Architecture and its past Symposium 3/9: 'Dissecting the cadaver'
Date: Friday 21 May 2010
Venue: Lecture Hall
3/9 Adrian Forty Dissecting the Cadaver
Mark Cousins introduces Adrian Forty, who announces a very pragmatic talk; not offering thoughts about the nature of truth, the past, time or any of the other big questions. At the start of every academic year, he finds himself in front of an audience of 150 of new students and he presents to them a course on the history of Architecture and Cities, feeling that he has to offer some explanation as to why they are having a history course. He says to them that they are young people, going to school in order to make new things, so why should they be concerned with the past? Surely, he reminds, it is only declining civilizations that become obsessed with the past. Memories are the last refuge of those who are getting old, who have nothing else to look forward to. He finds it a very interesting question, which he has never fully satisfied himself, but in that situation in the beginning of the year, he feels he has to provide certain answers. One of them, is to do with the nature of the subject that they are concerned with; buildings and cities. He thinks it is useful to think about how study of architecture and the city differs from other disciplines. If one takes some disciplines, like engineering or economics, the knowledge in those fields consists of a body of theory, which people learn and which they learn how to reply in given situations. Architecture and building are not like that; the knowledge in architecture and building consists in the buildings and cities that are there. This is not to say that we can’t have theories about them, but ultimately the text about those theories is what is actually there. If you want to know what a wall is, or an opening is, you have to look, in a sense at all walls and at all openings. The knowledge is in the objects. This seems to him to put architecture apart from other theoretically based disciplines and more like some others, like medicine. In medicine, knowledge is ultimately knowledge of the body: there are theories on how the body works, but those theories are only good if they correspond with the experience, the physiognomy and the processes of the body. Taking the analogy further, what you do if you are a medical student is that you are presented with a dead body, a cadavre and you have to dissect it. You spend your first three months taking it apart, slowly, methodically, recording everything that you see. That is the beginning. There is some kind of equivalent that is needed for students of architecture and the cities, they too, need to know what the material in which they are operating is. In one way, it could be said that the best possible thing to do is a year-long grand tour, in which they see as much as it is possible in the space of a year. Maybe, it would be one solution to it. However, there are certain drawbacks to that as a way to presenting an education, he is not sure if it would really work, because it is not only about going to see something, but, what do you see when you get there? We probably all have the experience of going to a supposedly great work of architecture and finding that when we get there, we feel like, what is this all about? What is in it? You go away, puzzled and you write that off: perhaps it is not so great after all. The problem is that we don’t have any innate, natural ability to read buildings and cities; they are notoriously resistant to understanding, they don’t give up their meanings easily. Certainly, it wouldn't be possible to expect that those arriving at the school of architecture at the age of eighteen, however bright and well educated they might be, have the means to make sense of what they are seeing, even if the professor got them to see all these works around the world. There is a need to give people the apparatus, with which to make sense of what they see. This capacity to see and realize that buildings can carry thoughts, is something for which people have to acquire a skill. A history course provides some means in order to make sense of what people see. How does one do that, there are many possibilities. But I wonder how many students have made the journey to visit St. George’s Bloomsbury church, which is 4 min walk from AA. There is a kind of agoraphobia that is set among architecture students. In which their focus on their laptops, in their place in the studio and have a kind of terror of going out and seeing anything. One of the main challenges of teaching in a school of architecture, for Adrian, it is actually getting people out of the school of architecture, and to confront solid matter out there. Part of the task of the architecture course is to make people to feel relaxed about engaging with actual buildings and the city. So, what should we teach? He gives a scenario: we have a design tutor, giving a tutorial to one student. At one point, the tutor mentions one architect or building, Luis Barragan, Beauvais cathedral, which the student has not heard of, and it seems that the history teacher has failed to deliver this particular iconic work, which everybody should know of. This puts a rather heavy demand upon the teachers of history, and it is impossible to satisfy this expectation of dozens of design teachers, each of who have their own particular constellation that may depend on their formation, education, or particular preoccupations, which is perfectly understandable. But the difficulty is to expect that a formalized education can reproduce this obsessions. So, what one teaches is in a way arbitrary, things that you are interested in, that you happen to find more important and in a way it does not really matter what actually is provided. The formation of that cannon is arbitrary, contestable and provisional, as it changes all the time.
Opening up the round of questions, Mark Cousins points out that the professionalization of the training of architecture is based on the belief amongst historians that students must know a wider range of buildings than those that they could possibly experience. This introduces another layer, in some sense, the foundation of architecture schools and their historical programs as founded in a photographic archive. So, the problem it is not only inside the building or outside, but on the photographs; the consequences of this have not really been elucidated. The Warburg institute in the 70’s, had a magnificent photographic library, largely of images chosen because of their iconographic significance. Gradually, some younger teachers there addressed the question, shouldn't the photographic library become coloured and remove those black and white photographs. Some scholars were radically opposed to this: color is extremely confusing, when trying to read the iconological significance. One very famous old iconographer said that he really wished that the whole of Western art was in black and white, because it would be so much easier for the study of iconography. Marks asks about the mediation of photography, which is extended to that of the computer.
Adrian remembers a similar discussion at Courtauld Institute roughly at the same time that that signaled by Mark at Warburg. There were also those who argued very strongly for the preservation of black and white, as offering in some sense a truer representation of paintings in color, which was really baffling. What it brings up is that whatever we do in the Institutions, what history is about is to provide surrogates for the objects. What is it that we study, the representations of the objects or the objects themselves. The objects themselves are actually much more difficult to study than the surrogates. What the student learns from the cadavre is anatomy, the body. What they don’t learn about it is the living awakeness. Physiology, the study of the living body is dealt with in some other way. I’ve been trained as a historian, so I am not so sympathetic to the view that we live in a kind of eternal present and objects are different things at different times. History is about the past but is made in the present. What we are looking at is the many presents in which it has been made.Thanks to digital media it is now possible to find out what more or less any work in the world looks like and often to find some basic things about it. Mark Cousins adds that the computer is hostile to any critical awareness of the medium in which the information is delivered. Adrian continues saying that what schools of architecture teach is not building, is how to make images and representations. History is only one way of knowing about architecture, I wouldn’t make any claims for it being the only way of thinking about architecture.
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.