Regular geometric order sometimes has a bad reputation. One complains about uniformity, rigidity, monotony, inhumanity. In a contribution to the journal of Diadalos, devoted to the theme ‘order and disorder’. Ulrich Conrads declares war on order by saying: … If, up to now, disorder has been inimical to architecture – and vice versa – it now acts as a stimulant. And, furthermore, architecture might draw renewed commitment and strength from those special features of disorder which we recognize as the structure of life itself and which, in most cases, cannot be brought into line and into symmetry. Networks and labyrinths would be the appropriate descriptions of this kind of architecture from disorder. And we recall that we have already identified these same architectural structures as the truly habitable ones.
This thesis is based on the concept that the life of man and the organization of nature are much more complex than a regular, geometrical order, implying that a town or building should be a more immediate reflection of this complexity. The argument nevertheless ignores three major issues.
First of all, to orientate ourselves in this world, we need to simplify its complexity mentally and visually to obtain images that we can commit to memory. Without the repetition of leaves that are practically identical, ordered according to the structure of the branches, it would not be possible for us to remember the tree as an entity. We need to be able to join the parts together in larger and simpler units, without having to decipher the detail. The same principle is valid for the town, its neighbourhoods, squares, streets, its buildings and their windows.
Let us remember, then, that in order to build rationally from a large number of constructive elements, a certain degree of regularity is a technical necessity.
And finally, building is also an activity of the mind which will often try to surpass imitation of nature or social fact. Simple geometric figures and patterns lend themselves to it particularly well. Life is complex, but the form which contains life is regular (as in ecosystems, the processes of growth and the life of plants, etc.). To manage to respect the complexity of society, while at the same time making use of regularity, is intellectually rewarding.
But what kind and what degree of regularity? On what scale? There is no certainty that a town will imprint itself on our memory if it is perfectly square or circular. The degree of geometric abstraction remains a question which each culture answers in its own manner. This is more or less the ground on which the quarrel between rationalism and the picturesque takes place.
Lines, surfaces and volumes with simple geometric outlines have for us – as much as anthropomorphic forms – the power to subsume a complex reality, indeed even to sublimate it, without the distraction of an abundance of variations of detail. We enjoy a moment of satisfaction, of peace and admiration, when at certain times or from certain angles complex structures blend into simplicity. Manhattan – complex in spite of its simple grid plan – resolves itself when seen from afar at nightfall, or in the mist, into a silhouette. San Lorenzo, finally, is nothing but a ‘common’ rectangle.
Regularity is omnipresent. Our heartbeats, rate of breathing, drips from a tap, a clock, days and nights, the rhythm of the seasons … we cannot escape it. It is only when the pulse changes that we measure it because continuity is then at risk. Regularity is within us. Hidden rhythms regulate our life.
Where is the dividing line between an accompanying rhythm and a dominant repetition, between order and monotony? It is a question of appreciation in which many factors come into play: place, scale, field of vision, significance of the object, habit, etc. It seems that in largescale groupings, in which rhythm predominates, and where there is little hierarchy or grouping into larger units, there is, in fact, a risk of monotony. The regularity of mass production of industrial objects – our chairs, radiators, wash-basins, door handles, nuts and bolts – does not cause any problems of monotony in itself. It is their situation and their context which must, in fact, be questioned. The town, if it were produced as mechanically, without regard for place and use, would no longer be orderly, but schematic.
Well-established regularity offers itself as a background to exceptions which will then assume a dominant importance (Figure 72). Our recent warning remains valid: an exception with meaning is better than an exclusively formal game. The door handle is an exception in the regularity of the door, the door is an exception to the façade, the fountain or the law courts to the town, the monastery to the countryside (Chapter 5). In the regular grid layout of Priene, a colonial town of antiquity, the status of exception is reserved for the agora, the sanctuary and the theatre (Figure 73). History has created exceptions in the strict Roman grid plan of the city of Turin simply by varying the width of streets and squares which indicate special places for the most important buildings, without disturbing the pattern. In order to become an exception, ‘acrobatics’ such as turning a building at 45 degrees are unnecessary.