History/Theory - Richard Wittman - The Problem Concerning History

The Problem Concerning History

Richard Wittman

Detail from the published version of Henri Labrouste’s envoi study of the temples of Paestum (1828–9), depicting the different qualities of stone used in the pediment of the Temple of Ceres. For Labrouste, this was proof that the settlers there were becoming more settled in their new homeland and less dependent on the building traditions they remembered from Greece.

November 2017

What is, or should be, the role of architectural history within architectural culture, education, and practice? It feels as though architectural historians are asked to talk about this problem all the time. Meanwhile, it is hard to imagine anyone posing a version of it to non-architectural historian colleagues in Art History departments. Not because contemporary artists are not interested in art history—certainly very many are. There just is not the same level of anxiety and introspection and, occasionally, conflict over the question. Architecture programs and those responsible for their pedagogical trajectories have been more or less ranked according to whether they are hot, warm, or cold towards architectural history.

One bristles at the suggestion that architecture might have something essential about it that invites this durable anxiety about history. Representatives of the more essentializing spirit of past eras would have had no such scruples: reflexively they would have recited that old chestnut of classical theory which notes that architecture has no model in nature, unlike the other arts; buildings always imitate other buildings which, for unavoidable reasons of chronology, are always previous buildings. We are inclined instead to historicize the question itself; to consider the persistence of the History Question from the perspective of historical development, specifically institutional and disciplinary development. The academic practice of critical art history took shape for the most part in the hands of erudite non-artists, from Johann Joachim Winckelmann to Jacob Burckhardt and Anton Springer to the generation of Alois Riegl, Heinrich W­­ölfflin, and Aby Warburg. These pioneers were trained in classical philology, philosophy, history, and later, the early social sciences. Architecture was part of what they studied, sometimes even an important part. It can be treacherous to generalize about this rich tradition, but I think it can be said that from Winckelmann on, art history mostly approached architecture from the perspective of aesthetics and interpretation, reflecting a primary orientation towards the spectator. Its practitioners were concerned with affect, later with empathy and psychology, and with the larger problem of how such things might be studied; they were also interested in the transmission of forms and in cultural memory, and in the relation of these elements to historical development. When they studied architecture, they were keen to understand its threads of development in relation to those of other contemporary forms of artistic and cultural production. With a few important exceptions—Karl Bötticher springs to mind—non-artist art historians did not typically devote much energy to the back end of architectural production, which is to say its technical or material or practical aspects. This was as true for Winckelmann as it was for W­­ölfflin.

Contrary to the field of art, from the very beginning a substantial number of architects felt uneasy about the prospect of non-practitioners writing the history of their discipline, and moved to take the writing of architectural history into their own hands. As early as 1762, the academic architect Julien David LeRoy tried to rally the members of the French Royal Academy of Architecture to write their own official history of the French architecture of their day, rather than leave their story vulnerable to the errors and distortions found in “ephemeral and often contradictory Writings” produced by “journalists, or individual historians, who are sometimes not very well versed.” The roster of architects who, from the late eighteenth through the nineteenth centuries, published serious works of architectural history is very long: in addition to LeRoy there is Piranesi, James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, John Carter, Jacques-Guillaume Legrand, Thomas Rickman, C. R. Cockerell, Georg Moller, Heinrich Hübsch, Leo Von Klenze, Jacques Ignace Hittorff, Luigi Canina, Henri Labrouste, Léon Vaudoyer, Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, Gottfried Semper, George Gilbert Scott, Victor Ruprich Robert, Pietro Selvatico… Why exactly were so many architects unwilling to leave architectural history to the university professors? No similar revolt occurred amongst painters or sculptors. Only an eccentric handful of painters seems to have insisted that art historical inquiry was best performed by artists (Johann Dominicus Fiorillo and Charles-Nicolas Cochin, for example), and they all lived in the eighteenth-century pre-history of the discipline. Their scruple did not survive into the nineteenth century, when the push to establish art history as an autonomous discipline led to a broad consensus on the inextricable ties binding art to the academic fields of philosophy, philology, and literary interpretation, whose old and prestigious offices were just down the hall.

One aspect of this unwillingness on the part of architects to see the history of their discipline written by others derives from the very different relationship between architects and the materiality of architecture. It is a truism among architects that non-architects incline towards a superficial understanding of buildings, since they ponder only the visible features while remaining ignorant of the myriad challenges and obstacles that the architect has overcome and thus rendered invisible through skill and expertise. (LeRoy made precisely this point in his comments to the French Academy, proposing that the second part of the official history he envisaged contain technical memoranda offering architects “yet another reliable resource against the false judgments” that might be published regarding their work.) This sense of the building as the architect’s rational and aesthetic triumph over an array of limiting contingent forces—climate, budget, materials, even gravity itself—has little to do with the expression of the Hegelian Idea. The exploding prestige of the sciences after 1800 further emboldened this refusal of aestheticism, especially as architects found themselves in close proximity to the heroic new achievements of modern engineering. Faced with the engineer’s transformational claims, even an implicit idealizing contempt for materiality could appear an effete remnant of a bygone age. The consequence can be seen in works like Hübsch’s analysis of style, in which a practical, materialist history centering on technological development and the exploitation of available resources is made to explain the evolution of artistic forms.

Needless to say, some architect-historians, like Klenze and Canina, remained staunch idealists, rejecting much of historicist relativism and giving little credence to the claim that material factors should determine stylistic decisions. But the overall trend was unquestionably more materialist than was the case in academic art historical contexts. And in a sense, the phenomena fed upon itself: for material and technological aspects of architectural history are most likely to highlight difference rather than continuity, and most apt to provoke a sense of rupture or alienation from the past—a point made by countless architect-historians in the first half of the nineteenth century. The feverish production of architectural history scholarship by architects was thus driven in part by an urgent need to find a new basis upon which the achievements of the past could continue to offer a useful inspiration to the present. This is palpable in the work of men like Labrouste and Semper, who in their very different ways both sought to refocus attention on putatively universal dynamics of historical process as a means of liberating architects from their sense of enslavement to historical products (that is, forms), which, they argued, are contingent, and therefore of genuine relevance only to specific times and circumstances.

This desire to extract useful design guidance of some sort from history unites the very disparate ranks of nineteenth-century architect-historians. Nearly all of them hoped to isolate laws or rules that presumably had once been obeyed, unconsciously and organically, but then lost. Recovered, it was hoped that these laws might permit architecture once again to evolve authentically and productively. This instrumentalizing attitude towards the historical past did not die with the nineteenth century; the Modern Movement, which claimed to have broken with such traditions, continued to look to the past—albeit in new formats—as a source of guidance for the present. Thus Le Corbusier aspired to recover the abstract principles that had generated contingent historical forms when he paralleled the development of the Greek temple with that of the automobile, or exalted the “Doric morality” of an ancient triglyph. More recently, Robert Venturi approvingly quoted Henry Russell Hitchcock’s affirmation of the value of pursuing historical study “in the expectation of feeding more amply new sensibilities that are wholly the product of the present.”1

In turning now to the eternal question of what benefit architectural history might still offer to the student of architecture, a first point to make concerns history more generally. In his sublime short text “On the Concept of History,” Walter Benjamin observes that “to articulate what is past does not mean to recognize ‘how it really was.’ It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger.”2 To put it less elegantly, the decision whether to seek out serious historical analysis or to decide that you can afford to be ignorant of it is always a political decision. If it seems important to you to question the status quo, you have to be able to explain how it came about; you have to be able to present an accurate and powerful criticism of the narrative that is used to justify it. This is a high-stakes enterprise, and if you intend to make a serious contribution to it, you have little choice but to take the study of history seriously. You will not find a quick substitute by casting about for something usable on the internet, where, if you enter naked and uneducated, you leave yourself terribly vulnerable to absorbing the perspectives of people who have perhaps never gone beyond the most tired received ideas, or who—much worse—will mislead and misinform you with alternative histories, myths, conspiracies, or post-truth fantasies. If you believe that human affairs deserve serious, informed, objective, critical analysis—and that is a political stance, not just a scholarly one—then there is a duty to devote a portion of your education to the serious study of history.

A second point to make concerns architectural history specifically. At the quiet heart of that instrumentalism which underlay the historical sensibility of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century architect-historian—from Hübsch to Venturi—there resides a particular view of architecture as the product of the architect’s intentions. Such a perspective implies the value of certain kinds of historical inquiry over others and privileges the moments of design and construction over the subsequent history of the building, posits the building itself as a physical object in space to be experienced phenomenally, and highlights the personalities involved in shaping the design (the architect first of all, but with some consideration given also to the patron and anyone else who makes a material contribution), rather than all the other people who come into contact with the building, whether physically or at a distance via some form of representation. Anyone who engages with architectural history scholarship already knows that the most interesting sectors of the discipline long ago abandoned this way of framing the topic. Over the past fifty years or so architectural history has greedily expanded its focus, reconceiving itself as the study of spatial practice and thought in general, which is to say, all kinds of place-making by all kinds of people, and all the varieties of imagination, memory, calculation, and desire that that entails.3 Many architectural historians are today inclined to conceive of buildings as open-ended processes—as sites of multi-actor practices of dwelling, using, observing, interpreting, contesting, and representing—rather than as intentionally designed, finished objects.4 The field of study has been expanded now to encompass the whole human landscape, including even those spaces that we might be inclined to imagine as natural, but which nonetheless participate in our spatial imagination, and turn out therefore to have a history.5 And rather than assume that in-person, phenomenal experience is the only mode of architectural experience, the question is increasingly posed as to how the informationalized representation of architectural or spatial knowledge, in anything from a printed book to a text message, interacts with and reconfigures spatial imagination.6 Perhaps the most dramatic shift of all has been the ongoing effort to displace Europe and North America from the supposed center of architectural history, and to embrace the invigorating conceptual challenges that come of engagement with different spatial imaginaries.7

Recent architectural history, in other words, does not much concern itself with offering instrumental assistance to architects wanting to see how their predecessors in the profession made their choices or managed their successes, but rather inquires into the infinite variety of ways in which the production, experience, representation, and conception of space shape human history. To the extent that such scholarship achieves its goal of enriching our understanding of that nexus, it offers itself up to the architect who has made the political decision to take history seriously, and will help form an effective basis for critical, beneficial, and constructive engagement with a world that is unfortunately as troubled as it is beautiful.


Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (2nd ed.) (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1977), p. 14.


Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” (1940).


For a concise and highly recommended overview of the new approaches that have helped reshape the discipline, see: Swati Chattopadhyay, “Architectural History and Spatial Imagination,” Perspectives on History 52, 1 (Jan 2014), 32–3, .


For examples of this kind of approach, consult the works of Dell Upton, for instance his book Another City: Urban Life and Urban Spaces in the New American Republic (2008).


For a brilliant example of this, see: Vittoria Di Palma, Wasteland: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).


This has been a concern in my own scholarship on the eighteenth century and print culture. See: Richard Wittman, Architecture, Print Culture, and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century France (London and New York: Routledge, 2007).


For an excellent reflection on this, see: Kathleen James-Chakraborty, “Beyond Postcolonialism: New Directions for the History of Nonwestern Architecture,” Frontiers of Architectural Research 3:1 (March 2014): 1-9.

History/Theory is a collaboration between the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (gta), ETH Zürich and e-flux Architecture.

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Many thanks to Octave Perrault for his very stimulating comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

History/Theory is a collaboration between the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (gta), ETH Zurich and e-flux Architecture.

Richard Wittman is Associate Professor of the History of Art and Architecture at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He is the author of Architecture, Print Culture, and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century France (Routledge, 2007) and is currently completing a cultural history of the nineteenth-century reconstruction of the Early Christian basilica of San Paolo fuori le mura in Rome.


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