The Double: Archetype and Architecture


di Fiorella Vanini

The Double concept – i.e. a person seeing an independent and yet identical body in front – is essentially modern and comes into being with the German Romanticism. The word Doppelganger was created by Jean-Paul Richter (1763-1825) and, since then, in literary world, this word has had several and different applications: von Chamisso, Hoffmann, Dostoevskij, Wilde, Poe, de Maupassant, Pirandello, Kafka, Wolf, Savinio, Borges. In 1914, Otto Rank, favourite of Freud, published Der Doppelganger and the Double officially enters psychoanalysis.

From an anthropologic point of view, the concept of double is associated to bad omens: we can think back to fratricides between twins: Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus. Anthropologic studies are full of cases of enemy-brothers, but twins are an anomaly in the symmetry of subjects and their identity is well clearly shown; the non-difference is embodied in so an exceptional case to create a new difference. The represented non-difference becomes in this way the par excellence difference, the one which defines the monstrous and, in the sacred, plays a fundamental role. Is known that the mimetic mechanism has the main law in the human civilitazions (René Girard, Le Violence et le sacre, Editions Bernand Grasset, Paris 1972).

Double, in architecture, has always existed, as in other codes of expression of mankind. Is possible to find many examples: the twin temples of the Maya, the double teodorian cathedral of Aquileia, the twin churches of Turin (Piazza S.Carlo) and those of Rome (Piazza del Popolo), the twentieth century Mies’ Lake Shore Drive, the Marina City Center, and so on… Of course, the archaic architectures have little to do with those modern, baroque, or contemporary, but the compositional mechanism is based on the same principle: the figure consists of two separate entities but which are placed in relationship. A watershed, an order, a direction is introduced in the series chain; at the intersection between the series and the single, symmetry is often the composing method which gives a structure to the space. Even dissymmetry can be given only starting from symmetry, from a previous order. In other words, the figure is organized according to an internal order with two polarities, points distributed in accordance with symmetry and dissymmetric ones.

The word symmetry comes from the ancient Greek. At the beginning it was linked to the numerical commensuration relation  which allows to compare or suit two or more elements. According to the numerical language, the first form of commensuration was called commensurability: two terms are put in a commensuration relation through a common measure. This common measure will result in a whole number or a multiple that has to be found in both terms. In this way, symmetric elements are those ones which can be measured by the same measure since they are multiples or whole numbers of a common measure (cfr. Euclid, Aristotele, Platone, Marco Vitruvio Pollione, Sant’Agostino, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc).

From the Enlightenment on, symmetry consists of an equality relation among opposite parts: more precisely, the relationship between right and left, top and bottom, front and back regarding size, figure, height, number, situation and, in general, regarding everything that can make them similar. Against the “ancient” meaning of symmetry, based on the proportion, a “modern” one is set, based on an equality relation. Symmetry is no longer a connection among parts but a strict mirroring relation “all the beauty of a building  fades away when essential changes occur in the symmetry”. This concept can be found in several authors: Pascal, Milizia, Gibbs, Perrault, Mach, and many others.

Therefore, in modern times, the idea of  symmetry is no longer based on a reason ratio but, on the contrary, on an equality ratio. We can state that the modern meaning of symmetry comes into being only when the idea of corresponding resemblance of the parts really and fully distinguishes from the one of pure repetition: symmetry is pure repetition, but it is a repetition of parts according to a given rule. That is to say that the equality ratio subsists among those parts having a mirror image: next to the component “equality” or ” repetition” – right parts are equal, if taken alone, to the left ones – we can put a component “inequality”, the element towards which the parts are opposed. Symmetry is different from a pure repetition just because of this inequality element in comparison with the equality of the parts. A good example can be found in the following statement by Hegel: “Inequality joins equality and this empty identity is interrupted by the irruption of difference. In this way symmetry arises” (Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel,
Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik, Herausg. von H. G. Hotho, Berlin 1835-38).

How can it be possible to explain the passage from the reason ratio to the equality one? We can only make some assumptions. In a cosmologic vision which does not accept a dimension of the sacred and therefore a superior order in which every element is inscribed in a hierarchy, the universal cosmos coincides with the individual cosmos (Mircea Eliade, Das Heilige und das Profane: Vom Wesen des Religiösen, Rowohlt Verlag, Hamburg 1957). Once the shared order, as basis for the proportion relations, no longer exists, these relations, which were simple for the ancient men, become illegible for the modern ones.

From the Enlightenment on, architects have been trying to build according to more simple and immediate rules, according to an elementary and shared order, applying, for example, a composing rule that Pascal called bilateral symmetry. The commensuration of the parts is replaced by equality, the imitation of the natural balance is replaced by the geometric abstraction. Depending on this theory, double architectures represent a practical case often solved by applying symmetry, i.e. an architecture based on the repetition of two identical elements, according to an axis.

The Double, which, in architecture, seems to be a reactionary form, becomes on the contrary a transgression; seemingly it could appear as a strict order, almost totalitarian, two entities, one exactly the same of the other as they were an image reflected in a mirror, come to our sight. They face each other hieratically and this instils us with confidence and safety and leads us to look for the balance point or the composing discontinuity point – the axis of symmetry. But, when we reach this complete identity, alienation unexpectedly arrives. An absolutely static composition, which should inspire safety and order, in fact upsets us more than a form we cannot possess just because this identity split seems to be absurd and unnatural.

In architecture, the Double is a figurative archetype, which crosses time, and has an evocative power able to give an order to the rituality of the contemporary man. Its evolutionary process reveals us how strong and adaptable is this figure despite changes of space, time and culture. It is no coincidence that double architecture appears in projects concerning new parts of towns – we can think of Petronas Towers – or in urban models which are completely antithetical to the existing ones – this is the case of the Twin Towers in Manhattan.

These situations have so a strong impact on the collective imagination to influence overall consciousness. If it were possible to locate their position on a map, they would become the knot architecture of an over national network which could disclose a lot about the real power flows of the XXI century.

It is no coincidence that the XX century ended with the shadow of the September 11th disaster. And terrorists have chosen the Twin Towers as the simbol, the icon, of Western society. This date unveiled the pandorian age of a global war. It has no face, but it flows below our lives.

In an age in which architecture can be sold only in proportion to its impression on the observer, to the appearance of the transmitted image, the Double represents the last boundary of transgression, the transgression of the imperative about uniqueness of  being.

21 giugno 2011