While the idea that architecture could serve for contemplation in this way has several interlocking geneologics, I want to focus on the historical precursors of the emotionally charged formalism of the Bauhaus (KIee, Johannes Itten, Albers, Wassily Kandinsky) within the psychology of architecture and the theory of empathy. The theory of empathy (Einfühlung), as articulated in the last decades of the nineteenth and the first decades of the twentieth centuries, was a site on which many different strands of German thought converged--from romanticism, hermeneutics, formalist aesthetics, and psychology, to the science of human perception. The concern within empathy theory for the interpenetration of form and content, without recourse to representation, was formative for the expressionist strain of modern abstraction.26
In On the Optical Sense of Form (Über das optische Formgefühl) published in 1872, Robert Vischer explained how he hoped to restore subject-object unity under the adverse conditions of self-consciousness imposed by the Enlightenment. Through a book by K.A. Schemer, The Life of Dreams (1861), Vischer had discovered that in the realm of dream or fantasy the body objectified itself in spatial forms under certain stimulations, and that in this transference of the body, the soul was also projected into the object. By explaining the excitement or stimulation of the intellect / spirit (Geist) with that of the body--something pursued in science by Wilhelm Wundt and Theodor Lipps and in art history by Heinrich Wölfflin--by finding those points in the darkness of the psyche "where soul and nerve-center are one," Vischer hoped to arrive at a formula for the synthetic restoration of "the deep, dark, certain, inward, and nevertheless free in-and-together feeling" with things, which had been lost to modern man. He went so far as to set out conditions for subject / object unity in the work of art, suggesting that objects be fashioned, as in a dream, so that their effect is harmonious, and that forms comply with the laws and construction of the sensory organs (especially the eye) and the body. The rules of symmetry, proportion, and the golden section were taken to be aspects of organic normalcy.27 For Vischer, architecture suggested the possibility that the whole world of appearance could be experienced as a projection of the human Ego, a proposition not fat removed from the modernist notion that reality itself was subject to redefinition through the subject, be it transcendental or materialist.
26. In their extensive and insightful introduction to the theory and history of empathy, Harry Francis Mallgrave and Eleftherios Ikonumou identify empathy theory as a response to the "empty" formalism inaugurated by Kant and Herbart, attempting to reintroduce an aesthetics of content.
27. Robert Vischer, "Über das optische Formgefühl. Em Beitrag zur Ästhetik (1872)," in Drei Schriften zum ästhetischen Formproblem (Halle : Max Niemeyer, 1927), 1-44. Translated by Harry Francis Mallgrave and Eleftherios Ikonomou, "On the Optical Sense of Form," in Vischer et al., eds., Empathy, Form, and Space, op. cit., 89-124.