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Post-war principia.

The Impact of Wittkower’s Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism on British Architectural Debates and Practices (1949-1957)

In the 1940s, a singular architectural sensibility toward the classical tradition emerged in Europe. In part, it responded to Le Corbusier’s persistent inclination toward antiquity and mathematical regulating systems, as well as to the incipient revisions of early modern discourses and its conflicting relation to the past. In Britain, this classicist tendency found expressions in theory and design. Anthony Vidler has argued that the acknowledgement of a ‘Neo-Palladian’ sensibility in the architectural practices of postwar Britain ‘is now a commonplace of intellectual history.’[1] There, this tendency was especially determined by the impact of the work of German émigré art historians on a new generation of British architects and critics, who came under their sphere of influence through their writing and teaching in Britain. 

In particular, scholars have studied the role of Rudolf Wittkower in the amplification of this classicist inclination. Specifically, there has been research about the influence of one of his most influential books, Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism, which was published in London in 1949 and received with unexpected success. Many of the studies allude to British journal publications, which directly or implicitly react to Wittkower’s book. Nevertheless, only a few of them seem to examine the original sources in detail.  

Consequently, the start point of this research is the close reading of a selection of book reviews, articles, public letters and debates published in Architectural Design, the Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and the Architectural Review in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The texts depict the theoretical assimilation of Wittkower’s book by a series of critics and architects, such as Kenneth Clark, A. S. G. Butler, Alison and Peter Smithson, John Voelcker, Ruth Olitsky, Arthur Trystan Edwards, Reyner Banham, Nikolaus Pevsner, and Wittkower himself. This analysis of primary sources is complemented by references to later publications of the late 1950s and 1960s, which historicise and revise this historical moment.  

Within this framework, the question this essay aims to respond to can be phrased in a quite simple manner. What are the main theoretical debates animated by Wittkower’s Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism in Britain and documented in local journal publications in the post-war period? 

The analysis of British publications shows that the book prompted a dominating interest in the problem of proportion in architecture. For most of the authors, proportion is loosely understood as a system of coherent principles, founded on elemental geometrical order and controlled numerical relationships. The documents also reflect an intellectual attraction toward the idea of unity between art and science, which was crucial in Wittkower’s depiction of the Renaissance. At the same time, many of the authors suggest relationships between Wittkower’s Architectural Principles and Le Corbusier’s Modulor, and between classical proportion and industrial standardization. The recurrence of these debates seems to align with the prevailing modern sensibility in the local scene. 

Paradoxically, the sources also reveal discussions around the validity of universal principles in art and architecture. Some of the articles point out the emergence of new aesthetic values, in many senses opposed to the classical, like the “new brutalism” and the objet trouvé. This seem to simultaneously reflect the embryonic crisis of modern narratives. Despite these ambivalences, this research suggests that Architectural Principles was ultimately a modern construction of the Renaissance, enthusiastically received by a (still) modern audience. 

In line with this, the dissertation concludes that the fundamental characteristics of Wittkower’s method in the book are common to the discourses of modern architecture. In both kinds of historical constructions, a system of values is epitomised in a set of great masters and their seminal writings,[2] architectural form conveys meaning, abstract and typological aspects of architecture prevail, and logic and syntax displace taste and style in the characterisation of buildings. In this sense, it can be said that Wittkower’s approach to the study of the Renaissance and its architectural production is fundamentally modern in nature. 

In light of this, it is not surprising to know that Wittkower had a comprehensive understanding of the theoretical debates about modern architecture, its conceptualisation and historicisation. Notwithstanding his background in classical art history, he was familiar with the writings of Sigfried Giedion, Nikolaus Pevsner and Le Corbusier. Referring to Wittkower’s awareness of the state of the art, his wife, the interior designer Margot Wittkower, stated: ‘We read it all.’[3]

Finally, the particular British historical circumstances after World War II should not be obviated. In a RIBA debate,[4] Peter Smithson claimed that in the late 1940s and early 1950s British architects were trying to find in Palladio’s architecture an intelligible order to believe in. The hopeless situation of the time, as depicted by Banham in 1966,[5] might have contributed to the need and pursuit of new architectural principia, grounded on a rule-based system, abstract order and geometrical synthesis. Thus, by provisionally turning their gaze to the principles of the age of Humanism, young architects were perhaps trying to glimpse a silver lining in the smoking ruins of post-war Britain. 

























[1] Anthony Vidler, ‘Mannerist Modernism: Colin Rowe’, in Histories of the Immediate Present. Inventing Architectural Modernism (London, England: The MIT Press, 2008), 68. 

[2] In Wittkower’s constructions, Palladio and his Quattro Libri are to Renaissance architecture what Le Corbusier and Vers Une Architecture are to modern architecture. Vidler suggests that in Rowe’s early essays, Le Corbusier was the Palladio of modernity. 

[3] See Footnote 106, in Alina A. Payne, ‘Rudolf Wittkower and Architectural Principles in the Age of Modernism’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 53, no. 3 (September 1994): 338. 


[4] ‘Report of a Debate on the Motion ‘that Systems of Proportion Make Good Design Easier and Bad Design More Difficult. Held at the R.I.B.A., 18 June, 1957’, Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects 64, no. 11 (September 1957): 456-463. 

[5] Reyner Banham, The New Brutalism: ethic or aesthetic? (London: Architectural Press, 1966).  

T_Ogalde, Manola_Fig. 1.jpg

Diagrams showing the interrelation of numerical ratios, as reflection of universal harmony.  Francesco Giorgi in De Harmonia Mundi Totius,1525.

Redrawn by the author, based on figure 42b reproduced in Rudolf Wittkower, Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism (New York/London: WW Norton & Company, 1971/1949), n/p.

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