Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Have Book, Will Travel



Just a quick note to let you know that the Museyon Film/Travel guides are out. Each guide features a "curated" tour of cities and regions ... with a specific "filmic" twist. I contributed essays to the North/South America and Europe volumes (see above images). For the former, I wrote a little bit about film production studios, facilities, and locations in D.F.. For the latter, I gave a more panoramic snapshot of the various film offerings in Scandinavia (and yes, I do include the Faroe Islands!).

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

In Re Dürer

Montage of Ramparts and Plan of Dürer's fest schloß (fortified citadel), after his Etliche Underricht zu Befestigung der Stett, Schloß und Flecken (1527) [Source: Juan Luis González García, “Alberto Durero, Tratadista de Arquitectura y Urbanismo Militar”, in Alberto Durero, Tratado de Arquitectura y Urbanismo Militar (Madrid: Ediciones Akal, 2004), p. 39].

In 1527, Albrecht Dürer published his treatise on military architecture, the Etliche Underricht zu Befestigung der Stett, Schloß und Flecken ("Various Instructions in the Fortification of Cities, Castles, and Towns"). Though Dürer’s works are numerous, and though the artist’s work inspired an expanding field of interpretative work for centuries, the Etliche Underricht nevertheless remains a curious cipher, a footnote in Dürer’s work and legacy. Thus William Martin Conway, in his Literary Remains of Albrecht Dürer from 1889, claims that the Etliche Underricht “presents few matters of interest” to the student of art. Erwin Panofsky’s influential The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer (1943) makes no mention of the Etliche Underricht. The artist fares much worse when analyzed by military historians and historians of science. Simon Pepper, in his study of military architects and aristocrats, tells us that “despite its excellent illustrations and specialist content,” Dürer’s treatise “did not evidently exercise great influence outside the German-speaking world.” Christopher Duffy, in his study of siege warfare, tells us that Dürer’s treatise “remains an isolated, North European attempt to meet the challenge of problems that were already finding more convincing solutions in Italy.” Historian of science Jãnis Langins declares that the Etliche Underricht “was more of an architectural fantasy than a practical manual for fortifiers.” The list of less-than-favorable references continues.

When considering its architectural merit, however, we can detect some initial, yet productive confusion as to the actual innovations of Dürer’s “architectural fantasy.” Hanno-Walter Kruft, for example, declares that the Etliche Underricht is the first printed treatise dealing exclusively with fortifications. Yet Dürer’s manual was not the first treatise on military architecture. A distinction must be made between print and manuscript. Thus in 1482, Francesco di Giorgio Martini circulated his own illustrated treatise on military architecture, the Trattato di Architettura, Ingegneria e Arte Militare, but only in manuscript form. The Etliche Underricht’s status as the first printed treatise devoted solely to architecture using original images also deserves some interrogation. This category is constructed carefully: though Fra Giocondo published his illustrated version of Vitruvius’ Ten Books in 1511, it useful to bear in mind how that treatise did not originally feature images. Nor was it a treatise that dealt exclusively with architecture. Alberti’s De Re Aedificatoria, though published in 1482, did not appear with illustrations until Cosimo Bartoli’s 1550 translation. The Etliche Underricht preceded the next great architecture treatise, Serlio’s Regole Generali d'Architettura by 10 years.

Albrecht Dürer, Geschützrondellen (“Rounded Fortification”), plan, section, elevation, woodcuts from Etliche Underricht zu Befestigung der Stett, Schloß und Flecken (1527)

But when it comes to issues of architectural convention, we are on firmer ground. Mario Carpo observes how the Etliche Underricht was the first treatise to show a complete set of plans, sections, and elevations for an individual project, anticipating Bramante’s designs for the cupola at St. Peter’s by 13 years. Yet Renaissance art and architecture historian John Pinto’s study of the origins of ichnographic city plans points out parallel developments between Leonardo da Vinci’s plans for the city of Imola from 1503 and Raphael’s distinguishing between plan, section, and elevation in his letters to Leo X from 1513-1521 , stating that both of these are the foundations for a “new form of architectural drawing.” Considering that Dürer also resorts to the architectural convention of depicting projects in plan, section, and elevation, and further considering that it is unclear whether the author of the Etliche Underricht knew about da Vinci’s or Raphael’s own thoughts on orthographics , we could very well tow the line taken by our esteemed military historians – namely, that Dürer’s treatise is an isolated instance, a mere footnote in the history of architecture.

Here, however, I would like to identify possible trajectories for locating Dürer’s Etliche Underricht within a history of architecture treatises. An investigation into the architectural significance of this treatise necessarily begins with a brief foray into Dürer’s own background in architecture, the Entliche Underricht itself, as well as his exposure to existing texts on architecture. With this context firmly in place, it is then possible to continue exploring ways of articulating an architectural significance for the Entliche Underricht.

Dürer, Study for a Corinthian Capital [Source: Conway (1889)]

Two basic types of works constitute Dürer’s early architectural output: sketches and drawings of classical subjects, as well as annotated drawings of various design commissions in Nuremberg. Although Conway tells us that Dürer thought of architecture as an art subject to individual capriciousness, he does see value in the myriad architectural notes interspersed throughout a draft of Dürer's Four Books on Measurement – a testament to the influence of Vitruvius. One of Dürer’s notes accompanying the Four Books, for example, features a large sketch of a Corinthian capital. This sketch contains a series of regulating lines -- evidence of Dürer actively working out the proportional calculus from Vitruvius’ work. This is, however, an ultimately unsuccessful endeavor, according to Conway: “If Dürer never attained any clear grasp of the principles of perfect simplicity and perfect proportion, which were the secrets of the beauty of classical architecture, it was not for lack of willing and persistent study.” This sketch, as Conway notes, is part of a larger series of coherent, yet seemingly unconnected thoughts on architecture.

Dürer, Proposals for a Church Roof, Nuremberg (1525)

In 1525, Dürer was also commissioned to submit alternative schemes for a church roof in Nuremberg. Charged with replacing an old roof that was rotting away, Dürer’s notes and sketches show the artist replacing a high-peaked roof with a low-peaked solution – the result being a lightweight roof that could be supported by columns and minimal wood-bracing. These notes are significant for two reasons. On the one hand, they show Dürer working with an architectural plan. Along with his redesign for the roof, his plan shows an affinity towards a new spatial organization for the church with new spaces for kitchens and rooms. On the other hand, it is important to note that for this project, Dürer is asked to improve on an existing structure and issue a series of drawings detailing the modifications. Dürer would eventually realize these two impulses within the pages of the Etliche Underricht.

Courtyard of a Castle (1524) (top), and Segonzano Castle, Val di Cembra (bottom) (1494)

Dürer’s travels to Italy also provided the artist with architectural inspiration, as seen by a series of watercolors completed in the Autumn of 1494 and the Spring of 1495 (his Wanderjahre). Although some of these works -- such as these of a castle in Innsbruck -- tend to analyze the relationship between the vertical stonework and masonry and the flatness of the central square for a castle, others – like the watercolor of a castle in Val di Cembra – seem to analyze the location of a fortification in relation to its immediate landscape. Taken together, these watercolors provide a study of sorts: whereas one set considers a near-stereotomic approach, looking at the architecture of fortifications in terms of complicated layers of masonry and stonework, the other looks to the topography surrounding the subject.

Dürer, Marksburg and Stolzenfels Castles (1520-1521)

After his second trip to Italy, from 1512-13, Dürer began to write his Lehrbuch der Malerei (or Speis der Malenknaben), which contained two sections of note: one called "Von mos der pew" (“On the proportion of buildings”), the other "Daz fünft ein wenig vom gepew" (“The fifth capital: a bit on construction”). This text would eventually prefigure the more well-known Underweysung from 1525 and his Vier bücher von menschlicher Proportion, published posthumously in 1528. Dürer kept his interest in depicting architectural fortifications alive even during his trip to the Low Countries in 1520-21. In one of his sketches, Dürer places the Marksburg and Stolzenfels castles together on a singular mountainscape even though they are kilometers apart. It is a random placement – a capricious intervention that also signals Dürer’s own interest in a method for the site selection of fortifications along the German landscape. All these impulses – looking at a fortification in terms of sectional and topographic complexity, and placing fortifications in previously uninhabited areas – would become central to Dürer’s Etliche Underricht.

Front Page of Dürer's Etliche Underricht (1527)

Before Dürer began working on his architecture treatise, Eastern Europe was engaged in a slow redoubt against advancing Turkish forces. In addition to Constantinople, which fell in 1453, Belgrade succumbed to Turkish armies in 1521. During that time, an anti-Turkish alliance of sorts was undertaken, arranged through the intermarriage of various crowns and bloodlines. This explains the appearance of a woodcut depicting a modified shield of Ferdinand I on the very first page of the Etliche Underricht. The shield contains heraldry from various areas. The two large lions represent Bohemia and Hungary. The smaller shield is split into four quadrants representing conflicts between Austria and Burgundy, Aragon and Sicily, Franche-Comte and Brabante. The small shield in the middle features a conflict between Tirol and Flanders. At the bottom, we see a pendant depicting the Order of the Golden Fleece, which surrounds the coat of arms. The appearance of this shield at the beginning suggests how we can look to the creation of the Etliche Underricht as an emergency architecture commission.

During the Diet of Nuremberg, from 1522-1523, the city inaugurated a committee of specialists to provide “the most educated solutions” for defending against a possible Turkish attack. Included in this committee were two Dürer’s closest friends: Wolfgang von Rogendorf, a military advisor to the crown, and the Moravian mathematician and military architect Johann Tscherte, a close friend of Willibald Pirckheimer’s. Dürer probably began learning about the urgency of countering the Turkish threat during his travels with Tscherte around Pavia from 1494-95. And on April 15, 1524, Tscherte wrote to Dürer, asking him to finish his “Instructions for measuring” as quickly as possible. This makes 1524 the year when Dürer most likely began working on the Etliche Underricht.

Dürer, Method for Planning a Fortification at Angled Town Wall, Woodcut from Etliche Underricht zu Befestigung der Stett, Schloß und Flecken (1527)

Angled Fort with Graded Scarp, Plan, Section, Elevation, Woodcut from Dürer's Etliche Underricht (1527)

Square Fort with Rounded Wall, Plan(s), Woodcut from Etliche Underricht (1527)

Fortified Citadel Situated between Sea and Mountains, Elevation, Section, Internal Section, Woodcuts from Etliche Underricht(1527)

Preexisting Town Fortified with Casemated Galleries and Bombproof Magazines, Section, Woodcut from Etliche Underricht (1527)

Though not as lengthy as the Underweysung or the Four Books on Human Proportion, Dürer’s Entliche Underricht is a notoriously messy text. Sentences have been erased and recopied, and the manuscript sometimes makes references to images that are not there. The book, as it exists, contains four lessons on the design and siting of fortifications, and a short annex concerning the placement of cannons and heavy mortars. Yet, following Conway’s own discussion of the Etliche Underricht, I want to identify briefly 6 different types of fortifications in Dürer’s text (all shown directly above): 1.) Forts to be erected principally at the angles of town walls; 2.) A different kind of angle fort, the scarp of which does not rise above the level of the ground with a casemated gallery on its base; 3.) A square fort with slightly rounded walls; 4.) A fortification covering ground between mountains and the sea. With regards to this, Dürer writes: “If a prince had in his land a narrow, level place lying between the sea, or some large water, and a hill or lofty precipice, and if the precipice or hill were so situated that no great force could pass, and the way between the hill and the water were rather narrow and very long, he might there build a strong Block-house by which that part of the country would be closed; 5.) Fortifications to be added to a preexisting town or structure; and 6.) An ideal headquarters for a King. It is this last category – the Royal garrison – that deserves attention.

Woodcut of Ramparts Surrounding Fortfied Citadel, Plan, Inscribed Section (top), and Plan (bottom) (1527)

A series of concentric, rectangular bastions – all designed according to Dürer’s specifications, surround the Royal garrison. For the Royal garrison itself, Dürer creates an orthogonal plan with a central square for the residence of a King. Around the residence, Dürer articulates a fairly normalized and rigorous spatial organization. Among a network of streets 50 feet wide, some 2,000 houses, stables, a Church, a Rathaus, magazines, armory, blacksmiths, and markets. The East corner of the City even features a Church. Houses behind the Rathaus are assigned according to kinship and rank, and other buildings are also arranged according to a prescribed division of labor: shopkeepers live near provisionary stores; armorers live near stables; clergymen live near the Church, et cetera. There are even separate bathhouses for men and women. All external bastions and walls are to be constructed from heavy stone, to protect from bombardment. The interior buildings are to be made of wood and stone, according to the size and importance of the structure.

To be sure, the Royal garrison from Dürer’s Entliche Underricht merits our attention for other reasons. Conway attributes a host of innovations to Dürer’s treatise: “The use of a polygonal form for the tracé of town fortifications; the use of well ventilated and lighted casemated batteries for the defence of trenches; the use of bomb-proof magazines and shelters; and the defensive interdependence of different parts of a fortress.” Others, like Hanno-Walter Kruft, locate the Etliche Underricht within a larger discourse about utopias and other ideal cities. Though Dürer’s treatise would be the obvious successor to works by Di Giorgio and others, it certainly should be considered alongside Serlio’s work as an exemplar of the relationship between ideal city forms and the complex spatial and hierarchical organizations within. And with regards to issues of site planning, Juan Luis González García observations about Dürer’s sketches of the Marksburg and Stolzenfels castles become important here – like the Royal garrison of the Etliche Underricht, these castles are depicted as if they were randomly placed on a landscape. This undergirds the ideal nature of Dürer’s fortified city – it is architecture that can be located practically anywhere.

Albrecht Dürer, Siege of a City (1527)

The only caveat -- as Dürer’s own drawings of the rounded block house show – is that in some circumstances, the particular nature of a site can place demands on the design of a fortification. Thus a block house situated between water and hills should take on a more rounded shape. For Dürer, then, the ideal city is a fortified city – the best case in point would be his 1527 woodcut Siege of a Fortress. Here, we see two cities. In the upper left, an agglomeration of unfortified buildings burn, while at the right, a fortified citadel featuring many of the innovations outlined by Dürer (rounded walls, protected casements, fortification of preexisting structures) appears relatively unscathed by the ensuing battle.

Yet in locating Dürer’s Etliche Underricht in a history of architecture treatises, some mention should be made about the degree of geometric formalism presented in the various woodcuts throughout the text. The drawings share an obvious affinity with many of the drawings from his Underweysung. Dürer’s very first lesson in the Etliche Underricht shows the adding of a circular rampart to a preexisting cornered city wall as a series of geometric iterations. Lines and arcs are measured and drawn according to a specific set of directions. Mario Carpo, in his Architecture in the Age of Printing, suggests that “Gothic architecture theory … privileged the control and the (often secretive) transmission of abstract geometric schemes.” Although there was nothing secret about Dürer’s geometries in the Entliche Underricht (a Latin translation appeared in 1535, and successive French and German editions appeared in 1603, 1823, 1840, and 1870), is it possible to claim that the treatise owes more to Gothic than to contemporary exemplars?

As is well known, Dürer had a personal, annotated copy of a 1505 edition of Euclid’s Elementorum (purchased during his second trip to Venice). But equally important is the fact that Dürer also had access to Willibald Pirckheimer’s personal library. There, Dürer would have encountered texts such as a 1498 edition of Polybius’ Historiae, a German translation of Flavius Vegetius' De Re Militari from 1474, as well as a 1521 edition of Niccolo Machiavelli’s Dell’arte della Guerra. But more importantly, the author had access to two vital texts: a 1512 edition of Alberti’s De re Aedificatoria, and a 1504 edition of Vitruvius’ Ten Books (this is not the illustrated version from 1512).

Map of Tenochtitlan (Nuremberg) (1524)

Kruft suggests that a likely inspiration for Dürer’s design of the Royal garrison is the 1524 Nuremberg map of Tenochtitlan, the seat of the Aztec empire. This was probably known to Dürer - a similar central square gridding also appears in Dürer’s treatise. But a closer glance at the text and woodcut images from the Etliche Underricht shows a decided Vitruvian influence. One case in point comes at the moment when Dürer describes the construction and siting of the Royal garrison. He writes: “The [fortified citadel] is to be built in the form of a square, each side of which shall have as much as 3400 feet of length. The site of the Castle is to be so chosen that the four strongest winds shall spend their forces against its angles.” Vitruvius, in the first book of his De Architectura, suggests an ideal, radial city plan that allows for orientation according to various winds. Yet in classical antiquity, the Vitruvian method was used to determine four cardinal points that were not only in relation to the wind, but that also facilitated the creation of orthogonal street grids. A look at the plan of Dürer’s Royal garrison not only shows the four cardinal points that create the building’s four corners, but also confirms how this set the stage for the creation of a gridded urban fabric within.

Dürer only makes a passing, cryptic reference to Vitruvius in the text of the Etliche Underricht. He writes of the Royal garrison: “The interior of the [fortified citadel] is to be thus arranged. In the midst is the Palace of the King, established on a site eight hundred feet square, and no corner is to be cut off from it. Vitruvius, the old Roman, plainly describes how such a royal palace should be built.” When we look at the center of the garrison, however, there is a blank space, a hole in the fabric. It is fitting that Dürer implores his reader to conjure a Vitruvian design for a royal residence – it is, in a sense, an ideal center for an ideal city.

This post has only begun to offer some possible directions for locating Dürer’s Etliche Underricht within a history of architecture treatises. Although its influence as a theoretical text remains to be analyzed, we know for certain that Dürer’s treatise inspired a so-called “German” type of fortification design. We also know that the Etliche Underricht inspired fortification designs in Nuremberg and Strasbourg. Despite the extent of the treatise’s influence, and despite the fact that few critical studies exist concerning this, as Dürer’s only text on architecture, the Etliche Underricht stands as a compelling, penultimate contribution to a vast body of work. Is it, as Pamela O. Long has described in her study of the Vitruvian Renaissance, evidence of Dürer’s “developed sense of his own originality and ownership”? At the very least, I have only begun to demonstrate how we can begin to understand the Entliche Underricht as a Vitruvian text.

________________________________________


Authors Note: Translations from German and Spanish are mine. Images come from the Spanish translation of Dürer's Etliche Underricht:
Alberto Durero, Tratado de Arquitectura y Urbanismo Militar (Madrid: Ediciones Akal, 2004). Although there are countless texts on Dürer, Erwin Panofsky's The Life and Art of Albrech Dürer (Princeton University Press, 1943) and Giulia Bartum, Albrecht Dürer and His Legacy: The Graphic Work of a Renaissance Artist (Princeton, 2003) are standards. For more information related to this article, see (in no particular order) William Martin Conway, Literary Remains of Albrecht Dürer (London: Cambridge, 1889); Simon Pepper, “Artisans, Architects and Aristocrats: Professionalism and Renaissance Military Engineering” in David J.B. Trim, ed., The Chivalric Ethos and the Development of Military Professionalism (Boston, Massachusetts: Brill, 2003); Christopher Duffy, Siege Warfare (London: Routledge, 1979); Jãnis Langins, Conserving the Enlightenment: French Military Engineering from Vauban to the Revolution (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2004); Hanno-Walter Kruft, A History of Architectural Theory from Vitruvius to the Present, Ronald Taylor, Elsie Callander, and Antony Wood, trans. (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1994); Mario Carpo, Architecture in the Age of Printing: Orality, Writing and Typography in the History of Architectural Theory, Sarah Benson, trans. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2001); Jukka Jokilehto, A History of Architectural Conservation (Oxford, United Kingdom: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2002); John Pinto, “Origins and Development of the Ichnographic City Plan,” The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Mar., 1976), pp. 35-50; and Pamela O. Long, Openness, Secrecy, Authorship: Technical Arts and the Culture of Knowledge from Antiquity to the Renaissance (Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).

Monday, June 15, 2009

Music, With Occasional Architectural Eye Candy



Check out the latest video from Tortoise. "Bring Out Your Coffins" is shot very much in a style reminiscent of the cover to their 2006 singles compilation, A Lazarus Taxon. There are plenty of you out there who will immediately recognize the city where this was shot. Also, look out for a cameo appearance by a building from our favorite Swiss architecture duo.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Oh, Inverted World

Fac de Droit - Angers (Image by clic-me, via Flickr and creative commons license)


Years ago I dreamed that I was climbing up a summit in a blinding snowstorm. The climb was difficult, the escarpment nearly vertical. I remember having trouble securing a handhold on the mountain's cold, grey face. But this ordeal was amplified by the simple fact that I was dragging, of all things, a kayak. I would look down below and see it dangling below me, a pointed, red fiberglass pendulum swaying in the freezing storm. I had no idea why I was carrying such a burden, but when I looked up, I knew where I was supposed to take it.

This was because as I climbed higher and higher, I began to notice a strange glowing. The clouds around the peak shined with a warm, blue ambiance. And once I got to the top and looked up, a brilliant, turquoise field of water hung above my head. Yet this shimmering, warm transparence was no ceiling. Staring at it, I realized that it was a tropical sea. My task was now to maneuver the dangling kayak, to push it above my head. And as I started, at some point, the pushing became more of a pulling. Feeling the weight stretch my arms towards the water, I let the kayak go, watching its fiberglass body pierce the water. It went under only for a couple of seconds. The rippling surface revealed a strange crumpled shape, wrinkling between various sizes. The kayak finally bobbed up above the surface of the water and floated there, its red hull now glistening with water. I then planted my feet firmly on the snowy peak, bent down, and jumped up so I could dive into the water.

This dream, fantastic as it may seem, was on my mind while reading a novel -- Christopher Priest's The Inverted World (1974) (reprinted by NYRB as Inverted World). Although the action takes place in the future, here is a science fiction novel at its most architectural. I use the term "architectural" because one of the novel's main protagonists is a city -- a dense, seven story agglomeration of wood and metal siding, floor plates, wiring and plumbing that moves along a series of tracks towards a mysterious point in the distance called "optimum." I won't reveal why the city is constantly in motion (it would, in effect, spoil the entire novel).

Like Constant's New Babylon, Inverted World's city is a haphazard, bric-a-brac urbanism that responds to its users' needs. Tracks are reused and constructed so that the city moves something in the order of half a mile per day. The city's own management even features an antiquated system of labor division organizing the male population into various guilds -- all involved in the city's constant movement. Helward Mann, one of the novel's narrators, is an apprentice in the city's surveying guild. And it is through his eyes that we see the rest of the guilds interact with each other: acting on geographical data provided by Surveyors, Navigators plot the city's future course; Track and Bridge Builders provide the materials and human capital to construct the city's limited infrastructure; a Barter guild buys labor from the various indigenous settlements scattered throughout the landscape.

But it is the novel's opening sentence that really draws out another important aspect to the novel. "I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles", says Mann. The statement is telling not only because suggests how the inhabitants of the city measure time in terms of distance, but it also because it echoes what Raymond Williams would refer to, only a year earlier, as a "Problem of Perspective." In Inverted World, a very important difference in literal perspective drives the narrative and explains the novel's peculiar, yet normative universe. But let's just call this a "Problem of Orientation." In the dream I described above, ceiling and floor, mountain and ocean, warm and cold all collapsed into a single, confused moment. Take that moment, translocate it to the architectural and urban scale .... and there is the true genius underlying Priest's Inverted World.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Designing The Friendly Skies

Walter Dorwin Teague (1883-1960), Passenger Lounge for Boeing 377 Stratocruiser (1949)

Last week, articles in The Daily Mail and Gizmodo concerned that most improbable of objects: an Airbus A380 jumbo jet outfitted with custom luxury interiors. As an airborne palace to be built to the tune of $485 million for Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, the Airbus is proof that even a seemingly limitless budget can transcend the limits of conspicuous consumption. It is not uncommon to hear about palatial homes and even cities created for personal use. Such spending and extravagance boggle the mind. Yet one would be hard pressed to find an object that demonstrates ostentation like a private airplane.

Drawings for Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud's Airbus A380 (Source)

The various graphics shown in the Daily Mail and Gizmodo also suggest that the Airbus is architecture. The use of sections and sectional perspectives highlight some familiar architectural conventions. We see, for example, floorplates, walls, skins, envelopes. In short, the Airbus is a programmed space. With this in mind, is it possible to think of an architectural geneaology of the airplane cabin?

There is no doubt that the airplane is an object freighted with architectural significance. Some could even link Al-Saud’s Airbus as the logical outgrowth of architectural modernism’s fascination with aircraft. An obvious starting point would be to look at Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture (1923), Precisions (1930), and Aircraft (1935), his own treatise on aviation, as evidence of how the airplane not only exemplified his eponymous "machine for living" in, but also afforded the totalizing vision of the city indispensable to modern urban planning. It would be a position that would be digested, elaborated, regurgitated by successive critics and thinkers like Moholy, Reyner Banham, Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe, and others.

(Top) Henry Dreyfuss (1904-1972), Interior for Lockheed Super Constellation (1954); (Bottom) Teague, Interior of Boeing 377 (1949)

It is also possible to consider the innovations of Al-Saud’s Airbus cabin design as part of a much more recent history of design. This history may take on Aaron Betsky’s observation that the aircraft interior is “a bounded space with private and public zones that creates a relationship between ourselves, the world around others, and us. It is a structure and spatial envelope” [*]. The Saudi A380 thus exemplifies design historian Barabara Fitton Hauß’s observation how “the aircraft cabin eventually emancipated itself from spatial solutions presented by land and water-bound modes of passenger transportation and engendered interior designs reflective of and specific to travel by air." The Saudi A380’s posh staterooms, garages, screening rooms, and sauna would therefore belong to a narrative that includes for example, Henry Dreyfuss’ and Walter Dorwin Teague’s cabin designs for Douglas and Boeing, as well as Braniff Airlines’ collaborations with Alexander Calder, Alexander Girard, and Emilio Pucci for passenger cabin designs and crew uniforms.


Top to Bottom: Farman brochure owned by Le Corbusier; Interior of Farman Goliath (from Vers Une Architecture, 1923); Airplane harware (from Aircraft, 1935); Profile of Farman Goliath (from Vers une Architecture, 1923)

But is an airplane’s interior cabin architecture? Le Corbusier, the most outspoken enthusiast for the architectural significance of the airplane, practically ignores its interiors. Whereas the only image of an aircraft interior in Vers une Architecture features the bland, wicker surfaces of a Farman Goliath bomber retrofitted for passenger use, Aircraft favors images of an airplane’s hardware: engines, wings, ailerons, wheels, empennages, and cockpit. Claiming that the aircraft interior is of architectural significance requires locating the Saudi A380’s cabin within another of modernism’s narratives.

Cutaway Drawing of Pullman Car, from Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command (1948)

Such a narrative begins with Sigfried Giedion’s analysis of “Railroads and Patent Furniture” from his 1948 book Mechanization Takes Command. In his brief historical survey of the design and development of railroad sleeper cars and their furniture, Giedion tells us how “The problem of the sleeping car is foreshadowed by the ship’s cabin. As conveyances, both ship and train command a very restricted space. Yet railroad cars must be even more parsimonious with their space than must the larger ships. This immediately poses the problem overshadowing all others: economy of space, how to secure adequate comfort for the traveler without pre-empting extra space.” But for George M. Pullman, the pioneer of the modern sleeper car, the goal was to secure such comfort at an exemplary level of luxury. The architectural significance of Pullman’s designs is not lost on Giedion. For example, he remarks how homeowners wanted to replicate the luxury of a Pullman parlour car in the comfort of their own homes. In another instance, Giedion equates the comfort of a 1939 Pullman convertible car with that of a “two-room apartment.”

Pullman Car, "Two Bedroom" Master Configuration, from Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command (1948)

The Pullman car represented another development in the “anonymous” history of patent furniture. Giedion notes how comfort in rail travel requires “the mechanization of furniture … furniture which is adjustable to posture by virtue of its mobility and to multiple function by its powers of mechanical metamorphosis.” Mechanization Takes Command features many patent drawings of railroad furniture distinguished by their ability to rotate and recline. These drawings show how the designer was able to express a chair’s possible range of motion into isolated, yet constituent parts.

(Top) Adjustable Railway Passenger Seats and (Bottom) Adjustable Folding Chair for DC-3 Airliner, both from Mechanization Takes Command (1948)

But such designs were of contemporary significance for Giedion. The very last (and undiscussed) image in this chapter of Mechanization Takes Command is an “adjustable folding chair” for the passenger compartment of a Douglas DC-3 airliner. The inclusion of this image suggests a historical continuity between the design of sleeper and convertible cars in the 19th century and airplane interiors in the 20th and 21st centuries. Giedion even states how this passenger chair “perpetuates the showiness of nineteenth-century ruling taste.” An airplane's passenger cabin therefore has the potential to replicats the interiors of a luxurious, yet domestic place.

(Top) Hans Luckhardt, for Thonet Paris, Prototype for Steel Frame Airplane Seat (1935); (Bottom) Luckhardt, for Thonet Paris, Magnesium Tube Frame Seat for Air France (1938)

But the importance of mechanized furniture to aircraft interiors deserves additional consideration. Even before Douglas Aircraft installed reclining and rotating seats into their aircraft passenger compartments, the Thonet company hired German architect Hans Luckhardt to design tubular steel and magnesium chairs for the interiors of Lufthansa and KLM aircraft. As with wicker seat designs for passenger cabins from a couple of years earlier, airlines preferred metal tubing for cabin fixtures primarily because of their weight-saving measures. However, there is a more important reason for introducing Thonet and Luckhardt into this narrative. Steel-tubed furniture made its first appearance in airplane cabins as early as 1915. By 1919, corrugated metal seats and cantilevered chairs appeared in the passenger compartments of Junkers airliners. These developments not only anticipate Jean Prouvé’s corrugated metal furniture and Marcel Breuer’s chair designs by almost a decade – they also affirm the aircraft interior’s status as a product of architecture culture and architectural modernism. In other words, though much has been made of architects’ infatuation with aerodynamic form, the aircraft interior is an equally interesting and significant site of architectural production.


Norman Bel Geddes (1893-1958), Airliner No. 4, Fuselage Side Section and Plan for Deck No. 7, from Horizons (1932) (Source)

A brief consideration of the work of American industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes provides us with a moment in the history of collaborations between architects and aircraft designers. Bel Geddes’ 1932 design manifesto, Horizons, features his Airliner No. 4, a giant, transoceanic passenger plane designed in collaboration with Otto Koller, a German aeronautical engineer and aircraft designer. The proofs of Bel Geddes’ image caption state how Airliner No.4 is a “tailless ‘V’ winged monoplane carrying a total of 606 persons – 451 passengers and 155 crew.” Consisting of nine decks, Bel Geddes states how “Interior appointments of the plane are as luxurious as those of a modern ocean liner. The pontoons provide space for fuel, baggage storage, crew’s quarters and kitchens. The wing space is occupied by lounge rooms, dining rooms, recreation deck, gymnasium, shops, beauty parlor and staterooms. There are 18 single staterooms, 81 double staterooms, of which 24 have private baths, 10 suites of three rooms each, and four suites of six rooms each. 119 rooms have outside windows, 60 rooms are inside without windows. The entire ship is closed at all times and is air conditioned.” It is difficult not to see Airliner No. 4 as a hyperbolic response to the needs of air travel. Yet it is a curious specimen as it demonstrates the most extreme condition of the relationship between the objects of architecture and aviation. Here, the aircraft interior is not a house: it is a fully functioning city. It is also a design that foreshadows the Saudi A380.

Bel Geddes, Rendering and Final Design for Interior of Martin M-130 China Clipper for Pan American Airways (1934)

For all of Bel Geddes’ imaginative prowess, he did create interiors for real aircraft. Along with Henry Dreyfuss, Bel Geddes designed passenger cabins and sleeping compartments for the Glenn L. Martin and Douglas aircraft companies. And in looking at the cutaway drawings of their designs, it is difficult not to see a resemblance to the cutaway drawings of railway cars from Mechanization Takes Command. In Bel Geddes’ and Dreyfuss’ designs, we see many of the same ideas that Giedion elaborates upon: domestic luxury and mechanized furniture.

Dreyfuss, Cutaway Drawing of Interiors for Convair Model 37 (1945)

Yet this combination of luxury and mechanization is problematized by dint of the fact that, like many other technologies in the postwar world, luxury and mechanization had a distinct military origin and purpose. Cabin pressurization had a necessary military application in that it allowed aircrews to fly higher and faster, away from potential entanglements with ground fire and enemy. Mechanized furniture allowed a level of comfort previously unknown in military aircraft – aircrews could now fly comfortably and securely for longer periods of time, covering longer and longer distances. The modern airliner, with pressurized cabins and articulated furniture, is a close relative of the nuclear bomber. We are reminded how industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague’s 1949 cabin designs for the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser were part of a project that retrofitted Boeing B-29 and B-50 bombers for civilian use. Teague’s passenger lounge for the Boeing Stratocruiser is even located in the bombbay, thus exemplifying this idea even further. A space once allocated to the storage of high-explosive and nuclear ordnance now becomes a space of modern luxury. The Convair Model 37, featuring cabin designs by Henry Dreyfuss, is a civilian variant of the Convair B-36 Peacemaker, the world’s first intercontinental nuclear bomber.

That Giedion wrote Mechanization Takes Command in 1948 is significant. From 1944 until 1947, the Chicago and Montreal Conventions led to the establishment of the International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO. The ICAO’s founders considered the air as an extension of the ground (a sentiment that anticipates the A380’s architectural scale). The resultant 1947 ICAO treaty considered the air as a place of limitless expansion and possibility. The treaty thus affirmed, in the words of American ICAO delegate and commentator Adolf Berle, that the air was a “highway given by nature to all men.” Making the connection between this sentiment Al-Saud’s Airbus A380 as a flying palace would not be difficult.

If this airplane represents an aerial intervention at the architectural scale, then it follows that something in the manner of the regional scale is in the offering. In the 1940s and 50s, discourses concerning “airways” and other types of aerial navigation routes introduced regional and infrastructural thinking to aviation. It remains to be seem how such thinking will pan out in the 21st century.

[*] Author's note: For more information on this topic, see Norman Bel Geddes, Horizons (1932); Aaron Betsky, "The Branded Cocoon", in Gabrielle Brainard, Rustam Marc Mehta, and Thom Moran, Perspecta 41: Grand Tour (MIT Press, 2008); Jochen Eisenbrand and Alexander von Vegesack, eds. Airworld: Design and Architecture for Air Travel (Vitra Design Museum, 2004).