Palladio Virtuel

Form and Discipline

Volume 1, Issue 14
December 3, 2015

Palladio Virtuel

Authors: Peter Eisenman with Matt Roman

Publisher: Yale University Press (December 2015)


This book is a critical work by an architect, not a historian or a critic. Its approach is little interested in the accepted narrative or recorded historical facts about Andrea Palladio. Nor is this book concerned with the current architectural fashions of big data, crowdsourcing, or parametrics. Rather, through what can be called close reading of architectural traces, the book uncovers certain similarities between architecture in our time and the time of Palladio by focusing on a moment of architectural shifts, from 1520 to 1575 in Northern Italy.

Walter Benjamin argued that in order to understand any form of paradigm shift, it is necessary, in a sense, to reawaken history. This is what this book attempts to do—to awaken a historical period that shares certain conditions with the present. Many philosophers define their work through a discursive relation to a historical figure: for example, Jacques Derrida in relation to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Gilles Deleuze to Kant, Spinoza, Bergson, and others. Although not as a philosopher, it is in that tradition that I write about Palladio, in order to elaborate my own approach to architecture.

The shift that is the focus of this book has been discussed by many important voices. Among others, Rudolf Wittkower, Colin Rowe, Manfredo Tafuri, and, more recently, Pier Vittorio Aureli all have drawn from this period to propose theoretical matrices from which to view architecture, but none has taken the same approach as presented here. Of these, Rowe looms largest over this book. During my time at the University of Cambridge from 1960 to 1963, he gave a series of lectures titled “From Bramante to Vignola.” He included in these lectures the work of Donato Bramante, Michelangelo, Palladio, Baldassare Peruzzi, Raphael, Giulio Romano, Giuliano da Sangallo, Michele Sanmicheli, Sebastiano Serlio, and Giacomo Barozzi Vignola. Then, for a solid three months in each of two summers, Rowe was my guide to visiting this work, for which there were then no guidebooks, nor even road signs, to help us reach the buildings. For Rowe, Bramante was the pivotal figure for architecture (hence the title of his course), but for me it was Palladio who provided a unique theoretical matrix that seemed to transcend his own time, although both Bramante and Palladio owe much to the figure of Leon Battista Alberti.

The argument being made in this book begins with Alberti’s implication of homogeneous space in his De Re Aedificatoria (On the Art of Building, 1452), which originated the discourse about space and how to conceptualize it. And after Bramante, much of what is known as architectural mannerism—which historians date to Bramante’s successors, including Palladio—is in fact a questioning of Albertian spatial principles. However, it is only when Palladio’s work is examined that new strains of this questioning arise, an important aspect of which is the shift from the Albertian idea of homogeneous space to what might be called, in Palladio’s work, heterogeneous space, and thus from Cartesian geometry to topology. This phenomenon takes several distinct forms. For example, the articulated architectural elements—portico, transition space, and central space, which are given letter (A, B, or C) and color (white, gray, or black) notations in the following analysis—become dislocated from their supposed normative location as well as their meaning and become noniconic spatial inscriptions. These inscriptions often produce conditions where two or more notations become overlaid in a single space. The resultant space no longer has a simple or singular conceptual valence, as in homogeneous space, but rather takes on indeterminate characteristics. These characteristics are not necessarily “visible” in any one space, but their indeterminate qualities can be revealed through a close reading of the relationships among these notations. Nonetheless, the overlay of these notations causes the space to be “different” or “other” in its effect on both reading and experience. This difference—the evident conceptual transformation from homogeneous to hetereogeneous space—is variously referred to in this book as the dissipation or disaggregation of supposed “ideal” toward “virtual” spatial conditions, as well as the movement from a geometric analysis to a topological one.

No longer either one condition or another—for example, dense or sparse space, but rather “both/and”—the proposed topological relationships between the ideal and the virtual are critical to the notations and analyses developed in this book. For example, the architectural ideal refers to an organization of form—nine-squares or biaxial symmetry. The virtual refers to architectural relationships that are implied by a condition of presence but that exist beyond the literal or the ideal. This could be considered a first definition of the virtual. By identifying moments of tension between ideal and virtual conditions in Palladio’s work, the analysis uncovers—or invents—the underlying architectural strategies, inscriptions, and notations in the works.


An architect sees differently than does an art historian or critic. Architects look less for dates, patrons, or pedigree than for how buildings teach them to see through their facture. Two conditions are particular to the ways that architects see architecture, which makes the process of seeing both similar to and different from the ways musicians hear music, the ways writers read literature, or artists see sculpture or painting, for example; that is, to how those who work within a creative discipline see their own discipline. One of these conditions is that people who are not architects often think they know architecture in a way different than people who are not musicians or artists think they know music or painting. People are more familiar with architecture: they live in it, work in it, learn in it, play in it, and pray in it. This familiarity makes it more difficult for the architect to open architecture to investigations that promote change from the status quo, the expected, and what will be called here, the normal.

A second condition of difference derives out of the first. People assume that what is seen is in fact what is. Often, particularly in work that separates architecture from building, what is seen is only part of what is. One of my first lessons in architecture occurred in the summer of 1961 while traveling with Rowe in Italy. Coming upon our first Palladian villa, he said to me, “Look at that facade and tell me something about it that cannot be seen.” I did not know what to do. But over time, I have learned that architectural seeing involves this capacity to see the unseen, what could be described as a form of close reading.

A part of seeing in this way makes it necessary to separate—as did poststructuralism for language—the signifier from the signified. It has been assumed that in architecture there is little differentiation between the signifier and the signified: a column is simply a column. However, a column can be thought of as both a structural element—the object—and the sign of that structural element. This collapsing of sign, meaning, and object leads to conditions where the distinctions between form (signified) and space (signifier) are blurred. While architecture fills up space, at the same time it also creates space outside and inside of its walls. Seeing architecture, therefore, means to see, for example, the doubled columns in the portico of the Palazzo Chiericati as an imprint of a spatial syntax, of a topological or relational condition as opposed to a geometric one.

The idea of a spatial syntax goes beyond simple function. While there is no architecture without the external surfaces that shelter and enclose, the architectural membrane—that is, the vertical surface—is not just functional, it is also representational. While both horizontal and vertical membranes convey information in one way or another, Rowe has argued that the vertical surface manifests character while the plan is the source of composition. By contrast, this book argues that the vertical surface records something other than character, as the plan records something other than composition. That “other” is a defining characteristic of architecture: not the literal, material scale or proportion of building parts or spaces, but the latent, immaterial possibility of multiple readings of the same space through topological conditions such as adjacency, overlap, or superposition—all manifestations of architectural relationships as opposed to geometric coordinates.

Recognizing the “other” as an important part of the discipline, Le Corbusier suggested that when a window is too large or too small for a room—that is, when it is not as it is expected to be—it signifies the presence of architecture. In these terms, architecture is characterized by excess—too much or too little of something that may or may not be present. If Le Corbusier is correct, the idea of the normative is therefore a baseline definition, which helps organize the basic elements of architecture—openings, rooms, and relationships between interior and exterior—in an attempt to typify and make generally accessible what is, in fact, different from one moment in time to another. Most design acknowledges such norms, and thereby repeats the past, striving to make the subject feel “at home.”

If the normative describes those conditions that are external to the discipline of architecture—cultural or social norms that found their way into ideas of proportion, scale, symmetry, etc.—this book proposes a slightly different concept, called here the “ideal,” which describes those conditions that are internal to or that define the discipline. In any discussion about seeing in architecture, for example, there is a relationship of what can be seen to what cannot; there is a literal physicality of presence but also a condition of that which is not present but can be implied as other or excessive to that which is literally present. A niche, for example, has a literal presence in relation to the surface of a wall. But it could also be “seen” or read as the imprint or inscription of an absent positive element—a column, pier, or another wall perhaps. So a niche, or another element, could be simultaneously literally present and imply something other. As noted earlier, these implied conditions beyond the literal can be called the virtual, hence the title of this book, Palladio Virtuel. In one sense, the normative is itself a “virtual” condition in that it never really exists but is only a hypothetical “ideal” condition that erases difference (in other words, it homogenizes). In another sense, the virtual is an excessive condition in that it is “too large” or “too small” to conform to a normative standard. Thus, the virtual is both an excessive and a normative condition, because it too can be considered only a hypothetical version of something. This could be said to be a second condition of the virtual. This contradiction is important to the analyses presented in this book, seen in the movement of Palladio’s work both toward and away from an ideal type, in this case, the villa.

Another definition of the normative considers the idea that architecture’s function is usually thought of in relation to enclosure, comfort, and shelter—those conditions connected to presence. In fact, architecture has been called a sine qua non of the metaphysics of presence. No attempt is made here to completely disregard a metaphysics of presence, however, because it is a discourse that will always have currency in regard to architecture. However, shifts in thinking about the relationship between signifier and signified in language, among other things, signal a loosening of the dominant discourses connected to presence. This would explain the effect of Derrida on this book. Although it is sometimes assumed that the only function of architecture is to solve or accommodate social, political, and economic problems, in fact, architecture can also be engaged in the loosening of the supposed normative one-to-one relationship between sign and signified. And in this sense, architecture has the potential to open up these problems to their own internal constructions and contradictions.

The layering of the column bays of Santo Spirito [c. 1430] by Brunelleschi, the façade of Sant’Andrea [c. 1465] by Alberti, and the space of Bramante’s plans each in their own way constitutes a different aspect of architecture’s capacity to loosen—to dissipate—the relationship between sign and signified. Bramante was a key figure in this regard. He seized on the shift in cosmology that placed the human subject at the center of his world and produced a new kind of church exemplified in the centralized plan for St. Peter’s [c. 1506] and the Tempietto [c. 1510]. While Brunelleschi had previously brought an idea of science into architecture, and Alberti collaged ideas and references from the history of architecture, Bramante could be considered the first architect to have seen and conceptualized an idea that originated from within architecture itself—that is, to consider architecture as a self-contained organism.

Learning from Bramante, Palladio continues to place the Albertian notion of presence and homogeneous space in question, and, as this book contends, he is the first architect to work with the possibility of the inscription of a spatial syntax and the corresponding denial of overt symbols. In Palladio, for the first time, there exists what will later be called by Le Corbusier a promenade architecturale, for example, where space is understood not merely from a frontalized picture plane, as suggested by architectural historian James Ackerman, or through an understood set of proportional geometric relationships in space, but rather as unfolding in different ways through space, in en suite progressions without corridors, servant or served spaces. Instead there emerges a new typology: a villa plan in which the abstract geometry of the nine-square diagram gradually dissipates, replaced by a sense of topological relationships; it loses its volumetric discreteness, revealing spaces that are superposed over one another or transposed from some unstable base condition, which is no longer Platonic and ideal, but rather involves a series of potentially disarticulated and disaggregated relations of some presumed normative state.

It could be argued that Palladio’s consciousness of a spatial syntax is made evident in his I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura (The Four Books of Architecture), published in 1570, ten years before his death. In I Quattro Libri, Palladio redrew his buildings not as they had actually been built, but as he wanted them to be known. The reality of Palladio’s work therefore exists between the drawings and the buildings themselves, as a virtual Palladio; this is a third condition of the virtual. Bertotti Scamozzi, Heinrich Wöfflin, Paul Frankl, Wittkower, Rowe, and Ackerman are some of the many architects and historians who, since the seventeenth century, have both drawn from and literally redrawn Palladio’s own redrawings. The substance of fact, one could say, is a very elusive one. Most of Palladio’s buildings have been changed or refurbished, and some have been destroyed. Many previous interpretations are based on Scamozzi’s drawings, which have little to do with Palladio’s intentions in the Four Books. Had Palladio not written and drawn the Four Books as a theoretical treatise following Vitruvius and Alberti, it is possible that very few architects would have studied so keenly or gone to see his buildings, as opposed to the many other country villas constructed at the time.

It is clear that this book is also engaged in an act of revision. Working from readings of English versions of the primary sources, this revision is therefore not a revision of the primary sources themselves as much as it is a revision of secondary material. Thus, the reading of Palladio that follows is not exactly a revision of Palladio, but a revision of nineteenth- and twentieth-century readings of his work through the lens of an Anglo/American theoretical context as it evolved out of a German art historical tradition in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Two questions must be asked about the work that follows: why Palladio today, and why this particular method of analysis?

To attempt to answer these questions, this work considers history as a template for the possible multiple interpretations and transformations of any project that are reflections of a dynamic culture. In the past, Palladio’s work has been seen as a master example of critical introspection in the first wave of modernity, a moment in history that once had a poignancy and a clarity necessary to illuminate contemporary architecture. But in the rush to embrace new technologies beginning in the late twentieth century, ideas changed radically, and the potential in the transformation of historical precedent was almost forgotten.

The late nineteenth century “Kunstgeschichte” idea of Palladio as a model of Renaissance reason, proportion, and mathematics became part of the detritus of such rapid technological growth. Overlooked in most previous readings of Palladio were the nuances and inconsistencies that appear in Palladio’s own drawings, which have been passed over as unimportant to the prevailing interpretation. Beginning from the idea that what Palladio drew might be necessary to explore, not because of its inconsistencies but rather as evidence of an alternative model, might help resuscitate Palladio as well as the historical project. This new work exposes Palladio to a completely different interpretation than what has been previously available in an Anglo/American context. The interpretation in this book eschews and denies previous claims of an ideal and static geometry in Palladio’s villas. Instead, it develops a sequential tripartite typology, which traces the breakdown of unitary villa volumes into a series of partial villa elements and their important positioning in the landscape by comparing the possibility of two states: first, the relationship in space of potentially ideal organizations; and second, the possibility of virtual topological conditions that arise out of the subtleties of a close reading of each villa. It is this close reading that in turn animates the discussion of each villa, producing a new theoretical trajectory from a previously thought static geometric volume to a dynamic topology of partial figures.

The analysis presented here does not go against or refute technology; on the contrary, it shows that technology itself is grounded in history, made more pliable and dynamic by close reading.  This work attempts to redirect attention away from the formal components of an architecture typically conceived in static geometric terms toward a supple topology similar to the output of today’s digital algorithms. By casting Palladio in this light, this reading introduces a critical complexity of heterogeneous, as opposed to homogenous, space-making, which breaks the bounds of the centuries-old humanist and enlightenment project. The results are a series of processes engendered by intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, movement, which reanimates the idea of close reading of history, now as a dynamic process. It is the critical reassessment of a formal logic, rather than the static formal project itself, that can become a necessary part of our culture of architecture today.

Peter Eisenman

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Volume 1, Issue 14
December 3, 2015

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