Images of historians (architectural that is)



A few weeks ago I read Jeffrey Schnapp’s excellent essay “The Face of the Modern Architect.”  This essay is part of a small handful of essays and book chapters that examine the ways architects control the image of their discipline through portraiture. Schnapp traces the eyeglasses, ties, pipes and cigars that accompany most portraits of architects, finding within these items concepts of class, authority, introspection, and anonymity.  Here is Schnapp on eyeglasses for example: “The eyeglass teasingly establishes the architect’s depth, individuality, and authority, while also defining him as a pure surface that ideally merges with the public surfaces of his body of work.” He sees smoke as a nod to mass comfort, ties as images of bureaucracy; Anyway, purchase the issue it is in, read it, and enjoy.

Schnapp’s essay makes me wonder — what is the image of the architectural historian, the architectural writer?  This question is partially answered by Schnapp, as two of his contemporary examples — Peter Eisenman and Daniel Libeskind — are, or have been, architectural historians. In their portraits we see the same ties and glasses as many of the architectural historians in the RIBA collection of architectural historian portraits. We can argue that such elements represent a type of bureaucracy of historical research or that the glasses are for the near-sighted historian versus the far-sighted architect (or perhaps that’s the reverse?) But the images of the architectural historians in the RIBA collection, and others, contain a stillness, a weight, missing in the corresponding images of architects analyzed by Schnapp. Architectural historians, who explore archives and who often “sit” on a building, are like architects except that they do not appear to move. And lets be honest, they generally don’t dress as well, operating with smaller salaries and a smaller audience.

But all of this is changing, especially as architectural historians and other architectural writers seem increasingly uncertain about their role in architecture culture. On the one hand, architectural historians simply appropriate the portrait image articulated by Schnapp. Architectural historians dress in ways that make them indistinguishable from architects and engineers; more interesting, is that architectural historians and theorists increasingly absorb the meta-image of the “kinetic elite” advanced by internationally succesful architects. Within early twentieth century photographs, architects would have portraits taken of themselves gazing with a look of surprise and fierce interrogation at some far off, but unseen structure. This signified that they were in a previously untraveled (by them) precinct. Today, architectural historians and writers increasingly portray themselves on the move. We can see this in the sidebars of architectural historian bloggers that keep us informed of their travels, or more aggressively with the global tracker that was once a prominent feature of Kazys Varnelis‘ site (I tried to find it, but that part of the site is gone now). 

But I think the architectural historian is due for a complete makeover. We should feel confident about our discipline and our stillness (Although I feel as if I have been living inside an airplane these past two years.). That image of stillness, of staying close to material in an archive is one that might be reconsidered; likewise, we should feel fine that we are, generally, not the most travelled in our departments. So, what might this new image of the architectural historian be? When I sit for a photograph, I hope to have some suggestions.


  1. Charles

    Hi David:
    Remind me to take a picture of you! Whose picture is that in your post?

  2. dlgissen

    It’s a picture of (Sir) John Summerson. Thanks for reading!

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