Living in a time of intense experimentation with architectural forms can induce a hunger of eye and mind for more basic forms. It is not just that we can tire of novelty and complexity, but also that we can yearn for a clarity of meaning not easily found in them. This does not refer to a nostalgia for the stripped-down shapes of early Modernism, but rather to purer geometric volumes that have appeared in architecture over the ages, the meaning of which is not in doubt and does not need to be interpreted.
What me might call ‘pure forms’ are some of the most hard-won achievements of the human mind, in philosophy and mathematics. We may rightly speak of Euclid, in his books comprising The Elements, and his Greek precursors as the inventors of the pure volumes—cubes, cones, cylinders, pyramids—because we still follow the mathematical rules they established, but we also recognize that, long before, the Egyptians, Assyrians and Persians understood them and were attracted, for religious as well as practical reasons, to their eternal, immutable nature—indeed their irreducibility.
Pure forms have served different religions, philosophies, and political systems, but always those that fulfill our yearning for clarity in the existential complexity and uncertainty of our experiences—and that is their downside. They are instruments of fundamentalisms of every kind, reducing existence and its meanings to a presumed set of basics and, perhaps, leaving little space for differences.
Some examples, in the order they appear in the images below:
TOWERS, Tel-Aviv, Israel
On a rare day when fog from the sea covered the city, only the tops of several geometrically pure towers were visible from the air, seemingly disembodied from the city below, appearing like apparitions in a dream, or an entranced meditation on the mystic geometries of the Kabala.
THE KAABA, Mecca, Saudi Arabia
Surrounded on the day of this photo by more than a million pilgrims and worshippers, this holiest of sites in Islam appears to be a perfect cube, even though it is not quite. It is interesting to realize that Islam and Judaism share the Bible’s Old Testament, and take most seriously its prohibitions, in Mosaic Law, against ‘graven images.’ Both religions reject representational iconography, turning instead to geometry for their sacred symbolism—the Kaaba (meaning ‘cube’) being a central example. In the Islamic world, over the centuries, the advancement of geometry and mathematics was enormous and, with the Islamic conquests of Spain and incursions into Europe, were instrumental to the development of Western art and science during and after the Renaissance.
CAPITOL BUILDINGS, Dhaka, Bangladesh (1962-74), Louis I. Kahn, architect
The center of government was commissioned by a military dictatorship when the country, largely Islamic, was called East Pakistan, and completed in the new country of Bangladesh. The American architect returned pure forms to the region where their meaning resonated most deeply. This is not a democratic or egalitarian architecture, but quite the opposite: an architecure provoking not free debate and discourse, but a sense of awe and reverential silence.
MUSIKERHAUS, Dusseldorf, Germany (1998-), Raimund Abraham, architect
Pure forms signify an ideal order underlying both the music and community of four musicians living and working in this house. For Pythagoras, who formalized the pure tonal frequencies and their relationships, music was a precise expression of the structure of the cosmos. For the architect of this building, pure geometry becomes more human when infused with the unpredictability of musical performance and improvisation. [For more, refer to the post “Musikerhaus” on this blog.]
FUNERARY MONUMENT, Utopian site (c.1780), Étienne-Louis Boullée, architect
The Neo-Classical architecture of Boullée stripped-away the superfluous excesses of Royal pomp, and was very much in tune with the spirit and goals of the French Revolution. The leaders of the Revolution believed they were beginning a brave new, above all rational, society. They reset the calendar to the Year One, established ten months instead of the traditional, irrational, twelve, and a uniform Metric system of measurement. Plain, pure volumes very much spoke to their hopes for the establishment of a universal social order. The Revolution self-destructed—consumed by its internal machinations—before any of Boullée’s ideal architecture could be realized.
GREAT PYRAMID OF KHUFU, Giza, Egypt (2580-2560 BCE), Unknown architect
The right pyramid [the angle at which a line drawn from the center of the base to the apex is ninety degrees, a right angle] is simply the most stable of the most common regular volumes. This Pharaoh’s tomb was meant to last forever, and this is no doubt the main reason this pyramidal form was chosen. Originally covered in polished white granite or marble that formed smooth sides, and capped with a gleaming golden tip, its endurance seemed assured. However, thieves stole the marble and the gold, and after only four thousand or so years, the pyramid is crumbling a bit. Recalling Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” we might imagine that the eternality of a pure form exists in its idea, not its construction.
MONUMENT TO THE THIRD INTERNATIONAL, Petrograd, USSR (1919), Vladimir Tatlin, architect
Much like the French Revolution before it, the Russian Revolution hoped to establish an entirely new form of society, based, however, on the centralization of power and the authority of the Communist Party, which would lead people to freedom and an egalitarian utopia, eventually. Two years after the Revolution, the architect designed this building to both commemorate and house the Comintern, the central authority in the new system. It was to be the tallest building in the world, and comprised of four pure forms—a cube for the mass meetings, a pyramid for administrative offices, a cylinder for communications, including propaganda, and a hemisphere for radio and telegraph equipment, each rotating at different rates—wrapped and supported by a complexly rising and curving structure aiming, it seems, at the stars. This latter form turned out to be a pure form, too—the double helix of DNA, the elemental structure of all living things, not discovered until 1952. Before any of its ideal architecture could be realized, this revolution, too, self-destructed, leaving a tough cinder that endured long after the revolutionary fires had burned out.