1. John Soane, main façade of the architect's house in Pitzhanger Manor
Architecture and theatre
During one of the conferences John Soane held at the Royal Academy he wrote that "the front of a building is like the prologue of a play, it prepares us for what we are to expect. If the outside promises more than we find in the inside, we are disappointed. The plot opens itself in the first act and is carried on through the remainder, through all the mazes of character, convenience of arrangement, elegance and propriety of ornaments, and lastly produces a complete whole in distribution, decoration and construction"1. This parallel with the theatre helps to convey the idea that a building is a single, complex entity and to understand it one cannot stop at the façade but must move inside it, consider the sequence of its parts, and link their different 'characters' (fig. 1)2.
Soane's words continue on from the statements made earlier by Germain Boffrand in his Livre d'architecture: "Architecture [...] is capable of a number of genres that bring its
component parts to life [...]. A building
expresses, as if on the stage, that the scene is
either pastoral or tragic; that this is a temple or
a palace, a public building destined for a
particular purpose or a private house. By their
planning, structure and decoration, all such
buildings must proclaim their purpose to the
beholder". (Boffrand, 1745, p.16). Boffrand introduces the concept of the
'character' that a building can and must have,
almost as if it were a character in a play. And,
like a character, a building must be able to "reveal its character to the spectator" (Van Eck, 2007, p. 192). In 1788 Quatremère de Quincy wrote that a building
can have "character", "a character" or "its character" (Quatrèmere de Quincy, 1788, item "Caractère"). This last option consisted in"assigning every building a state so suited to its nature or function as to make it possible to interpret, through its very evident character, not only what it is, but what it is not" (Quatrèmere de Quincy, 1832, item "Caractère"). Quatremère de Quincy compared a building "to a sort of play in which the scenes appear to change depending on the viewpoint, the
changing play of light over the solids and voids
throughout the day" (Quatremere de Quincy, 1832, item "Effet", p. 559).
Recognising the 'character' of a building means assigning it human qualities that a spectator
can distinguish based on his own experiences and memories. The association of these images
and their spatial and temporal relationship
was behind the process that made it possible to
liken a building to a play. It meant
understanding that architecture, like the
theatre, is an art that develops over a period of
time: the time to develop a plot, or the time it
takes to enter the building. In both cases one
presumes that the spectator can understand
either the topic or the spatial ratios of the
composition (Van Eck, 2007, p.128). However, these were subjective
assessments in which imagination was more
important than reason.
In a generalisation reminiscent of the classical
theme of theatrum mundi, Charles Garnier
went so far as to say: "everything that happens
in the world is nothing but theatre and
representation [...] The whole world is made
up of a continuous sequence of comic or
dramatic scenes, and nothing can be said or
done without involving actors observed by
spectators" (Garnier, 1871, p.2). This concept is linked to an idea
already proposed by Plato and, also, by Seneca
in his Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, and
also Epictetus in his Enchiridon. The concept
was reproposed later by Erasmus of Rotterdam
in The Praise of Folly (Vives-Ferrándiz 2011, pp.180-182) and in the
seventeenth century became a model used to
comprehend the existence of man.
However it was in the eighteenth century that
the theatre became a reference model for the
theory and aesthetics of art. It was then that
theorists saw themselves as 'spectators' who
observe the world the way you do a theatre3,
well aware of the subjective nature of one's
personal vision. At the end of the eighteenth
century reference to the theatre and the concept
of character applied to architecture was present in the parks designed by William Kent (fig.
2. William Kent, proposal for the tree-lined hillside at Chatsworth
Piranesi's imaginary images (fig. 3)5, the 'mysterious light' concept developed by Nicholas Le Camus de Mézières, or Étienne-
Louis Boullée's architecture of shadows.
3. Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Ruins of a Sculpture Gallery
in Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli
Terms like 'theatre', 'scenario', 'decoration' or 'representation" were already used in books
about gardening and landscaping in the
middle of the century, especially during debates
about the concepts of the sublime or
picturesque. They were also used in aesthetic
studies of the city and buildings, thus making
the theatre a reference model for theoretical
This parallel with the theatre made it possible
to interpret architecture as an 'experience' unity between the building and its context thereby underscoring subjective experience,
sensations and perception. The interpretation
required the active exploitation of images
linked to an observer's previous experiences
which, to be completed, needed a certain
period of time. The goal was to 'succeed in
seeing' not only what landscape architects
searched for in paintings by Claude Lorrain,
but also what Uvedale Pride appreciated in
painters: "capable of seeing in nature what
men usually do not see, [...] of recognising and
feeling the effects and combinations of form,
colour, light and shadow" (Price, 1810, p. xi-xv).
Theatre and scenography
Even if, one way or another, the use of this
parallel has never been forgotten, in recent
decades there has been a revival in the use of the
image of the theatre due to renewed interest for
rhetoric in art, communication, perception and
experimentation. Contributions to this trend
have been provided by Michael Fried, Richard
Sennet, Helene Furján, Charles Bernstein,
Richard Wollheim, Karsten Harries, Jonathan
Crary, Harry Mallgrave, Josette Féral and
Ronald Bermingham, Tracy Davis and Thomas
Postlewat, Gevork Hartoonian, Louise Pelletier
and, more recently, Caroline van Eck6.
However, none of these authors actually
consider the theatre as an artistic creation.
Many of these contributions concentrate on
painting or sculpture. In many cases the
authors' interest focuses more on philosophy
and philology rather than architecture. In others, even in older works, the theatrical
analogy has negative overtones. In these studies
the theatre is used because it provides a valid
image with which to contemplate seeing and
experimenting art or architecture. In many of
these contributions the term 'theatrical' is used
mechanically, without providing an
explanation, and with sweeping generalisations
that ignore the unique features of architecture.
The fact that so many studies and approaches
exist has led to a situation of conceptual
ambiguity in which everything can be
theatrical, but the theatre itself might not be (Eck, 2011, p.13).
Although the analogy with the theatre is useful we must remember that mistakes can be made
if it is used in a generalised manner in
architecture. Three things are necessary for us
to be able to talk of theatre: a visible,
performed action, an actor, and at least one
spectator. In the most successful interpretation
by Féral and Bermingham (2002, p. 95-97) the possibility to
compare theatre and theatricality come from a
spectator's "active vision" and the presence of a
space external to the spectator where the actor
performs. Considered thus, a building is
neither a theatre nor a theatrical action, but
only a space, a scenography where a theatrical
action may be activated by the user according
to what is envisaged by the project. Hence, it
would be more useful to replace the term
'theatre' with a definition of 'scenography'.
With this in mind, what exactly is scenography
in relation to architecture? First and foremost
scenography is a space with unique
characteristics in which the parts and their
relationships indicate (orient or suggest) a
symbolic content (a meaning) and the role they
can play in a specific action. In addition,
scenography is an oriented space in which there
is a point (of view) from which the perception
of these meanings is clearer, and a main point
where most of the symbolic content is focused.
We could say that the scene is the structure of a
ceremony, preparing the observer's experience:
accordingly, it is also a didactic space capable
of guiding the activity to be performed there7.
Scenography and drawing
A church, a concert hall, a lecture hall and a
football field all have a very definite
scenography, making it easy to understand where the actors and public will be positioned,
how the action will take place, and what sort of
action is involved. In Sloane's example the scene
required visitors to move along the path
designed by the architect so that they discover the
viewpoints of the 'different scenes'. In his book
Auguste Choisy provides another example. He
interprets the area of the Acropolis in Athens as
a landscape organised like a theatrical pièce(Choisy, 1899, p. 413-420), a
series of 'scenes'8 created by multiple viewpoints
and by 'perception' of the buildings from these
Choisy discovered the structured stage of a play
in the Acropolis in Athens, an experience
organised using four "tableaux" or "premières
impressions" marking a ceremonial path. He
wanted to demonstrate that the apparent
disorder of the Acropolis actually reflected a
landscaping logic10: the oblique arrangement of
the temples and the relationships between the
temples and their apparent incoherent
composition create a stage where a ceremony
can be held.
To illustrate his analysis Choisy used four
drawings, representing four 'tableaux' (figs. 4,
5, 6, 7)11; each drawing has a perspective and
a planimetric diagram showing the position of
the viewpoint and outlining his theoretical
|4. Auguste Choisy, study of the Propylaea.
||5. Auguste Choisy, the first image of the Agora: Minerva
|6. Auguste Choisy, corner view of the Parthenon.
||7. Auguste Choisy, the first image of the Erechtheion.
||Based on Choisy's study and
sequence, in 1938 the film director Sergei
Mikhailovich Eisenstein corroborated this
interpretation. He stated that the Acropolis in
Athens was "one of the oldest cinematographic
artefacts" (Eisenstein, 1989, p. 117), and illustrated his idea using a
sequence of four scenes reinterpreting Choisy's
four drawings (fig. 8)12. It would have been
"difficult to imagine a more precise, more
elegant and more effective structure than this
sequence". (Eisenstein, 1989, p. 120). Although Choisy's drawings
illustrated the salient points, the hubs of this
theatrical arrangement, they did not claim to
replace the consolidated image of the layout of
the Acropolis. However, once published, a
simple planimetric interpretation was no
longer enough to truly understand its form.
|8. Sergei M. Eisenstein, assembly
of the sequence of the four scenes..
Drawing and scenography
A drawing can reveal a scenography, as in
Choisy's case, but it can also be interpreted as
the description of a scene, representing it from
the point of view of the observer and revealing certain aspects hidden in the drawing. For example the one Richard Neutra used to explain
the way classrooms functioned at Emerson
Junior High School (Los Angeles, 1938) (fig.
9. Richard Neutra, a classroom in Emerson Junior High School,
The lesson he portrays in the drawing starts
in the classroom; we know this from the signs on
the floor and several tables. This part of the
lesson is undoubtedly followed by another one,
represented by the curved arrangement of the
chairs. The lesson now continues under a tree in
the garden, with the students sitting randomly
around the teacher. The sequence can be
established starting with the signs on the floors
and, above all, the curved arrangement of the
chairs connecting what can be interpreted as the
beginning and end of this activity.
If one understands the unique significance of
the classroom floor Neutra's drawing reveals
much more than this: its perimeter merges with
the edge of the wall, creating a single line. The
viewpoint of this perspective is positioned on
the plane of the wall and outside the classroom;
it does not presume to represent what an
observer would see if he was standing inside the
classroom. His choice of viewpoint could reflect
the penchant for unusual views tested by Lásló Moholy-Nagy or Alexander Rodchenko. In any
case, it is a shift towards abstraction, a move
away from traditional perspective simulation,
making one think that the draughtsman did
not intend to create a conventional perspective.
Neutra uses this drawing to describe Maria
Montessori's pedagogic method; he wanted to
adopt it for some of the school's classrooms, just
as he did in the Corona Avenue School (Los
Angeles, 1935). In the latter school Neutra had
illustrated the method using an almost
diagrammatic drawing (fig. 10)14 demonstrating all the possible interactions, both
inside the classroom and between the indoor
space and the garden.
10. Richard Neutra, Corona Avenue School, Los Angeles.
Neutra downsized these
options in his drawing of the Emerson School
and assembled them in a single sequence. Even
if the drawing appears to be very different, it is
still a diagram in which conciseness is the tool he
chose to boost communication. The degree of
abstraction in the drawing encourages one to
interpret it more as a conceptual discourse rather
than a scene.
Another drawing by Heinrich Tessenow is more sophisticated. It shows a living room in a house designed in 1908 and published in Der
Wohnhausbau in 190915 (fig. 11).
11. Heinrich Tessenow, the living room.
ostensibly simple interior shows the corner of a
room with wallpapered walls, a window, and
a few pieces of furniture. Nevertheless, the
drawing seems very detailed and important,
even if nothing in it would appear to warrant
such an effort. The clutter on the table in the
centre of the drawing seems to indicate that a
person was sowing, perhaps mending old
clothes, and that a child was keeping the
person company. Both have left the room,
leaving everything as it was: the chair pushed
back from the table, the sowing tools left
scattered about, the doll with a leg dangling on
the edge of the table, and the open window, as
if it had been left ajar in order to be able to
watch the child playing in the garden.
There doesn't seem to be much else. Just typical
domestic actions that are not part of the usual
repertoire of architectural drawings. However,
the unjustified imbalance of the detail would
The lack of a real link between the unimportant
represented space and the excessive level of detail
is the element that captures the observer's
attention, prompting him to reflect and
understand the meaning of the small shifting of
the objects in the centre of the image. Marco De
Michelis also drew attention to this issue: "the
meticulous penchant for the most ostensibly
insignificant details in Tessenow's housing
universe"; details "always so absurdly precise"(De Michelis, 1982, p.36 and 37).
Something similar to the "bafflement" which
Rafael's architecture "induces in the spectator
thanks to the ostensible contradiction between
the image and the structure". According to
Stefano Ray this trait was intended to "make the
spectator think and consider further"16.
seem to indicate that Tessenow's wanted to draw
the viewer's attention to the importance of these
simple daily activities, devoid of any
transcendence; activities the architect believes are
the main purpose of a house. His intention was to
elevate domestic life and make it the fundamental
objective of design. The book in which the
drawing was published illustrates Tessenow's
research on small, cheap housing for workers, in
line with the ideas expressed by Hermann
Muthesius or John Ruskin who focused on the
search for a higher, more spiritual way of life: it is
a genuine "philosophy of domestic space" (De Michelis, 1991, p. 44).
The link between the concept of scenography and
drawing is clearer if, when viewing or
interpreting a drawing, one bears in mind the
importance of the way the drawing is positioned
vis-à-vis the edges of the sheet of paper. This is
even more obvious when there is more than one
drawing on a sheet of paper. In this case the link
between each drawing also comes in to play, as
do the order in which they appear, the ratio
between weights and measures, the way in which
they convey the space, and the final character of
the ensemble or ensuing aesthetic quality.
Whether it involves the theatre, theatricality,
scenography, picturesque landscape,
cinematographic plane or rhetorical dialectics,
all these images underscore the importance of
the ensemble compared to the meaning of the
dominant element. Bernini pointed out that
this is because "things do not appear to us only
for what they are, but depend on what is next
to them, and this relationship changes what
they look like". Accordingly, Bernini
considered it was important to have "a welltrained
eye to properly judge juxtaposed
objects" (Fréart, 1885, p. 114), since interpretation depends on the
effect it produces in the observer. These
relationships allow us to recognise the limits of
the graphic space around the drawing and the
contradictions or ambiguities that require
more in-depth consideration.
Understanding that a drawing ends with the
edges of the sheet of paper involves
acknowledging the importance of the
composition and relationship between the parts.
The observer's active vision is what makes it
possible to understand the meaning of the
composition, proving that the information is
absorbed in a continuous, progressive manner,
and that the result lies in the unity created by
the aesthetic quality visible in the design.
- ↑Preparatory notes for his fifth conference, written between 1810 and 1812; Watkin, 1996, p.188.
- ↑Soane commented on the façade of his house in
Pitzhanger Manor that "may thus be considered as a picture, a sort of portrait" (Watkin, 1996, pp.188), it is, therefore,
a self-portrait (by kind concession © Sir John Soane's Museum, Londres; photo: Hugh Kelly.
- ↑Joseph Addison, in the first issue of The Spectator (March 1, 1711), said: 'I live in the World, rather as a Spectator of Mankind, than as one of the Species; [...] I have acted in all the parts of my Life as a
Looker-on, which is the Character I intend to preserve in this Paper'.
- ↑William Kent, proposal for the tree-lined hillside in
Chatsworth (1735-1740 c.), published in Hunt 1987,
p. 118, cat. 17..
- ↑Giambattista Piranesi, "Rovine d'una Galleria di Statue nella Villa Adriana a Tivoli", 1770, published in Piranesi, 1974, lam. 136.
- ↑The authors are cited in the chronological order of
the first publication: Fried, M., 1968. Art and Objecthood. Artforum, 5, pp. 12-23; Fried, M., 1970. Thomas Couture and the Theatricalization of Action in 19th Century French Painting. Artforum, 8 (10), pp. 42-46; Fried, M., 1980. Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot. Berkeley : University of California; Sennet, R., 1974. The Fall of Public Man. Cambridge : Cambridge University; Furján, H., 1983. Sir John Soane's Spectacular Theatre, AA Files, 47, pp. 12-22; Furján, H., 1997. The Specular Spectacle of the house of the Collector, Assemblage, 34, pp. 56-91; Furján, H., 2004. Scenes from a Museum. Grey Room, 17, 2004, pp.64-81; Furján, H., 2011. Glorious Visions: John Soane's Spectacular Theater. London : Routledge; Bernstein, C., 1986. On Theatricality. En Content's Dream: Essays 1975-1984. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, pp. 199-207; Wollheim, R., 1987. Painting as an Art. London : Thames and Hudson; Harries, K., 1990. Theatricality and Re-Presentation. Perspecta, 26, pp.21-40; Crary, J., 1990. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press; Mallgrave, H., 1996. Gottfried Semper : Architect of the Nineteenth Century : a personal and intellectual biography. New Haven : Yale University Press; Féral, J., y Bermingham, R. P., 2002. Theatricality: The Specificity of Theatrical Language. Substance, 31(2-3), pp. 94-108; Davis, T., y Postlewat, T., 2003. Theatricality. Cambridge: Cambridge University; Hartoonian, G., 2003. Gottfried Semper: the Structure of Theatricality. Art Criticism, 18(2), pp.6-21; Hartoonian, G., 2006. Crisis of the object : the architecture of theatricality. London : Routledge; Hartoonian, G., 2012, Architecture and Spectacle: A critique. Farnham (GB): Ashgate, 2012; Pelletier, L., 2006. Architecture in Words: Theatre, language and the sensuous space of architecture. London : Routledge; Van Eck, C., 2007. Classical Rhetoric and the Visual Arts in Early Modern Europe. New York : Cambridge University; Van Eck, C., 2007. Classical Rhetoric and the Visual Arts in Early Modern Europe, New York : Cambridge University Press, y Van Eck, C., y Bussels, S., eds., 2011. Theatricality in Early Modern Art and Architecture, Malden : Wiley-Blackewll.
- ↑In other words: "the instrument that allows
something to happen", which Aldo Rossi identified with
architecture: Rossi 1981, p. 14.
- ↑Choisy used the term 'tableau', which can be
translated as the 'scene' of a play: a dramatic unity of
time and place in an act.
- ↑Choisy 1899, pp. 419 et foll. Choisy refers to the "views of the first impression" and the "search for the first effect", as the constant concern of the Greek architects ".
- ↑Choisy used the adjective 'picturesque', which, during
the period he used it, and the context in which he used it,
refers to the aesthetics of English landscaping. Given the
current meaning of the term, I believe it opportune to
replace it in order not to betray the meaning of the text.
- ↑Published in Choisy, 1899, p. 414, 415, 416, 418.
- ↑Published in Eisenstein, 1989, p. 120.
- ↑Published in Lamprecht, 2004, p. 4.
- ↑Published in Sack, 1992, p. 88.
- ↑According to De Michelis (1991, p. 39), who also
published the drawing.
- ↑Ray spoke of "bafflement" in reference to the effect
induced by looking at Palazzo Branconio dell'Aquila in
Rome: Ray 1974, p. 67.
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© of the texts Francisco Martínez Mindeguía
Francisco Martínez Mindeguía is Profesor Agregado at the Superior Technical Architecture School of Vallès (Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura del Vallès), UPC
© of the English translation Erika G. Young.
This article has been published by the same author in the journal Disegnare, nº 55, Roma, 2017, pp. 12-21.