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What do buildings mean? An Iconographic Collection of Helen Rosenau, Susanne Lang and Frances Yates

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26 May, 2022

What do buildings mean? This questioning of the subject has always been a less straightforward issue in architecture than in painting or sculpture. An iconography of painting can be relatively direct. A woman depicted with an iron studded wheel while clutching a martyr’s palm is St. Catherine, an image rendered with personal and historic moment by Artemsia Gentilleschi in her self-portrait as the saint. Moving through the many St. Catherines spread over centuries shows us the transformations of this iconography and each of its historical instances. But what is an iconography of architecture? The traditional answer to this question in Britain normally begins by citing Wittkower’s Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism, which uncovered, among other ideas, humanistic Christian conceptions such as divine order embedded in the harmonic proportions of Palladio’s plans.

But the diffusion of this revolution in thinking about architecture has just as much to do with the writing of Helen Rosenau (1900-1984) and Susanne Lang (1907-1995). Wittkower’s Architecture Principles may have been on every architect’s shelf, but on their table were journals like the Architectural Review, where both Rosenau and Lang were translating Warburgian approaches to meaning in building for an audience of practitioners. In the same year as Architecture Principles was published, Rosenau wrote on Jean-Jacques Lequeu, untangling the French 18th century architect from his contemporaries Ledoux and Boulée. She showed that while their visions were grounded in reformist and latent royalist politics, Lequeu’s aquarelle designs embodied a revolutionary politics convinced by the “greatness of a violent revolution”. This statement is never more evident than in Lequeu’s design for a column made of a sculpted nobleman in chains. Rosenau’s skill in iconography also enabled her to write what Griselda Pollock has called the first feminist and gender art history: Woman in Art: from Type to Personality, published in 1944, five years before Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Rosenau showed through art how gender had been socially constructed in different ways at different points in history.

Susanne Lang’s own iconographic contributions to the Architectural Review include a rich survey of urban meaning titled “The Ideal City: From Plato to Howard” (1952) which countered the then current idea of town planning as a visual art with a detailed tracing of its non-visual origins in astrology, theology and myth. Or there is also her iconographic unravelling of Vicino Orsini’s Bomarzo gardens which discovered an early preoccupation with the concept of genius loci.

Frances Yates (1899-1981), who is connected to both Lang and Rosenau through the Warburg Institute in London, acted within the largest boundaries of meaning in architecture. At the height of semiotic excitement at the Architectural Association in London, Yates was invited to give five highly-celebrated lectures on architecture, not long before her death in 1981. Her description of the lectures captures her expansive enquiry: “[the lectures] will be concerned with themes which – though not directly relevant to architectural history – are concerned, in some way or other, with architecture as an image, or as an instrument of thought, or as the setting for human life”. It was at this scale that Yates, Rosenau and Lang had pursued meaning in architecture freeing it from purely formal discourses and capturing with precision how it was historically contingent and socially constructed.

What do buildings mean? An Iconographic Collection of Helen Rosenau,...

What do buildings mean? This questioning of the subject has always been a less straightforward issue in architecture than in painting or sculpture. An iconography of painting can be relatively direct. A woman depicted wi...