Trachtenberg discusses urbanism in first Whitney Stoddard lecture

Marvin Trachtenberg, professor of art history at New York University and the author of the Art History 101 textbook Architecture: from Prehistory to Postmodernism, spoke this Saturday at the first annual Whitney Stoddard memorial lecture.

Trachtenberg’s lecture, entitled “The Rennaissance Piazza from Medieval Florence to Louis Kahn,” dealt with medieval urbanism and the use of perspective within piazza design.

Trachtenberg began the lecture with a few basic slides dealing with piazza theory. To him, a piazza is “a place made in a city where. . . public buildings and the things they represent make themselves visible.” A piazza is a place to display architecture; an “urban theater” where different building types intersect in a highly visible space that is tightly integrated with the rest of the city layout.

To Trachtenberg, though, people’s interactions with the piazzas are as crucial as the buildings present within the space. Thus, perspectivism – the study of the interaction between viewer and space – is also an important part of piazza theory, often dictating the design of the street network that brought the piazzas in with the rest of the city plans. To illustrate perspectivism on an individual level, Trachtenberg showed a number of slides detailing how a viewer would enter various piazzas and be confronted by the buildings present.

A large space facilitating interaction between observer and cityscape, the piazza del Duomo is one example Trachtenberg uses to describe his theories on Florentine piazza design. The piazza most prominently features the cathedral, flanked by several smaller open areas.

South of the cathedral are three distinct spaces, one of which Trachtenberg described as present solely for issues of perspective, in order to “exhibit and make visible the most ambitious architectural work ever made in the city.” Additionally, several other piazzas in the city showcase architecture through perspectivist devices, prompting Trachtenberg to herald Florence as unique in its combination of tightly focused intimate spaces and sweeping larger areas.

An hour south of Florence, the piazzas of Sienna, which Trachtenberg called “spatially explosive spectacles” of urbanism, offer another example of the use of perspectivism. At the Piazza Del Campo, planners added a tower to the square’s main castle, centering the piazza’s visual frame and creating a more consistent scale. To Trachtenberg, the emphasis on axiality, symmetry and orientation is typical of the Florentine and similar Siennese use of perspectivism.

Pisa’s Campo dei Miracoli, however, offers an entirely different use of perspective. Rather than focusing on axiality and integrating the city streets with piazza entrances and views, the piazza includes a number of large buildings “set in a vast, open space from which they could be viewed from any angle.”

Trachtenberg described the buildings as “absolute entities, omnipresent and omnidirectional,” avoiding any dependence on the layout of the urban space around them. He linked this building style to the artistic focus on religious icons – images with absolute focus and a sort of “self-contained autonomy.”

Beyond Pisa, Trachtenberg discussed the evolution of the piazza form and the continued presence of perspectivism during the Renaissance. During this time, piazzas were sometimes built “self-consciously and retrospectively,” using the common devices of past designs in order to invoke the feeling of nostalgia and even authority. Describing one piazza particularly driven by a central axis, Trachtenberg called it “a stage set of a typical communal square parallel to a movie set.”

New ideals concerning piazza design also rose in response to the work of influential architectural theorist Vitruvius, author of The Ten Books on Architecture. Piazzas soon sprung up in accordance with Vitruvius’ ideal form, often featuring a square or rectangular space lined by uniform portico facades. According to Trachtenberg, this practice “inverted the spatial visual priorities of the piazza,” as the uniformity of the porticoes highlighted the void created by the buildings, as opposed to the buildings themselves.

However, these spaces still worked in accordance with perspectivist theory; a common piazza layout featured only three sides of porticoes, thus shaping viewers’ experiences by encouraging them to observe the piazza from the side without porticoes.

Jumping from Renaissance Italy to 1960s California, Trachtenberg assured the audience that perspectivism continued to be prominent in modern architecture. Most notably, according to Trachtenberg, Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute of La Jolla, displays particular “historical resonance and transformation,” even with its distinctly modern design. Here, Kahn returned to the central axis focus so important to perspectivism and also employed a grid, which has a similar effect to the Renaissance images of painter Perugino. Kahn’s use of water, “literally and directionally flowing towards the horizon” was another revolutionary modernist twist that harkened back to old perspectivist devices.

By connecting medieval architecture to modernist works, Trachtenberg gave the lecture a particular link to Whitney Stoddard, the lecture series’ namesake, whose specialties covered a similar span, ranging from medieval French architecture to modern architect Marcel Breuer. Stoddard, who passed away on April 2 in Williamstown, was a member of the class of 1935, and taught at Williams from 1938 until 1982.

The lecture series’ name was recently changed from the Thomsen lecture series to the Stoddard lecture series at the request of the donors.