Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 23, 2000
Peter Galison and Emily Thompson, eds. The Architecture of Science MIT Press, 1999. (0262071908)

This collection of twenty-three essays spans five-hundred years of science and architecture and includes scholarship from fields as disparate as the history of science, art history, physics, sociology, and engineering. The attempt to understand “the means by which architecture and science define one another through their encounter” (3) is a worthy, but wildly ambitious, task. Both architecture and science are expansive terms that have shifted meaning in fundamental ways over the last five hundred years. Consequently, it is rare in this omnibus to find articles in active dialogue: topics jump around, methodologies clash, and the working definitions of both science and architecture remain unstable. In the absence of a more focused idea, we are left with the unsettling evidence that interdisciplinary studies have a long way to go.

If anything lends these essays coherence, however, it is what Antoine Picon observed as the “estrangement between the sciences and the arts created by the first industrial revolution” (310). In 1958, Raymond Williams traced the rhetorical journeys of the keywords that narrated this split in his classic work, Culture and Society 1780-1950. “Industry” and “art,” near synonyms in the early 18th century, bifurcated with the political and industrial revolutions into the antagonisms that Sigfried Giedion argued, tormented the “divided ego” of man (Space, Time and Architecture, 1941). The best of these essays demonstrate that this split is mythical, or at least hyperbolic: Architecture and science have been engaged in a vibrant dialectic, not just in terms of method and practice, but also in terms of metaphor, ethos, and values.

One of the most important sites for understanding this dialectic is the museum. Paula Findlen gives a wonderful account of the gendering of humanist spaces of science as a continuation of the segregation of natural philosophy (and its space in the study) from the feminine domestic sphere. However, it is unclear from her evidence to what extent this was an obvious outgrowth of the earlier tradition, or whether it was, as she claims, constructed as part of the gendered brokering of power through the monopolization of knowledge. The latter seems indisputable, but this does not excuse Findlen from leaving her evidence for David Noble’s authority, borrowing his observation that “a world without women did not simply emerge, it was constructed” (48). How this world was constructed remains nebulous, as does the important relationship between the gendering of scientific space and the production of science. Perhaps the parallel of how the art museum found its way out of the house would provide a useful foil for Findlen’s assumptions.

The museum is also central to two essays in the section titled, “Displaying and Concealing Technics in the Nineteenth Century,” both of which are essential reading for the history of the museum. George Stocking gives a great summation of his own work on the organization of anthropological objects in museums of natural history. It is useful for its bibliography and for ranging broadly across the paradigms that have dominated anthropological display. Architectural historians will likely wish for a closer analysis of architecture and artifact, but will find this in Stocking’s Objects and Others (1985). One is also left to wonder about how the new Museum of the American Indian on the Mall in Washington, D.C., and the recent addition to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, two departures both scientifically and organizationally from past models, fit into his framework.

Sophie Forgan provides the first treatment of James Pennethorne’s Museum of Natural History in London (1847-51), a building that predates Deane and Woodward’s Oxford Natural History Museum and prefigures its use of architecture as a didactic tool. Here British raw materials such as ores and stones were exhibited next to the industrial processes used to refine them and to the finished products. The building itself was constructed of many of the materials the museum displayed, and its very form approximated the geological strata where the materials were found. Forgan’s essay complements Carla Yanni’s Nature’s Museums: Victorian Science and the Architecture of Display (1999) and Steven Conn’s Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876-1926 (1998), two of the more important treatments of the subject in recent years.

Forgan’s essay is, however, an exception. For art and architectural historians who would like to find commentary on actual buildings, or even on unbuilt projects, this book will frustrate. For instance, Pamela Long relates the architectural treatises of Alberti and Filarete to contemporary scientific ideas of experiment and openness, thus establishing the strong connections in the Renaissance between architecture and science. Yet, how this shaped architecture in any tangible sense is not broached; nor is the opposite treated. One is left to wonder if the experimental nature of architecture in the hands of, say, Alberti or Wren, produced paradigms of scientific experiment.

The historian of science, M. Norton Wise, on the other hand, gets right at the dialectic between architecture and science. He demonstrates how steam engine houses introduced industry into postNapoleonic Prussia as a civilizing force by integrating the new machines into the landscape as follies in English gardens, producing what Wise calls a “technological sublime.” While I believe the picturesque is really the more appropriate aesthetic category, Wise’s analysis is sharp. The comparisons British and American encounters with industry are more vital than the author seems to allow, which may account for the absence of Leo Marx’s seminal work on just this encounter, The Machine in the Garden in the bibliography.

The dialectic is still stronger in Adrian Forty’s essay on how architectural language borrows from science. A basic architectural word such as “circulation,” whose metaphorical roots have become opaque through usage, derives from scientific discourse in the nineteenth century, especially from physiology. Forty skirts the Darwinian context of this; in fact, Darwin is a missing link in the entire collection, which is a shame, because evolutionary thought lent architecture an important word like “development,” which Victorian architects used to structure their arguments for certain styles. In other words, evolution undergirded much of the Battle of the Styles, and not merely in England, but also in Germany (Huebsch) and France (Viollet-le-Duc). It is also a short leap from the use of disease metaphors for the city, a nineteenth-century usage, to seeing architecture in terms of the body.

However, what Forty pays attention to is excellent. He moves on to words taken from mechanics—tension, torsion, shear, compression—not for their physical action in buildings, but as imaginative tropes describing the sensual qualities of architecture, really our perception of those forces independent of their actuality. He argues that certain metaphors gain currency because they make architecture more “amenable to scientific method” (220), and more importantly, that they reinforce our “social and psychological desires” to see architecture a certain way (226). That “way” is to see architecture as a science, as something, Forty concludes, it is not. But architecture’s penchant for metaphorical borrowing goes well beyond science, which makes one wonder if it reflects a more fundamental instability in the profession. Forty alludes to this without pursuing it. Readers might refer to JoAnne Brown’s The Definition of a Profession (1992), which demonstrates with a different profession (intelligence testing) and a similar set of metaphors how professions use rhetoric to gain status and to assert and protect monopolies over knowledge.

Co-editor Emily Thompson’s superb study of architectural acoustics in the first decades of the twentieth century reveals how a cutting-edge modernity was often hidden inside those buildings deemed most retarditaire by the Modern Movement and its historians. By teasing out the relationships between the Harvard physicist and specialist in acoustics, Wallace Sabine, the tile manufacturer Raphael Guastavino, and architects such as Ralph Adams Cram and McKim, Mead, and White, Thompson is able to offer up a revisionist account of modern architecture. She redeems the late Gothic Revival and Beaux-Arts Classical buildings that in the conventional reading of architectural history have weathered poorly next to the startling work of Mies, Gropius, and Le Corbusier from the 1920s and 1930s.

Finally, the rather cursory treatment of the social sciences is disappointing and suggests a direction for future research. For instance, the faith in science as a catalyst or agent of social betterment meets the material determinism of the Modern Movement at the nexus of the social sciences. And this nexus, entangled already during the Progressive Era in relation to social reform, found popular expression in slogans like “Better Living,” a shibboleth shared by hard science—DuPont’s famous slogan began in 1935—the building industry, education reform, New Deal housing, and postwar urban planning. Likewise, the intersection of architecture and science through systems theory, information theory, cybernetics, and the computer suggests a whole range of topics awaiting study.

This wide-ranging collection underscores how important it is for future work on the subject to find suitable frames, whether they be methodological, historical, or theoretical, while at the same time enabling scholars to elucidate the dynamic interactions between architecture and science.

Andrew M. Shanken
Department of Art History, University of Pennsylvania