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AA Words 3


The Poetics of a Wall Projection TRANSLATED BY KENT KLEINMAN


Making a book is like making architecture; you have to know at least something about the intractability of concrete things Jan Turnovský

Originally published in German in 1985, The Poetics of a Wall Projection is a translation by the American scholar Kent Kleinman of Jan Turnovský’s knowingly idiosyncratic study of the Stonborough House, designed and built by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in Vienna in the 1920s. The precision of Turnovský’s text mirrors the building that serves as his subject and offers a rare, now almost extinct, contemporary form of architectural history based upon an intensely close reading of a single building, and specifically an intricate compositional analysis of that building’s floor plan. The effect is as breathtaking as it is pedantic – a formalist critique given great form by Turnovský’s engaging wit, clipped grammar and supple descriptive abilities (all of which, displaying

Jan Turnovský Translated by Kent Kleinman Architectural Association London

AA Words 3

Jan TurnovskÝ The Poetics of a Wall Projection TRANSLATED BY KENT KLEINMAN

PREFACE Making a book is like making architecture; you have to know at least something about the intractability of concrete things Jan Turnovský Originally published in German in 1985, The Poetics of a Wall Projection is a translation by the American scholar Kent Kleinman of Jan Turnovský’s knowingly idiosyncratic study of the Stonborough House, designed and built by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in Vienna in the 1920s. The precision of Turnovský’s text mirrors the building that serves as his subject and offers a rare, now almost extinct, contemporary form of architectural history based upon an intensely close reading of a single building, and specifically an intricate compositional analysis of that building’s floor plan. The effect is as breathtaking as it is pedantic – a formalist critique given great form by Turnovský’s engaging wit, clipped grammar and supple descriptive abilities (all of which, displaying

The Poetics of a Wall Projection

a clear dependence on the intricacies of everyday language, suggests that he read a lot more Wittgenstein than he let on). Jan Turnovský completed his graduate dissertation, ‘The Weltanschauung as an Ersatz Gestalt’, in the history programme at the Architectural Association in 1978. During this period the programme was directed by Hans Harm and Roy Landau and accommodated a wide range of scholarly interests and individual agendas, a fact recorded by the sheer breadth of lecturers brought by the course into the school. This was a spectrum of personalities that spanned between the orthodox postwar modernist impulses of someone like Alison Smithson (who each year would deliver a series of talks), to art historians like Ernst Gombrich or, from within the AA, figures like Peter Cook and Robin Evans (who, like Turnovský, was a fan of close plan-reading as a way of disentangling architectural concepts and theories). What this diverse cast of characters points to is a remarkable milieu of highly individuated personalities, voices and distinctive writing styles, which Turnovský came to embody in his own unique and beautiful approach to history. Turnovský’s words retain a spare yet poetic capacity (seamlessly captured in Kleinman’s wonderful translation) while invoking meaning at many levels beyond those of their surface. This is a trait that he undoubtedly shares with the philosopher/architect whom he openly declares is not the subject of The Poetics of a Wall Projection. As Wittgenstein himself once wrote, the world is the totality of facts, not things. Convincingly, Turnovský demonstrates to the reader that the house by Wittgenstein is anything but a thing. It is instead an entire architectural world, and one made out of concrete facts that the essay – like any good form of architectural history – helps to invent and not merely express. Brett Steele Director, AA School and AA Publications


INTRODUCTION BY KENT KLEINMAN p3 I. The Conceptual and the Empirical: On the Genesis of the Wall Projection p16 1. On Two Approaches to Architecture p21 2. On Two Factors in Every Work of Architecture p23 3. On the Wittgenstein House p25 II. Poetics and Architecture: On the Semantic Potential of the WP p43 The Poetic and the Aesthetic p51 A. Order p52 B. Sensuousness p58 C. Disinterestedness p64


Taking Stock p69 a. Innovation p71 b. Ambivalence p79


c. Universality p87 III. Face and Profile: On the Front Surface of the WP p95 IV. Space and Object: On the Edge of THE Wp p107 Excursus around the Corner p113 V. Art and Frame: On the Side of the WP p118 Conclusion p123

The reader of this small book is entitled to ask a few questions before starting. Who is the author? What is this ‘wall projection’ (or Mauervorsprung, as it was in the original German)? To what genre of architectural criticism does poetry belong? How can an author of a book on Wittgenstein’s Villa Stonborough write in his personal notes that ‘Wittgenstein doesn’t interest me’? Is architecture possible? In this introduction I will attempt to address each of these issues except the last, which is best answered by the book itself.

Jan TurnovskÝ On a Thursday evening in June 1991, Jan Turnovský presented a lecture at the Central Union of Austrian Architects in Vienna. He prepared the poster himself, a modest hand-typed graphic (above) which included a short biographical statement.1 It read: Jan Turnovský (brother of the poet and scientist Dr Evzen Turnovský) has worked as a double in Barrandov Film Studios in Prague, as a carpenter for concrete formwork Celakovice, as a graphic designer, mainly on album covers, and as a tenor-saxophonist for the International Zirkus Humberto, is currently assistant professor at the Institute for Housing at the Technical University in Vienna (and has been suspected of being a secret agent/spy).


The Poetics of a Wall Projection

Depending on one’s perspective, this is either a long detour with too few words or a short detour with too many; one wants to know either more or less about this career. The note certainly tells us nothing of Turnovský’s age (born 1941) or training (graduated from the Prague Academy of Fine Arts). It omits his academic work in Vienna (under the auspices of the renowned architect and pedagogue Ernst Plischke), his subsequent postgraduate work at the Architectural Association in London (under the tutelage of Hans Harms and Roy Landau), the doctoral studies at the Technical University in Vienna that would become his principal published work (Die Poetik eines Mauervorsprungs, 1985, of which this book is the translation) and his two volumes of poetry (kleinmut: leichte gedichte and Referentielle Poesie). Naturally the detour, or shortcut, is intentional, and revealing despite the lacunae. It discloses a love for compact work, a drive to achieve maximal density in a very limited space, and an inability to resist testing his sharp wit on ordinary matters. It gently mocks the notion of a teleological logic to life-lines and also pokes fun at the modernist trait of determined silence with regard to the idiosyncratic. It succinctly situates a moment in Central European history where intellectuals oscillated between the most varied of occupations and fears – and, for those who knew him well, it explains his passion for a particular saxophone track that he played rather obsessively at the Technical University, where he taught until his untimely death in 1995. There is more. The little pseudo-vitae is a demonstration of one of the central topics discussed in this book, namely the conditions under which signs become liberated from the singularity of their referential duties and become a spur to poetic contemplation. As Turnovský notes, the precondition of the poetic is a degree of indeterminacy, and for something to be perceived as indeterminate it must offer the root option of also being perceived as not indeterminate. ‘True poetics is always both poetic and non-poetic, i.e., practical, at the same time.’2 Good



architecture is always also practical; this is why it is so well suited to poetic statements. The possibility of perceiving a door handle as nothing other than a handle for a door is the basis of architecture’s poetic potential. Conversely, of course, any architecture mired in excessive rhetoric is unlikely ever to rise to the level of poetry. Any text, crafted with sufficient care, can achieve a ‘double coding’ which dislodges a message from its functional or denotative position. Such a text ‘forces me to ask what it might mean [and] attracts my attention to discern how it is constructed’, writes Umberto Eco.3 Turnovský’s little vitae/prose poem is certainly carefully constructed. Each line in the German original has exactly 72 characters. There are no hyphenated words. It was composed on a manual typewriter so that the character spacing has the industrial rigour of an inflexible unit module. The single-line spacing establishes an identical modular dimension in both the vertical and the horizontal directions. And finally, the text was trimmed out at the top and bottom with 72 singlespaced ‘x’s, densifying the field of letters with their variously configured voids. The work is perfectly rigorous (and easily tested as such) and also perfectly arbitrary, as if to enact the eighteenth-century poet Novalis’s claim that ‘the alphabet was, without exception, the greatest work of poetry’.4 Turnovský was neither the first to treat poetry in spatial terms nor the first to treat space in poetic terms (Apollinaire and Bachelard preceded him), but his knowledge of both the structure of language and the semantics of construction was unique and shaped his design work and his critical writings. And undoubtedly these twinned interests were key to the discovery he made in the villa designed by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Turnovský found architecture’s elemental poetic unit, the Mauervorsprung

These 72 characters would be a perfectly fitting addition to his biography.


The Poetics of a Wall Projection

I. The Conceptual and the Empirical: On the Genesis of the Wall Projection Ludwig Wittgenstein crafted two different, and in some respects opposed, philosophies during two different periods of his life. In between these philosophies came a house that was designed principally by Wittgenstein and constructed under his supervision. In the plans for this house we find the wall projection that will be the focus of this text. Henceforth we will refer to it with the abbreviation WP.

Fig. 1 ‘Ludwig Wittgenstein, Architekt ’, plan detail


The Conceptual and the Empirical

The first phase of Wittgenstein’s philosophy came to an end in 1921 with the publication of Tractatus LogicoPhilosophicus, which had been completed as early as 1918. This early philosophy can be characterised as a systematic, abstract and ideal conception of thought, language and the world. The second phase began in 1929 when Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge. The most significant document of his late philosophy is Philosophical Investigations, first published posthumously in 1953. This is a largely unsystematic treatment of empirical linguistic material. It was in the autumn of 1926 that Wittgenstein made his first appearance as an architect. The stamp on the drawings for his sister’s house explicitly identifies him as such. Margarethe Stonborough-Wittgenstein had bought a 3,000-square-metre plot in Vienna 3, bordered by Kundmanngasse, Geusaugasse and Parkgasse. She had initially commissioned the architect Paul Engelmann, a friend of Wittgenstein’s, to design the villa according to a programme that she had largely determined herself. When her brother showed a keen interest, she allowed him to work with Engelmann on the plans and construction of the villa. It is clear that he increasingly took over the project. We know that Wittgenstein worked on the house with enthusiasm and meticulous precision. Engelmann had to yield to the much stronger personality and the house was built, down to the smallest detail, according to the plans modified by Ludwig and under his supervision. Ludwig designed every window, every door, every window bar and every radiator with such exactitude that they might have been precision instruments, imbuing them with the most noble proportions. He then applied the same uncompromising energy to their manufacture, ensuring that the things were produced with the same degree of accuracy.1 We can therefore assume that the constructed details of the villa – including the WP – were produced by


The Poetics of a Wall Projection

Wittgenstein, or at least approved by him. An exact attribution, while undoubtedly of interest, is not of decisive importance for this text. What we are interested in – indeed fascinated by – is the WP as a phenomenon, and it will be interpreted as such here. Having said that, the roots of the WP are embedded in Wittgenstein’s architecture. It is there we must turn if we want to know the story of how it came about. Anyone approaching Wittgenstein’s architecture is confronted with a dilemma. On the one hand, it is almost impossible not to see the architecture in relation to the philosophy. On the other hand, any attempt to compare or combine these two ultimately incommensurate disciplines should be treated with the utmost caution. This leads to a second, more general, dilemma. The more directly (and paradoxically the more profoundly) one probes into a comparison between two distinct types of entities, the more suspect it becomes. Pursuing an incisive analysis leads one down the straight and narrow path to ‘structures’, which either leaves the interesting curiosities posed by individual elements by the wayside or simply establishes their status as incomparable, and thus not to be compared. Alternatively, opting for a metaphorical framework of comparison soon brings disappointment, on account of a lack of focus, lack of insight and lack of proof. Regardless of the comparative method adopted, one question that immediately arises is whether the architecture of the Wittgenstein House – the Stonborough Palace – corresponds with the early philosophy (still) or the late philosophy (already). Georg Henrik von Wright, Wittgenstein’s biographer and bibliographer, claims that the house has ‘the same simple and static beauty as the sentences of the Tractatus’.2 Hermine Wittgenstein, sister of the philosopher and of Stonborough’s wife, sees in the villa a ‘dwelling for the gods’, a ‘house turned logic’.3 In the last chapter of his Morphological Interpretation of the Wittgenstein Villa, Lothar Rentschler constructs an analytic comparison between the house and Wittgenstein’s philosophy. For Rentschler too, the villa is a ‘representation’


The Conceptual and the Empirical

of Wittgenstein’s early philosophy. He claims that ‘an analogous, homomorphic structure exists between the Tractatus and the Wittgenstein Palace.’4 Rentschler comes to this conclusion having observed that ‘all the categorical imperatives of the Tractatus – which are expressly jettisoned in the later philosophy – appear, equally categorically, in the formal syntax of the architectural work in the form of analogous structural precepts (in particular exactitude, atomism, absolutism, logically idealised language, con-textual invariance, susceptibility to analysis)’.5 It may well be that with respect to the desired analogy between Wittgenstein’s house and Wittgenstein’s philosophy, even an analytical treatment will yield only metaphorical results. Nonetheless, Rentschler’s work indicates how productive an architectural analysis can be, identifying several important reference points that we will refer to later, when we try to reconstruct the genesis of the WP. However, the thrust of this essay is not the potential correlation between Wittgenstein’s philosophy and his architecture. The philosophy will not be treated as one pole of a comparative analysis or as a wellspring for metaphors. Rather, in its divided character, it will serve as the background against which the following parallels may be drawn: there are two opposing tendencies in architecture generally; there are two opposing factors in every architectural project; there are two opposing parts of the Wittgenstein House that are intertwined in the fabric of the building. In this respect it seems appropriate and admissible to reduce the difference between Wittgenstein’s two philosophies to a simple opposition, namely the polarity between the conceptual and the empirical.


The Poetics of a Wall Projection

Putting aside its specific implications for the philosophy of language, one can claim that Wittgenstein’s early philosophy is an impressive example of an a priori, generalised, totalising concept – an abstract, logical theory. Wittgenstein himself believed that the Tractatus offered the key to solving all philosophical problems. The defining characteristics of such a theory are circularity, rigid systematicity, spiritual subliminity and idealising abstraction, as well as fragility. When Wittgenstein realised that he had based the Tractatus on faulty premisses, he discarded it. Indeed, he abandoned the project of a conceptually oriented philosophy entirely as he became convinced that philosophical theories – as products of the imagination – offered only simplified, superficially profound constructs that obscured the actual diversity of reality. In his late work he turned to precisely those empirical conditions that are stripped away by generalising tendencies in philosophy. His Investigations is replete with commonplace, unsystematic, highly detailed examples of linguistic material, and utterly free from categorical claims. This approach does not destroy the idealistic/heroic pathos of the Tractatus, but simply provides it with a modest and pragmatic counterpoint. Thus we discover in the philosopher’s life-work two polarised principles that – viewed more generally – constitute one of the fundamental oppositions in the history of philosophy. The opposition between the conceptual/theoretical/ rational and the empirical was expressed most vividly in the dispute between continental European rationalism and British empiricism during the seventeenth century. Here Spinoza, Leibniz, Pascal and above all Descartes (cogito ergo sum); there Bacon, Locke, Hume and also Berkeley (esse est percipi). As is well known, the rationalists gave priority to mental constructs, hypotheses and theories while the empiricists emphasised perception, observation, sense impressions and ‘givens’. According to these criteria, the Tractatus can be placed in the rationalist tradition and the Philosophical Investigations in the empirical tradition. What we will try to do now is delineate oppositions


The Conceptual and the Empirical

that may be considered analogous to this duality in Wittgenstein’s philosophy and, more generally, to the philosophical opposition between the conceptual and the empirical.

1. On Two Approaches to Architecture Viewed in the broadest terms, architecture encompasses two contrasting domains, one associated with the term ‘conceptual’, the other with ‘empiricism’. When architecture follows an abstract concept, it is defined by a categorical, compositional will-to-order. The alternative approach produces an architecture that is committed to concrete existing conditions related to construction, use or site; in this case, compositional intentions and rules – to the degree that they are even evoked – are subjected to, or diverted by, such contingencies. This is reminiscent of the empirical principle of inductive logic. A vivid illustration of these differences (one that mirrors geographically and temporally the debate between rationalism and empiricism) is the contrast between the continental villa, exemplified by Palladio’s Villa Rotonda, and a typical British country house (Fig. 2). In the first case we have rigid geometry and absolute order, with forms and alignments that disregard contingent conditions – a heroic distancing of the man-made from the natural. In the second case there is a casual pragmatism, an almost ad hoc, incidental accommodation of anomalous and unique conditions. The house also displays an untroubled modesty, a conventionality and practicality informed by construction; it fits into the surroundings in a natural and unassuming way. (From here, it is but a small step to the aesthetic of ‘the strip is almost alright’ or even ‘all is pretty’.) If we were to trace these two architectural dispositions back to their origins, we would probably arrive at the paradigmatic image of the Greek temple, in the case of the conceptual approach, and at the pre-existing cave, in the case of the empirical approach.


The Poetics of a Wall Projection

The Conceptual and the Empirical

Of course there are more succinct terms for these contrasting idioms. The former could be called ‘architecture par excellence’ or simply ‘architecture’, the latter – as is already customary – ‘architecture without architects’, or simply ‘not architecture’. Here we might mention that Bertrand Russell was of the opinion that Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations had nothing to do with philosophy.

2. On Two Factors in Every Work of Architecture

Fig. 2 Architecture based on an abstract concept and architecture based on empirical facts: Andrea Palladio’s Villa Rotonda and Eden Nesfield's Plas Dinam, Montgomery


These two modalities almost never appear in their pure form; architecture is always more a matter of a dominant tendency, of priorities. Structural considerations alone preclude a completely formless, absolutely unordered architecture. In this sense, the material of construction tends to define its own order. Similarly, a design itself sometimes produces a self-ordering dynamic – or at least appears to do so. On the other hand, it is virtually impossible for an abstract, ideal concept to be put down on paper, let alone built, without modifications. The most banal cause of distortions and dislocations is the inevitability of imprecision (Fig. 3). The most annoying and enraging cause is something that is conveniently overlooked in almost every ingenious concept, namely materiality (see, for example, the genesis of the WP). In every building, every single architectural work, every design process, the ordering will of the concept comes up against the resistance of the empirical material. Here we touch upon an implicit thesis of this text. It is in the nature of things that an architectural concept never quite gets on with the ‘material’ of architecture, by which we mean its physical, syntactic and pragmatic imperatives. This ‘material’ of architecture is extraordinarily unwieldy, idiosyncratic and stubborn. It impels every logical concept into inconsistencies that ultimately bring about its demise. (Here, we are referring not just to


The Poetics of a Wall Projection

order – that presumed basis for an absolute aesthetic criterion, with its supposed rationally based objectivity – is an irrational or at best metaphysical measure. We could call on the natural sciences, with their justifiable drive for objectivity and precision, to help clarify a definition of ‘order’, but the term would remain undetermined and in fact indeterminable. Only its ambiguity would become clearer. Order can either be associated with the even distribution of uniform particles, in other words with equilibrium, homogeneity and, consequently, entropy – or with its exact opposite, negentropy, which generates ever-increasing order and unexpected offspring. In any case, at some level of analysis everything appears ordered, while at some perceptual level everything appears the same. The question of order is therefore always a matter of scale and degree. In other words, and from another perspective, order is the largest common denominator among the discontinuities in the natural or man-made worlds. (In this respect we could say that all architecture probably fits into a millimetre grid and so could be considered modular. Alvar Aalto’s work was once discussed exactly this way.) Where order begins, where it ends, and especially what it portends: all remains undetermined until it is either defined or negotiated. This does not mean that order is useless or uninteresting as a theme in aesthetics: quite the opposite. One just has to acknowledge that it is not exact or unequivocal, but rather a term with many associations that make it incompatible with absolutist expectations. Order has many faces with many expressive nuances, and can therefore be interpreted and creatively deployed in many different ways. A small illustration of the diversity of its application is given opposite, with a comparison of the designs for two facades, one by Aldo Rossi, the other by John Hejduk (Fig. 15). On the role played by order in constructing meaning during an aesthetically oriented act of perception, we may cite Mukarovský: ‘As soon as the viewer assumes a position with respect to a given object, as is common in the



Fig. 15 Plays of order: Rossi's Schoolhouse in Fagnano Olona and Hejduk's Wall-Pilaster-Column House

apprehension of an art work, the urge arises to detect traces of an order in the work that permit it to be comprehended as a signifying entity’.35 This sentence refers to order not just as a geometric or otherwise external attribute; the words we have highlighted deserve special emphasis. First, ‘order’, as the medium that evidently binds elements into structures. Second, ‘traces’, because this compulsive pursuit of order means that not every element needs to be present for order to be recognised – even the slightest trace of an order will do. And lastly, the article ‘an’, also in the double sense that ‘an’ order of any kind is valid, yet only ‘an’ order (and not several) can be apprehended at any given moment (notwithstanding optical puzzles). Gestalt theory has offered many insightful and valid observations on all these aspects of the process of perceiving. The process of aesthetic production may be considered within a very similar framework. In addition to the obvious relevance of order in general, there is another aspect that corresponds to the idea of ‘traces’ and a third


The Poetics of a Wall Projection

one that is complementary to ‘an’. For just as important as order itself is the possibility of a non-totalising order, limited in scope to what is structurally necessary or meaningful, and the possibility of incorporating diverse ordering systems within a single work. Regarding the first point, Rudolf Arnheim’s study on order offers the following observation, which also resonates with the fundamental ambiguity of the term: ‘an unchecked tendency towards mere orderliness leads to the impoverishment and eventually to the ultimate degradation of the structure, no longer clearly distinguishable from chaos, which is the absence of order’.36 We have already noted this phenomenon – as one potential outcome of the conflict between the ordering force of an abstract concept and the intractable resistance and concreteness of architectural syntax. A rigorous imposition of order during the process of design will result either in a muddling of the syntax or in an utterly trivial scheme. (We will return later to the cause of this dilemma.) The latter point – the simultaneous existence of multiple orders as the alternative to ‘an’ order – is no less problematic. Multiple orders may enhance the unfolding of layered meanings in the reception of a work. But if they are not produced in a sufficiently coordinated way, the result may simply be disorder. According to Arnheim, disorder is ‘not the absence of order but the collision of unrelated individual orders’. If individual orders touch or overlap without due preparation, then discrepancies, strains and cracks will emerge between the individual systems. In the Wittgenstein House, each of the main rooms on the ground floor has its own order. The collision of the floor patterns demonstrates quite vividly the incompatibility of these individual orders (Fig. 9). In this instance, the ordering systems are of the same kind, but ‘disorder’ can also result when different types of ordering systems smash into each other. And so we come back to the WP. As we have shown, the wall projection can be seen as the product of an attempted remediation – of an effort to ‘bring order’



to a situation. This situation however is nothing less than the collision of two fundamentally different orders. In general terms, one of these orders can be described as the order of the syntax, the other as the order of the concept. The first order lies in the nature of things, the second springs from the individual’s will-to-order. As such we are dealing with a conflict between the given and the imagined and, to some extent, between the natural and the artificial. In more concrete terms, we are dealing with the order of the plan and the order of the facade. The ‘givens’ of the syntax are evident in the plan, but not in the facade, which actually conceals them, inviting in an independent order. And this order infiltrates the interior through the window. The clash with the first order results in a disorder of the interior window wall – in the undesired asymmetry of its surface. By shortening the window wall to the length required for symmetry, the WP eliminates this disorder but at the same time generates a new disorder in the plan. The WP cannot be incorporated into the overall order of the room by adding (for example) a corresponding wall fragment on the opposing wall, which would combine with it to form a niche. Nothing can be done because of the corner position of the doorway, which is determined by the overall layout of the building. Transforming disorder into order, the WP produces more disorder. To resolve this new disorder, the plan of the room would have to be reordered, which in turn would require a reordering of the plan of the entire house, a chain reaction whose ultimate outcome will remain forever unknown, for the process was nipped in the bud – with the insertion of the WP. This aesthetically unsatisfying condition has the attributes of a dynamic process; there can be no talk here of a ‘static beauty‘. To address this very condition, its history as well as its hypothetical future, our poetics must adopt the term ‘order’ – that concise yet vague aesthetic intention. (If aesthetics is to be identified with


Architecture Words 3: The Poetics of a Wall Projection (Jan Turnovsky)  

Originally published in German in 1985 as Die Poetik eines Mauervorsprung, Jan Turnovsky's The Poetics of a Wall Projection is ostensibly a...