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Description, realism, detail in architectural historical writing

Charalampopoulou, K; (2006) Description, realism, detail in architectural historical writing. Doctoral thesis , UCL (University College London). Green open access

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Abstract

Entering the architecture and language relationship we are confronted with a divergence: two opposing points of view consider language either as an integral part of architecture or simply as its accessory. In this dispute we will take the side of language accepting that architecture is an expanded system constituted not only out of the buildings themselves, but also their representation, their documentation through photographs or text, and their critical discourse. From this rather general context we will read the relation between architecture and language through a very specific lens, that of description. This way, the immense field of studying the competitiveness or the complementarity of the two disciplines acquires a much clearer shape. The "pejorative" position of language in relation to architecture as it was formed in different moments in time, is reminiscent of the position of description that we encounter in architectural discourse—a position that we will try to lighten and preserve. Paradoxically, although description is an indispensable tool to the work of the architectural historian, it has been often taken for granted and its theoretical implications are usually overlooked. In our attempt to explore the importance of description and to unravel those reasons that are liable for its pejorative sense, we will follow a rather defending line. Through our research into the notion of description in the space of literature, in arts or History and before we see its applications in architectural history, a rather stable triangle of notions was formed. Description is discussed, almost with no exceptions, in relation to the notions of "realism" and "detail". These three notions seem inextricably related, each one of them leading to the other two in a rather inevitable way. Our inquiry will approach them equally, revealing the unbreakable bonds of their relationship, aiming to see how they are defined and what their role is in architectural history. In particular, we will approach description relating it to the complementary or oppositional notion of narration, as they appear together in the space of literature, and we will initially focus more on the description of pictures. Before we attempt to answer the question of what could realism mean in architectural history, we will first descend into historical and literary realism. We will also attempt to approach the notion of "real", a notion that mostly belongs to the field of psychoanalysis and see what kind of "realities" historians create through their narration of architecture. In our discussion of the detail, the third apex of the triangle, we will focus more on Roland Barthes' "useless detail", and on the "new realism" created by Alain Robbe-Grillet and the nouveau roman where the notion of detail plays a structural role. The supposed superficial detailed description of the appearance of things will have a chance to defend its case. Description is that notion that lingers between language and vision. It is the translation of image to words in architecture, the translation of space to words. And if in every translation, like in every act of communication, there is a certain loss, it is worth seeing what is "lost in translation" in the case of description, and perhaps, what is gained also. Vision and the way we see have their own history. If the history of architecture is connected to the "history of vision", one wonders about the inevitability of a history of description in architectural history as the result of the changes in the way we see a history of how the object and the act of description change through time. In the case of literature, the question of a history of description appears easier to answer. The passage from the eighteenth century novel (Le Sage, Voltaire) to the nineteenth century realism of Balzac and Flaubert and then to modernity and the nouveau roman, was marked by shifts where the role of description was structural.

Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Title: Description, realism, detail in architectural historical writing
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Language: English
Additional information: Thesis digitised by ProQuest.
UCL classification:
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1568161
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