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Gottfried Semper: Stereotomy, Biology, and Geometry Author(s): Bernard Cache Source: Perspecta, Vol.

33, Mining Autonomy (2002), pp. 80-87 Published by: The MIT Press on behalf of Perspecta. Stable URL: Accessed: 21/04/2010 13:55
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Ourpoint of departureis what is known in mathematics as a double point. This particular point is constituted by the two statues - one of George Cuvier'and the other of Alexandervon Humboldt,2 the German disciple of Etienne Geoffrey Saint- GottfriedSemperplacedat the top of the Hilaire3 Naturhistorisches Museum (1872-1881).The fact that Semperdid not place one, but two biologists at the summit of his representationof science should act as a question mark within Semper's Der Stil. His insistence on placing a statue of a disciple of GeoffroySaint-Hilairebetrays a doubt in Semper that in turn reveals a blind spot in DerStil. The four technical arts of Der Stil's table of contents, the four pillars, are treated far from equally.Semper'semphasis on textiles is of course very well known, but what is rarely discussed is the weakness of the chapters on stereotomy.4 The numbers of pages dedicated to each of the technical arts in Der Stil are: Textile, 550 pages;

Ceramique,200; Tectonique,135;Stereotomy,123. But at issue is not merelythe numberof pages, nor is it that the majorityof what is actually discussed is dedicated to tectonics in stone rather than to stereotomyproper.In the pages of DerStil devoted to stereotomy,Sempergoes so far as to assert that the whole history of architecture is signified by the victory of the vault (usually considered the primaryterritoryof stereotomy)over the tectonic frame, but then hardly mentions any more about it. This absence of the core of stereotomy is even more surprising considering that Semper lived and studied in France, where architecture was strongly rooted in stereotomy. How could such a well-informedscholar as Semperwrite aboutstereotomy without mentioning figures such as PhilibWas Semper ert de L'Orme5 or GirardDesargues?6 acknowledging the fall of French building traditions? Washe drawingconclusions fromSoufflot's controversialSainte-Genevievechurch,where tra-


ditional French geometric methodology was supplanted by a physical approach based on statics and the strength of materials? Did Semper feel these traditions were unable to cope with the technological challenges of the time? These reasons cannot fully explain why Semper made no mention at all of what appears to be the most 'Semperian'piece of architecturein Paris, the wonderful stone interlacing of the roodscreen within Saint-Etienne du Mont, only a hundred meters behind Sainte-Genevieve.7No other piece of architectureso clearly embodies the architectural motif of the Semperian knot and the theoretical concept of stereotomy,the transposition from textile to stone. Couldit be that what really puzzled Semper was not only that Philibert de I'Ormewas the presumed architect of this roodscreen,8 as well as of so many other Semperian pieces of architecture,but that an architect could the branch be the initiator of projectivegeometry,9

of mathematics forming the conceptual backwork? ground of GeoffroySaint-Hilaire's One could object that these questions were of little relevance to Semper's architectural project, and that he could have very well ignored projective geometry and its connections to Saai Hilaire's biology. But we should remember Semper actually studied mathematics with Carl FriedrichGauss, the man who first accepted positively the consequences of the negation of Euclid's fifth postulate, and in so doing initiated the field of "non-Euclidean geometry." Semper'sinterest in mathematics was strong enough for him to write at the age of fifty a technical essay on differential calculus applied to the shape of projectiles.10It is my hypothesis that Semper had the capacity to fully understand projective geometry, but he repressed it in Der Stil because it implied a reformulation of geometry that had yet to be achieved by mathematicians themselves.1 Until this refor-

mulation was achieved, the architecturalreading of geometry was bound to remain neo-classical in a manner similar to Winckelmann'sreading of Greekarchitectureas pure,ideal, white form.Gottfried '';lh

Li. ., . A
n form.1

Such a hypothesis relies upon two assumptions. The first is that projectivegeometry was an backimportantfeature of GeoffroySaint-Hilaire's ground - so prominent a feature it could not be ignoredby someone like Semperwith strong interests in architecture, biology, and geometry. The second is that projective geometry could imply a non-neoclassical reading of geometry that would have enabled Semperto pursue his workbegun on color by applying it to shape. Such an accomplishment would have enabled Semper to adequately write his missing text on stereotomy.

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'Anatomie du homard' Memoires du Museum D'Histoire Naturelle, Volume 9 (Paris, 1822), Plate 7. Printed with permission of Yale University Library.

BIOLOGY What was the core of the debate between Cuvier

and Saint-Hilaire that excited contemporaries such as Goethe and Balzac? The two biologists were initially good friends who worked together on vertebrate classification in order to corroborate Saint-Hilaire's theory of a single organizational plan that would inform the whole of the vertebrate family. Since 1796, GeoffroySaint-Hilaire had workedwith the concept that there existed a single organizational plan for all animals.'3SaintHilaire'sresearch began with mammals and then extended the concept to tetrapods. An 1808 essay by Saint-Hilaire on fish generalized the single plan to all vertebrates.'4Until that point Cuvier still enthusiastically supported Saint-Hilaire.But in 1812,Cuvierannouncedhis own thesis, classifying animals into several branches or "embranchments": Vertebrata, Articulata, Mollusca, Cnidarians, and Echinoderms. For Cuvier, these embranchements were fundamentally different from each other and could not be connected by any evolutionary transformation. Cuvier's"fixist" view of biology posited that every single part of an organism is so well fitted to its surroundings that there is only one way in which each part can be connected to the whole organism. For those who would think that this is far away from architecture, remember,it is Cuvierwho wrote the famous sentence taken as a principle of functionalist architecture,"giveme anysingle piece of an animal and I will drawyou the whole body." Accordingto this view, each embranchmenthas its own organization and there can be no wayof connecting parts in any manner other than that described in each of the categories. Until 1820, Cuvier and Saint-Hilaire lived and workedpeacefully in the same institution, le Musee d'Histoire Naturelle, in Paris. During this time, Jules-Caesar Savigny,who had been in Egypt with Saint-Hilaireon the Napoleonic Expedition, studied the comparative anatomy of an insect's mouth. Another of Saint-Hilaire's peers, Pierre Andre Latreille, applied the principle of unity of composition to all of the Articulata.15Until that point, the work of Cuvier and Saint-Hilaire remained compatible because neither SaintHilaire nor his followers broke any frontiers between Cuvier'ssacrosanct embranchments.But in 1820, Saint-Hilaire suggested a unity of plan and Insects. Cuvier'scritiques betweenVertebrata at this began point and only increased when Saint-Hilaire,leaning on works by Laurencetand Meyrand, extended his unity of composition to Mollusca as well.'6Saint-Hilairehad unified three

of the embranchments;an accomplishmentCuvier was unable to accept. But as one examines Saint-Hilaire's unification of Vertebrata and Insects, the relation between the two embranchments seems far from obvious, since each has a thoroughly different relationship to the ground. All Vertebrata have their digestive organs facing the ground, located underneath the vertebral column, which in turn houses the nervous system. In contrast, Insects have digestive systems in an inverted position facing the sky, with the spinal cord located underneath the body.Toaddress these differences in orientation, Saint-Hilairemakes use of a torsion operation, a tool from projective geometry,to explain how insects havetheir belly upwardand their back downward.Semper uses a similar vectorial organization in Der Stil, comparing the composition of biological vectors in various species with the vector of gravity in architecture. In terms of validating his research, however, Saint-Hilairecommitted an errorwhen he went so far as to posit that "eachanimal lives either inside or outside its spine" - effectively assimilating all carapaces from Insects to Vertebrata.Eventually, he would even compare the legs of shellfishes to the ribs of Vertebrata.It was no difficult task for Cuvier to take advantage of this hypothesis in order to invalidate the whole of Saint-Hilaire's categorization. As a result, Cuvier appeared the winner of a crucial series of highly-publicized debates that took place between the two biologists in 1830, at the very time that Semper was studyCuvierretained the victory mantle ing in Paris.17 until very recently,when the scientific publication Nature published an article by E.M. de Robertis and Y. Sassai which used contemporary biological studies to assert the validity of Saint-Hilaire's Modernbiology has found genes original theory."8 that code the orientation of organs backwardand forward, as well as downwardand upward.'9As a result, the most plausible hypothesis now is that indeed Insects and Vertebratahad a common ancestor from which they bifurcated some 540 million years ago. GEOMETRY Toreturnto the nineteenth centuryandthe geometric concepts in use by Saint-Hilaire,it should be understoodthat a crucial concept for Saint-Hilaire was inversion, which is also a key transformation in projective geometry.2 Through inversion, the closed quadrangle,as used in projectivegeometry, can be taken as a conceptual equivalent of an ant in Saint-Hilaire'swork, insofar as an insect is a



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angles have a center of homology,then they have also an axis of homology."This theorem would become a cornerstone of projectivegeometry. Abstract elements such as the 'center' and the 'axis of homology' were certainly the kind of invariants Saint-Hilaire was looking for in the continuation of the work of his teacher Rene Just Hauy.2 Just Huay founded crystallography - another scientific domain not at all foreign to the history of art, especially when one considers that the crystal was to becomethe paradigmof the abstract "Kunstwollen." Just as, having dropped a crystal, Rene Just Hauy found that the broken pieces showed planes intersecting at a constant angle, Saint-Hilaire was looking for the equivalent plane, the invariant element, on the basis of which various animals could be said to belong to the same "forme primitive,"in the language of Just Huay,or to the same "urmotiv," using the language of Gottfried Semper. It is on the basis of this unique plane that one would be able to generate any species by varying the proportions of an "urtier." While Semperhints at notions of varying proportions in his chapter on stereotomy,he remains far from considering such notions as the proportionswhich appearto be constant in projective transformation. PROJECTIVE GEOMETRY The fate of projective geometry was to be developed by mathematicians and used by technicians while simply ignored by most people in other fields. Projective geometry is commonly thought of as only a set of drawing tools, when it has historically involved much wider practical goals

crossed (or inverted) vertebrate. This conceptual equality establishes a common ground between the Geoffroy Saint-Hilaireand GaspardMonge,21 rediscovererof projectivegeometry. Monge,who taught at the Ecole de Mezieres and was closely connected, in 1794, to the Ecole Normale,where the young GeoffreySaint-Hilaire had arrived, believed in descriptive geometry's ability to become a universal language. Monge was also one of the organizers of the scientific portion of Napoleon's Egypt expedition, and would later become the Chairof the Institut d'Egypte.It is likely that Monge and Saint-Hilairehad plenty of opportunity to discuss their shared interests. Within a year of their overlap at the Ecole Normale, Saint-Hilairewas to formulate his principle of "unityof plan." ;ilibert

.. .....


Top to bottom Interior of Sainte-Etienne Du Mont stone interlacinterlacshowingstone Mont showing ing of the roodscreen, Paris, Philibert de I'Orme. Detail of the roodscreen, within Saint-Etienne du Mont, Paris, Philibert de I'Orme.

Interestingly, Monge developed projective geometry by teaching stereotomy. His interest in architecture went so far as to lead to a proposal for an ellipsoidal vault - the joints of which were lines of curvature that admit two limit points, called "umbilics."22 Inversionand umbilic are only two among many other hybrid concepts shared between biology and geometry.23There is also great overlap in Saint-Hilaire'suse of the terms "homology"and "plane of composition," both of whicharesignificant andwell-definedterms within projective geometry. Saint-Hilaire didn't use the word "homologue"as a vague synonym to "anaas a vague synonym logue",nor did he use "plan" to "organization."24 He intended these terms to carry their full mathematical meanings, such as those used by the mathematician Girard Desargues, in 1638, to formulate the theorem "if two tri-

than simply representation. Alongside stonecutting and gnomonics,26perspective was only one field of development for projective geometry. In mathematics for example, projective geometry had a much deeper significance than as just the codification of a practice. It led to the structuring of geometry into categories - isometry,similitude, projection, and topology. The problemis that the history of projective geometry is rather slippery. It developed independently in the three practical fields mentioned earlier - stereotomy, perspective and gnomonics - until Desargues invented general theorems to be used commonly by all of the fields. Unfortunately Desargues's theorems were widely ignored with the exception of a few eminent readers.7 Although many reasons can be invoked to explain the rejection of Desargues'swork, it is at least worthwhile to mention three of them and their implications in various fields. In mathematics, Desargues's theory of projective geometry appearedat the same time as Descartes'theory of analytic geometry,which was to give way to differential geometry.At the time, the path was already open for a progressive eclipse of geometry as a whole, to the advantage of algebra. By the end of the nineteenth century, Euclid's Elements, which for two thousand years had been the model of all rational discourse, ceased to be a teaching reference. In stereotomy,Desargues had the same type of trouble that Philibert de l'Orme had already experienced, and that Monge would face in his turn as a teacher of stone-cutting at the Ecole de M6zi re.e three thIreatened.tle.division..of

geometry at the Ecole de Polytechnique,and eventually, the consequences of projective geometry were to be drawn not in France, but in German countries,byvon Staudt,Plucker,and FelixKlein.30 Still, at the time Semper was studying mathematics, projectivegeometry was considered to be primarilyFrench.Whatwas Semper'sunderstanding of geometry?Andwhat could he have learned from FrederickGauss?It's a difficult question because Gauss was known for keeping secret most of his work until he was sure of all its conclusions. In fact, he rarelymade public the methods he used to discover his theorems. His demonstrations were so deprived of all traces of method that they displayed only their final structure. Gauss would explain: "Whena beautiful building is achieved, one must not see what has been the scaffolding."31 Such a sentence is so close to Semper'sconception of architecturethat it quite probablywas inspired by Gauss. Ian Stewartpresents Gauss very well by stating that he was at the same time the first of the modern mathematicians and the last of the classical ones. "His methods were modern, while his choice of problems was classic." Most probably, Semper inherited from Gauss this classical approachto geometry that read Euclid'sElementA as a text orientedtowardsa Platonictheory of polyhedrons (as it is espoused in the Tim,e). Semper's Prolegomenabegins with images of the sphere and the polyhedron as they appear in crystals. This polygonalconception shows up again in Semper's text on stereotomy, where blocks of stone are conceived as polyhedrons. Chapter 166, "Gestalt des Unterbaues als Ganzes betrachtet," reproduces this "kristallinisch-eurhythmisch" conception: "aufden Kreis,das Polygon,das Rechteck."32 Geometrically speaking, Gottfried Semper is an unusual case, his conception of textiles clearly anticipates topology and knot theory, and it revives the main geometrical concept of Anaximandre,33the apeiron. But his conception of stereotomy is entirely based upon the transposition of wood tectonics into stone, and as such it remains anchored in a neo-classical reading of Euclid. Semper missed the intermediary level between the polygons of Euclid and the knots of William Thomson.3 Had Semper read Desargues he would have discovered a language of geometry close to Philibert de l'Orme's architectural language - not only in its knots and stone interlacing, and not only in the projectivecone of the Trompe

d'Anet,but in the vocabularyof its Frenchordera trunk, with knots, branches, and thinner ramification.35 Instead of restricting his view to regular convex polygons, Sempercould have realized that they are only a very particular case within a wholevarietyof concaveand crossed figures. Moreover,Semperwouldhave realized that non-regular polygons could have interesting projectiveproperties, like the alignment of the intersection of the opposed sides evidenced in Pascal's theorem of the hexagon.36Geometrytakes on a new appearance when one doesn't focus solely on the last chapters of Euclid's Elements and instead allows it to combine with Menelaus'stheorem. This geometrician of the first century established the first projective properties upon the base of Thales's theorem.37 Moreover,it is possible to deduct all the fundamentaltheorems of projectivegeometry, Pappus, Ceva,Desargues, Pascal, and Brianchon, on the basis of this single theorem of Menelaus. Are we not today in a situation similar to Semper's?Piling up topology on top of classical geometry, are we not missing the intermediary step? Are we not putting things too simply when we oppose the cube to the blob?Is there no other solution than the modernist grid and the contemporary free form? Can'twe find supple regularities? To be sure, morphing software enables us to link anything with any other thing. But isn't it the path that matters?By simply rejecting polygons to promoteNURBS, don'twe miss a geometry for our projects,a projectivegeometry?

"art"milieu, but perhaps for social rather than theoretical reasons. Yet strangely enough, one of Desargues's main opponents, Charles Lebrun, was still able to anticipate, artistically, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire's notion of establishing continuity between remote species by progressive deformation.28So even though Desargues never enjoyed the success he deserved, his workhad sufficiently pervaded several areas of society enough to prepare his revivalat the beginning of the nineteenth century,just before Semper'sarrivalin Paris.2 Semper arrived in Paris in 1830, when it could be said the era of projectivegeometry there had alreadybegun to pass. Algebrahad supplanted

NOTES 1 theorieswere based uponthe notionthatfuncCuvier's Cuvier, Georges,Baron- (1769-1832) withinthe restraints of tion determinesbiological form.As such, formwas deemed immutable this assumption, Cuvier function.From developeda system of classificationthat assignedall species of animalto one of fourdistinctcategoriesand deniedthe existenceof evolution.
23 In mathematics, an umbilic is a point on a curved surface where all normal sections have the same curvature. In biology, an umbilic is the connection between the embryo and the mother through the umbilical cord. 24 The mathematical definition of homology is, if between two figures, composed of points and straight lines, one can establish such a correspondence that couples of associated points are located on converging lines, those figures have a center of homology where the lines converge. If the correspondence is such that couples of associated lines intersect in points located on the same line, this line is the axis of the homology which transforms one figure into another. 25 Rene Just Hauy taught physics at the Ecole Normal at the same time Monge taught geometry. 26 Gnomonics pertains to the measuring of time by means of the projection of the sun - most commonly using a sundial. 27 The first of whom was Blaise Pascal. Indeed, Pascal should be given the right to share the paternity of projective geometry 28 Jurgis Baltrusaitis, "Les perspectives depraves," Part I. 29 After Monge's codification of descriptive geometry in 1795, in 1810 Brianchon announced his astonishing principle of duality. According to Brianchon's principle, all theorems of geometry have a "shadow" theorem, which can be deduced by simply exchanging the word "point" with "straight line", and the word "intersect" with "being aligned." In 1822 Poncelet published "Traitedes proprietes projectives des figures," so it is no surprise that Sainte-Hilaire thought of biology in terms of projective geometry, one of the hot topics among the scientific community at that time. 30 von Staudt, Karl George Christian - (1789-1867), Pluker, Julius- (1801-1868), Klien, Felix (1849-1925) - German mathematicians who contributed significantly to the development and solidification of projective geometry among other branches of mathematics and physics. 31 Biography of Carl Friedrich Gauss by lan Steward in Les Mathematiciens (Berlin, 1996). 32 'From the circle, the polygon, the rectangle' 33 Anaximandre- (610 BC-545 BC) Greek philosopher who developed a systematic philosophical view of the world based on the concept of the aperion, which was the unified, and undifferentiable state in which all things existed before they were separated into discernible entities. 34 William Thomson, Lord Kelvin (1824-1907) proposed that different elements consisted of different configurations of knots, or knotted vortices. Knot theory led many scientists to believe that they could understand the chemical elements by studying different types of knots and thus this led to a completely new field of study in math. A knot is defined as a closed 3-Dimensional curve that does not intersect itself. 35 Projective geometry appears tightly connected to biology since the very beginning of its theorization. At the time Desargues was writing, biology was essentially botany, hence the vegetal nature of the terms projective geometry borrows from natural science. At the time of its rediscovery by Monge, Poncelet and Brianchon, biology began focusing on the animal reign. But this time, the direction of the borrowing seems to have gone mainly the other way round - from geometry towards biology. 36 Even more surprisingly, those properties are kept invariant when the polygons happen to be crossed, or degenerated. Degeneration is another key concept of projective geometry that also happens to be central to Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire's work. 37 Menelaus also initiated spheric trigonometry, which would provide one of the Euclidean models of non-Euclidean geometry,

- (1769-1859) A German VonHumbold 2 Wilhelm von Humbold, Friedrich Alexander naturalist, Hisexhaustiveaccountof the structureof the then was a pioneerin the fieldof Biogeography. knownuniverse, was widelytranslatedand influential. Kosmos, - (1772-1844) the principle French naturalist who developed 3 Geoffroy Etienne Saint-Hailaire, of organiccomposition." Thistheoryproposed thatthe anatomical structureof all of "unity animalscould be traced backto a singleformfromwhichall otherorganicformis derived. 4 Stereotomyis definedas the cuttingof solids, in particular stone. was consideredone 5 de L'Orme, Philibert-(1512-1570) Courtarchitectfor HenryII,de L'Orme He is known architecture. of the fathersof French Neo-Classical for,amongotherthings,the of innovative stone cuttingand vaulting techniques,whichmadeuse of unique development geometricmethods. - (1591-1661) 6 Desargues,Girard French mathematician whodeveloped the foundations of Hiswork, whichdependedheavily on a uniquemathematical projective geometry. symbolism was notwidelyaccepted byothermathematicians until and derivedfrombotanicalnotation, the second halfof the nineteenthcentury. 7 Philippe of Philibert architecture Potiehas alreadyhintedat the "Semperian-ness" de I'Orme's in his brilliant Ina way,this text is a reciprocal de la Pensee Constructive. book,Figures essay of DerStil. on the "non-de I'Orme-ness" 8 Attributed to Philibert de I'Orme Blunt byAnthony 9 Projective of mathematics is the branch that deals withthe relationships between Geometry of themthat resultfromprojection. Common geometricfiguresandthe images,or mappings, arethe shadowscast byopaqueobjects,motionpictures, and maps examplesof projections surface. of the Earth's 10 Gottfried derAlten undzweckmassige Semper,'Uberdie bleiernen Schleudergeschosse imAllgemein', derWurfkorper (Frankfurt, 1859). Gestaltung 11 Notto be achievedby mathematicians until1872. 12 Colorand surface (whichas Aristotleremarked aretwo closely relatedwords,chroiaand chroma)bearwitnessto a pre-Euclidean polychrome geometrywheresurfaces could not been thoughtof withoutcolor. andCuvier comes 13 Thischronology of the development and relation of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire fromLeGuyader, et histoireen biologie(Vrin, Herve,Theories 1988).

14 "Description sous les nomsd'atelesarachnoids et d'atelesmarginatus." de deuxsingesd'Amerique, et histoire 15 LeGuyader, en biologie(Vrin, Herve,Theories 1988). 16 Laurencet was and Meyrand's conceptwas thatthe layoutof the organsof a Cephalopod thanksto a foldingoperation already analogousto thatof a Vertebrata, suggested bythe of the word"Cephalo-pode." etymology 17 At the verytime Semperwas making visits at the Jardins des Planteswhilestudyingarchitecture in Paris. in Bilateria", 1996. 18 "Acommonplanfor dorso-ventral Nature, patterning 19 LeGuyader, Saint-Hilaire, Berlin,1998. Herve,Geoffroy which an inversion of power"k", relative to a pole O, is the transformation 20 Specifically, = k.One immediately sees that: associates to a pointMthe pointM1such as OM*OM1 1 Every single pointof the planehas an inverse,exceptfromthe pole O whose inverseis rejectedat infinity. Mis the inverseof M1 2 IfM1is the inverseof M,then reciprocally, 3 ThecirclewithcenterO and radiusVk remainsinvariant 4 Anytwo pointsandtheirinverseconstitutea quadrangle inscribed on a circle. 5 Thiscirclecut the invariant circleat rightangle 6 The quadrilateral of the quadrangle has one externalvertexon the centerof the invariant circle 7 Theotherexternalvertexgoes on the crossingof the two otheropposedsides whenMcomes intothe invariant circlewhileN keeps remaining outside. 21 Monge, French mathematician whodeveloped the fields ComteDe Peluse- (1746-1818) Gaspard, of projective Bothof whichnowformbranches of descriptive andanalytical geometry. geometry. d'architecture 22 Joel Sakarovitch, (Birkhauser, 1998). Epures