Authenticity and artifice



Mark Pimlott



The desire for authenticity

Why is authenticity in architecture an issue?

The feeling we are living in inauthentic, frivolous, false times can be overwhelming. The desire for authenticity might be, in part, a desire to see, or to approach something true in expressions and in realities uncontaminated by trends or conceits or lies.

What is authentic?

According to the Oxford English dictionary, Authentic, an adjective, is defined as:
1/ Of undisputed origin; genuine;
2/ Made or done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles an original;
3/ Based on facts; accurate or reliable;
4/ (In existentialist philosophy) relating to or denoting an emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive and responsible mode of human life…

This last meaning of authentic seems significant: particularly as the word authenticity, defined as the quality of being authentic, is open to this aspect of feeling or emotional appropriateness. The first meanings––which focus on the original, the genuine article, or the traditional form––combine well with this last qualitative meaning, which does not seem adequate on its own. The presence of origins and traditions seems relevant and necessary to the spirit of authenticity and the authentic.

What is The Authentic?

Everything made is given a form that is consciously or unconsciously invented: making and representing all at once. 

The Authentic is, in my view, that conscious or semi-conscious expression that in its task, its obligation, or its art, is significant: made from what is known (what has gone before) and what is not yet known (what has never gone before). The authentic is made through a deep understanding of all that has preceded it. One can find the authentic within traditional forms and expressions; yet the authentic is neither an echo of tradition, nor ‘original’.

Tradition is made of forms, arrangements and signs that change. Tradition changes. 
The authentic changes tradition.
The authentic always remains  authentic.
The authentic must be made, and so necessarily requires   artifice.

Things that are man-made are made within language, which is both fixed and changing. Within man-made things, there is a core or essence around which their forms––in their many altered states––revolve. An inquiring consciousness will strive to understand these forms very deeply. Its expression will reflect a deep understanding of the essence that runs through these forms, and will flow from it. An authentic expression will, at once, continue and change the languages and traditions of forms.

T S Eliot, wrote, in his essay, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1921):

“No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.”

A return to origins, a turn to the essence

Again: there is a sense that we are living in frivolous, inauthentic, false times. One appreciates the need to turn to something true, and by inference, something that it is deeply known. And this thought of that which is deeply known causes us to return to tradition and to origins.

It is important that when one refers to these origins, which are idealised, one does not refer to a time before time, but a time when form was found and agreed upon: that time in which convention, procedures and representations were unified and taken as transparent.

In its conventional uses, language is not treated as representation, yet we acknowledge that it indeed represents concepts, ideas and things; in poetry, for example, it is understood to operate precisely as representation: poetry opens and renders language’s essence.

Representation is powerful: it allows us to take something for what it is not. In the crudest illustration, a painting of an apple is not an apple, and yet it can tell something of that apple, and suggest more than the bare facts of its appearance. Representation is used in order to approach life.

I will only cite two cases to demonstrate the power that it holds:

Pliny the Elder’s account of painting deriving from lines traced around the human shadow:[1] the story of The Origin of Painting became a popular, if minor subject for genre painting in the nineteenth century.

In its many versions, a woman is depicted tracing the profile of her lover––the outline of his shadow––on a stone or a wall. The lover is about to leave for war, and the line that remains after he has departed will remind her of him, with a line that is of him, that stands for him. She holds him to her through her poor depiction, which, nevertheless, represents him.

In Shakespeare’s A Winter's Tale, (1610-1611) Leontes suspects that his queen Hermione has cheated on him, and punishes her by having her imprisoned. Leontes learns, by rumour, that Hermione has died. Racked with guilt, he wants to be reminded of her, through many means, as a form of penance. Sixteen years of such guilt are kept fresh by Paulina, a close friend of Hermione. She arranges a statue to be made of Hermione and to be shown to Leontes, partly as a kind of torture for him, whose representation is so perfect in Leontes’s eyes, so convincing is its verisimilitude, he wishes to remain with the statue, and kiss it. Leontes asks Paulina, who has arranged the statue’s ‘making’, if she can arrange for it to move.

And as Hermione's statue moves (the statue is, in fact, the flesh- and-blood Hermione), it enters life and crosses a threshold from representation to reality, to both Leontes’s awe and our amazement.

Despite our knowledge of the artifice, it strikes us as significant. We are moved by the artifice; the representation is authentic.

Representation and architecture

Artifice cannot be dissociated from making. We make things and buildings and spaces and places. We make what we need: much of what we make responds, simply, to need. That which we make embodies need and something that is other than need: an aspect of desire, toward resemblance.

The architectural historian Joseph Rykwert wrote, in his essay ‘The Necessity of Artifice’ (1970):

“In design there must always be the intention, conscious or semi-conscious, to present the actor with a legible set to act within or against. There cannot be design––and at the risk of committing a tautology I would say that no artifact can exist without design being involved somewhere in the making of it––without intention; and its follows, since intention is a voluntary function, that there cannot be design without artifice.”[2]

By understanding that representation is embedded in things and places, one can appreciate its role in the making of an authentic architecture. In architecture, authenticity is found in works that turn to and re-present the essence of architecture’s original idea.

Works of architecture that might be described as authentic frequently address traditional forms.

There are, too, works of architecture that appear to reject the outward, visible effects of tradition, yet find the essence of architecture through deep and critical inquiry of traditional forms. All of these works find and represent something that is essential to architecture, its idea, and therefore, Man.

Authenticity in architecture is not a re-iteration of traditional effects. These authentic works of architecture are not to be confused with those that appear to extend the outward effects of tradition, but in fact, echo them: these works are not alive.

It is useful to return to T S Eliot’s thought on tradition and its relation to the task of the artist (in the case of the essay, the poet). Eliot writes of the artist (as a personality) disappearing in the making of the work of art, in this case poetry:

“The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material…
“…the poet has, not a ‘personality’ to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways…
“Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things…
“The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but what is already living.”[3]

The essence of architecture

The essence of architecture can be found in its emergence and its unity with the settlement. The settlement gives architecture its aspect of relating Man and the World. Architecture is impossible without the settlement; it is an agent of its idea.

The Originals, or the Ancients–I speak of the makers of Western European settlement culture–searched for forms to express their ideas. These forms stood for these ideas and could be found in arrangements, relations and signs–representations–that could be agreed upon, re-used and understood. Conventions and language were the result, in settlement planning and architecture.

The language of architecture emerged from the technology of building, the representation of building––its elements and its totality––and the representation of the idea of building (reflecting the subtleties of the purposes of buildings).

This language was powerful, but not immutable: it would change to be adapted to accommodate changing needs and purposes. 
The language would be borrowed and modified. The language would be forgotten.
The language would be half-remembered.
The language would be revived, modified and adapted again. The language yielded a tradition. 
The tradition changed.

For the Ancients, the essential matter was how to be in the world amongst people and in Nature; the matter of being in the World in a strictly hierarchical society, amidst the manifestations of Gods who explained the inscrutable mysteries of creation and the cosmos, creating spaces and buildings through which Man and nature, the cosmos, or creation, or the Gods, could speak. All was unified through the Gods: they, the earth and the creatures, and the skies and their phenomena and effects and were all as one. The Ancients made buildings and spaces through whose arrangements, forms and signs Man could know his place among others, and his place in All. Forms, arrangements, signs, language, conventions and tradition emerged from this charged condition, in which Man must have felt vulnerable: not only to the Gods, manifest in everything, but to other societies.

The settlements––their forms, arrangements and representations–– must have been particularly significant for survival in the World. The settlement represents an idea of relating to the World that is utterly opposite to the nomadic experience. The settlement––assuming a form rather than being scattered over the earth; its people roaming, never staying, repeating the same tasks in response to the days and the seasons––made spaces of relations and orders and meanings.

Western settlement culture has its origins in Greece and in Rome. The Greeks colonised, the Romans borrowed, the Romans colonised and projected their idea, which was imposed, changed, abandoned, recovered. The Romans borrowed and adapted the settlement and architectural language of the Greeks and extended and changed its traditions and re-staged and re-codified its core, essential act.

That essential act set Man apart from the World and placed Man in the World, all at once. The act was a ritual, one that assumed forms, arrangements and representations in order to be realised. Rather than a gathering of tents in the wilderness, a settlement was made in a clearing set apart from the World.

Architecture is of the settlement.

Architecture is integral to the staging of the settlement. 

Architecture should not be understood merely as a codified form of some mythical, proto-architectural shelter (Laugier), but as the maker of that clearing ritually set apart from the World in the foundation of settlements.

The clearing is set apart through a ritual; the ritual is staged; the ritual involves artifice. Within the clearing, inside the settlement, its spaces, structures, monuments, streets and squares were ordered, staged and artificial. The citizens were aware of the arrangements and forms of the settlement as conscious statements of its idea. The idea of the settlement was achieved through forms that had meaning, accorded through a language of signs and pictorial, sculptural and formal conventions that could be understood.

This idea was brought to new sites and was in some measure specific to them–the augur played his part in conjoining propitiousness and auspiciousness–and in some part indifferent to them.

The idea of the settlement was that its space was at once set apart from the World and set within it. The attenuated, distended and weakened nature of the Empire led to changes to the language, and tradition of the ‘Roman’ settlement; yet its essence remained in European settlement culture long after the collapse of the Empire.

The settlement was–and remains–a space of language. Architecture emerges from the settlement and makes its language. The settlement’s order, spaces, language, and ‘speech’ are won from the World. Within the settlement, Man speaks to his fellows, he speaks to the World and he speaks to the Gods. Architecture makes the place between Man and Nature. This is the essence, the core of the tradition: the essence of architecture.

Authenticity in architecture in our epoch

When the Gods have been scattered by scientific inquiry from the visible and invisible mysteries of nature, and Man has learned to cope on his own or preoccupy himself with the necessities of settlements, the essence remains. 
The essence remains within the forms, arrangements and signs that change according to need, within the language that changes according to need, within the tradition that consequently changes.
Change occurs; the essence remains. Tradition changes; the essence remains. 
Time passes, the civilisation declines, the language changes, is forgotten; is half-remembered; is revived.
The language is embraced, diverted, modified or overwhelmed by other languages, but the essence remains, and is uttered in true works.
The true, authentic work of architecture re-presents the essence, and in doing so, alters the entire tradition that is made before it.

The Authentic is not about the past; it is not about the future. It is about a continuously unfolding present.

What is an authentic architecture?

In my view, architecture speaks in language(s) that are known.

I have chosen a small selection of twentieth-century works of architecture that represent an authentic architecture because they can be understood as though they occupy our present, as though they live with us, now.

But perhaps this focus on twentieth-century architecture is more directly connected to a feeling associated with the loss of tradition, of a continuous line of thought or ‘speech’; the loss of history and language that is particular to the order of change experienced in the twentieth century in the industrialised world; a feeling of loss germane to Modernity.

It is within Modernity that traditional forms (in architecture) were frozen and confused (Eclecticism did not extend or add to or change tradition). In Modernism, Architecture, confused, was rejected along with inept governments and failed laissez-faire capitalism.

Yet, within all these developments and rejections, there was an urge to reform, a search for a renewed, re-formed, just, and natural order. In Modernity’s fraught, timorous political and artistic context, tradition has been continuously examined and re-addressed, and inquired into afresh.

The essence of traditions have been, in certain hands, rediscovered and re-presented.

The tradition has been extended; the tradition has changed. The essence has remained. 

Some authentic architecture

Erik Gunnar Asplund
Woodland cemetery, Stockholm

Sigurd Lewerentz 
Woodland cemetery, Stockholm

Alvar Aalto
Villa Mairea, Noormarkku

Alvaro Siza Vieira
Swimming pool, Leça daPalmeira


[1] 1   Pablo Garcia, ‘The Origin of Painting’, in Projection Systems. 
[2] Joseph Rykwert, ‘The Necessity of Artifice’, (1971) originally published in Casabella 359- 360, from The Necessity of Artifice (London: Academy, 1982)
[3] T S Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent, op. cit.



Zeeuwse Bibliotheek Middelburg.
6 November 2012

With thanks to Mark Pimlott.




LOFT by Mark Pimlott