This talk was originally called ‘Canon’ but changed to the role of history in architectural education. Today Irina and Micha will present some of their thoughts, formally and informally. Jonathan will introduce.
It really was almost to the day, a year ago in Venice, when Samuel and I met and had a discussion that was very wide-ranging, a discussion that questioned my attitude to the role of architectural history as a teacher and as a practitioner, which I consider increasingly important in our work. The discussion also turned to my involvement in teaching and the debt that I feel I owe to both of the speakers who are here this evening. Irina Davidovici provides, for me, an on-going form of critical support, particularly in my attempts to articulate ideas and words, and I think it’s true to say that she is a frank critic of the work of my practice—laughs. It’s a role I value very highly. Micha Bandini has been a guiding force over a much longer period of time for me; from the time I was a student at the AA in London. Micha is the person who gave me my first teaching job, and at the time as the head of the architecture school at North London she made a promise that she over generously fulfilled; one of teaching me how to teach, or rather how to begin to teach. I would say Micha, the lunch we had today reminded me that this role seems wonderfully open ended—laughs. And finally it was Micha who stated in characteristically forthright terms, that as a young practice, Steven Bates and I needed to have a position to be in any way considered intellectually worthwhile practitioners. Again, this is something that we are constantly attending to, but I would say, as twenty-seven year olds, which by my calculation we were at the time, this was the best piece of advice we could have received. Thanks to you both for agreeing to speak this evening on the subject and importance of history.
I’d like to address this question: how relevant is history in the student’s formation? What solutions does it offer the problems that are raised in the studio? Is historical knowledge necessary to the architect for raising awareness, for specific precedents, or for offering formal or typological precedents, or as a more general kind of knowledge, something that we call culture, which involves design laterally, because it leads to the education of mature and responsible and informed professionals? So, there is actually a double track discussion that would open up from these questions. Ultimately I will pose the question how history can be taught so that it compliments the work in the studio to the best advantage. The first track is the question of ‘why’ history? Which refers to the relevance and the necessity of it for architectural education. The illustration used to advertise this event comes from the 1976 exhibition Città Analoga (Analogous City), a work directed by Aldo Rossi and created by Arduino Cantafora. In it you can see a building in a central position, one in a more lateral position, two of Rossi’s own projects: the Gallaratese Apartments and the partisans monument at Segrate. They are placed along a range of seminal historic buildings. Significantly the title and the proportion of the painting recall the Quattrocento panel of the Città Ideale by Piero della Francesca. I don’t think this is a coincidence. The painting is not only a commentary on how architecture and, Modernism included, relies for formal definition on the cultural and historical repository of Classicism, but this is an ideologically charged revision of the ideal city, a city, and I’m going back to Cantafora, both socialist and utopian, which through the disposal of history places its monuments. Cantafora illustrates a metaphor for the classical analogy of Razionalismo. He demonstrates the paradox in Aldo Rossi’s lesson that: “Nothing comes out of nothing.”
If we accept history’s relevance to architecture, this should not be taken literally as a design prompt. Firstly architectural history has a somewhat separate existence as a discipline. For an art historian, this is a branch of the humanities that needs no justification beyond itself. The record of cultural artefacts and the understanding of relationships between cultural products, and the historical conditions of their production are in themselves significant and worthy of study. This disciplinarian understanding runs parallel, or even counter at times, to the bricolage that is architectural education. Why would history as a stand-alone discipline need to be studied in a school of architecture and also in art history departments? Indeed, how can the secondary role accorded to history in architecture schools do justice to the methodological rigour required by its nature as an academic discipline? One must recognise that the methodologies may vary considerably between historians and architects. The former demand absolute precision and perhaps prudence in the way the past is presented, the latter fits the historical discourse to a design agenda and are therefore more prone to distortions. Such distortions are unorthodox and would seem dubious to the art historian, a bit like Cantafora’s architectural fantasy. The construction of parallels between architectural production of say, the Renaissance and Modernism, is an approach specific to architects and architect educators, rather than art historians, who have their own approach that successfully bridges the two. Yet for the practicing architect it is relevant because it creates associations and metaphors, which can be used in design.
A second observation is that while teaching history in architecture schools presupposes its usefulness for practice, this is hardly to be taken literally. Modernist architectural education did away with history teaching altogether. The tabula rasa was, at least on the surface, a disavowal of the past in favour of a technologically driven future. The postmodernist restatement of history in the ‘70s was still a failure inasmuch as it involved the literal imitations of past forms. Postmodernism’s long-lasting contribution was a typological exploration that revealed motifs of continuity within culture. Alain Badiou identified as the most feasible of postmodern projects, the recovery of history through the persistence of types in the works of Rossi and Stirling among others. The careful and difficult reconstruction of generalities like those made visible in Città Analoga indicates what the role of history might be. So as a point of departure for the discussion of ‘why’ history, one possible answer could be: “because nothing comes out of nothing.” You need to know where we are coming from in order to find out where we are going. How history should be taught? To answer this it is first necessary to establish exactly to what end we teach history. I asked the same question earlier: “should history influence design directly or not?” Trying to teach only those aspects that offer direct insights into present practice gives rise to unbridgeable gaps in our general cultural understanding. Let me give an example. When I was first assigned a series of lectures that could span the history of Western culture from Sumer to the end of the 19th century in twelve weeks, it was a rather daunting format known as a chronological survey. I tried to organise it by concentrating on characteristic types for each historical epoch. So I made a lecture series on the Greek temple, the Roman domus, the early Christian basilica and the Gothic cathedral etc., and I ran aground immediately with my first lecture, which was on Roman architecture, because I had to cover not one but several characteristic types, which were all essential for historic developments ever since. I recognised that no lecture on the long history of Roman architecture could skip the Pantheon or the Colosseum, especially for first year students of architecture, for whom I felt particularly responsible. But my unorthodox and less disciplined approach allowed me to insert various slides about the history of Roman architecture that gave me a lot of pleasure. I don’t know if the students enjoyed it as much when I made these parallels between the Roman models and subsequent interpretations throughout history. So, this chronological survey is a compression of historical time that present a characteristic dilemma for the history teacher. Tensions between chronological and thematic approaches are particularly problematic for the early years of study, where history is usually covered in an extensive manner but superficially. History teaching is commonly perceived as a pyramid, starting with a wide base, which is this sweeping chronological survey, and then subsequently honing in through optional modules on particular moments in history that are more relevant, perhaps. But the orthodox survey approach of the lower years is rather in danger of being totally unrelated to studio work and a chore for everybody involved, lecturers and students alike. Apart from this problem, which hopefully we can address as I understand, there is now an unhealthy and enlarging gap that I perceive as these history courses are sometimes taken out of architecture schools and subcontracted out to historian academics. In Kingston, the school where I taught, history courses were this year transferred to the Art History department. I was told that at some point, at some level this was a money saving exercise, but on the other, it was supported by an ideological position. There is a perception that architectural history, taught by architects, is somewhat unhealthy, serving its own agenda, and that an outside perspective is advantageous. The connection between theory and design studio is anyway fragile, so this is where I’d like to raise a question: “how does addressing the separation of history and studio affect the coherence of architectural education?” For one thing, in architectural education history remains secondary. Architecture students are traditionally and understandably under the greatest pressure to perform in design, not in essay writing. The sharper the focus on studio work the more complementary the study of history seems. Students are very familiar with skipping history classes before design reviews, we’ve all done it, and I definitely have too. But they should not be pushed into that position by excessive demands, either by the studio professor or from the side of the history lecturer. Ideally, the lecturer and the professor should coordinate the material and make explicit connections between what it is that they teach. A shared architectural background is of course not absolutely necessary, but can possibly benefit this connection.
A final observation I’d like to make is that history seems more relevant to students as they get older, and this is definitely how I experienced it. It was when I went back to postgraduate study after four years of practice that I really started to pay attention to history. Henry Miller once made this connection between the study of history and the maturation process, perhaps chronological surveys should be reserved for the later years, or replaced once and for all, with thematic lectures that are coordinated with the studio masters. The comprehensive and disciplined study of history should be an option for student’s inclined and sufficiently equipped to deal with it properly. History is too important to be treated, by students and professors alike, as a superfluous chore.
I will start by describing to you an art exhibition, which is going on at the moment at the Gagosian Gallery in New York. Larry Gagosian is the ‘mother’ of the art world. He has galleries everywhere. He is very well known for spotting the right people, which I suspect, from his point of view, are the people that are going to make the most money for him, but also the people that are pushing the edge; people who are the avant-garde at that particular moment. The flagship gallery is New York. At the moment there is an artist called Edmund de Waal who is a potter, he’s an English potter, and he’s having this show in New York that I think is extremely poetic. It’s an alternating series of black and white pots, a repetition of them, and there are cylinders, all placed very carefully with the white ones on white frames and the black on black frames. When you look close-up you see the white is not a perfect white and the black has a speckle in it and they’re worked and so forth. It’s very clear, he has worked with the enormous tradition he inherited from Leach and the Japanese tradition. Now, this chap is also extremely well known because of a book he wrote, which I wonder how many of you have read, I know that Irina has, and Jonathan, The Hare with Amber Eyes won several literary prizes. It’s the search for the origin of a collection of little Japanese sculptures called Netzuke that he has, and how they came into his family, and how finally he finds them in his pocket, and the importance of touching and feeling. For a maker that’s extraordinarily sensual and important. But he writes, in his book, in this chapter called ‘Le West End’: “Rue de Monceau is a long Parisian street bisected by the grande boulevard Malesherbes that charges off to the boulevard Pereire. It is a hill of golden-stone houses, a series of hotels playing discreetly on Neo-classical themes, each a minor Florentine palace with heavily rusticated ground floors and an array of heads, caryatids and cartouches. Number 81 Rue de Monceau [...] is utterly beautiful.” I read this book, and I look at the exhibition, I can’t explain it in words, but there is something there which resonates, he has interiorised a way of composing, a way of being, a way of looking and transforming as a potter, he is not an architect, he’s an avant-garde artist, picked by Larry Gagosian, okay! So, what is he? Something that he has made his own. And do you also know something else; he is ruled by pleasure, the pleasure of understanding, the pleasure of picking up a structure of thinking, which is behind what you make, and making that structure of thinking into something you can transform into something else. I would say; this is the study of history.
Another example, another quote. Something we actually touched on briefly this morning in Professor Sergison’s studio, and which I apologise if I repeat. Louis Kahn, in his lecture, the most worked on article that he ever wrote, which was the acceptance speech for the Gold Medal wrote: “A word about Beauty. Beauty is an all-prevailing sense of harmony, giving rise to wonder, from it, revelations. Poetry. Is it in beauty? Is it in wonder? Is it in the revelation? [...] A work of architecture is but an offering to the spirit Architecture and its poetic beginning.” The word here is, ‘beginning’. Now, if you want a gossip, we do know why Lou Kahn went to Rome and became a Rome Scholar. He was having an out-of-wedlock child. He was banished from high society in Philadelphia and needed to escape, so he got this scholarship in Rome and went to look at the Colosseum. The other things that we know are that he did sketches of the cathedral of Albi. For those of you that actually looked at his sketchbook, it’s the one that goes up in a spiral and has an enormously strong presence. Now, he does not talk about it, explicitly, but we’ve got his sketchbook, and we’ve got his chronology. We know that the Lou Kahn we know now, started in his late 50s. He had done a lot of commercial buildings, you know, bread and butter kind of stuff. But the stuff that we know him for is his late stuff, the stuff that happened after his sketchbooks. It was the stuff that happened after he went to Rome.
Okay, A plus B is not always C, but there is substantial circumstantial evidence that history has been important to him. And if we look at the commentaries of the better people that know the archive better than I do, people talk about the tectonical qualities or something like that. So, in a way that is maybe not so apparent, the same thing that actually happened to Edmund de Waal, happened to Kahn, in a way that I cannot explain, but it happened to him. It happened. He learned. He got something that transformed him. This is the way that architecture is relevant for architects. It is a mystery as much as it is a mystery, the process by which we learn to design, or we learn how to do a good piece of design. At some point it happens. I taught design. I miss teaching design. I liked teaching design. I teach design in a reasonably structured way, but then something happens if it is a really good design, and that thing happens at levels of sophistication that gets better and better the more one puts something in, in order to get something out. However, thank God that architecture is not always poetry. Thank God we have a social programme and all these sorts of things, which are as equally important as our knowledge of everything else.
I have studied enough art history, historiography, methodology of art, methodology of science, in order to shake off, from me, this sense of deep ignorance that I had after seven years of architectural education in Rome, and actually after being an assistant of Bruno Zevi and Ludovico Quaroni, but not because I felt a particularly modest person, I just felt that architecture did not equip me to really teach architectural history properly, and the models I had, Vincent Scully, Colin Rowe, Bruno Zevi, they were the sort of people that put the Corbusier villa next to the Villa Foscari by Palladio. So the historical perspective was completely flattened! There was no understanding whatsoever beyond the formal, this is beautiful, that is beautiful. I remember going to see Colin Rowe speak at the Royal College in London in the ‘90s, everyone was rushing there, and he had the same image of the Corb villa next to Michelangelo’s David, and he was running his hand all over it saying, oh how beautiful, in a very sensual way, yawn, I snored, I can’t stand this. My reaction was: stop teaching people to cannibalise, stop teaching architects to be so surface oriented.
One of the great figures of architectural education at the time was the Dean of Penn University who employed Lou Kahn and who employed Vincent Scully, and he said, I do not want any art historian teaching in this school, architecture in this school needs to be taught by people that have architectural education. Yes, but, people who have architectural education, I think, are as ignorant, unless they study a lot, and study by themselves, because the school does not prepare them. Also, the brief that Samuel and Penny have given us is a very large brief, ‘what is the role of history in architectural education?’ Not, what is the role of history in this fantastic privileged school, where you do good projects, and I know you do good projects, because I’ve been an examiner in diploma here in Mendrisio, and I enjoyed every minute of it, and I know this school is well thought of, and I know design is very important in a school of architecture like this. Architecture historians are the ones that are responsible for a wider understanding. The wider understanding is beyond, ‘oh yes I want to do a little bit of social history, and I want to make a few connections, and of course I don’t want to do that, but that’s important’, you know. It’s beyond that remit, it’s a political remit, it’s a remit that has to do with issues of power, why?
Now, if you close for one moment, please, close your eyes, I’m not going to come and eat you—laughs, try to go back to that time when a story was told, and you heard the words, “once upon a time, c’era una volta.” A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away—laughs. Open your eyes now. Do you remember that time? Do you remember that sense of magic? C’era una volta, once upon a time. History is far away, history is a long time ago, history’s subtlety becomes objectified, becomes the truth, or as truthful as we can make a myth. And one of the greatest mistakes that architectural historians make, is they treat buildings like facts, because they are objects, that must be an architectural fact. If you study a little bit of historiography, you know that an architectural fact does not exist, not even Napoleon winning or losing at Waterloo. It’s a series of events that unfold. An architectural fact is based on interpretation. There is a philosophical distance, an ethical distance and a historical and cultural distance between the person who interprets and the fact, and the person who interprets and the building. And that historical distance is compressed in the process of cannibalisation that is design. The process the Edmund de Waal, that Lou Kahn, eat up the stuff in order to digest and expel.
But architecture students cannot do that. So it’s a beautiful thing that art historians are trained in architecture, but it’s a very beautiful and dangerous thing, and it’s a very dangerous thing that never in the education of architects, people are exposed to trained art historians. Because a good trained art historian, or a political historian, or a social historian, or hopefully a cultural historian, I’m not nostalgic and I believe this is a name that is fashionable again, a Foucault talking to us about the ‘Panopticon’, and making us understand that it’s not a typology of the cell, but a history of power. It’s something that oppresses people using architectural form. That actually opens my brain, my brain is usually blinkered, but it starts to reach my ears when I hear something like this. Because I suddenly understand something that no one has told me before. So I do not actually want architectural historians to be trained architects in the curriculum of architecture schools.
I’ve been privileged to make four or five curriculums of architecture in architecture schools, because I went for all sorts of reason, both in the United Kingdom in three schools and in the United States in one school. So, I used to overhaul the complete curriculum. You know Jonathan; I did that in your diploma. Writing a curriculum for a school of design is an ideological exercise of power. You decide how many hours to give to what. And by deciding that you decide ‘what’ is important and ‘why’ it is important. You decide who does it. You decide how you apportion your budget, who you’re going to pay to do what. I did employ an English Language and Literature graduate to teach architectural history at North London because he was talking about eccentric spaces, he was talking about stuff that was not normally in books. I actually didn’t even like what he was doing, was not my way of doing it, but that did not matter at all. Actually it was much better because it was unusual, something else. So, yes if you have that sort of privileged situation where you have a good architectural historian, trained in the right way, talking in concert with the studio teacher, then it’s fine. But also in that situation I think that the architectural historian teaching in schools of architecture are also contemporary critics as well. They have to keep a distance and an agenda of responsibility; a responsibility which goes beyond the school, that has to go through history, has to go through the ethical discourse that goes around his discipline, that has to go ‘out’ of this little pond that is architecture. You ask me, what about poetry, well, if you got it, you got it. If you got it float it, but if not, then architectural history is not going to help you or hinder you. It might just give you one element of elegance, like it did for Edmund de Waal and Lou Kahn.
What I get, the keywords for me in your presentation was the idea of the architectural historian as the guardian, someone who has the responsibility. And I remember discussing my lecture course, and by all means, it’s improvisational, it’s improvisational because it has an energy, this idea of bringing together, to find modes of continuity of works from different epochs, and I’m sure we’ll come back to this, but I was discussing this, discussing inserting slides of Olgiati’s work in Domus with an art historian, and he leaned his face and said: “history is a discipline my darling, that’s why we call it a discipline.” So I felt very much told off and corrected. Of course historians have a very important role, and of course they offer a way out of the minutia of practice in the studio, and ultimately we are talking at the level of the right people, whether they are architecturally trained or art history trained, to instil a level of knowledge and to inspire the students to learn and absorb. I have two points that I wanted to make. One is, I was taught by the eccentric spaces guy, and he talked to me about poetry, and I was completely blown away by his presentation, and then he said: “well, now it’s time to select a topic for your dissertation.” I did a topic that I later picked for my doctorate, and I didn’t see him at all until I handed in my dissertation. He did something absolutely fabulous, but he didn’t make any effort to engage with the students. He was not the one who inspired me to look into history. The people who brought history fairly and squarely on my plate were Peter Carl and Dalibor Vesely at Cambridge. Peter Carl brought the postgraduate students in to his second year history lectures, which were in the format of this chronological survey, and he would give two hour lectures, rocking slightly as he does, with fantastic openings, with a bibliography at the end of the two hours, this long (gestures a large list), and then he’d say: “next week I’m going to talk about.” And then he’d say: “in two days time the postgraduate students are going to have seminars with you, and you will explain it all. Goodbye.” So the doctoral students, which were we, tried to understand what he had said in these two hours and then had to think how to teach it to these incredibly sharp minded postgraduate students. So, I learned history by having to teach it. And the other thing I learned there, which is the second point I’d like to make, is that these undisciplined parallels between 16th or 15th century architecture, and what happens in the twentieth and twenty-first century, are important inasmuch as they reveal motifs of continuity within culture. I’d like to believe that this continuity exists and I like to find illustrations of it, and I think I’ve devoted, so far, most of my time, whether explicitly or not, trying to find these kinds of connections. I once wrote a piece about Valerio Olgiati and the Baroque, which Valerio appreciated and he gave me eighty-four percent—laughs, he made a very nice effort. But art historians would never do this because for them it’s useless from a discipline point of view, it’s a useless exercise, it’s a fallacy, like the Città Analoga just putting these projects together and painting them on a wall at the Trienniale, whether this is bad or good, I think that it can be both.