Histories of the Immediate Present: Inventing Architectural Modernism

July 17, 2008

The architectural historians of the past century have themselves become increasingly the subject of critical investigation. Much postgraduate history and theory study in architecture now consists of looking at what A said about B's thoughts on C's interpretation of Le Corbusier, rather than at Le Corbusier direct, but this scholasticism, rarefied though it may seem, is perhaps no more than a sign of maturity in the discipline. Each tide of interpretation forms part of the mentality of its time and has its own historical significance. Anthony Vidler's book is a useful contribution to the body of literature in this field. It is a short book, focused on only four writers, and as such it may be more accessible to students than other more panoptic works, such as Panayotis Tournikiotis's The Historiography of Modern Architecture (1999).

The depth of Vidler's case studies allows for biographical and contextual discursiveness. He begins with the least familiar of the figures, Emil Kaufmann, who coined the phrase "autonomen Architektur", a concept derived from Kant and linked by Kaufmann to the "revolutionary" phase of neoclassicism. Vidler is himself an expert on Claude-Nicholas Ledoux, whose name was cited in the title of Kaufmann's book of 1933, Von Ledoux bis Le Corbusier, and whose work features largely in his better-known Architecture in the Age of Reason. As the first title suggests, Kaufmann wanted his readers to connect the 18th century to the 20th - a novel approach at a time when modern architects were fanatical about distancing themselves from history.

All the historians selected by Vidler, the others being Colin Rowe, Reyner Banham and Manfredo Tafuri, used history as a way to comment on the architectural tendencies of their own time and correct what they saw as imbalances. Along with many others who might equally have found a place in this book, they helped modernism to grow up and accept that it had ancestors. In other respects, they differ. Rowe and Kaufmann suggested that history might creep up unobserved behind the modern architect so that, in Rowe's most famous example, Palladio's Villa Malcontenta could, with eyes half shut, be seen to resemble Le Corbusier's Villa Stein at Garches.

Rowe taught in various schools of architecture, and his influence was profound. He punctured modernism's claim to a tabula rasa and an automatic entitlement to social virtue, while at the same time awarding the consolation prize of historical connectedness. Banham, who was not an architect, found his own role as an historian uncomfortable. He placed architecture in a continuum of material culture and semiotics, while urging architects to demystify their activities, the reverse of Rowe's permission to be self-referential.

If Banham represented the last defence of modernism on the crumbling barricades of its own delusion, then Tafuri was the archaeologist looking for the foundations on which the city walls were built in order to explain why they were falling. He condemned "operative" or "instrumental" history that rooted for a particular position but, in Vidler's view, "the rejection of the overarching narrative leaves no narrative in its place". A good thing, we may say, since the research and writing of history, especially those of the Modern Movement, carry on, older and wiser, against all the odds.

Histories of the Immediate Present: Inventing Architectural Modernism

By Anthony Vidler
The MIT Press
ISBN 97802620519
Published 16 May 2008

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