Architecture in use
‘When fifteenth century writers spoke of deriving architectural forms from the human body,’ Ackerman claims that, ‘they did not think of the body as a living organism,
but as a microcosm of the universe, a form created in God’s image, and created with the same perfect harmony that determines the movement of the spheres or musical consonances.Michelangelo criticized Dürer’s proportional system as theoretical ‘to the detriment of life’, Pérez-Gomez claims in The Perspective Hinge. He quotes Michelangelo’s critique: ‘He (Dürer) treats only of the measure and kind of bodies, to which a certain rule cannot be given, forming the figures as stiff as stakes; and what matters more, he says not one word concerning human acts and gestures.’
Such a shift in focus from intellectual to sensible integrity completes a turn outwards from the enclosed world of the medieval textual space of the Hortus Conclusus and scholastic cloister garden; outwards to an open realm of civil architecture in which corporeal experience and secular city life are championed over religious and metaphorical spaces.
Spaces became seen not as the representation of another ideal – such as an image of the
garden of paradise – but rather, Ackerman suggests: ‘the goal of the architect is no longer to produce an abstract harmony, but rather a sequence of purely visual (as opposed to intellectual) experiences of spatial volumes.’
Ackerman continues to infer that Michelangelo’s drawings of mass, rather than indicating correctness of line, can be related directly to his compositional technique. Also, that matter and form are bound together through his working method – that drawing enabled him to think in a new way: ‘It is this accent on the eye rather than on the mind that gives precedence to voids over planes.’Ackerman continues to state his case: Michelangelo’s drawings ‘did not commit him to working in line and plane: shading and indication of projection and recession gave them sculptural mass’.
The modelling of light as a means of orienting one’s movement through space is best
achieved and revised through model making. Typically, Renaissance architectural
competitions were judged by viewing 1:20 models of facades as well as fragments of the
building drawn at full scale.11 The only drawings which existed for fabrication of
buildings before the Renaissance were the Modano; 1:1 scale patterns of attic column
bases or capitals.12 The Modani slowly evolved from stage sets into Modello, architectural models, and often full-scale mock-ups of buildings, which enabled architects such as Michelangelo to ‘study three-dimensional effects’.
Models enable scale to be judged as well as enforce the relationship between materiality and form. They also allow aesthetic decisions to be made, which relate solely to perception. For example, the intellectual matters of expression of structural logic may appear well in an orthographic drawing but be in fact detrimental to the actual
quality of our experience of a building. Ackerman believes that Michelangelo used sketches and model-making ‘because he thought of the observer being in motion and hesitated to visualize buildings from a fixed point… this approach, being sculptural, inevitably was reinforced by a special sensitivity to materials and to the effect of light’. He viewed sculpture also as the art of making ideas, form, visible in matter.
Michelangelo in particular distrusted the ways in which architectural drawings
can mislead us and rather his own drawings are less objects for scrutiny than sites of his
own concentration and ‘drawing out’ of his ideas. Alberto Pérez-Gomez claims that
Michelangelo was suspicious of perspective, he ‘resisted making architecture through geometrical projections as he could conceive the human body only in motion’.
architectural drawings can be compared to anatomical sections, which cut through matter to reveal connections. The anatomical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci depict an objective view of still objects.16 Michelangelo wished to infuse his cadavers with life and arranged their limbs in order to express the structure of human gestures. He sought, rather than a medical theory, to improve his capacity to depict the living body in movement.
This attention to the gestures we make is closely related to the manner in which his spaces allow for and celebrate passage and movement through doorways, up staircases and across the ground.
His drawings of spaces also show people doing certain things there, and this is what enables us to read in his working methods the innate relationship between thinking and doing, and drawing and seeing.
The drawings of Michelangelo’s architectural projects which survive are made with chalk
and pen and ink and often have figures superimposed over views of spaces. This leads me to propose that he was thinking about how the human figure perceives space and also how it appears in a space, whilst he was designing. For example, the façade drawings for the Porte Pia in Rome depict not only the material of the elevation, but also show a part of a leg striding out of the picture plane, through the gateway, towards the viewer.
architecture the presence of human absence, a residue of movement, the setting for life.
Micehlangelo’s twin concerns for scale and movement are embedded in this moment of
creativity. Similarly, the design of the library for the Medici library at San Lorenzo in
Florence (also exhibited in Casa Buonarroti there19), transpose life size sketches of
column profiles, actual views of staircases, sectional anatomical cuts through the
building, fragments of limbs in movement with particular events unfurling in time.
Michelangelo also drew faces in profile upon the profiles of columns, reflecting the
importance of the figure in Humanist architecture as well as the emerging interest in the
body as a model for meaning and communication of character.
The massiveness of the stone, its thickness and weight is drawn as a shadow, a dense profile, the space surrounding it alive with the movement of limbs. In a crude structural analysis, the Pietra Serena stone columns of the library vestibule are recessed, rather than proud or disengaged from the walls, in order to bear the weight of the beams
submerged beneath the ceiling surface above.
They are bearing a load and this is expressed in the coiled spring of the brackets, which sit below the implied ground datum of the library floor height frieze. The stairway is set in a space of compression; it is small, very tall, with light only entering from above. The columns bear weight downwardsand we make a corresponding movement upwards toward the light, away from the chthonic realm of matter and weight.
The implication of a hierarchy suggests Michelangelo’s Neo-Platonism as well as his religious piety. The library and its enlightening books are set above the darkness of the mundane life of the city.
The staircase articulates this movement as a psychological shift also; we are led inexorably upwards, the architect drawing us towards the drama of the spatial and literary elucidation of the library.
A drawing of the reading booths not only shows a figure seated, reading, but also, drawn
on the same paper we see a hand turning a page. The space a body takes up is cast as the form of the architecture; architecture the presence of human absence, a residue of
movement, the setting for life.
In rejecting the means of representation of earlier Humanist architects,
Michelangelo formulated a modern aesthetic sensitivity to the act of creativity as a spontaneous and memorial whole to which nothing has to be added ‘to make it better… Unity consists in act’.
The act of drawing revealed the power of the mind to see in matter the immanence of
forms, the presence and emergence of ideas. Michelangelo expressed this Neo-Platonic
passivity simultaneously with a celebration of the compulsion to imagine forms within
things: ‘No block of marble but it does not hide/ the concept living in the artist’s mind-/ pursuing it inside that form, he’ll guide/ his hand to shape what reason has defined.’
As an anti-theory, or call to the creative contingency of human responses to situations, Michelangelo’s comments upon architectural composition expose the academic reproduction of prototypes to the modern critique of originality, autonomy and individual virtuosity on the one hand, and the potency of place, action and situation on the other.
His drawings are records of action and thought. Ex temporary performances of imagination and skill combine a material sensibility with care for the appearance of things inherent in the ways things come into being. Michelangelo’s’ drawings suggest that how we do something enables what we do to occur.
Drawing simultaneously records and reveals the correspondence between speaking
and doing, making and imagining, things and ideas, imagination and time, materiality
and the immaterial: “Only Fire Forges Iron.”