Arts & Culture

The wit and wisdom of architects

You can quote them: when to plant vines, how to stir men’s blood, and more.

Yale law librarian Fred R. Shapiro is coeditor, with Charles Clay Doyle and Wolfgang Mieder, of The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs (Yale University Press, 2012). He is working on the second edition of his Yale Book of Quotations.

Photo Illustration: John Paul Chirdon

Photo Illustration: John Paul Chirdon

Send your quotation leads and questions to “You Can Quote Them,” Yale Alumni Magazine, PO Box 1905, New Haven, CT 06509-1905, or View full image

About 40 years ago, Anonymous said: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” If that’s true, writing (or saying) something memorable about architecture must be like drumming about sculpture. Yet it happens. Perhaps because architecture requires multiple talents—including the ability to inspire others to sponsor and implement the architect’s vision—architects have excelled at creating eloquent aphorisms.

Consider, for example, Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright quipped in Two Lectures on Architecture (1931): “The physician can bury his mistakes,—but the architect can only advise his client to plant vines.” Wright also ventured into general wisecracks. He is credited with “A man is a fool if he drinks before he reaches the age of 50, and a fool if he doesn’t afterward” and “Tip the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.” A more sedate quote, for which we have a primary citation from Wright’s Autobiography (1932), is: “No house should ever be on any hill or on anything. It should be of the hill, belonging to it, so hill and house could live together each the happier for the other.”

Many of the most renowned quotations by architects were in the nature of mottoes encapsulating their vision of their art. Louis H. Sullivan’s slogan was “Form ever follows function.” Daniel H. Burnham’s was “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is associated with not one but two major architectural mottoes. The first was “Less is more,” attributed to Mies by Philip Johnson in his book Mies van der Rohe (1947). (There is a retort to Mies’s modernist motto, attributed to postmodernist Robert Venturi: “Less is a bore.”) As might be expected of such a basic formulation, there were precursors. Robert Browning wrote, “Well, less is more, Lucrezia,” in “Andrea del Sarto” (1855). Nigel Rees has pointed out that the German writer Christoph Martin Wieland penned, “Und minder ist oft mehr” (“And less is often more”) in the magazine Teutsche Merkur in 1774.

An equally famous Mies-ism is “God is in the details,” quoted as that architect’s watchword in Architectural Forum (May 1958). This phrase too has an older provenance. Art historian Aby Warburg used “Der liebe Gott steckt im Detail” in his 1925 notice of a seminar at Hamburg University; the sentence has been documented by Dieter Wuttke. The counter-proverb, of course, is “The devil is in the details,” which appeared by 1963.

And what of “dancing about architecture”? The earliest precursor known so far was discovered by Garson O’Toole (pseudonym of a Yale ’86 PhD) in a 1918 issue of the New Republic: “Writing about music is as illogical as singing about economics.”

In a discussion on his engrossing website, Quoteinvestigator, O’Toole revealed that he had also found a candidate for authorship of the modern saying. A 1979 issue of the rock music magazine Time Barrier Express noted, “Writing about music is, as Martin Mull put it, like dancing about architecture.” Who is Martin Mull? He’s best known for his television role in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. But, as an actor-comedian-painter-musician, he probably knows enough about blending genres to come up with the concept of architectural dancing.

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