5. STYLE AND THE FOUR ELEMENTS

In 1851, the German architect Gottfried Semper, then living in exile in London, proposed his theory of the four elements of architecture, which he held as formative motives: the hearth, the wall, the mound and the roof. Rejecting the simplistic notion of formal development from quasi-mythical origins, Semper instead concentrated his theory on the development of these four motives through their corresponding material-functional categories: ceramics (the hearth), textiles (the wall), stereotomy (the mound), and tectonics-carpentry (the roof).

The development of these elements, or motives, was central to Semper’s magnum opus, Der Stil, which was published in two volumes, in 1860 and 1863. Semper’s biographer Harry Mallgrave has written “The principle aim of Der Stil was nothing less than to delineate and explain the origin and transformation of the formal motives of the technical and tectonic over the course of their historical development.” As for the subject itself, “Style (was) therefore the emergence of the basic theme raised to artistic meaning, and all the inner and outer coefficients that cause its embodiment to be modified in a work of art.” Inner coefficients were such influences as use, material and means of execution, whereas external coefficients included local, temporal and personal influences.

While Semper himself was never able to formulate his theory in terms of the architecture of the age of iron (whose members he found too slim to hold the monumentality he espoused) his text was central to the genesis of modern architecture.

 

 

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