Empiricism vs. Renaissance

During the Italian Renaissance, the profession of “architect” became extremely separate from the building process and led to the rise of design studios for architecture. Previously, buildings would be designed on site by a craftsman, but the Renaissance idea of “disegno” placed emphasis on drawings over physical buildings.

Geometric Study of Elevation of Santa Maria Novella in Florence (Designed by Alberti)

This resulted in a different approach to building design. Leon Battista Alberti began designing buildings, and specifically facades, based on geometric purity. Renaissance architects saw geometry as one of the most important factors in deciding whether or not a facade was visually pleasing, even if the purity of the forms was only visible in the drawing. Before this emphasis on drawing, decisions would be made based on how elements looked while standing on site, and designs were based more on the perspective view of a building that would be seen when physically visiting a building.

However, this focus on experiencing buildings and spaces did not disappear forever from the field of architecture. From the second quarter of the 18th century to the mid-19th century, a few architects from England reacted to this separation of drawing and building. Empiricism, as this view of design came to be called, places emphasis on the experiences of a space. William Kent, John Soane, and Joseph Gandy all worked to bring back this connection being design and construction. Soane, along with Gandy, famously depicted his design for the Bank of England in a ruined state.

Soane’s design for Bank of England (drawing by Gandy)

Soane had a fascination with ruins partly due to his fascination with construction sites. There is a point during construction projects that it is hard to tell whether the building is being built or torn down, and this fascinated Soane. He even included fake ruins in some of his designs. He did this to emphasize the lack of permanence in the world, as opposed to Renaissance thinking which saw their designs as static elements in the world.

Plan for Dulwich Picture Gallery

He also instituted Empirical thinking in his design for the Dulwich Picture Gallery. The building comprised of three different areas: a gallery, almshouses, and a mausoleum. Including a mausoleum in an art gallery is a very odd thing to do, but Soane did this to emphasis the fleeting nature of the world, which is the same reason he represented his designs as ruins. Each of these three spaces was also heated differently to provide an experience unique to each space.

Soane, although he learned from and was influenced by Renaissance designs, seeked to make his own designs more connected to the built results than his predecessors. He focused on the experiential qualities of his work, as well as the temporary aspects of the world and his buildings. He aimed to take architecture as a profession back to where it was before the approach of “disegno”, which led to the separation between designer and building.

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