The concept of a building type is first articulated in the early nineteenth-century writings of French theoretician Quatremère de Quincy (1755–1849). The definition of type is closely associated with imitation as a guiding principle of classicism and, conversely, opposed to the notion of exemplar model. It consists in tracing back to an “original principle” drawn from “the nature of each region, historical notions, and the monuments themselves found in mature art.”1 Type is in turn reported to the expression of character, to which there are three levels: essential character pertains to how a work of architecture respects the universal laws of nature embodied in the principle of construction; incidental character has to do with the particulars of each building culture, as it develops with respect to climate, geography, and society; the lowest degree of determinacy is attached to relative character, which represents the analogy between appearance and purpose.2
The Modernist worldview turns this hierarchy on its end. It does so at first by declaring that “form follows function,” therefore raising relative character from last to first determinant in the design process, and then by asserting that “left and right, front and back, and possibly even above and below” are “equal in value,”3 thereby obviating any observance of essential character. Finally, the adequacy of building types to the place and culture they belong to—that is, incidental character—is superseded both by the increasingly wide availability of standardized, industrial building elements, and, at the opposite end, by the glorification of the individual architect’s uniqueness.
The impact of this reversal in architectural theory and scholarship is so strong that they become mostly unable to acknowledge the role of place, history, and culture in shaping the built environment. The German geographer, M.R.G. Conzen (1907–2000), working from the disciplinary perspective of landscape studies, sets the foundations for the present-day field of urban morphology, in which typology plays an important part. Nevertheless, primacy is given to the plan and, especially, to the parcel patterns, which are assumed to preexist and determine building types.4
Go on to the next post in this series: Procedural Typology
- Antoine Chrysosthome Quatremère de Quincy, “Type,” in Architecture, ed. Denis Diderot, Jean le Rond d’Alembert, and A.C. Quatremère de Quincy (Paris: Panckouke, 1825), 544.↩
- Antoine Chrysosthome Quatremère de Quincy, “Caractère,” in Architecture, ed. Denis Diderot, Jean le Rond d’Alembert, and A.C. Quatremère de Quincy, vol. 1 (Paris: Panckouke, 1788), 478.↩
- Theo van Doesburg, “Towards a Plastic Architecture,” in De Stijl, ed. Hans Ludwig C Jaffé (New York: H. N. Abrams, 1971), 185–88.↩
- M. R. G Conzen and Jeremy W.R. Whitehand, “M. R. G. Conzen’s Notes on ‘Urban Morphology: Its Nature and Development’ (1992–1999),” in Thinking About Urban Form: Papers on Urban Morphology, 1932-1998 (Oxford; New York: Peter Lang, 2004), 269–83.↩