Kinaesthetic Impulses

Space, Performance, and the Body in German Architecture, 1870–1914

Zeynep Celik

Cooperation Partners: 

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA


Hermann Obrist, "Movement," c. 1910

This project studied a moment of transition in German architectural discourse in the late nineteenth century: an architectural theory that had conventionally relied on style, tectonics, and historicism gave way at this moment to one conceived around the themes of rhythm, bodily movement, and, above all, space ("Raum"). During the last decades of the nineteenth century groups of artists, architects, historians, and critics in Germany declared that traditional aesthetics, which had operated with metaphysical principles “from above” needed to be replaced by a scientific and empirical aesthetics “from below.” The new aesthetics, which granted corporeal experience a central position, was meant to forge a new kind of relationship between architecture and the human body: design was now understood to be the accurate calibration of architectural forms to the muscular response produced by the body. This was also a shift in how architecture was imagined to relate to society. In the preceding century, this relationship had frequently been understood through the concept of convenance—which guaranteed the appropriateness of buildings to morals and customs, on the one hand, and to the imperatives of structure and building materials, on the other. With the emergence of scientific aesthetics, the concept of space—along with a constellation of related terms including atmosphere, milieu, and environment—rose to prominence as the medium of the dialectic between architecture and society. Zeynep Celik's dissertation project explored a series episodes—involving the art historian August Schmarsow (1853–1936), the architect August Endell (1871–1925), the sculptor Hermann Obrist (1862–1927), and the philosopher Hans Cornelius (1863–1947)—with the purpose of revealing the hitherto overlooked intellectual richness of this new aesthetics and its multifaceted relationship with nineteenth-century science.

Funding Institutions

Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.