Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 6, 2020
Mark Crinson and Richard J. Williams The Architecture of Art History: A Historiography London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2018. 184 pp.; 30 b/w ills. Cloth £75.00 (9781350020917)

Few academic disciplines are as variously housed in institutions of higher learning as architectural history—sometimes in university departments of history or art history, sometimes in schools of architecture or degree programs in historic preservation or heritage conservation, and sometimes in several different places within the same institution. Should the discipline be devoted to the training of architects or to fostering a new generation of architectural historians based in methods of nontextual analysis? Since the early nineteenth century, the history of architecture has been taught to future architects—the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris, had a professor of architectural history—and by the end of the century the inaugural university courses in art history, notably in German-speaking Europe, took architecture’s history as an integral part of the new discipline of art history.

Late nineteenth-century Germanic art history, with its attention to architecture alongside the other visual arts, is the point of both departure and return for The Architecture of Art History, an extended polemical essay by Mark Crinson and Richard J. Williams, two British art historians whose own research has focused largely on architecture and its representations in other media. Despite the subtitle, A Historiography, the reader is offered not so much a history of architectural history as a diagnosis of art history’s betrayal of its birthright by weakening, if not altogether severing, the sinews of the “art-architecture nexus.” Crinson and Williams proffer hypotheses about the origins of estrangement in this previously happy marriage, which in its early effervescence illuminated, and even sometimes served as a guiding light for, cultural history at large. They postulate that as they were institutionalized, and as modernism came to dominate in art and architecture, with adherence to what Clement Greenberg called “medium specificity,” art and architectural history alike were somehow progressively diminished in their capacities as “serious form[s] of cultural and historical study” (131). The dialogue between the two was never silenced; it simply became all but inaudible. Despite its critique of Greenbergian formalism, The Architecture of Art History is a plea for a return to the formal analysis at the heart of early art history—analysis such as made possible Heinrich Wölfflin’s comparative method, Alois Riegl’s Kunstwollen, the parallel habitus of Erwin Panofsky, and the continuation of the formalist tradition in that most architecturally engaged of Wölfflin’s pupils, Sigfried Giedion. Giedion’s famous comparison in Space, Time and Architecture (1941) of analytical Cubist painting, in the form of Pablo Picasso’s L’Arlésienne (1911–12), and the glazed facade of the workshop block of Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus building at Dessau (1925–26) is, for these authors, a high point of the art-architecture nexus. But, as the authors contend, echoing Nikolaus Pevsner’s contemporary review of Space, Time and Architecture, with Giedion’s polemical history the nexus veered toward operative criticism, through an instrumentalization of cultural history of the type pioneered by Jacob Burkhardt. Despite the fact that Giedion’s book, long a standard text, began life as the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures in “poetry in the expanded sense” at Harvard, Crinson and Williams argue that its impact was exclusively on the world of architecture, since art historians “would have learnt little new about art from it” (32).

Following this stage-setting, subsequent chapters trace an eccentric path through twentieth-century art history, from this starting point at which architecture was integrated within the work of the first germanophone academics (Italian, French, and American art historians writing before the 1960s are strangely absent here). The second chapter, devoted to the idea of “the architectural unconscious,” opens with the polemic’s central question: “What happened when art history’s disciplinary formation threw out the art-architecture nexus?” (33). Here the argument is that two key protagonists, Leo Steinberg and Michael Baxandall, were interested in architecture in their doctoral work but later focused exclusively on painting and sculpture. The latent contribution of this early interest is then traced through a reading of the role of the spatial in their later writings. But why these two figures? A focus on Rudolf Wittkower, Meyer Schapiro, or Erwin Panofksy, for example, would have yielded a very different profile for this chapter. Even more arbitrary is the following chapter, “Modernism—Institutional and Phenomenal”—a title meant to play on that of a famous essay on modernist architecture by Wittkower’s pupil Colin Rowe (with the painter Robert Slutzky), “Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal.” Greenberg, Rowe, and a cherry-picked roster of exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art make for an unexpected threesome as the authors argue that modernism itself “is perhaps the process more than any that marks the separation between these two disciplines” (54), a strange slippage since only pages before the argument was advanced that at the outset art and architecture were the subject matter of a single, and singular, discipline.

Reyner Banham, at the keystone position in the arc of the book’s argument, seems more than any other historian to represent a more recent model for a productive dialogue, since “he put the discipline of art history under some pressure, via architecture” (77). Given that this is based primarily on Banham’s friendship with the artist members of the Independent Group in London rather than on any particularly pertinent readings across media in his writings, the claims here, for this reader at least, fall short. Banham’s The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment (1969), with its attention to heating, ventilation, and other factors of comfort in architecture, is said to have “prefigured the bodily turn in art history” (85), but this curious claim is not drawn out sufficiently to allow an understanding of how the technocratic Banham’s fascination with the guts of a building and its production of creature comforts resonates with the attention to issues of “the body” in recent decades of art history. The penultimate chapter takes up what was briefly feted as “the new art history” in the Britain of the 1980s, showing the invigorating impacts of the social history of art and Marxism on Anglo-American art history. Here the attitude toward architecture was “by default negative” (101), and this even though the radical architectural transformation of Paris under Baron Haussmann during the Second Empire is the point of departure for T. J. Clark’s reading of Impressionism and Postimpressionism in his The Painter of Modern Life (1985). Clark made strategic use—unfortunately unmentioned by Crinson and Williams—of some of the most recent French architectural and urban history, such that his work would seem to be a productive exception to the steady elimination of architecture from art history chronicled in this history of absence. In the authors’ view, the new art history treated architecture simply as the “dumb expression of capital, or power, rather than [as] an autonomous artistic practice” (104).

A final chapter shifts the scene to New York to track the episodic appearances of architecture in the pages of the journal October, which stands in for the previous generation of art historical scholarship. Here again Crinson and Williams lament that architecture is generally reduced to “dystopian scenography” (117) rather than being considered as complex artistic expression in its own right. Oddly enough, the now venerable American journal Grey Room (founded in 2000), which describes itself as seeking to “bring together scholarly and theoretical articles from the fields of architecture, art, media and politics to forge a cross-disciplinary discourse uniquely relevant to contemporary concerns,” is nowhere mentioned. Some appraisal of what the first eighty numbers of that review has fostered, for instance, would seem urgently needed from this call for a renewal of the art-architecture nexus, as would more than a passing reference to Hal Foster’s The Art-Architecture Complex (2011)—just two examples that would boost Crinson and Williams in their hopes that art history might again attend to the interests of architectural historians and that in turn architecture might have something to learn from art history. But oddly, this eccentric reading of the history of art history as a eulogy for a lost dialogue ends abruptly with an older generation and stops short of offering a trajectory for the reengagement that the authors suggest could renew the discipline of art history at its very core. Just what form an art history that fully integrated architecture as a concern would take is not clear. Certainly the formal comparison between Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s The House of Cards (ca. 1737) and the exterior of William Butterfield’s High Victorian Gothic church All Saints, Margaret Street, London (1849–59), with which they open their history, is not a convincing advertisement for the benefits of repairing the art-architecture nexus. This reviewer was left baffled by this exercise’s motivation: are we to read it as a call for a new formalism, a return to notions of a “spirit of the age”? The volume is provocative to be sure, but it is finally left to the reader to project what shape a next-generation integrated history of the visual arts might take.

Barry Bergdoll
Meyer Shapiro Professor of Art History, Columbia University