The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa
Through a comparative analysis of Palladio’s Villa Malcontenta and Le Corbusier’s Villa Garches, Colin Rowe presented in 1976 an interpretation that attempted to shift meaning from its traditional place within geometry and structure to a now popularly accepted place of allusion and signification.
Both architects, Le Corbusier and Palladio, look to structure as a justification for their dispositions, but Rowe sees the justifications as excessive and attributes the justifications to “personal exigencies of high style”.
Colin’s characterization of exigencies is indicative of an underlying cultural division between self and cosmos. His interpretation of Palladio is inadequate because no such division existed for Palladio. Even if we allow Colin’s interpretation to remain, it brings us no closer to understanding Architecture.
If Colin Rowe were asked the question: Are things beautiful because they give pleasure, or give pleasure because they are beautiful?, he would certainly answer things are beautiful because they give pleasure. The reference to beauty at the beginning of his essay is merely that, a reference. He has no interest in beauty itself, but his position is decidedly self-centred instead of cosmos-centred, or even some mixture of the two.
The essay in question does not see the inevitability of form and presents it as “personal exigencies”. The mathematics of the ideal villa attempts to undermine Modern architecture in general through acknowledging that Palladio and Le Corbusier both use structure and the placement of structure as justifying their very different villas. This criticism is inadequate in that it does not present a full picture of either Villa Malcontenta or Villa Garches.
For Palladio at least, man was oriented within a cosmos whose source was located transcendentally. Although as a humanist Palladio emphasised the autonomy of self and cosmos, he never undermined the balance of the whole. Man took an increased role in beauty and meaning, but he was not alone in creating them.
Colin Rowe presents instead a comparative analysis where geometry and structure are reduced to references. His analysis of structure at once criticizes its use by both architects, and provides an erroneous reason that both villas are known only through references and context. “That is, one is able to seize hold of all these references as something known;…”
Palladio’s villas are to be known in a manner very different from Colin Rowe’s manner of thinking. Indeed, Rudolf Wittkower explored Palladio’s villas and the central tenet of his work is this: “Man is in the church no longer pressing forward to reach a transcendental goal but enjoying the beauty that surrounds him and the glorious sensation of being the centre of this beauty”, and that architects created the central plan for churches “to eternalize the present”.
In order to understand Palladio’s work, one must enjoy the beauty of the villas. To do so implies re-orienting the self with relation to the cosmos, and acknowledge that beauty has a metaphysical worth, an unchanging objectivity, and an extension which is universal. Hence, through beauty it is possible to eternalize the present. This appreciation of beauty is not possible within a strictly anthropocentric manner of thinking which Colin Rowe has attempted to use.
Architecture throughout history has been grounded in meaning, beauty, ineffability, and divinity. If we wish to understand Palladio’s Villas, for example, it is impossible to do so without such transcendentals. To approach an understanding of such transcendentals places the task beyond the realm of ideas or subjective allusions or references, and instead calls for a direct unmediated consciousness.
If we define mysticism as either a religious tendency and desire of the human soul towards an intimate union with the divinity, or a system growing out of such a tendency and desire, then understanding architecture is coextensive with understanding mysticism.