FIRMITAS

Firmitas

The classical triad of beauty, utility and stability is obsolete, and Vitruv‘s Triad of firmitas, utilitas, and venustas has become either a matter for historians or for the speeches of mayors during an opening of a new art museum or a new chapel.

And yet, the question about firmitas is an interesting subject for contemporary architecture. It challenges us to dwell upon just which architecture we can really make. In the end, the question is always: what is architecture?

And it becomes subdivided into a variety of questions: what is a wall, what is a floor? We’re asking ourselves these questions because we would otherwise not know how to go on, because we would otherwise not know – for example – where to turn next, what ground to stand on, where to look. There is no mediating tradition for these simple, self-evident things; there’s no clear gesture that we can be aware of without having elaborated it ourselves, that we study and continue to improve because the world has lost its clearness, clearness in the sense of simple interpretation – for example, like a simple path, a clear goal or an explainable architecture.

I would like to take a house in the Grisons as an example for such a clear and meaningful architecture because it is especially beautiful: the Castelmur-Salis House in Sils Baselgia. A house from a traditional culture. A house from the past. A house from a time long lost: an incredible object that demonstrates to us the irreversibility of time. A magical house from a magical time, a magical world of ideas. Magical because the house itself expresses this magical world of ideas: in the ground plan that shows how people withdrew inside from the world, in the façade that is decorated with inscriptions and paintings and thus, on one hand, wants to hold its own as an artificial object differentiated from the natural world and, on the other, wants to avert harmful outer influences. We have studied many of these houses in order to discover their secret, to appropriate their magic so that our projects can enchant today’s world.
Perhaps it is possible to isolate a piece of firmitas here, like one tries to isolate cells of extinct microorganisms in petrified remnants: certainly, firmitas is at home in this architecture. Or is there anything here, in this archaic place, that questions firmitas? Some weak point in the construction that would not be permeated by the spirit of firm providence, the eternally lasting materiality? Because firmitas can only mean one thing: absolute stability; firmitas doesn’t tolerate doubt and it especially doesn’t tolerate weakness. We all have entered such an old house before and have admired the mightiness of the walls, doubtfully knocking on them. We have opened the doors to the rooms with the heavy, screeching wood floors and felt the warmth radiated by the glazed firebricks on the tiled stove. We all have experienced these different sensual perceptions in one single architectural location – seeing, touching, hearing – and have thought or at least felt that this is what architecture should always be. It should always express all these sensual moments and make them tangible. This complex combination of sensual impressions is what creates our concept of stability, of a safe world, a world that we can trust in.
The term firmitas can be affixed so well to the example of a traditional architecture because here we enter into a world that may no longer be the world of our daily life but obviously is still capable of stimulating our sensual perception and touches us so strongly that most other architecture fades next to it like pull-off images.

Is this a romantic way of looking at things?

Yes and no.

It is a realistic perspective because it doesn’t come from some forced and idealizing position but is derived only from a phenomenological angle, from the observation of the real behavior of human beings.
It is a romantic way of looking at things because it presumes the sensual unity of human perception. Our perception insists on this complex sensuality that no machine has thus far been able to simulate. Architecture has to communicate this complex sensuality concentrated in one place and simultaneous have an effect in order to attract us, to convey its meaning to us and to demonstrate its interpretation.
So it is not firmitas in the sense of how we admire it in a traditional house and how it fascinates us, but the touch of two bodies, the building volume and our own body, being touched in our own body and soul. Firmitas is only an especially developed characteristic in the example of traditional architecture. In other words, a messenger mediating between the house and the observer. It is not the fact of the stable materiality but the immaterial, spiritual quality that is communicated to our senses through the material solidification. It is the indissoluble bond between material and immaterial characteristics of architecture that attracts us and refuses to let go; it is that to which we submit ourselves like to a beloved body that takes us away for a moment into a magical world.

We submit to venustas, not firmitas; it is beauty that enchants us, that makes us curious about life and ourselves, that shakes us up and inspires us. It is that complex beauty that was recognized by Herbert Marcuse as a politically more efficient weapon than the dialectic of theater play by Berthold Brecht.
Understood in this way, firmitas wouldn’t be a separate category on the same level as venustas but rather a special case, an absolute value that can not be achieved, that will remain a dream and is interesting only as such. The traditional house in Sils is one such radical form of being that has hardly been achieved since then and that shouldn’t be confused with the simulation forms of the stone-cast big city architecture that have been populating the cities like the zombies from the Hollywood movies of that time.
Firmitas is a self-evident requirement of a correct and careful planning and realization of any building project. Otherwise, it would be about wasting money and time. We don’t have to talk about that.
Aside from this, firmitas doesn’t exist. Firmitas is a theoretical term and – as paradoxical as it may sound – a virtual reality. It can’t be achieved in the built reality. The building materials used today are neither immovably stable nor lastingly crystalline. A building today moreover consists of materials with a differing aggregate state. Increasingly, permanently plastic polymers, foils and groove fillers guarantee stability. Today’s buildings are hermaphroditic beings made of organic and solid matter, equipped with a digitized building technology that has become more indispensable than the architect who doesn’t know how to use it.

One example is the Tate Modern in London that expands in a preexisting building made of brick and steel with dimensions resembling those of a mountain range, and that articulates the possible coexistence of solid, flowing and shining building parts. Almost 40 percent of the total budget went into the building technology, energy supply, surveillance system, the natural and artificial light and the media networking. We protested: does that have to be? Can’t it be done in a simpler way? No, it can’t. That’s not determined by the architect or engineer, and it’s not determined by the client and especially not by the artist. It’s determined by the visitors who enter each day, 20,000 people a day, whose body heat and humidity is breathed in, sucked up, cleaned, cooled, dried, filtered and blown back out. These people don’t just stand still in the building. They move as they would in a city, an airport or a train station. They meet, talk, eat, sweat, look and leave. Movement is the rule, and everything moves – people, the machines behind the walls and suspended ceilings, the escalator. What kind of exhibition space is the architect supposed to conceive? Should he follow the seemingly unavoidable logic and cut open the floors, ceilings and walls for the imperative inlets and outlets?

What did the architects think who built the museums in past years or who still plan them? Which concepts were developed for the art and which were developed for the human being looking upon this? Some gave in to a personal urge to design, making Rudolf Steiner’s Goetheanum look like a Carthesian hermitage in comparison and the art inside as though it suffered from creative anemia. Purists and conservatives remembered the old museum architecture with the fully glazed ceilings that put classical collections into an especially nice light. Modern minds design skylights like suspended sculptures, similar to Kahn or Aalto.

An exhibition space for art in our perception is a much more simple space, and that’s what makes it difficult. How do you make a simple, homogeneous space, with a solid floor, walls and a ceiling that belong to it and are not somewhat removed, enraptured or flying off? Perhaps there are openings in the floor or ceiling, e.g., at the transition to the skylight. That’s not yet an attack on the unity of the space. But the elbowroom is so reduced that it is really not possible to fulfill the requirements we have for the ideal exhibition space. The required simple space is an extreme case, a kind of radicalization of normality, a place that diverts so much from itself that it creates a tension, a spatial concentration, that is transferred to the artwork and will enable a perception of the art that is much more direct and stronger than visitors expect and are used to.

Such exhibition spaces materialize firmitas. However, they look in this rough building like spaces from a world of ideas. From this perspective, the exhibition spaces are much more virtual than the virtual presentation of the showpieces on the monitors on the entrance level of the museum.
In the Tate project one can recognize how firmitas can today be used as a possible architectural strategy and how the architectural project as a whole gains in complexity through it: firmitas is a locally restricted radicalization, a condensation of architectural intention, a kind of hyper-reality within a project.

As the Tate project demonstrates, we have the hope that it is this hermaphroditic aspect, the mixing of materials of different origins, the different weight and intensification of places, that can make contemporary architecture as attractive as the traditional architecture of an old Engadine house. There is the possibility of duality, and we no longer are subject to the traditional canon of a stipulated trace or dictate such as le Corbusier’s Règles pour Messieurs les architectes. We are free and rely only upon ourselves. We can accept this challenge and design the images that approach us in an increasingly fast and strong way into new, symbolic architectural spaces. Architectural spaces that no longer come from a tradition but from a world of concepts, a virtual world. Only such a self-created world of concepts offers the architect the opportunity to move and express himself in this day and age. What’s decisive is their own energy of perception. It determines whether we are unilaterally projected upon or whether we project actively onto the world, i.e., whether we are capable of being active as project-creating human beings.
Edited version of a lecture held by Jacques Herzog at the ETH Zurich, October 1996.

Herzog & de Meuron: Firmitas.
In: Gerhard Mack (Ed.). Herzog & de Meuron 1989-1991. Das Gesamtwerk. Band 3. The Complete Works. Volume 3. Basel / Boston / Berlin, Birkhäuser, 2000. Vol. No. 3. pp. 222-225.

http://www.birkhauser.com