Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 19, 2000
Panayotis Tournikiotis The Historiography of Modern Architecture Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999. 344 pp.; 34 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (0262201178)

I must confess that I have a natural affinity toward books about history. I like the subject. I like reading about historians. I like discerning historiorgraphic assumptions and approaches toward the discipline. Thus, when an author offers a book with the promising title The Historiography of Modern Architecture I am inclined to read it and enjoy it—even if it presents only the chance to think about history.

Tournikiotis’s book does more, by offering various new insights. It is a thoughtful, intelligent, and sometimes astute study of a reasonable number (and choice) of historians of the modern movement: Nikolaus Pevsner, Emil Kaufmann, Sigfried Giedion, Bruno Zevi, Leonardo Benevolo, Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Reyner Banham, Peter Collins, and Manfredo Tafuri. The first three historians are compressed into an introductory chapter; the rest are scrutinized individually in chapters devoted to unraveling the premises of their most important studies. The book grew out of Tournikiotis’s doctoral work in the mid-1980s in France, under the supervision of the highly respected Françoise Choay. Many of the author’s methodological mannerisms are therefore fashionably “French.” “Histories,” the author confesses, “are not innocent texts; I have thus treated them as objects and studied their reactions” (2). Following Foucault, he treats the historical study as “a discursive practice that systematically forms the objects of which it speaks” (5). He also prefers to employ the word démarche in place of the (presumably more pedestrian) word “approach,” as in historical approach.

The seven chapters devoted to the historiography of the nine historians are on the whole well written and at times quite instructive. One may quibble that Kaufmann got too little treatment and Hitchcock perhaps too much, but these are minor points on which everyone will have a different opinion. The two best chapters, in terms of their criticism, are those devoted to Peter Collins and Reyner Banham.

I like Collins, I must admit—if only because he was the last architectural historian with the courage to refer to R. G. Collingwood in his introduction. But this chapter reveals other reasons for liking Collins as well. Collins’s book of 1965, Changing Ideals in Modern Architecture, is an idealized study that explores first, the evolving intellectual fabric of Enlightenment and nineteenth-century architectural cultures, and only then, almost incidentally, the practice of a few twentieth-century architects. Collins knew, contrary to what most people think today, that architecture is not an art. He was cogently aware that the architect “thinks of forms intuitively, and then tries to justify them rationally,” and thus theory can only be studied in “philosophical and ethical terms” (yes ethical!). The British-born Collins also held, as Tournikiotis points out, a refreshing and somewhat cranky “indifference to or contempt for the [continental] avant-gardes” (181). Who else, when speaking of the pernicious influence of literature on architectural thought, could better lecture us on the pitfalls of “ugliness” and “sincerity” in design—all the while citing the literary critic Henri Peyre to bolster his case. And who more clearly discerned the clever historical shenanigans of Giedion, both in juxtaposing images of modern architecture with Cubist paintings, and in loading the former with such appellations as “space-time.”

It was Collins, of course, who gave us chapters (the fallacies of Geoffrey Scott) on the biological, mechanical, gastronomic, and linguistic analogies, and this critique connects with Tournikiotis’s previous chapter on Banham. The latter’s Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960) was perhaps the first attempt to demystify the historical mythology of modernism by probing its theoretical legacy in somewhat greater depth. Banham’s principal thesis was that the aesthetic promise of the first machine age never, in fact, came to fruition, that is, except in the futuristic projects of Buckminister Fuller. Against the first machine age, Banham then posits a second, commencing with his own generation’s coming of age: the “Fabulous Sixties.” I do not want to play the rogue here, but this characterization leads me to a question. As much as I admire Banham’s enthusiasm (and the good job that Tournikiotis does in drawing out his historical presumptions), can the Reyner Banham who in 1965 presented us the cigar-stoking-bearded-Banham-Dallegret-populated “Environment-Bubble, Transparent plastic bubble dome inflated by air-conditioning output” be the same Banham who in 1959 chided the Italians for their “infantile regression” from the strictures of modernism?

The Italians, for their part, extracted their rightful revenge—not with the brilliance of Ernesto Rogers and Aldo Rossi, but rather with the hysteria of the young Manfredo Tafuri. The latter’s Theory and History of Architecture appeared in 1968, and indeed it is hard to imagine, over these short eight years, to what extremes of dementia architectural history could plunge. Writing history, Tournikiotis informs us of Tafuri’s intentions, is now “profoundly political” (198), “an instrument for the revolutionary [re]education that will pave the way for a radical change in capitalist society” (194), and the role of the historian is not to speak of the past but “to project the malaise and anguish of contemporary architecture,” and “to foment turmoil” (199). All of this is to be militantly carried out, of course, in the name of “liberated society.” Such ideological seriousness, together with its intellectual pretensions, needs to be considered at greater length than what can be done here. Nevertheless, Tafuri’s critique of architectural ideologies today evokes an eerie, almost alien quality in its posturing—and I was in Paris in the spring of 1968!

The final chapter of Tournikiotis’s work, “Modern Architecture and the Writing of Histories,” loses on occasions some of the rigor of his earlier analysis. This chapter is too long and redundant to start with (which may have something to do with the ten-year hiatus between its writing and rewriting), but it seems as well to be infected with some of the more bombastic qualities of the Parisian climate in the late 1980s. The author’s enchantment with Derrida’s notion of a “hymen,” for instance, prompts the following Clintonesque gymnastic: “What we can perceive of the time present (in the sense of the histories of modern architecture) is the past which is still present, as distinct from the past which is no longer present; moving in the other direction, it is also the future which is already present, a present which has not yet existed” (250). And there are other problems in this chapter as well. One of the underlying themes that periodically resurfaces throughout the book (perhaps gleaned from the author’s reading of Collins) is the connection that Tournikiotis wants to make between Conrad Fiedler’s notion of “visibility,” Woelfflinean formalism, and the “purely visible perception” of Giedion and Pevsner (244). I simply do not buy this argument in its first form, and even less the contrary rejoinder that Erwin Panofsky later “neutralizes psychophysiological or subjective judgment” by shifting the historical focus from appearance to content (257).

Finally, there is another trapdoor of the 1980s through which the author is enticed, which is the postmodern dictum that there is no history but only a number of “narratives,” that every text is always a double-text, that each of these multiple narratives conceals within it “a vision of the future to which their authors do not admit” (237). I do not want to question a poststructuralist dogma of such intensity and (seemingly) universal acceptance, but I cannot think of a single modern historian who has ever operated from the premise that a subject (the historian) simply records an object (reality). This includes the unfashionable Leopold von Ranke, who is also a bogeyman in this book. Indeed some people, and not too long ago, considered the desire for facticity (the crime of Ranke) to be an admirable touchstone of historical analysis—notwithstanding any covert teleological framework. Yet there is another reason I object to the implications of this easy formulation. It reminds me of those automobile bumper stickers that one still occasionally comes across in the vicinity of those bastions of political conformity and ideological intolerance (i.e. the American university), which read “Celebrate Diversity.” It is not that I lament the fact that the now discredited historian is henceforth relegated to writing—instead of history—one of many possible “narratives” (historians have always understood this); it is the argument one could make that there is a difference between a good narrative (a critically informed, ingeniously composed, originally researched, and interesting historical study) and a bad narrative. Perhaps some day a historiographer will dare to re-explore the implications of this premise!

Harry Mallgrave
Fellow, The Clark Art Institute.