The genealogy of a plan : a tribute to Barrie Biermann


Author:FISHER, R
In:Architecture SA Vol 11 Issue Sep
Pages:pp. 35-37

Abstract: This essay deals with the architectural plan as that artefact which is the currency of architectural exchange. If artefactual material is seen as comprising 'memes' whereby cultural information is transferred, then all artefactual material should fit within a lineage of inheritance. To illustrate this argument the genealogy of the plan of Barrie Biermann's home is presented, also including plans of other houses.


In this essay it is argued that the plan is that artefact which is the currency of architectural exchange. This exchange is a necessary pan of cultural continuity. If artefactual material is seen as comprising "memes" whereby cultural information is transferred, then all artefactual material should fit within a lineage of inheritance. To illustrate the argument the genealogy of the plan of the home of Barrie, Biermann will be presented.

The nature of the plan

The building as artefact is a complex amalgam the talents of various disciplnes. Yet even though the artist might have the surfaces, the sculptor the forms and the technician the tectonics, the plan remains the preserve of the architect.

The plan is not the planning. This is evidenced by the fact that the function of buildings, and hence the planning might change, but the plan remains recognizable. Also compelling is that while every architect might be given the same brief with the same planning requirements, the plan of each will be different. In having solved the planning, architects have always felt free to offer the plan without annotation as product, thus going beyond the functional relationships of the areas planned.

The plan is as a musical score. Whereas the lines, bars and notes abstract the disposition of sound through time, the plan is the abstraction of the disposition of elements through space. All aspects from crypt to groin vault can be shown on the two-dimensional plane of the plan. The thought of architecture as frozen music is therefore not only appropriate to the analogy in the use of elements of pattern, rhythm, texture and suchlike. The analogy also extends to the manner of abstract presentation and means of final execution. Whereas the intention of the composer is explored many times, every time in each performance, the intention of the architect has but one opportunity to be realized and that is in the building.

In architecture the plan, as an image of the essence of architectural intent, is independent of its built form. Like a musical score it is the most entire artefact of the discipline which remains available for exploration, thereby retaining cultural significance and potency. As a gestalt image it is the schema which is the currency of cultural exchange.

The importance of the architect's own home

The home which the architect designs and builds for himself is the most revealing of his intention because of the intimate personal evolvement at all levels of execution. Much as in the world of recorded music, the composer, when conductor of his own score, is seen to present the definitive performance, so too the definitive architecture of the architect is often his or her own home.

It is so, that the home of the common man was not always given to architectural exploitation. Hence Spengler could speak of the dwelling as being an ecological, and not architectural, manifestation. Even in the time when architecture flourished under patronage the architect's own home remained architecturally anonymous. Do we for instance readily recognize the home of Michelangelo Buonarroti?

If it is acknowledged that the modern imagination emerges in the 18th Century, then the house as the vehicle of architectural pursuit must be seen as a modern concern. Why is this so? The dogmas of the equality of man and the opportunity of progress beyond the station of ones birth plus the propagation of the democratic ideal, placed the well-being of the individual as central to all concerns. Hence his home and place of work were the primary architectural endeavours. Whereas the application of these dogmas should devolve to a solution in standardization, the synchronous discovery of the diversity of individual experience and emotional response led to the exploits of the romantic spirit. This has been the delicate balance of the modern condition, the universalizing of the rational solution and the giving of expression to the individual experience. It was John Soane, who as free architectural agent exalted his own home to the status of monumental architecture in importance, if not in size. As exploration of the endeavour of the individual it epitomizes the counterbalance of rational intent with personal expression. Yet every plan, however personal, has a genealogy, a lineage of "inheritance".

The plan as meme

Dawkins, in "The Selfish Gene" (1976), has positioned the "meme" as being the cultural equivalent of the gene as the unit of cultural transference. The gene can however only transmute and follow the pattern of Darwinian evolution, that pattern of inheritance in which only adaptively advantageous characteristics survive.

The "meme" has however, the ability to be transformed in a Lamarckian way, that pattern where characteristics are acquired within the cultural milieu in either. or both, time and place and are passed on. Changes are then not changes of accident but by design and characteristics can be acquired in the immediate present or recaptured from a distant past, unlike genetic inheritance where only traits peculiar to the organism directly in the line of inheritance are transferable.

What is the memetic content of Barrie Biermann's home? Have we acquired any transferable architectural characteristics from his architecture? To answer such questions it may prove useful to determine a genealogy of descent of the plan-type which Biermann has exploited.

The genealogy of the plan

Let us first examine the plan generated for gratifying the romantic impulse, that of the Picturesque school. The ideals of this school of thought were the "elegant prospect" and the planned happenstance. A longing backward-glance was cast upon the middle-ages and an attempt made to recapture the happiness of the craftsman engaged in his labours. What results is a concatenated assymetrical disposition of rooms to create a sense of accidental arrangement and intuitive planning, with exaggerated attenuations to invoke the sublime, all styled in the "Gothic" manner (Figure 1).

In the fashion of the reactionist passion which typifies the 20th Century, the De Stijl movement emerges as snuffer to the intuitions of the romantic spirit. Extreme in its reductionism, it generated a scheme of provocatively arranged cuboids hovering in space, This conceptualization became literally concretised by the architecture of the new technologies of structural steel and ferro-concrete. Mies van der Rohe's design for a country home of 1923, generated from the pin-wheel conception of Gropius' Bauhaus plan embodies these abstractions, although conceived in brick. It has remained the potent emblem for all subsequent Modernists approaching the problem of the country residence (Figure 2).

This plan attempts the bringing to domestic architecture the abstract plasticism of the De Stijl movement through the moulding of the fabric. In the disposition of the plan it is however progeny of the Picturesque School via that of the Arts and Crafts. In 1910 Wasmuth published "Ausgefuehrte Bauten und Entwuerfe von Fränk Lloyd Wright". To ease its way into German acceptance, Frank Lloyd Wright had the English Arts and Crafts architect, Charles Ashbee, preface the monograph since both the movement and architect had a sympathetic German following. The Amancio Guedes, in his Martins House, Lourenco Marques (1953) appropriates the image of Mies' country home but puts it to his own devices (figure 5).

It is he who demonstrates the liberation of the elemental masses from the geometry of the straight line, Though still adhering to the cardinal disposition of rooms, the elements swell and grow about the pin-wheel core. The critic of the Architectural Review (1961) discerned influences descending from Iberian Baroque and the Art Nouveau of Gaudi, "His work is characteristic of those extravagant tendencies to be found in the Southern extremities of Latin Europe.

As far as the interpretation of the this plan is concerned the critic is mistaken. The Baroque. even its most sinuous curves, is still regulated by complex geometry derived from the Renaissance.

Art Nouveau abandons orthogonal geometry in the plan, yet the planning still derives from straight-line geometry and it is only in the section and elevation that we discover the self-conscious exploration of the free line.

Yet in being mistaken the critic proves the point at issue. He recognizes the departure from the geometries of Modernism but incorrectly ascribes their origins.

The intuitive line is the "line of beauty" which Hogath propagated as deriving from nature. Its use by the designer reflects on the giving of expression to his innate inspiration.

Hence the intuitive line is the popular tool of the Expressionist. The use of the intuitive line can therefore only be traced to precedent but has no genealogy. Each time it is employed it is rediscovered. This insinuation of the intuitive line into the emblem of the plan within the rational world of Modernism is discovered in the Guedes plan.

It is of interest to compare the two contemporary house plans, that of Barrie Biermann's (Figure 7) with that of Geoffrey Bawa (Figure 6).

Both have hollowed the hearth areas into a tranquil courtyard at the heart within a humid sub-tropical climate. Both have the roof as a single linking element following the slope of the terrain.

Bawa is still progeny to the forefather with arms extending into the landscape. These are reduced to amputated appendages in the Biermann opus, emphasizing the withdrawing and defensive nature of the home.

The intuitive line tentatively introduced by Guedes becomes the contrapunctal theme of the Biermann home giving expression to the free spirit of the man, though still strictly disciplined by the rational geometries of its forebears.

The Biermann plan is like the musical compositions of the Brazilian composer, Heitor Villa Lobos. While accepting the abstract formalities of the Old World it brings to them the exotic sonorities of the New World. If Guedes is the Iberian spirit luxuriating in subtropical climes, Biermann's is the Northern rational mind finding liberation in the intuitions of Africa.

The fore-mentioned sets out a pedigree of the free plan, centred around a core and extending into the landscape. It may be argued that the • arrangement has a lineage even older than that given, extending to Andreas Palladio and perhaps beyond. If we broaden the search into eras more remote we have to unravel other issues, which is not the concern of this investigation.

The examples cited provide the scope of the intellectual milieu which reposits in the example with which we are concerned, the home of Barrie Biermann.

In our exploration we have seen that the plan as emblem may be propagated through time in terms of its "memetic" content,' but that the individual will bring to the pattern schema of his own. These derive just as readily from the rational as from the intuitive mind. The potency for perpetuation through time of the individual contribution is dependent on the clarity of the emblematic quality of the plan.

This can thereafter be investigated, reinterpreted and elaborated. It becomes part of the currency of exchange of the discipline.

Whereas the rational component of the plan can be perpetuated and modified, the intuitive component has every time to be rediscovered and re-explored.

The counterpoint of intuitive to rational is what Biermann has established in his plan. It is this schema which prevails. The intersection of Western rationality and African intuition synthesized into a new order is the challenge which Biermann has issued.

Figure 1. James Wyatt, Fonthill Abbey

Figure 2. Mies van der Rohe’s country house

Figure 3. Frank Lloyd Wright, Ward Willits’ house

Figure 4. Richard Neutra, House Kauffmann

Figure 5. Amancio Guedes, Martins House

Figure 6. Geoffrey Bawa, De Silva House

Figure 7. House