History/Theory - Brigitte Sölch - Architectural Problems

Architectural Problems

Brigitte Sölch

Map of the Roman Forum. Structures of Republican Rome are shown in red and Imperial Rome in black. From Samuel Ball, Topography and Monuments of Ancient Rome, 1904. Scan by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D., alterations by Mark James Miller.

November 2017

During the eighth International Conference of Modern Architecture (CIAM) in 1951, Sigfried Giedion drew from Ancient Greece and Roman Antiquity to present a historical interpretation of the idea of the urban “core.” He described history as a “store house in which one can find forms to imitate” and a “container of human knowledge and experience.”1 One may happily follow Giedion’s observation that the forum of Pompeii differs in its architectural clarity from the chaotic state of the Roman Forum, or share his surprise about the fact that different functional buildings, like the prison, the Curia, or the Rostra, were so close to one another on the Forum. It is easy to be infected by the euphoria of his description of how Michelangelo implemented his “democratic” ideas on the Roman Capitol.2 But these (romantic) glorifications and aestheticizations of the past don’t help us, for instance, to understand interconnections between form, function, social ideas and political circumstances. History is diverse, and certainly not less complex than the present. It is only by comprehending it in its complexity can we begin to ask structural questions that go deeper than pure formal debates or mirror reflections of our own expectations towards the past.

Architectural history should therefore be understood as a “problem history” (Problemgeschichte), as a question of understanding how words, images, and ideas are connected and what impact they have on our understanding of the world. Furthermore, it should a matter of searching out the issues and problems that were prevalent at particular moments in history, and not merely simplifying and apprehending the formal solutions to them. Take, for instance, the moment during the nineteenth century when historicist styles such as Roman, Greek, or Gothic went hand in hand with new construction methods in iron, industrial productions of architectural elements, or the use of electric light.3 Or, the stylistic controversy that raged in France during the late eighteenth century between Classicists (like Jacques-Louis David) and Romanticists (like Eugène Delacroix). While this dispute has figured prominently in art history as an aesthetic debate, historical research has revealed that it was instead predicated on a revision of the term “modern” and questions of how the two genres dealt with similar problems such as gender and pictoral boundaries.4 Asking structural questions allows deeper insights into the interactions between architecture, art, and society.

Otto Gerhard Oexle, who first theorized Problemgeschichte, recognized how history can make it possible to ask diachronic questions and bring to light points of contact between different disciplines as well as between theory and practice.5 We can thus recall Giedion’s interpretation of Greek and Roman city centers and inquire to what extent postwar references to antiquity by modernist architects and political philosophers, from Alvar Aalto to Hannah Arendt, are not just a scientific return to the Classics but truly the expression of a “struggle for democracy.”6 Perspectives relating to the history of ideas and of science are thus required in order to understand the interests and parameters that have shaped our view of history at particular times. What follows is a brief description of five “problem areas” that deserve a key position in the writing of contemporary architectural history.


Architecture history needs to map out the changes that have taken place in its terminology, ideas, and concepts over time.7 Proper attention should be given not only to the language that has been used to describe it, but also the images that relate to them, such as Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand’s Receuil et Parallèles des edifices de tout genre, anciens et modernes, which used pictorial means and a comparative visual approach to make the case for a typological understanding of architecture.8 The discipline of art history is therefore necessary for the study of the architectural history. How else can we understand the interaction between diverse media such as fact that in early eighteenth-century Rome, modern public buildings like hospitals, prisons, and grain silos were represented as icons on precious papal medals and enjoyed international popularity?9 Furthermore, enlarged depictions of these precious, mobile medals became featured in Roman palaces like the Vatican in the form of immovable frescos. Seeing as how the idea of architecture as a free-standing monument influenced the transformation of historic cities from the late-eighteenth century onwards—with the demolition of local fabric to enhance perspectival effects—we can look to these transient and fixed images of single buildings to understand how architecture has become conceived of as a monument.10


In addition to issues of race and class, it is essential to question the role gender played in the early historical study and our contemporary understanding of architecture. Despite the fact that up until the twentieth century women were barred from the architectural profession, architectural history cannot do without a discussion of women as authors, designers, commissioning clients, users, planners, and teachers. Else Padtberg, for instance, examined writers like Jacob Burkhardt, Heinrich Wölfflin, and August Schmarsow at the turn of the twentieth century.11 Yet as Katia Frey and Elenia Perotti address, women often did not have the option of publishing their writing and practicing architecture in the same way as their male colleagues. This demands doing away with discursive judgements such as “high” and “low,” and a historical analysis of more “unconventional” sources such as letters or notices as part of a theoretical thinking.12 This might also allow for the role women have played in construction, and particularly in places where architecture is (traditionally) practiced without architects, to be understood.13 Furthermore, patronage should be taken as a crucial site for the discursive production of architectural history, for as Tanis Hinchcliffe shows, patronage was a crucial way for women to exert influence on spatial issues and develop specific types of residential building.14

Fragments and Ruins

Ruins were described in the Renaissance both as an expression of former greatness and as a symptom of cultural ailment. Filarete’s treatise on architecture, for instance, posits that architecture sickens and dies if it is not properly cared for and nourished. In light of current global conflicts, the discursive history of architectural destruction and decay is relevant for understanding the way we think about, value, and debate questions of reconstruction, renovation, and expansion in the present. The Renaissance and Modernism, which both laid claim to the new, did not neglect the old. They thus offer an interesting background for historical perspective on how and why historical pieces of architecture have been incorporated into new building projects, and how their juxtaposition was reflected in both theory and practice.15 The framing and incorporation—or conversely, ignorance and destruction—of fragments and ruins plays a significant role in the aesthetic experience of the built environment, not to mention the ethical perception of architecture in a charged world of political conflict and violence. For the question remains how we deal with the unexpected, anonymous, and indeed fragile artifacts, both historical and contemporary.16

Boundaries and Thresholds

Public space has been differently conceived of and formally articulated throughout history in both visible and invisible ways. Dante’s Divine Comedy and medieval cathedrals are both exemplary demonstrations of how architecture can generate thresholds by interpreting staircases and decorated portals as moments of transition, hope, and anxiety. Covered markets like the bazaar, the public forecourts of mosques, or passage-like areas such as the “shopping street” that ran through Andrea Palladio’s Palazzo della Ragione in Vicenza all show that the penetration of spaces and the design of fluid transitions are not an accomplishment of the modern age.17 Historical research into sacred buildings and court culture in particular has contributed a great deal toward understanding the overlapping between architectural and juridical, religious, or social boundaries. One need only think of the increasingly public character of the staircase in early modern palaces, which by making the transition between exterior urban space and the palace interiors porous, not only increased the social and political power of the elite by symbolizing publicness and gaining visibility, but also allowed for the regulation of access.18 Indeed, we can find similarly gradated spatial hierarchies of publicness and power in other, more contemporary forms today, such as in company headquarters, courthouses, airports, and hospitals. Architectural history can, in short, increase our awareness of how the built environment not only mirrors but actively influences the behavior of society in public spaces.

The “Heart”—and Other Analogies

The use of analogies is probably as old as architecture itself. Thinking in analogies is, furthermore, constituent to the design and appreciation of architecture.19 Francesco di Giorgio Martini, for instance, equates the navel in the human figure with the main square.20 Josef Frank’s design for the Villa Beer (1928–30) in Vienna, in which the central living room is conceived of as a “piazza,” a point of confluence for all the different converging pathways, is reminiscent of Leon Battista Alberti’s analogy between the atrium of the house and the city forum.21 Similarly, some twentieth-century Indian architects refer to the traditional body of theoretical knowledge on architecture as represented by the Vastu Vidya.22 While architecture can indeed be described in both India and in Central Europe with analogies of the body, they draw from different understandings of it, which even in themselves are not fixed. Up until the early modern period, for instance, the European body was viewed as the connection between microcosm and macrocosm.


Architectural history in the form of “problem history” makes it possible to perform (inter)cultural analysis, which not only reflects concerns of the history of ideas and science, but also opens onto aesthetic, technical, and even emotive and perceptual questions. Publications like Body, Memory and Architecture (1977) by Kent C. Bloomer and Charles W. Moore, or The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses (1996) by Juhani Pallasmaa should therefore be given further consideration as a kind of historical anthropology of phenomenological problem areas. While this includes the question of form and its perception, it is not independent of social and political contexts.23 Architectural history provides insights into the life, the survival, the destruction, and the appropriation of architecture, and thus also modes of producing difference. History may be “different,” but it does not contradict the present. References to or dissociations from history demand knowledge, not ahistorical topoi or images of longing that ultimately serve to idealize the present.


Sigfried Giedion, “The Heart of the City: A Summing Up,” in The Heart of the City: Towards the Humanisation of Urban Life, eds. Jaqueline Tyrwhitt, José Luis Sert, and Ernesto Rogers (London: Lund Humphries, 1952), 159–63, here: 162. See also Konstanze Sylva Domhardt, The Heart of the City: Die Stadt in den transatlantischen Debatten der CIAM 1933–1951 (Zurich: gta Verlag, 2012).


See Sigfried Giedion, “Historical Background to the Core,” in The Heart of the City (see n. 1), 17–25.


See Otto Gerhard Oexle, “Krise des Historismus – Krise der Wirklichkeit: Eine Problemgeschichte der Moderne,” in Krise des Historismus – Krise der Wirklichkeit: Wissenschaft, Kunst und Literatur 1880–1932, ed. Otto Gerhard Oexle (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007), 11–116. See also, from a different perspective, namely that of cathedral research, Christian Nille, Kathedrale – Kunstgeschichte – Kulturwissenschaft: Ansätze zu einer produktiven Problemgeschichte architekturhistorischer Deutungen (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2016).


For an overview, see also Claudia Hattendorff, “Französische Malerei 1760–1830: Klassizismus, Revolutionsbilder, Romantik,” Kunsthistorische Arbeitsblätter 4 (2006): 17–30, here: 20–21.


See Oexle, “Krise des Historismus” (see n. 7).


Questions like these are part of my habilitation project at the HU Berlin. The work, which is nearing completion, is on “Das Forum – nur eine Idee? Versuch einer Problemgeschichte aus kunst- und architekturhistorischer Perspektive (15.-21.Jh.).” See also the editors of Classics in the Modern World: A Democratic Turn? (2013).


Adrian Forty’s Words and Buildings: A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture (Thames & Hudson, 2000) is one example of a work that employs such a methodology.


On Durand, see Werner Szambien, Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand 1760–1834: De l’imitation à la norme (Paris: Picard, 1984) and, more generally, Klaus Jan Philipp, “Mittelalterliche Architektur in den illustrierten ‘Architekturgeschichten’ des 18. und frühen 19. Jahrhunderts,” in Visualisierung und Imagination, vol. 2, eds. Regine Abegg, Bernd Carqué, and Daniela Mondini (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2006), 379–416.


See also Andreas Beyer, Matteo Burioni, and Johannes Grave, eds., Das Auge der Architektur: Zur Frage der Bildlichkeit in der Baukunst (Munich: Fink, 2011); Andrew Leach, John MacArthur, and Marteen Delbeke, eds., The Baroque in Architectural Culture 1880–1980 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015).


See Brigitte Sölch, “Bild – Architektur – Bewegung: Transfer und motivische Verankerung der Architekturmedaille im Rom des frühen Settecento,” in Transformationen Roms in der Vormoderne, eds. Volker Leppin and Christoph Mauntel (forthcoming).


See Else Padtberg, Die Beurteilung der Barock-Architektur: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der kunstgeschichtlichen Methode (Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität zu Münster, 1927).


Theoretikerinnen des Städtebaus: Texte und Projekte für die Stadt, eds. Katia Frey and Elenia Perotti (Reimer Verlag, 2015).


See also Bernard Rudofsky, Architecture without Architects: A Short Introduction to Non-pedigreed Architecture (New York: Doubleday, 1964).


See, among others, Dörte Kuhlmann, Raum, Macht & Differenz: Genderstudien in der Architektur (Vienna: Selene, 2003); Lucienne Thys-Şenocak, Ottoman Women Builders: The Architectural Patronage of Hadice Turhan Sultan (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006); Sabine Frommel and Juliette Dumas, eds., Bâtir au féminin? Traditions et stratégies en Europe et dans l’Empire ottoman (Paris: Picard, 2013). Tanis Hinchcliffe, “Women and the Practice of Architecture in Eighteenth-Century France,” in Architecture and the Politics of Gender in Early Modern Europe, ed. Helen Hills (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), 83–96. See also Ilaria Hoppe, “Plautilla Bricci, die erste Architektin: Zum Verhältnis von Architektur und Geschlecht im römischen Seicento,” in Frauen und Päpste: Zur Konstruktion von Weiblichkeit in Kunst und Urbanistik des römischen Seicento, eds. Eckhard Leuschner and Iris Wenderholm (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016), 171–85.


Kai Vöckler, for instance, Die Architektur der Abwesenheit oder die Kunst, eine Ruine zu bauen convincingly shows how inspiring the analysis of fragments and ruins can be when diachronous perspectives on the dialogue of art and architecture are developed. See also Brigitte Sölch and Erik Wegerhoff, “Fusion Architecture from the Middle Ages to the Present Day: Incorporation, Confrontation or Integration?” in Proceedings of the EAHN Second International Meeting, Brussels, 2012, 178–81.


The question still stands as to how the experience of images of architectural destruction has a retroactive effect on our perception of the built environment. See also Susanne H. Kolter, Die gestörte Form: Zur Tradition und Bedeutung eines architektonischen Topos (Weimar: VDG, 2002).


From a historical perspective, it would thus be desirable to have a companion piece to the impressive Schwellenatlas published by arch+ in 2009, which focused on modernism and the contemporary period. Even studies on pictorial phenomena like Tina Bawden’s work Schwelle im Mittelalter: Bildmotiv und Bildort (2014) could be an important methodological accompaniment, because this topic is also relevant for the city, and the façade plays a key role as an interface between interior and exterior—an issue that was also examined by Peter Stephan in his study on “the forgotten space” (Der vergessene Raum) and the “third dimension in architecture.”


See Ulrich Schütte, “Stadttor und Hausschwelle: Zur rituellen Bedeutung architektonischer Grenzen in der Frühen Neuzeit,” in Die Grenze: Begriff und Inszenierung, ed. Markus Bauer (Berlin: Akademie, 1997), 159–76, here: 164–67.


See Jean-Pierre Chupin, Analogie et théorie en architecture: De la vie, de la ville et de la conception, même (Gollion: Infolio, 2010).


See Bruno Reudenbach, “Die Gemeinschaft als Körper und Gebäude: Francesco di Giorgios Stadttheorie und die Visualisierung von Sozialmetaphern im Mittelalter,” in Gepeinigt, begehrt, vergessen, eds. Klaus Schreiner and Norbert Schnitzler (Munich: Fink, 1991), 171–98.


See Christopher Long, “The House as Path and Place: Spatial Planning in Josef Frank’s Villa Beer 1928–1930,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 59 (2000): 478–501, here: 491.


See Vibhuti Chakrabarti, Indian Architectural Theory and Practice: Contemporary Uses of Vastu Vidya (Richmond: Curzon, 1998), xx.


See also Dietrich Erben, “Zur Architektur der Frühen Neuzeit aus der Sicht der historischen Anthropologie,” in Bauen als Kunst und historische Praxis: Architektur und Stadtraum im Gespräch zwischen Kunstgeschichte und Geschichtswissenschaft, vol. 2, eds. Stefan Schweizer and Jörg Stabenow (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2006), 461–92.

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

Brigitte Sölch is Senior Research Scholar at the The Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Max-Planck-Institut.


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