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Steps in a polonaise rhythm: Rasmussen’s “Experiencing Architecture”

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Rhythm in architecture

A few years ago I was trying to write some study materials about “rhythm,” and tied myself in knots trying to connect all the different ways the word is used in different contexts: art, architecture, poetry, music: rhythm as repetition, rhythm as line, rhythm as flow, and so on. It’s an appealing thought to be able to talk about the rhythm of architecture, but what does that mean? Like many of the people I know working in music and dance, I want to be able to make enriching, useful connections like this, but don’t know where to look.

I was delighted, then, to find a wonderfully clear chapter on “Rhythm in Architecture” (pp. 127-158) in Steen Eiler Rasmussen’s Experiencing Architecture (1959/1964). The clarity comes from  Rasmussen’s honesty about the fact that rhythm is a fuzzy concept, and from a general tendency for scholars in the 1950s and 1960s to write more clearly and accessibly than they do now—in my view, at least. Having described the patterns of doors and windows in terraced houses in London and Venice, he says:

I am quite sure that most people would notice that all of these façades are rhythmically divided. And yet if you were to ask them what rhythm in architecture means it would be difficult for them to explain, let alone define. The term rhythm is borrowed from other arts involving a time element and based on movement, such as music and dancing. (Rasmussen 1964, p. 133)

He goes on to mention the importance of music and rhythm to the architects Eric Mendelsohn and Frank Lloyd Wright, in different ways:

For these two men, then, there is obviously a connection between architecture and music. But it still does not explain what is meant by rhythm in architecture. Architecture itself has no time dimension, no movement, and therefore cannot be rhythm in the same way as music and dancing are. But to experience architecture demands time; it also demands work—though mental, not physical work. . . .If you feel that a line is rhythmic it means that by following it with your eyes you have an experience that can be compared with the experience of rhythmic ice-skating, for instance. (p. 135)

In other words, the time element missing from architecture is supplied by you, the viewer, “reading” the building in time, as you might follow a score, or a dance. He describes the pattern of windows in the 15th century Calle dei Preti near Via Garibaldi in Venice thus:

As you glance across the front, from left to right, you experience something like a complicated dance rhythm; it could be played on four drums. (p. 132)

I can remember seeing either that row of houses, or one very like it in Venice, and being puzzled by the strange arrangement of windows, which he describes later as being “like the harmony of a four-part song.”

The Spanish steps of a polonaise

My favourite bit of all, however, is when he gets on to Piranesi’s Veduta di Piazza di Spagna (c. 1750), a detailed etching that includes a view of the “Spanish steps” in Rome.

Detail of

Detail of “Veduta di Piazza di Spagna” by Piranesi, circa 1750, similar to the one shown in Rasmussen (1964)

With its bends and turns, its design seems to have been based on an old-fashioned, very ceremonial dance—the Polonaise—in which the dancers advance four by four in a straight line and then separate, two going to the right and two to the left; they turn, turn again, curtsy, meet again on the large landing, advance together, separate once more to left and right, and finally meet again at the the topmost terrace where they turn to face the view and see Rome lying at their feet. (p.136)

Even if this is totally fanciful armchair theorizing, it’s a wonderful way to read those steps. The only problem for me is that he reads the dance going up the steps, whereas Piranesi’s drawing is from the bottom. Given that if stages are raked at all, the rake is towards the viewer, it would seem natural to consider the bottom of the steps, not the top, as the end point of the polonaise procession. I don’t think that particularly matters though: I’m quite convinced, now Rasmussen’s said it, that there is something very dancy about those steps, something, indeed, of the polonaise which looks so impressive as its lines divide and reform.

Nonetheless, as much as I love the idea, there’s a trace of what I have referred to elsewhere as they would have: They knew little about walking but so much more about the very ceremonious dancing of the period, and therefore they could move gracefully on those steps. . .” Rasmussen says (p. 136).  It’s a nice thought, and it’s true that that Piranesi’s drawing has lots of gallant looking people in farthingales and frock coats who look like they were made to process elegantly down that magnificent staircase. But Piranesi also shows people doing no such thing: on the left of the steps, there’s what might be a drunk, collapsed at the bottom. On the right, there’s what looks like a massive fight that’s ended in a pile-up. RIght in the middle of the central stairway, directly in the path of the elegant couple about to mount the stairs, a man is gesturing in angry desperation to what looks like a woman who absolutely refuses to move. She looks like she might be drunk and disorderly too, and maybe not even fully dressed, hence the exasperation of her partner. To the left of the piled-up gang on the right hand side is a man who looks like he might be taking a not very discreet piss against the walls. In short, “society” is as variegated in this picture as it would be on the Spanish Steps today (perhaps more so). The occupational hazard of working in dance and music for too long is that you tend to imagine the whole of society like a ballroom. 

How I found Rasmussen 

Sometimes I wonder how much detail is too much when you’re documenting your sources. For me, the route is one of the most important parts: it shows respect to those whose work pointed you in the right direction, but if you’ve found something truly wonderful, it might also provide clues as to how to conjoin the right kind of search terms in future. But where do you stop—how many steps should you retrace? 

In this case, I was re-(skim)reading Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, and noticed his reference to rhythmanalysis (long before Lefebvre) which I hadn’t before, and to the name that I remembered from  Lefebvre’s book, Lúcio Alberto Pinheiro dos Santos—the Portuguese philosopher who first introduced the term rhythmanalysis in 1931. I was wondering how I had managed to miss Bachelard’s reference the first time round, so I googled dos Santos and rhythmanalysis as search terms, and came across Giovanni Campus’s doctoral thesis “The City as Theatre: The Performing Space.”  In the section of the thesis about rhythmanalysis, I found a discussion of Rasmussen, buildings and rhythm which set me on the path to this post. Thank you Giovanni. 

As I said in a recent post, sometimes I wonder how it is that you can fail to discover really useful resources for such a long time: surely, when they’re that good, or that close to your interests, Google will just find them? Well, no. When I tried to find the Campus’s thesis online again, I couldn’t. Then I remembered that when I first googled dos Santos and rhythmanalysis, I had misspelled what I could remember of the first names—Pinero, rather than PInheiro. Only when I googled <pinero dos Santos rhythmanalysis> could I find Campus’s thesis again—why? Because Campus himself misspells the name.  When Google can be so precise about not delivering relevant results to you for the sake of a simple misspelling, you wonder what else you might be missing. 

Footnote on dos Santos and rhythmanalysis

And all of that makes me as suspicious as I ever was about the benefits of Google unless you have something to bring to the search box yourself. Once I’d got Bachelard, Pinheiro dos Santos, Rhythmanalysis, and Lefebvre as search times, the useful results multiplied. Especially useful was this article by Jonas Rutgeerts, where in a footnote he explains what I was already beginning to surmise about dos Santos, from the lack of literature available: 

The Portuguese professor in literature and psychology Lúcio Alberto Pinheiro dos Santos allegedly coined the term rhythmanalysis in 1931, when he wrote La Rythmanalyse. However, up until today the theoretical relevance of this work remains unclear, as the book was never published and the original manuscript is lost. The only in-depth reference to the text can be found in Gaston Bachelard Dialectics of Duration. Moreover, as Bachelard neither intends “to give an over-all view of these nor to describe all the many lines of development,” it is virtually impossible to make claims about dos Santos’s own theory. (p. 99)

In the end, I begin to wonder whether talking about rhythm in architecture is just something refined people do as part of elegant conversation: a kind of linguistic curlicue that is decorative rather than providing useful insights. It seems every time someone wants to use the trope, they have to explain what they mean, at the same time as saying that what they mean is difficult to define. That to me is God telling you to use a different metaphor, or just say what you mean without resorting to metaphor at all. 

References

Steen Eiler, R. (1964). Experiencing architecture. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.