The Immediate Present

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I just finished reading Anthony Vidler’s Histories of the Immediate Present: Inventing Architectural Modernism; it’s his examination of the historiographical techniques of Emil Kaufmann, Colin Rowe, Reyner Banham and Manfredo Tafuri, and their impact on the unfolding set of concepts that we call architectural modernity. It was, with some qualification, a page-turner, at least for an architect interested in history:  it gives us historians a project, it impels us to operate in new ways, while giving us a new history of our discipline. I wrote over 3000 words of notes on the book in an MSword document! I take type-written notes on virtually every architectural book and essay I read, but the scale of note-taking on such a short book is, in and of itself, a huge endorsement and a warning to readers that this book is an involvement. The following review is exceedingly clipped; but i imagine the ideas of this book will find a way into future posts.

At one level Histories is a defense of architectural history. Histories appears at a troubling time in the architectural historical discipline. Today, many departments of architecture  have an antagonism towards history far different than the battle with history that characterized modernity. In addition to the para-historical ideas circulating in contemporary architectural practice, the number of academic architectural historian jobs dropped from about 20/year five years ago to about 10 this past year. In this way, Histories is a memory of the not-so-distant good-old-days when architectural historians piloted “Architecture”. 

At the same time, and related to the above point, Histories is a subtle critique on the unambitious nature of contemporary architectural history. The post-war, youthful historians that Vidler recuperates operated in a way quite different than the young contemporary historian of our immediate present. Kaufmann, Rowe, Banham and Tafuri were cartographers of architectural modernity and pilots of a late-modern architectural agenda. Their most significant articles appeared in the types of public venues that many contemporary architectural historians and tenure-committees disdain; they lectured in both the academic lecture hall and in public settings to a complex and diverse audience; they didn’t reserve their most “important” thoughts to weirdly reclusive conferences.

So what type of agenda did these historians establish? Vidler neatly ties each historian to a particular read of modernity which is then transformed, if not implicated, in a particular architectural agenda played out to the present:

The first case study examines Emil Kaufmann; a historian who coined the term “architectural autonomy”. Kaufmann drew on the Kantian notion of autonomous will, as a hallmark of enlightenment (and bourgeois) society. The autonomous object is not absorbed (or “concatenated”) into its environs but appears as a distinct self-reflective procedure distinct from its surroundings. As Vidler argues, such a concept potentially connects Ledoux to Eisenman; but more significant, Kaufmann used such a concept as political critique against the cultural concatenations (and evictions) of Fascist Europe.

Following the chapter on Kaufmann (which is, I think, the best chapter in the book) we read about Colin Rowe and his desire to establish a history of modernity that engages concepts of historical will and development, but that is distinct from a progressivist, functionalist, and technologicalist approach (i.e. the approach of Banham). Rowe arrives at a vision of history, in which the historian uncovers an “infolding” order (or concept) that can be employed for a future architecture — an extension (if not inversion) of Wolfflin that ultimately traps Rowe into his own posthistorical philosophy.

The chapter on Banham may be the most intriguing; in addition to reviewing Banham’s recuperation of the Futurists and his embrace of the architectural program (a concept formalized by his contemporary John Summerson), Vidler offers one of the most unique histories of Banham’s Four Ecologies. Whereas previous critics understood that work as a “pop” history or urban monography, Vidler argues that Banham’s Four Ecologies essentially entangles the rhetorical gestures of Vers une Architecture with the methodologies of mid-century German geography. Such methods enabled Banham to arrive at an Architectural Histoire Autre that matched his interest in an Architecture Autre (typified by his unhouse).

I found the concluding case-study chapter on Tafuri a bit frustrating. In a review of Sanford Kwinter’s FFE, Thomas Daniell wrote that it is difficult to write about Sanford Kwinter without sounding like Kwinter, and I would argue that this is doubly-true for writing on Tafuri. The history in this chapter was not quite the awakening of the previous three, perhaps because Tafuri work is the most historicized in the recent literature, or perhaps because Histories is, itself, the product of a partially Tafurian methodology. Here the methods of the book and its subject come together in such a way that we cannot get a necessary analytical distance. 

If architectural history still impacts practice (and I think we all agree that it does), I think the most historically involved, and yet progressive, practices invoke the oft-contrasted  procedures of Tafuri and Banham. While Vidler (among other historians) contrasts Tafuri to Banham, we might argue that these ideological opposites spent the last years of their careers focused on very similar problems. Both wanted to reconceptualize the techniques that defined architectural history, because both understood that those techniques were deeply implicated in the possibilities of architectural production. The concluding case-studies of this chapter suggest unrealized and potential closures between the critical and autre methodologies, although this is not an interest (per se) of Vidler’s. The former, but not the latter,  is the thesis of Vidler’s book and the ultimate lesson it offers for the architectural historian and the architect. I imagine many people will read this book to understand some of these historians; I hope people considering a career in architectural history read this awesome book to realize the power of their possible, future career.

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  1. martin

    this is almost totally off-topic, but given your interest in interior air, i thought this might intrigue you:

    Alcoholic Architecture: Care for a gin and tonic? Just breathe in…

    http://blog.archpaper.com/wordpress/2009/04/23/take-a-deep-quaff/




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