The essence of architecture: August Schmarsow's theory of space

Roy Malcolm Porter, University of Pennsylvania


Few concepts more intrigued artistic imagination in the twentieth century than the notions of form and space. Yet the preoccupation with these phenomena did not occur suddenly, for architects, artists, historians, and philosophers had increasingly concerned themselves with their consideration during the last half of the nineteenth century and had produced an impressive body of literature devoted to these speculations. Chief among these contributions were the theories of the historian August Schmarsow. First voiced in his inaugural lecture, “Das Wesen der architektonischen Schöpfung” (The essence of architectural creation), his own speculation about spatiality as the essence of architecture culminated in its presentation in Grundbegriffe der Kunstwissenschaft am Übergang vom Altertum zum Mittelalter (Fundamental principles of the science of art at the transition from antiquity to the middle ages). Published in 1905, it followed closely the publication of Alois Riegl's treatise, Spätrömische Kunstindustrie (Late Roman art industry). Like that treatise, Grundbegriffe der Kunstwissenschaft reflected its author's conviction about the role of space and the significance of its expression in a particular period of history. Addressed as well were “the three principles of human organization”—symmetry, proportionality, and rhythm. Their formulation revealed his premises, which embraced the role of the psyche and accepted the attributes of the body in our perception of space. That encounter entailed an awareness of us as beings that inhabited space and of our existence within the cosmos. As the creation of architecture unfolded, we reminded ourselves to focus on its essential aspect—the creation of space which affirmed our humanity.

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Recommended Citation

Porter, Roy Malcolm, "The essence of architecture: August Schmarsow's theory of space" (2005). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3179790.