Until around mid-1960s there existed, amongst architectural historians/theorists a degrees of certitude regarding the historical roots of Modern Architecture. In other words the sources of coded values of our own contemporary practice seemed to be more or less firmly established. One can reach down into this vast repository of events, so carefully structured into a progressive sequence, and find validation for an intended act that will extend that sequence. This was a function of a conventional wisdom, an area of agreement shared by both the historians as well as the general public, that some unified theory and practice called 'Modern Architecture' really existed.
There was also an implied assumption here that there is a single inevitable line of development, beginning with certain selected events of distant past and leading toward a certain favored utopia, that constitutes the content of history and which thus carries the coded values which in turn will inform future architecture. At the very beginning of his book Space Time and Architecture, S. Gideon writes;
"The historian, the historian of architecture especially, must be in close contact with contemporary conceptions. Only when he is permeated by the spirit of his time is he prepared to detect those tracts of the past which previous generations have overlooked".1 (Italics mine)
The inference is unmistakable; the historian must identify with the "spirit of the age" as Prof. Gideon refers to them a number of times in that book. Extended further this line of logic would also imply that there is involved here an inevitable selection from among the vast undistinguishable past, and that the criteria of this selection will have to be the prevailing values with which the historian identifies.
The historians of that "heroic period" have, for the most part, followed the same line of argument by implicitly becoming either apologists for a single tradition or prophets of inevitable development, say technology and structural determinism. The seductive power of this argument can be gauged by the fact that in one of the most influential theoretical formulations, Vers Une architecture (1923) Le Corbusier asserted;
"Industry (is) overwhelming us like a flood which rolls on toward its destined ends" (Italics mine).
A rather dangerous determinism which contends that one should follow the general trend of events wherever they lead because the spirit of the age demands that of all practitioners.
While one might argue for or against the ideological stance inherent in any of these selections, that is not my intention here. The point I want to make is that history is, has always been and will always be selective interpretation of the past based upon the historian's own predispositions. Historians themselves are not unaware of this and are often frank enough to openly acknowledge this aspect of historical interpretation and also their biases. Two examples will illustrate this. Nicholaus Pevsner's book Pioneers of Modern Design was first published in 1936. The date is of significance as it was the time when the rational/social utopian thrust of the various streams of European movements, which later came to be identified as the Modern Movement, were increasingly being challenged by the rising Fascism and communism which leaned toward the neo-classical and Nationalist architecture. Pevsner, a German refugee in England, was the first to take up the battle against the later by crystallizing the various streams into the single "universal style of the century". In this he consciously and deliberately selected to glorify the English tradition of social responsibility exemplified by William Morris and the rationality of Gropius and contrast these with Expressionism (he sub-titled his work as "From William Morris to Walter Gropius). Thus:
"It is the creative energy of this world in which we live and work which we want to master, a world of science and technique, of speed and danger, of hard struggles and no personal security, that is glorified in Gropius's architecture."
Pevsner extends this process of selection even to the heroes of this movement. He is clear not only about who to include but also about who to exclude;
"There was no question that Wright, Garnier, Loos, Behrens, Gropius, were the initiator of the style of the century and that Gaudi and Sant'Elia were freaks and their inventions fantastical rantings".2
Interestingly, in the later edition of the book published in 1960, the author's views have significantly changed. Pevsner no longer refers to Gaudi and Sant'Elia as freaks and fantasts and even includes them in the main body of the text. Looking back at his own earlier edition, he wrote in 1966:
"To me what had been achieved in 1914 was the style of the century. It never occurred to me to look beyond. Here was the one and the only style which fitted all those aspects which mattered, aspects of economy and sociology, of material and function".3
Obviously a lot of proverbial water had passed under the bridge in those thirty years between the first edition and the candid admission of an omission by the author. In both cases the historian identifies with the prevailing dominant values. By 1960s, the challenge to the Modern Movement has been effectively nullified to the extent that a more sober reappraisal of the period led to a realization that far from being a single evolutionary line, Modern Architecture consisted of, and was enriched by, a plurality of streams. it was this recognition of plurality that informed the debates during that decade (Team Ten) and is perhaps the cause of the multiplicity of approaches which we experience today.
The second example is much more closer to our time. Introducing the 1980 edition of "Modern Architecture, A critical History" Kenneth Frampton writes;
"A critical issue to be broached in writing a comprehensive but concise history are first, to decide what material to be included, and second, to maintain some kind of consistency in the interpretation of the facts" (italics mine).
While a little later on Frampton acknowledges that "....information often has to take priority over interpretation....", the very structure of the book and the way the material has been grouped and organized suggests that the author's priorities are indeed in favour of a certain school of thought as well as to look for a continuous evolutionary progression of those ideas in architectural production. He goes on to state that;
"I have endeavored to.....illustrate the way in which modern architecture has evolved as a continuous cultural effort and to demonstrate how certain issues might loose their relevance at one moment in history only to return at a later date with increased vigour".
Perhaps more than any other contemporary critic, Frampton has brought to the architectural polemics an awareness of the interconnection between architecture and the larger spectrum of the production processes of a culture. He is candid enough to state this at the very beginning of his essay:
"Like many others of my generation I have been influenced by a Marxist interpretation of history........On the other hand, my affinity for the critical theory of the Frankfurt School has no doubt coloured my view of the whole period and made me acutely aware of the dark side of the Enlightenment which, in the name of an unreasonable reason, has brought man to a situation where he begins to be as alienated from his own production as from the natural word".4
Such candid self-awareness of one's own position is not a general rule amongst historians and critics. Or for that matter not even amongst most of us. However, whether acknowledged or not, a subterranean structure of assumptions, values, priorities, doctrines etc. does exist within all actions involving choice making, including design of built environment. It exists even when the designers claim themselves to be a theoretical ("I do not ask questions, I only solve problems" is as much a value position as a stated doctrine). Such a structure is founded on a distinction which the proponent of that particular doctrine makes between what is significant and what is trivial.
Most of us, except in rare moments, experience the feeling of being engulfed, almost suffocated by a number of claims made on our attention. Within the present architectural discourse often, through forcefully presented arguments and seductive images, we are asked to believe this, notice that, do this, feel that etc. Almost always in such cases a position is taken and is believed to be self-evidently true. Whether this is by an historian, a critic/commentator or by the designers themselves, it is founded on a particular understanding of what constitutes the significant. As we have seen above, in the practice of architecture history has often been used as a source of validation, rather than as the source of coded values.
Ironically, at least in one occasion, even an explicit rejection of history has been used in such a fashion. Bauhaus is a case in point. There was a conscious rejection of any historical references in Bauhaus's curriculum.5 Architecture, according to statements by Gropius and many of his colleagues, was an expression of an individual's will for self-expression and was tied to the present. History, by presenting the glorious achievements of past, was in fact likely to intimidate the designer and thwart this self-expression and lead to imitations.6 Oskar Schlemmer's note in the manifesto for the first Bauhaus exhibition in 1923 is very instructive;
"....the new wedged into the old world, death to the past, to moonlight, and to the soul, thus the present time strides along with the gestures of a conqueror. Reason and science, 'man's greatest powers', are the regents, and the engineer is the sedate executor of unlimited possibilities. Mathematics, structure, and mechanization are the elements, and power and money are the dictators of these modern phenomena of steel concrete, glass, and electricity".
He then goes on to say;
"What matters is the recognition of what is pertinent (read significant) to us, so that we will not aimlessly wander astray" (Italics and brackets mine).7
I draw two clear inferences from the above. For one, for a critical understanding of architecture, a mere rational or formal analysis of architecture alone is inadequate. What people say they believe cannot always be taken at face value, and one must search for the structure of assumptions and values beneath the ideas; one looks not only at the content of theories but also at their functions.
One is thus tempted to argue that historical studies in architecture, as also in general, are man-made artifacts. This becomes clear when we distinguish between the Past and History. While Past consists of an undifferentiated mass of both representable and unrepresentable events which is mankind's inheritance, History, on the other hand, subjects this past to a filtering process of interpretation and almost always is biased in favour of the representable. To the extent that all historical reconstruction of the Past involves selection, classifications and categorization of those events by the "historian", history is artificial. While past is value-neutral, history is value-laden.
A second, more radical conclusion is that if ideas mask material interests, then the truth of the doctrine is linked with the interest it serves. Thus there may be no objective architecture; only interested architecture. In place of architect as a person8 we may have architect as a professional. As former he can be a force in society while as later he can only be a force of society.
But then several important questions pose themselves; If the presented doctrines and positions are relative to their own sense of significance, and thus by extension history and theory of architecture essentially plural, how does a designer relate with it? How does he develop some facility to distinguish the significant from the trivial? How can the development of such a facility, the ability to make discriminatory judgments, be integrated within the training of an architect?
I propose the twin notions of Reflective Action, and Contingent Criticality.
More often than not, in our design actions, we make assumptions which at the time seem self-evidently true and which we have internalized without feeling any need to question their validity. I call such actions 'habitual' actions. These are the actions that come naturally to us. We almost walk into them with our (mind's) eyes closed as they seem to be the obvious things to do. However, their very obviousness tend to disarm our critical faculties and lull us into believing that such an action is at least a manifestation of a general will and at most a catalyzer of that will.
However, as we have seen above, beneath the formal structures we design there exists another structure of ideas, assumptions, values intentions etc., a constellation of perceptual biases, the exact nature of which we do not often know. And unless we examine and understand this structure, what we design and what we think we design might be at variance with each other. Without such an understanding, a designer may not be able to relate with his/her own intentions. It is especially so when the work of a designer is taken not as a synthesis of an ongoing historical process but simply as the consequence of a human force, conscious of its own intentions. This was the case with the Modern Movement and it seems to be the case today.
At its worst, today's world seems to be a world in which people are intent on setting their own rules. At its best, it is a world in which the discrepancies, the paradoxes and the rejections represent a way of relating oneself to events and, in doing so, acquiring an awareness of the multiple aspects of life. Under such circumstances, habitual actions will not suffice for they are singularly susceptible to the exigencies and the fashions of the moment. Study of history without linking it with the view of reality which privileges certain events over the other, in a hierarchy of significance, is uncritical and reinforces the act of habitual designing.
The general education most of us have received reinforces the privilage of theory over practice, in general, of thought over action, of mind over body or hand. By reflective action (Reflective as opposed to Reactive as well as Habitual action) I mean the cyclical practice of doing, exploring, reflecting on the validity of the action, leading to further doing, and so on. It questions the traditional causal relationship between thinking and doing (remember the admonition "Think before you act", we all received at school and also at home as we were growing up?). This is replaced by a reciprocal relationship in which thinking and doing mirror and inform each other. A design action deliberately and willfully taken and which is continuously reflected upon, and modified, as it unfolds,9 provides a possible way out. I believe that this thinking/doing reciprocity is fundamental to the concerns expresed here and we must find ways of developing this design habit, to internalize a way of perceiving, thinking and acting into a practice before we are confronted with the demands for a "finished" or "professional" integration of functions, construction/structure, etc.
It calls for a high level of self-criticality which must not only become a way of life but also be ingrained in the training of an architect. I call this "contingent Criticality" for unlike the Cartesian mode of it, where the criticality is propelled by the underlaying abstract layer of Scientific Rationalism, "contingent criticality" derives its validity from its concrete situation which includes the material, intellectual and ideological conditions within which the action is taken. Not an all encompassing, universal and abstract system of norms and conons through which all actions may be judged as being "good" or "right", but one in which a designer is in the habit of asking "what might be the right thing to do here and now, in this concrete situation" and "what are my values and assumptions". In other words, it is contingent upon its context. An examination of this context is a necessary prelude to action which is meaningful in its context.
It has an ambiguous relationship with history. Unlike Bauhaus it does not reject history as having no role in informing the event. On the other hand, neither does it consider the action an inevitable synthesis of an historical process. It accepts history's plurality, the multitude of approaches, which include built and unbuilt works, theoretical statements, commentary, criticism etc., to use each one of these as a foil to uncover the 'constellation of biases', the distinction between significant and trivial, within all, especially in one's own.
I know of at least one formal mechanism which attempts to do this. It is a course called "Contemporary Design Approaches" (CDA) team taught by a group of faculty and anchored by Prof. Kenneth Warriner at the School of Architecture, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, U.S.A. The course was instituted in the curriculum of the school in the early 80s and has evolved over the years. There may be other such attempts going on but I am not aware of them. It is presented here not as an ideal model for other schools to follow. The course has been designed for a particular school taking into account its own pedagogical strengths at a particular place and time. These might be different with other institutions. Each will have to evolve its own response to the issues raised here. What is pertinent, however, is the fact that, though unstated, the CDA course takes certain strong positions on a number of issues which can be debated.
For one, the course is a core element (as opposed to an elective) and is being offered at an early stage in the curriculum; first semester of the second year. There is obviously an implied concern here for the vulnerability of an young mind to be swayed by the more overtly articulated position or a seductive image in the media much of which characterize the architectural discourse today. It is believed that the ability to filter out the trivial from the significant must be ingrained in the young mind before one settles down to a habitual action and internalizes a stylistic position without the benefit of a critical inquiry. This can happen at a very early age.
This is like turning Gropius's argument on its head. It was due to a similar fear of the seductive quality of history that Gropius wanted to consign the introduction of history to the last year in a three year curriculum when the students have attained a level of maturity. Thus he wrote;
"History studies are therefore best offered to older students who have already found self-expression. When the innocent beginner is introduced to the great achievements of the past, he may be too easily discouraged from trying to create for himself". And, "History studies should be started in the third year rather than in the first, to avoid intimidation and imitation".10
Rensselaer's CDA, on the other hand, has no such problem with the maturity of students. It begins with an assumption that the problem lies not in the level of maturity but in the non-availability of critical tools. Given these tools to a 18-20 year old will be able to make critical judgement.
The second position the course takes is that it broadens the definition of architectural practice by including in the term "approach" a wider spectrum of built and unbuilt works, ways of working, theoretical statements, commentary criticism etc. and the focus of the course is not a simple enumeration and explanation of various approaches but their intensive interrogation to uncover the subterranean level of intentions. In other words, to help students develop an aptitude for reflection and reflective action.
The tools of this interrogation are a series of questions through which a cross examination of the given approaches expose the unstated layers of assumptions, which the advocates of each of approaches consider to be "self-evident". These questions are contained in the four clusters;
- What are the different assumptions as to how the world works?
- What are the different assumptions as to how we know what is?
- What are the different assumptions as to the best way to do things, to act? And...
- What are the different assumptions we make as to what ought be, what is the best, the right action to take?
The third position stems from the above. Conventional history/theory courses are usually 'stand-alone' courses part of a general humanities stream within the curriculum and offered by specialist faculty. At best they provide the 'body of knowledge' back up to the work done in the studio though the interaction largely depends upon the initiative of the studio faculty. At worst they remain unconnected with the studio and the choices made in the studio are deprived of the benefit of critical reflection and fall into the familiar groove of habitual actions.
CDA offers a way out by linking the history, theory, criticism and design together. The fact that one of the discussion sessions every week seeks to "extend the interests (evidenced in the approach under consideration), into a discussion of the design studio work which the class is presently doing" is worth taking note of.
- 1. S. Gideon, Space, Time and Architecture, (1962) P. 5
- 2. N. Pevsner, Pioneers of Modern Design, Faber and Feber (1936).
- 3. N. Pevsner. "Architecture in our Time, The Anti-Pioneers", Listener, 29 December 1966.
- 4. K. Frampton. Modern Architecture, A Critical History. Oxford. (1980) P. 8,9.
- 5. Notwithstanding the earlier noted reference to Pevsner, it was left to historians such as Pevsner to make the historical connection. Gropius and his colleagues were always reluctan to get involved in a historical process.
- 6. W. Gropius, Scope of Total Architecture, 1955, Collier Books, N.Y. p.55.
- 7. As quoted in Programs and manifestos on 20th. century architecture, Ulrich Conrads, MIT Press, 1964, p.70.
- 8. See Romaldo Giurgola's analysis of Louis Kahn for an eloquent explanation of this. "Architect as A Person", Louis I. Kahn/Architect, R. Giurgola and J. Mehta, Westview Press, Boulder, 1975, p. 244.
- 9. See K. Warriner, Received Meaning/Meaning in Action, Journal of Architectural Education, Jubilee Issue, 1987. p.87.
- 10. W. Gropius, Op. cit. pp 55, 57.