a historian’s manifesto

Last fall Mark Jarzombek sent me his Anti-Pragmatic Manifesto. To me the most critical passage of that insightful piece read as follows:

I predict a new fascination with carelessness, a new tolerance for “whatever” in a “whatever generation” – an architecture that prides itself on neither history nor theory, to put it bluntly. This generation will take over the mantel of the “avant-garde,” and demand that it vacuate itself of purpose and thought.  

At the time Mark asked if I might respond with my own assessment of the status of the discipline of history in architecture. It’s been all too long, but here goes. 

I wish I could somehow be optimistic about the state of history, but I’m afraid that I can’t be. History is already in a dire condition in the discipline and, as Mark suggests above, may soon wind up even worse off. 

So much of network culture seems to involve the shutting down of institutions created in the Enlightenment: the public sphere seems to have transformed into micro-clusters and micro-constituencies, newspapers are in free-fall collapse, the novel is giving way to a new fascination with realism, traditional markers of distinction seem obsolete. Perhaps then it should be no different for history.

Especially after Hegel, history operated under the principle of historicism, suggesting that an understanding of the past could be a guide for the present day. Whatever we may think about its problems, this gave a purpose to history writing (Manfredo Tafuri referred to this as "operative criticism"), making history vital and real for generations. For architects, key texts such as Nikolaus Pevsner’s Pioneers of the Modern Movement or Siegfried Giedion’s Space, Time, and Architecture grounded the present in the past.

Teleological in nature, such texts came under justifiable criticism from younger scholars, often bringing with them the anti-historicist methods developed by Karl Popper. But a second, perhaps more modernist meaning to historicism saved history at this point. This new history pointed to the past to suggest appropriate ways of operating within one’s own time. Thus, the work of Palladio would be valued as an example of an architect who engaged with the forces around him and wrestled his structures out of that condition while the work of the Futurists could be resurrected in order to prove how banal modernism had become.

This form of historicism had an enemy: postmodernism. When I first went to school, the best historians argued that their work was a bulwark against postmodernism, that a modern approach was still the only appropriate response to the time. Postmodernism, which merely revived antiquated forms, was nothing more than a zombie form of architecture, misunderstanding the work of earlier architects, misusing it, and thereby threatening the legitimacy of the discipline. 

Soon after came the theory wars. As some theorists argued that history was outdated, now the best historians (Mark among them) argued that theory and history were deeply intertwined and that one should both historicize theory and theorize history. Slowly, history and theory reached a rapprochement.

Alas, this was just in time for the rise of computation. In a prescient text in 1992 entitled "Has Theory Displaced History as a Generator of Ideas for Use in the Architectural Studio, or (More Importantly), Why Do Studio Critics Continuously Displace Service Course Specialists?" Stanley Tigerman predicted that as architects began to dabble in history (as a consequence of postmodernism) and, thereafter theory, specialists in history and theory would be displaced from architectural education by more flexible personas who could also teach studio and the all-important new service courses in digital technologies.  

As this happened, historians began to reintrench into their own professional roles. Newly read in critical theory and particularly concerned about the dangers of operative criticism (as this of course could be so easily replaced by practitioners dabbling in theory). Thus empowered, historians turned back to the old process of academic distinction and discipline. No longer would history make pronouncements about the present. Instead, as Ph.D. programs were founded left and right (just what people would do with all these dissertations is a mystery to this writer, who sat jobless for two years in the mid-90s…maybe two or three programs are necessary at most in the entire country), historians turned toward research that would often be tangentially relevant. The handful of historians who did otherwise, can, I’m afraid, be counted on just a few fingers. 

Having turned to purposeful irrelevance, history now finds itself facing death by a thousands cuts. One course here, one course there. As the demands of accreditation grow, history slowly finds itself squeezed into a narrower and narrower slot in the curriculum. 

Simply put, this is a disaster. Our time would make the most bold of Futurists proud. We have little capacity for understanding historically anymore or even for understanding how others understood their times and reacted to their histories. 

I recently asked a historian about why we don’t periodize anymore, he basically laughed at me, suggesting that I was naive for asking such a dumb question…after all, we all know periodization is bad, right. But is it? Mark calls for a reinvigoration of a Utopian imagination in architecture. Well what about a similar spirit in history? How about putting away our microhistories for a minute and making broad claims about culture, not just in the past, but today?

I recently observed that there were no more common texts in architecture. Ibelings’ Supermodernism was the last one. And if the students and I found flaws in his argument sitting around the table in seminars at SCI_Arc (wasn’t that our job after all?), we still recognized it as keenly intelligent, an attempt to explain the architecture and urbanism of that day historically. Operative criticism it was, but it was still a crucial historical argument, a signpost in a foggy field. And if it is outmoded today due to developments in telecommunications, that’s fine too. Such is the nature of these kind of projects.

But wait, there are no more signposts in our foggy field. Just fog. And we continue to hurtle through it at breakneck speed. This is not a good condition and with the building boom about to implode, we seem likely to run into a massive pile of debris.  

So let’s be naïve. Let’s risk our careers. Let’s make broad, sweeping observations. Let’s make mistakes. Historians need to think big. They need to take stances and even condemn where such a condemnation is due. 

The alternative is more and more about less and less, until finally the accreditors and the administrators pull the plug on our life support system. And at that point, it seems to me, they will have done the right thing.  

Last fall Mark Jarzombek sent me his Anti-Pragmatic Manifesto. To me the most critical passage of that insightful piece read as follows:

I predict a new fascination with carelessness, a new tolerance for “whatever” in a “whatever generation” – an architecture that prides itself on neither history nor theory, to put it bluntly. This generation will take over the mantel of the “avant-garde,” and demand that it vacuate itself of purpose and thought.  

At the time Mark asked if I might respond with my own assessment of the status of the discipline of history in architecture. It’s been all too long, but here goes. 

I wish I could somehow be optimistic about the state of history, but I’m afraid that I can’t be. History is already in a dire condition in the discipline and, as Mark suggests above, may soon wind up even worse off. 

So much of network culture seems to involve the shutting down of institutions created in the Enlightenment: the public sphere seems to have transformed into micro-clusters and micro-constituencies, newspapers are in free-fall collapse, the novel is giving way to a new fascination with realism, traditional markers of distinction seem obsolete. Perhaps then it should be no different for history.

Especially after Hegel, history operated under the principle of historicism, suggesting that an understanding of the past could be a guide for the present day. Whatever we may think about its problems, this gave a purpose to history writing (Manfredo Tafuri referred to this as "operative criticism"), making history vital and real for generations. For architects, key texts such as Nikolaus Pevsner’s Pioneers of the Modern Movement or Siegfried Giedion’s Space, Time, and Architecture grounded the present in the past.

Teleological in nature, such texts came under justifiable criticism from younger scholars, often bringing with them the anti-historicist methods developed by Karl Popper. But a second, perhaps more modernist meaning to historicism saved history at this point. This new history pointed to the past to suggest appropriate ways of operating within one’s own time. Thus, the work of Palladio would be valued as an example of an architect who engaged with the forces around him and wrestled his structures out of that condition while the work of the Futurists could be resurrected in order to prove how banal modernism had become.

This form of historicism had an enemy: postmodernism. When I first went to school, the best historians argued that their work was a bulwark against postmodernism, that a modern approach was still the only appropriate response to the time. Postmodernism, which merely revived antiquated forms, was nothing more than a zombie form of architecture, misunderstanding the work of earlier architects, misusing it, and thereby threatening the legitimacy of the discipline. 

Soon after came the theory wars. As some theorists argued that history was outdated, now the best historians (Mark among them) argued that theory and history were deeply intertwined and that one should both historicize theory and theorize history. Slowly, history and theory reached a rapprochement.

Alas, this was just in time for the rise of computation. In a prescient text in 1992 entitled "Has Theory Displaced History as a Generator of Ideas for Use in the Architectural Studio, or (More Importantly), Why Do Studio Critics Continuously Displace Service Course Specialists?" Stanley Tigerman predicted that as architects began to dabble in history (as a consequence of postmodernism) and, thereafter theory, specialists in history and theory would be displaced from architectural education by more flexible personas who could also teach studio and the all-important new service courses in digital technologies.  

As this happened, historians began to reintrench into their own professional roles. Newly read in critical theory and particularly concerned about the dangers of operative criticism (as this of course could be so easily replaced by practitioners dabbling in theory). Thus empowered, historians turned back to the old process of academic distinction and discipline. No longer would history make pronouncements about the present. Instead, as Ph.D. programs were founded left and right (just what people would do with all these dissertations is a mystery to this writer, who sat jobless for two years in the mid-90s…maybe two or three programs are necessary at most in the entire country), historians turned toward research that would often be tangentially relevant. The handful of historians who did otherwise, can, I’m afraid, be counted on just a few fingers. 

Having turned to purposeful irrelevance, history now finds itself facing death by a thousands cuts. One course here, one course there. As the demands of accreditation grow, history slowly finds itself squeezed into a narrower and narrower slot in the curriculum. 

Simply put, this is a disaster. Our time would make the most bold of Futurists proud. We have little capacity for understanding historically anymore or even for understanding how others understood their times and reacted to their histories. 

I recently asked a historian about why we don’t periodize anymore, he basically laughed at me, suggesting that I was naive for asking such a dumb question…after all, we all know periodization is bad, right. But is it? Mark calls for a reinvigoration of a Utopian imagination in architecture. Well what about a similar spirit in history? How about putting away our microhistories for a minute and making broad claims about culture, not just in the past, but today?

I recently observed that there were no more common texts in architecture. Ibelings’ Supermodernism was the last one. And if the students and I found flaws in his argument sitting around the table in seminars at SCI_Arc (wasn’t that our job after all?), we still recognized it as keenly intelligent, an attempt to explain the architecture and urbanism of that day historically. Operative criticism it was, but it was still a crucial historical argument, a signpost in a foggy field. And if it is outmoded today due to developments in telecommunications, that’s fine too. Such is the nature of these kind of projects.

But wait, there are no more signposts in our foggy field. Just fog. And we continue to hurtle through it at breakneck speed. This is not a good condition and with the building boom about to implode, we seem likely to run into a massive pile of debris.  

So let’s be naïve. Let’s risk our careers. Let’s make broad, sweeping observations. Let’s make mistakes. Historians need to think big. They need to take stances and even condemn where such a condemnation is due. 

The alternative is more and more about less and less, until finally the accreditors and the administrators pull the plug on our life support system. And at that point, it seems to me, they will have done the right thing.  

3 thoughts on “a historian’s manifesto

  1. History on The Ropes
    Timely and poignant post, Kazys. I agree with much of what you are saying, but I would like to add that part of the problem is that “Architecture History and Theory” or “History, Theory and Criticism of Art and Architecture”, or however one chooses to label this strange profession of ours, has not done a very good job of either defining or promoting itself. I just had coffee with Daniel Abrahamson, an architecture historian at Tufts, who reiterated this very point. Indeed, he related to us that one of the wonderful (and terrifying) things about architecture history is that it has a lot of room to grow. And this means there are plenty of mistakes and hiccups to endure. So the other side of this coin is that architecture history has a lot to learn from other disciplines.

    I would like to think that this “death” of history and theory that preoccupies Jarzombek so much is an opportunity for stocktaking. Are we going to continue to mire ourselves in the arcane distinctions between object, subject, context, site, etc, or are we going to be bold and redefine the very vocabularies we use to advance our craft?

    This project is fraught with difficulties. For example, one of my colleagues bemoaned the fact that architecture history was “too materialistic.” This may have been a response conditioned by the fact that this person is a “reformed art historian.” But to those of us who study buildings and cities, we admit to a fundamental materiality that is the bedrock of our analysis. And then again, there is a slew of writers out there that are going to be instrumental in our theory/history toolkits in the upcoming years. People like Peter Sloterdijk, Bruno Latour, Niklas Luhmann, and Friedrich Kittler [I know that you’ve already introduced some of these folks in your dissertation 🙂 ].

    So for these reasons, I do think it is a good time to be a Ph.D student in architecture. Graduate school (and especially architecture school) may be infantilizing … but at last it gives me the opportunity to shore up my defenses, tactics, what not. I may swallow those words in a couple of years … but it is what gets me through these days.

    Is it too naive to think that the a possible future for history and theory lies in the realm of self-publishing or self-distribution? Is it too naive to think that our charge should be to keep ourselves from being mired and trapped inside academia? There are a lot of pundits and critics out there who deal with issues of architecture and urbanism … but can we play that game as well? Can we bring our tools and training to bear on prurient and important issues regarding the built environment, and can we do this using more mainstream mediated channels? Do we need to make movies, comic books, in order to do this? What do we embrace, and how? That, you have to admit, is a minefield.

  2. Tafuri
    Tafuri also saw the role of the critic as part of the process of production… I see instances of critical intervention in the process of production today, in some architectural practices…particularly through activism and transgression of boundaries within the production of the built world. I think historians (and I’m on my way to become one) need to return to that involvement Tafuri suggested, studying the processes of production that are so overwhelmingly guiding the world. This is how I understand part of your work here, and how I think historians can find relevance.

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