'If I had to, I would define myself as a Paris-based wandering Jew,' says historian and architect Jean-Louis Cohen in a visit to Tel Aviv

“What is really missing in the field of architecture is a horizon of understanding comparable to the one the audience has in the fields of theater, cinema or art. You know what exhibition you will see, or you will go see a movie because you read a point of view [about it] that you appreciate or at least understand. You might be critical toward that particular point of view, but you will go see it nonetheless. 

“One needs the construction of a systematic discourse of architecture,1 and this has been done sometimes before: I am thinking of major critics that shaped the public opinion about architecture, and they were very often grounded in history. I would start with Lewis Mumford writing in The New Yorker in the 1950s, Bruno Zevi writing in L’Espresso, or some years ago Luis Fernández-Galiano writing for El Pais. The function of the historian is to get out his or her narrow territory and try to build an understandable narrative about buildings that are around us and that shape us.”

  • 1. Cohen came to architecture after studying science. The early 1970s was a period of radical criticism of architecture and its self-evident connections to capital. One of the focal points of this criticism emerged in Italy of the so-called Years of Lead – a period of roughly 20 years, beginning in the late 1960s, that started with a massive workers’ strike and continued with chaos at the universities and extreme political violence on both the right and the left. 

    Manfredo Tafuri, a historian of architecture who was active during those years in Venice, became the representative of this criticism. His ideas, particularly the claim that developments in architecture are always defined by crisis, shaped an entire generation in Italy and even influenced the growth of architectural theory in the United States. Cohen, who had begun to engage in historical research, found himself shortly after his studies in the intellectual circle of Venice, which changed the course of his career. 

    “At the end of my studies I started drifting toward history, beginning with the German modernists, but I knew Russian, so very quickly I went to Russia to interview survivors from the avant-garde – Konstantin Melnikov and others – and that’s how the Italians discovered me, as much as I have discovered them,” he explains. 

    “I was reading Manfredo Tafuri’s discussions of the avant-garde, while Tafuri and his colleagues read some little things that I had written, and we became good friends. I started going frequently to Venice, and discovered a more intellectual take on the history of architecture. Tafuri was an acute reader of structuralist theory, and was trying to connect architecture and semiotics in a rather original and thorough way.”