Architecture and its Past Symposium 1/9: 'Professional Histories'
Date: Friday 21 May 2010
Venue: Lecture Hall
Brett Steele inaugurates the symposium noting the AA has transformed teaching of the past in architecture in fundamental ways and the problem of architectural history is particularly interesting at this moment within the school. Many students have articulated the straightforward point which is they have a problem understanding what to do with history in relation to their work in the studio. Architecture strangely tends to obsess with the future. The irony is that it has only defined itself in relation to the past, and architects are hired regarding past achievements. The culture of history that figures like Banham, Summerson, Pevsner, consolidated years ago, made possible that experimentation could situate itself in relation to something.
Mark Cousins introduces the main aims of the conference, not concerned with history as it is taught in art history departments. It has a very precise focus: why for a long time the teaching of architectural history has been seen within the program as somewhat irrelevant. If one would like to be scholarly about this history of dissatisfaction, one would probably trace it back to the development of modernism itself. Modernism questioned the study the history of architecture, given the fact that it is the same thing you want to replace. The problem now is that modernism itself begins to have a history. The feeling of the irrelevance of history towards design practice together with the neglect of the history teacher dates from several decades ago and has been compounded by the introduction of the digital. It happens at an institutional level. It is not unfair to say that architecture history and its big narratives such as ‘from the Renaissance to the Baroque’ and so on, tend to be scholarly literature and have become very problematic. While teaching the Parthenon at the AA, we teach first of all an account of twentieth century architects’ reaction to the Parthenon. Cousins closes hoping that these issues would be discussed over the two days, knowing that the less we are concerned about the past, the less and less able we are to tackle the problems of architecture. At the AA there is a will to completely radicalize and transform the teaching of architectural history. He welcomes Reinhold Martin from Columbia.
Reinhold Martin starts reminding the audience what they already know: that there is only history and nothing else. Secondly, to belief that computerization or digitalization as one of the main distractors of students from historical matters is in a sense historically inaccurate, because in the wider world, historians were just as, if not quicker than architects when it came to computing. As early as 1958, the Annales historian Fernand Braudel (1902-1985) was testing the application of game theory and social mathematics to the practice of history. By 1973, the digital computation of demographic statistics was shaping the professional practice of social history. To the point that Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (1929-) could claim: “Tomorrow’s historian will be a computer program or it would no longer exist.” Although these unrelated developments have little influence on the writing of architectural history, they did influenced associated fields, such as urban and environmental history; palpable in the starring role that was played by the bankruptcy maps in William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis. The later offers a completely different, -but not entirely incompatible- picture of Chicago than that which is implied in the essay by Colin Rowe, Chicago Frame. Like digitalization more generally, early quantitative history was dominated by a characteristically mid-century desire to align historical knowledge to natural and social sciences. Though architecture is no stranger to this desire, the failure of architecture historians to take up the statistical methods pioneered with the help of computers by their colleagues in social history, correlates to the failure or refusal to render architectural history scientific. Historiographers have argued that social history’s incorporation to quantitative methods marks a zenith of century-long efforts to gain for history writing the authority of a science. This authority, a legacy of nineteenth century positivism, has been challenged since the 1960s on a number of grounds, to the extent that it is somehow an oxymoronic expression to say ‘history of science.’ Little history is taught in the science curricula, even more, the amount of PhD thesis on history in both architecture and science is ridiculously small when compared to the rest of the research developed. History, as a form of truth telling, partakes of the very same scientific authority it seems to relativize when it inserts science in the urban flow of contingency. The modern university begins with the nominal separation of power, of professional faculties like theology, law, or medicine, from those of knowledge or philosophy, together with what today we would call the arts and sciences. What would a laboratory with something like an historical consciousness look like? Scientifically speaking, the idea of an architecture school as a sort of laboratory in which experimental knowledge is generated for subsequent application in the outside world, also risks the ideological premise that there is a world out there passively awaiting the arrival of disinterested knowledge acquired in the academy. Architecture pedagogy can also be seen as a scientific laboratory experiment. How to teach architecture history to future architects: teach it as the best history of science is taught today: as the contestable accumulation of contingent truth. Students have no difficulty in imagining that certain things can change, but they have immense difficulty in imagining that all things can change. To a large extent, this lack of imagination is to blame to their post modern heritage. Historical consciousness is consciousness that things can change and they do change and therefore that one might actively pursue this structural transformation of the status quo rather than be content with postmodern modesty. The inquiry into how and why things change, must acknowledge that causality is anything but linear. There is no need to apologize for the uselessness of history. In architecture we must remember that normal science, in the kuhnian sense, takes place in the studio or laboratory as much as it does in the library. To rethink architecture’s relation to history is also to rethink the studio. And though it is not possible, or at least not advisable to teach history in the studio, it is possible to teach historical questions. Teaching history is hardly an academic exercise; it is in teaching as such, professional teaching, where the past returns every day without repetition. This eternal return of the past as a problem, rather than as a fully resolved fact, elicits a historical consciousness that lies at the very core of all future oriented architectural knowledge. That is what I mean in saying that there is only history and nothing else. For any end, what is historical about architecture, is the recurrent dispute about the proper arrangement of past, present and future, including who does the arrangement and to what end. It is from this irreducible historicity, replayed a little different each time, that both the discipline and the profession derive their authority, as well as their responsibility. Questions follow.
The focus of the symposium is on the teaching of architectural history within architectural trainings. It is frequently admitted that architectural students do not find their history programmes useful or interesting. Why is this? The conference will address this question and consider how problems within architectural history might be productively changed by a different approach to the architectural past.
The AA has sought to reformulate its syllabus of how the issue of the past is dealt with in architectural terms. The symposium will consider ways in which the issue of the architectural past can be fashioned into a productive element in the training of an architect.
Friday 21 May
10.30 Brett Steele (Director of AA), Welcome
10.45 Mark Cousins (AA), Introduction
11.00 Reinhold Martin (Columbia University), Professional Histories
12.00 Brian Hatton (AA and John Moores University), Wandering in the Museum
2.00 Adrian Forty (Bartlett School, UCL) Dissecting the Cadaver
3.00 Irene Sunwoo (Princeton University), The Static Age
3.45 Panel discussion on Archives and Publishing, Tom Weaver (AA Files), Edward Bottoms (AA Library) and Irene Sunwoo
5.00 Eyal Weizman (Goldsmiths) Forensic Architecture: only the criminal can solve the crime
Saturday 22 May
10.30 Mark Campbell (AA)
11.30 Jeff Kipnis (Ohio State University), Honour Thy Bungling Epigone
2.00 Mark Cousins (AA), Architecture and its Unconscious
3.00 Panel discussion, Mollie Claypool (AA), Ryan Dillon (AA) and AA students.
All lectures are open to members of the public, staff and students unless otherwise stated.