An Introduction into Informalism

In reading Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture it becomes obvious that the role of informality in making architecture is paramount. Although I have heard something about informality from Professor Fiori, who speaks of it passionately regarding the informal inhabitation of the city, during my time at the AA, I have not come across a dialog regarding Informalism, certainly not pertaining to architecture. With this in mind I feel there is a real legitimacy in further assessing and allowing access to Informalism as a formal school of thought.

The formulation of an Informalist methodology begins with a quick study of Michelangelo. Michelangelo stars in two of the previous century’s most important writings; in Sigfrid Gideon’s Space, Time and Architecture, where Gideon allows Bernini to proclaim: “Michelangelo was great both as a sculptor and painter: but divine as an architect.” And in the aforementioned Complexity and Contradiction:

The diverse structural elements that surround the great door in the Porta Pia are superimposed for ornament as well as structure. It abounds in redundant and rhetorical super-adjacencies of a kind of ornament that is “about” structure. The vulnerable edges of the opening are protected by rusticated trim at the edges. Superimposed on the trim are pilasters that further define the sides of the door and support, together with the scrolled brackets above, the heavy complex of the pediment. This important opening is made eventful in the bearing wall by additional juxtapositions. The diagonal pediment protects the rectangular inscription block and the inverse segment of the sculptural garland which, in turn, plays against the curve of the semicircular relieving arch. The arch is at the head of a series of redundant structural spanning elements, including the horizontal lintel, which in turn relieves the flat arch, which is a continuation of the rusticated trim. Brackets or corbelling, which decrease the span, are suggested by the diagonals of the top corners of the opening. The exaggerated keystone is superimposed on the flat arch, the lintel and the tympanum of the arch.

In their complex relationships these elements are in varying degrees both structural and ornamental, frequently redundant, and sometimes vestigial. In the almost equal combination of horizontal, vertical, diagonal, and curve…

In Vincent Scully’s Introduction to the book he discusses Venturi’s own proposals that, “in their recognition of complexity and their respect for what exists, create the most necessary urban antidote to that cataclysmic purism of contemporary urban renewal which has presently brought so many cities to the brink of catastrophe, and in which Le Corbusier’s ideas have now found terrifying vulgarization.” Although it is possible to typify Le Corbusier’s urbanism as ‘vulgar’ it is roundly accepted that he shifts from his formal attitude:

When Le Corbusier relocated from Switzerland to Paris in 1917, it was painting that first caught his enthusiasm. Together with Amédéc Ozenfan, he promoted a school of painting called Purism, expounding its principles in their book, Après le Cubisme, and showing purist paintings.

And that after WWI, the machine aesthetic makes way for a softer, plastic humanism. “Le Corbusier began to concentrate on depicting “items that evoke poetic emotion” from around 1928”.

With Michelangelo as the catalyst of the Informal doctrine, and now Le Corbusier as an apparent disciple, it seems plausible that Informalism is achieved by those that find poetic outlets in defining the solid & void in pursuits other than architecture; that the extraneous practicing of art by those that do both art and architecture leads to a light-handed, informal approach to architecture. While attempting to argue that this prototype of the Informalist: the artist-architect, exemplified by Le Corbusier who “spent each morning painting, only working at his architect’s practice in the afternoons” who’s “life was devoted to art and architecture in equal proportions”, is the only way to generate informalist architecture it becomes apparent that this is too presumptuous. It can be concluded that this is certainly a fundamental branch of Informalist architecture but not the only one.

James S. Ackerman writes The Architecture of Michelangelo in 1961 and follows this with Palladio in 1966. It is initially assumed that Palladio, “the ignorant stonemason of thirty” who Trissino sets “to reading only what pertained to architecture, engineering, ancient topography, and military science” can be used as a formal, contemporary counter-point to Michelangelo the informalist, and although Palladio was “probably repelled by the bizarre element in the work of Michelangelo” , nothing is found to be further from the truth. “The sensuousness of Venetian style was a catalyst that transformed the scholarly & intellectual ingredients of Palladio’s thought into the most human architecture of his age and made it accessible to every succeeding generation.” Palladio allows us to conceive of a second prototype for the Informalist: the builder-architect, one learned in the art of building but ‘one who learns to find himself as an architect by knowing others.’

In comparing and contrasting the Informalist methodology of Michelangelo and Palladio further it becomes more and more difficult to tell which of these two architects is the more informal. Certainly Michelangelo, who at first seems the more audacious of the two, channels a certain strong-willed, organic formalism in his architecture:

Michelangelo’s approach to architecture appears as a radical departure from Renaissance tradition. His association of architecture with the human form was no longer a philosophical abstraction, a mathematical metaphor. By thinking of buildings as organisms, he changed the concept of architectural design from the static one produced by a system of predetermined proportions to a dynamic one in which members would be integrated by the suggestion of muscular power.

However when put into practice, his mastery of this type of organic formalism becomes so suggestive that an immediate and empathetic bond, both physical and psychological, is generated between the observer and object. This bond between the observer and object is so autonomic that the universal engagement of Michelangelo’s architecture can be said to have an informal quality. Further, in examining the Vestibule of the Laurentian Library, it becomes plain to see how Michelangelo’s use of classical vocabulary is both innovative and wholly informal:

Everywhere in the vestibule Michelangelo’s licentious use of classical vocabulary, obscuring the actual relationships of load and support, created paradoxes for his academic contemporaries. On the lower level, the volutes, which others used as supporting members, stand in a plane well forward of the columns, sustaining nothing but themselves. The pilaster frames of the tabernacles invert the traditional design by narrowing towards the base rather than towards the tops, and are crowned by ‘ capitals’ which are thinner rather than broader than the shaft; just below the capitals appear vestigial regulae, motifs boldly pilfered from the eaves of Doric temples. These and lesser details…are given more impact by our foreknowledge of the ancient models from which they err.

When analyzing his work deeper Palladio, who at first glance appears to be the more formal, displays real fundamental informalist qualities. His beginnings as an apprentice who’s “work was more erratic in style and quality than that of any” other “to the profession in the Renaissance” are quite interesting in attempting to define the second aforementioned prototype of the Informalist: the builder-architect. Ackerman goes on to say that Palladio matures “with unpredictable suddenness; the designs of around 1549 … were wholly his and wholly new.” In the second chapter of Palladio, Ackerman discusses the villas and their informalist sensibilities: “They form a style apart, vital and never diminishing in the capacity to entice others into emulation, but evasive of definition.” A strong parallel can be drawn between Michelangelo and Palladio here in their unorthodox manner of re-appropriating architectural motives borrowed from the ancients:

All these villas except the last have in common a pedimented temple front, designed as a porch that projects from or recedes into the block, or simply is laid upon it as relief. In the architecture surviving from antiquity, this feature appears only as a façade for religious structures…Humanist clients…would never have allowed their domestic aspirations to be expressed through religious symbolism. If they had associated the pedimented porch only, or even principally, with temples, they would have seen that it violated Vitruvian Decorum, but Palladio…referred again to that theory of history according to which the institutions of society, and hence its structures, were formed out of family units. So the house preceded the temple and gave it its form.

In this example we also see that Palladio, the architectural historian, is able to validate his apparent breach in Decorum, which is again paralleled in the analysis of Michelangelo’s Tabernacle:

These Tabernacles are a sign of Michelangelo’s emancipation from the properties of Vitruvian rule and ancient models and establish a fantastic theme that was to reappear in all his later designs for doors and windows. The fantasy, however, is always strictly disciplined by the rationalization that its effect depends on the variation of traditional forms and would be lost if these were abandoned for uncontrolled innovation.

Indeed, in analyzing the work of both Michelangelo and Palladio we are met with a ‘fine balance of the familiar and the radical’. Their architectural vocabulary is one indication of an Informalist attitude towards antiquity, antithetical to Renaissance Humanism. While their contemporaries spoke of emulating and rivaling the ancients, they took from it only what suited their tastes, using the vocabulary of antiquity with dramatic freedom, rarely adopting a motif without giving it a new form or a new meaning. Yet they invariably retained essential features from ancient models in order to force the observer to recollect the source as to enjoy the innovation.

Informalism is universal because of its plasticity, the way van Gogh’s brushstrokes remain as vital today as Pollock’s drips. It has an inherent organic flexibility & sensitivity towards the observer that allows for an always instantaneous and timeless appreciation. Informalism is not another word for ignorance, it is never nihilistic. In order to practice architecture as an informalist one must have a real and opinionated understanding of the architectural discourse; one must be passionate to a point, and have a foundation of skills upon which one can build. The ability to generate a free and independent position relative to this discourse is another prerequisite for the formation of an informal approach to architecture. The Informalist is always engaged with the formal principles of architecture, acutely aware that the relationship between the formal and the informal is symbiotic.

In concluding this introduction into Informalism it might be nice to name a few contemporary informalists and attempt to ascribe them to a certain type. The introduction mentions two types of informalists; the artist-architect as personified by Michelangelo and Le Corbusier, and the builder-architect as personified by Palladio. In building briefly on these types I would like to place Will Alsop in the artist-architect type, he seems to gain real energy from his painting and his surrealist architecture cannot be envisioned without this extraneous stimulant; and Koen van Velsen in the builder-architect type, his informalist methodology is ever-present at the conception of a design. Van Velsen often delivers his first sketches to the computer drafters on a series of post-it notes, during the course of the design process it becomes apparent just how accurate these initial notes were.

There are also some types of informalists that fall somewhere between or beyond the artist / builder. Gerrit Rietveld is an example of an architect that falls between the artist & the builder with his furniture alluding to both.

Rem Koolhaas seems to be another type of informalist who, like Andy Warhol, seems to be a collector. His ability to surround himself with specialists like Madelon Vriesendorp, manically picking, choosing, and steering his way through the endless flow of real-time content they produce is astounding and cannot be achieved without the necessary dose of Informalism.

If you keep your mind open to idea of Informalism you begin to see it everywhere, “the music and art of the twentieth century and our enlarged knowledge of distant and primitive cultures have challenged any claim to natural preminence of certain consonances or organizations of form.” The chaos of the real-time can be conquered if you allow yourself to be an informalist.

S. Gideon. 65
Venturi. 60 – 62
Scully. Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. 13
Hayashi. Le Corbusier. 45
Ibid. 57
Hayashi. Le Corbusier. 45
Ackerman. Palladio. 21. (a “pre-eminent intellectual of Vicenza: distinguished for Humanistic studies, a writer of drama, poetry and philological scholarship” and Palladio’s preceptor)
Ibid. 21
Ibid. 31
Ibid. 20
Ibid. 31
Ackerman. The Architecture of Michelangelo. 44
Ibid. 44
Laurentian Library. Vestibule tabernacle. (photo taken from: Ackerman. The Architecture of Michelangelo. 114)
Ibid. 115
Ackerman. Palladio. 164
Ackerman. Palladio. 31
Villa Foscari Photo taken from: Ackerman. Palladio. 64
Ibid. 61-65
Ackerman. The Architecture of Michelangelo. 92
Ackerman. Palladio. 114
Ibid. 112
Ackerman. The Architecture of Michelangelo. 290
Ackerman. Palladio. 185


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Venturi, Robert. Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1966