Zero To Z

Peter Collins

CHANGING IDEALS IN MODERN ARCHITECTURE: The Mechanical Analogy, Beginning of Chapter

Of the various analogies used in the nineteenth century to clarify the principles of a new architecture, probably the only one to equal in importance the biological analogy has been the analogy between buildings and machines. Historically, it may even be said to take precedence, especially if we extend its meaning to include the more general thesis that functional efficiency is a kind of beauty; for as Edward de Zurko has shown in his “Origins of Functionalist Theory,” the idea of relating beauty to the simpler aspects of mechanical utility goes back to remote antiquity, whilst the idea of using machines as functional analogies was itself applied to physics, politics and economics long before it was applied to architecture.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Henri Milne-Edwards tried to grasp the way organic forms developed by studying them as if they were machines. But in the middle of the eighteenth century, the affinities between organisms and machines were considered more notable for their disparities rather than for their similarities. Hogarth, for example, in his “Analysis of Beauty (1753) remarked that the beauty of a clock mechanism was as nothing compared with the beauty of the human body, and in criticizing Harrison’s marine chronometer in this respect, he observed that ‘if a machine for this purpose had been nature’s work, the whole and every individual part would have led to exquisite beauty of form without danger of destroying the exquisiteness of its motion, even as if ornament had been the sole aim’. It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century, when the demand for a new architecture became insistent, and when more grandiose types of machines had been invented, that the mechanical analogy was used in an attempt to solve problems of architectural theory. By the end of the century, only very special and esoteric groups, such as those which supported the theory o f ‘Art for Art’s Sake’, dared publicly support the view that purely utilitarian objects were necessarily ugly.

CHANGING IDEALS IN MODERN ARCHITECTURE: The Mechanical Analogy, End of Chapter

There is no need to list the pitfalls of the mechanical analogy, or to emphasize the dangers of comparing objects which are motionless with objects whose essential purpose is to move. But it may be appropriate to conclude by mentioning one of the more disastrous consequences of this analogy, since its gravity seems to be increasing; namely, the fact that buildings so often tend to be treated as isolated objects, set arbitrarily in the landscape or city, rather than as part of the environment, since clearly all living organism depend on environments for their existence. and constitute within themselves environments which influence other organisms nearby. But the mechanical analogy unwittingly lent support to exactly precise localities, nor are they designed with a view to the specific spatial relationships between one another; and it is this which has undoubtedly increased the tendency to design every building as if it were isolated in space. Moreover, we are now too familiar with the way industrial designers envelope mechanisms, in arbitrary enclosures, the resultant appearance being paradoxically the very opposite of what the nineteenth century theorists visualized when they drew attention to the functional appearance of modern machines. It is for these reasons that the mechanical analogy never provided a coherent solution to the problem of creating a new and rational vocabulary of standardized machine-made architectural forms which would harmonize with their surroundings, and with each other; as well as with the modern age.


This is a little independent tabloid magazine looking into three expanding fields of Architecture, Not Architecture, and Not Not Architecture between ancient and future time and space.
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