interesting, but also most controversial theoreticians of the 19th century. According to Rykwert (1978), he strongly influenced British teachings of art around 1875. In ethnology he had strong impacts on Franz Boas and his school, as well as on the Chicago school of architecture (curtain wall). Gantner (1932) has described his influence on Le Corbusier. A very dynamic life brought him into the important metropolises like Paris and London. Around the mid-century this also implied the great systems of the 'Zeitgeist'. Between 1840 and 1870 Semper was considered as the most important architect Germany had to offer.

Wolfgang Herrman is the main key figure of Semper research today. In volume 19 of the gta series (1978) he described Semper's time of exile in Paris and London between 1849 and 1855 and the time between 1840 and 1877 during which Semper wrote his main book here called shortly 'The Style'. In volume 15 (1981) of the same gta series, Herrmann documented Semper's unpublished works. Vol. 14 of Martin Fršhlich (1974) deals with unpublished drawings Semper had donated to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH). Naturally Semper research is centred around the Semper archives in Zurich and in 1974 a symposium was organised. It had the title 'Gottfried Semper and the mid-19th century. In the corresponding volume of the gta series (see Vogt et. al. 1976) about 20 papers are found which deal with Semper's relations to contemporaries and his epoch. Further, in the luxurious landscape of Zurich's gta-forum of architectural art history many contributions to Semper research can be found (Fršhlich 1985, Germann 1985, Hauser 1985, Zschokke 1985).

But, Semper as an 'object' of this type of research is not without problems. In his two volumed main oeuvre Semper first, for his time, documents considerably advanced materials of the history of art and architecture. On the second level he integrates various stimuli of his time into his theory: linguistics (v. Humboldt, Bopp, Grimm, Hšfer, Diefenbach); natural sciences and evolutionary theory (Cuvier); world exhibition (Caribbean primordial hut); ethnology (primitive society, primitive ways of building, nudity and clothing). And, third, using this information as a basis, he speculatively tries to establish a theoretical structure of anthropological dimensions.

Actually, it is these three points, which constitute the problems of recent Semper research. The short focussed optics of the art historian do not manage to separate the documented materials from speculative interpretations. On one hand the discussions become lost in irrelevant historical details, on the other hand secondary speculations are blown up, and are declared 'grandiose theories' or 'basic thoughts'. Semper remains enigmatic. Some consider his oeuvre as an evolutionary theory of art influenced by the natural sciences, but, on the other hand, critically question its contradictions (Rykwert 1976, 1983, Hauser 1985). Others celebrate it dilettantically as a "theory of the primordial hut" (Vogt 1976). This fairly illegitimate idea (see below) is then taken by others as the starting point to declare any type of traditional architecture as 'substitution of the primordial hut' ("Urhüttenersatz", Zschokke 1985). Germann (1985) goes even further, reducing Semper's theory to practical aesthetics 'do it yourself' style. Naturally, Semper's most important anthropological dimension gets lost in this methodological chaos. We will outline this anthropological dimension in Semper's work in the following.


Compared with the conventional history of art, Semper's system is strikingly different. His use of classes based on categories puts very different things of very different cultures surprisingly close together. Evidently the method is borrowed from the natural sciences. Objects are not 'hermeneutically' interpreted individually; Semper forms a whole, similar to Linné's empire of plants or animals, and this whole conveys the meaning. Semper's system was vehemently attacked by conventional art historians like Fiedler, Riegl and others. It was considered 'deterministic', negating the subjective. Not surprisingly Semper could not be put aside. He remained intriguing. It is evident the anthropology of art can not be based on artist's biographies.

According to Herrman (1978) the title of Semper's main work was originally planned as 'Teachings about Built Forms' (Bauformenlehre). Disputes with the editors led to the following fairly long title: "The Style in the technical and tectonic arts, or 'practical aesthetics'. A textbook for technicians, artists and friends of the arts". However, the title is not so arbitrary as Herrmann thinks. Semper's dispute against Kugler shows clearly that Semper actually questions the "speculative aesthetics" of the conventional history of art. He attacks the rhetorical 'style' of the art historians' professional circles, and confronts it with "practical aesthetics". Semper does not deduce beauty pseudo-theologically from above, but reconstructs it inductively from below, from pragmatical conditions of craft. With this he is on anthropological grounds.

Semper terms his 'empire of the arts' as "the technical and tectonic arts". Technical arts corresponds to the conventional crafts and arts without high aesthetic ambitions. Thus, for Semper, real art is conceived as 'tectonic', that is, showing arrangements with cosmic meanings, offering symbolic and aesthetic values. This claim is based on his primary sources related to "monumental architecture". And it is there where he discovers the narrow relation between technique and tectonic characteristics.

Semper's system as presented in his book 'The Style' groups crafts and art into 4 (or 5) classes. These are (slightly simplified):

  1. Textile arts
  2. Ceramic arts
  3. Tectonics (wood construction)
  4. Stereotomy (sculptured stone work, brick laying work etc.)
  5. Metallic techniques

    On 500 pages, the first volume of Semper's main work in two volumes deals exclusively with the primary class of textiles (1860). The rest of the classes form the second volume (1863). Evidently the 'textiles' are most important. The class of metal techniques does not appear in the classification of the first volume and was conceived later as an independent class.

    In contrast to conventional schools of art historians, who use the term style in close relation to culturo-geographical differentiations, Semper postulates purpose and material criteria as basics. In Semper's concept purpose and material characteristics relate to constant and to variable factors. Throughout time, the form-formation of any technical product remains the same in view of human needs and generally valid natural laws. In contrast to this, materials and the ways to work them are different according to place and time. Correspondingly, Semper relates the formal and aesthetic questions to 'purpose' ("das Zweckliche") and discusses the history of style focussed on material aspects ("das Stoffliche"). "Any technical product is a result of purpose and materia" is the title of the second paragraph (:17).

    An important characteristic of Semper's approach is his use of categories. Evidently it is an attempt to base the concept of style on scientifically objective criteria. There are four main categories of raw materials, which are formative in regard to style.

    1. flexible, tough
    2. soft, malleable
    3. rodlike, elastic
    4. solid, of considerable solidity

      Note that Vogt (1976) interpreted this sequence of technological categories from soft to solid as an 'evolution of the human hand' but did not know what to do further with this anthropologically important approach - except hinting to Cuvier as a potential source.

      Why does Semper consider the textiles as primary? Let us first follow Semper in his book 'The Style'. Referring to the first two classes, textiles and ceramics, he maintains that "according to the natural evolution of man" it is not important which technique was used first. "Among these two, however, the textile arts are to be considered as absolutely primary. It clearly shows to be the primordial type of art since all other arts, including ceramics, borrowed their formal and symbolic characteristics from the textile arts, while these appear entirely autonomous and form their characteristics directly from themselves or borrowing from nature." There is no doubt, he says "that the first principles of style" were formed "in this primordial type of art-technique." Said in more modern words, according to Semper, form, aesthetics, ornaments and symbolic meanings primarily evolved in this first class, the 'textiles'.

      Actually, in this context one should focus on the importance of contemporary linguistic research, that is the historical school of Romantic times (1798-1830) and its influence on Semper. Evidently he knows the wide relations of the term 'textile' which is etymologically related to Greek 'tekton', meaning carpenter, or constructor. It is further related to Greek 'techne', with the meanings of craft, art, skill, in the sense of the modern term 'technique' devoid of aesthetic implications. And finally the word 'tekton' is also related to the word 'text'. Thus, if today we are surprised by Semper's study of art and architecture based on 'textiles' this is clarified, if we assume that he used this term in the framework of linguistic theories of that time, in particular etymology, or, the history of words. In view of this wide definition of 'textiles' including its word-history as an indicator, Semper's first volume, which is - as we said above - on 500 pages entirely devoted to the class of 'textiles', presents a considerable amount of surprisingly heterogeneous materials. These materials reach from simple wreaths and garlands, ribbons, bands, strings, to wickerworks and plant weaves and bundles; from decorations of the human body to built forms like the Egyptian plant pillars or Assyrian life trees. Even Egyptian temples and their altars are included. And all this should be considered as 'textiles'?

      Let us add a short methodological observation: the "historico-technological" demonstration to which Semper adheres, forces him to present historical and archaeological sources for something which is not durable, textiles. Thus, seen from the archaeological standpoint, practically all what he presents in his first volume dedicated to the class of 'textiles', in fact, belongs to the classes 2 to 4 (or 5) and would, strictly speaking, have to be presented in volume two. But, in his first volume Semper uses archaeological hardware to show the existence and impacts of perishable 'software'. Sources are from various ancient high cultures. The core of the approach is the "principle of clothing in the art of building" (:217f.). He develops this concept somewhere in the middle of the volume after having dealt with his materials in regard to the criteria of purpose, materia and techniques. His basic matter of concern is still related to his former interest in antique polychromy. But, with the extension of sources and with the phenomenon of clothing or incrustation, Semper clearly expanded his view into culturo-anthropologically wider circles. Put in modern terms: using "Asian" sources Semper wanted to break up the art historian's Eurocentric fixation on classical arts and, in particular, on Hellenism.

      Seen from this contemporary gravity point Semper's 'The Style' can not overhastily be considered as an "evolutionary theory of art". In spite of his global extensions, his view is still strongly focussed on Hellenism. In regard to the "principle of clothing and incrustation" he says: Not one among the "ancient formal elements of Hellenic art" is of adequate "deep reaching importance" like this one. The "tradition of incrustation" can be found in the whole domain of Hellenic art. It "dominates particularly the real essence of the art of building, ... - not at all just decoratively - ..." but "by conditioning art form essentially and in general, ...". Both can not be separated, " form and decoration, are so intimately related to form a unity through the influence of the principle of clothing surfaces, to an extent that it is impossible to consider them in separated views." Evidently, already in his earlier studies focussed on polychromy, Semper became aware of something which he later corroborated while collecting sources for his wider circle of the anthropology of art. His theory of incrustation touches, in fact, a very important topic of the arts, namely the concept of 'ornament'. What the conventional history of art considers in the framework of its aesthetical speculation as 'ornament' or 'decorative' behaviour, is, in Semper's view, a textural or structural survival of very ancient and mostly perishable industries. His whole two-volumed oeuvre is focussed on nothing else than on the documentation of this doubtless very important phenomenon. Irrespective of the organisation of his classes and some speculative interpretations, Semper's achievement consists of the following. On all 'incrustation'-sources that survived into our times due to durability, indicators of industries are preserved, which - in their factual conditions - have long disappeared. In mysterious ways, they were related to the 'genesis' of art form and architecture. But, unfortunately, they rot away. Or, in modern terms of 'prehistory': they escaped the archaeological method!

      In view of the third volume that was never published, Herrmann (1978) indicates at several points that Semper himself and also his contemporaries like Vieweg and others saw the essential achievements in this 'clothing- or incrustation-theory'. Herrman even thinks that Semper, by anticipation of this theoretical approach at the end of the first volume had blocked himself off from the third volume which he had always promised but never written. It may be the case that Semper became influenced by Cuvier in regard to the organisation of his techniques, but this is absolutely secondary. Semper says it himself: for the time being, the classes are not important. It is really surprising to see here, to what extent the art historian's Semper-research, in a mania of the isolated detail, is completely blind for the real achievements of Semper. Two volumes with a considerable knowledge of non-European art at that time! A considerable culturo-geographical horizon! Data from Polynesia, China, India, the ancient Near East and Egypt, including Greek and Roman classics, Middle Ages and Renaissance! This was a tremendous knowledge for those times. And all about the same subject, about the "tradition of incrustation"! The ornament as industrial survival! It is evident that the aesthetically founded conventional history of the arts was against him, because his discovery demands not only an entirely different view of art, it postulates an anthropologically systematic organisation of the arts' past.

      That for Semper the classes were of secondary importance is shown clearly by the fact that he originally planned to start his main work with 'ceramics'. However, the discussions he had with Vieweg stimulated him to deal intensively with the textiles. While collecting materials for the class of the textiles he must have become aware of the anthropological dimension of his approach.

      In contrast to recent Semper research, Semper himself must have been conscious about the fact that his attempts to anthropologically deepen his incrustation thesis remained widely speculative. Consequently he presented it very carefully and in very restrained ways. The analogy in regard to clothing and decorating the human body for instance, takes only very little space in his book. And the 'Caribbean hut' topic is mentioned in 'The Style' on hardly a half a page as a document among others. But Vogt boldly interprets the whole work of Semper as a 'theory of the primordial hut'! Similarly the concept of the four elements stressed by others, appears explicitly formulated only on two pages in the dispute against Kugler. The elements are clearly a derivate from Semper's occupation with archaeological materials of Greek antiquity, ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian temples. In view of such retroprojections the 'moral significance' of his 'primordial hearth' becomes clear. It is related to the analogy to the altar. In short, Semper is neither a 'theory of the primordial hut', nor an evolutionary theory. Such trendy conclusions are merely based on the speculative part. Historically as well as archaeologically, Semper basically deals with the phenomenon of incrustation of primary soft (or 'fibrous') industries on secondary sources of solid and durable materials. But, evidently, this is a topic of anthropological dimensions.

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