History/Theory - Anthony Vidler - Theories in and of History

Theories in and of History

Anthony Vidler

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Le Carceri d’Invenzione, plate IX (second state), 1750. Source: Wikimedia Commons

November 2018

“History, Theory, and Criticism,” the title of many courses and even departments in academic schools of architecture, attests to the easy way in which these subjects are, however undefined, seen as basic elements of an architectural education. The presumed general humanistic aim of these, often separate courses would no doubt be the introduction of potential architects to history, to ways of thinking inherent to the past and present of their practice, and the interpretation of that practice in the past and present. Such courses have been in existence since the initial division of the subject “architecture” in professional schools—from Jacques-François Blondel’s categorization of the field in the 1750s to the AIA and RIBA protocols of the present. And while theoretical incursions from outside have always had their place in authorizing architectural thought, those of the 1960s and 1970s were especially—and deliberately—unsettling. While now happily incorporated in “theory” courses, the resonance and implications of these theories for contemporary research have yet to be fully assessed. Their historicization is not only inevitable, but also necessary, as they are incorporated in the “toolkit” that Manfredo Tafuri saw as required for critical historical work.


Untying what Manfredo Tafuri called the “theoretical knot that must be confronted to construct a history” has taken many forms in the modern era: from the assertions of autonomy common to the art-historical discipline since the 1900s and the claims for “history” to actively inform practice from Giedion to Zevi to the introduction of theories from disciplines outside architecture with the aim of re-reading the discipline—“rewriting the book of architecture” as Foucault called it. Tafuri himself first tried to sort the problem in with an essay 1966, in which he attempted to demolish the category “Mannerism” as a unified “style of the epoch” defined by art historians from Dvorak, Pevsner, Panofsky, and Wittkower, as well as the inevitable fallout in operative critique from Rowe to Zevi.1 This first attempt was reinforced by a series of essays collected two years later, which attempted to separate out the role of “true” history from that of “operative criticism,” a term that embraced all attempts to construe history teleologically.2 Operative criticism was defined as “an analysis of architecture (or of the arts in general) that, instead of an abstract survey, has as its object the planning of a precise poetical tendency, anticipated in its structures and derived from historical analyses programmatically distorted and finalized.”3 With this, Tafuri includes and reveals the underlying tendency in art historical studies from Bellori and Vasari to Sedlmayr and Wittkower to seek in history a future for the present. What Tafuri meant by “history,” however, would have to await its later elaboration in his 1975 essay “Architettura e storiographia,” and its expansion into the introduction of his 1980 book La sfera e il labirinto.4

Responding to the increasing influence of external theories being adopted to re-frame the discipline—theories that he himself would activate as ways of approaching his own “historical” discipline—Tafuri warns of “the danger that menaces the genealogies of Foucault—the genealogies of madness, of the clinic, of punishment, of sexuality—as well as the disseminations of Derrida, lies in the re-consecration of the microscopically analyzed fragments as new units autonomous and significant in themselves. What allows me to pass from a history written in the plural to a questioning of that very plurality?”5 He concludes:

Perhaps we can see more clearly the danger that lies in the analysis of a Blanchot, a Barthes, a Derrida. By willingly taking on the plural aspects of objects themselves written in the plural—literary works acting as human sciences—these critical languages prevent themselves from crossing the threshold that divides language from language, one system of power from another system of power. They can break up word and texts, construct fascinating genealogies, hypnotically illuminate historical knots glossed over by facile readings. But they must necessarily negate the existence of the historical space.6

Tafuri’s problematic, which has undergone many interpretations since his death in 1994, cannot, as he himself stressed, be reduced to a simple rejection of theory, or even of operative criticism. For the very practice of the historian demanded tools that would unpack the apparent solidity of the “stones” that resisted etiological demolition. Indeed, as Andrew Leach has stressed in his analysis of Tafuri’s historical trajectory, despite Tafuri’s own warnings, his own history benefited enormously from the theoretical turn of the 1950s and 1960s.7 Roland Barthes’ Critique et vérité (1965) was used with great effect to critique Zevi’s “tormented iron trelliswork” models in his Michelangiolo exhibition of 1964; Foucault’s L’ordre du discours (1970) and Ceci n’est pas une pipe (1973) are advanced to great effect in his criticism of the “l’architecture dans le boudoir” of the US, and the themes of Les mots et les choses, and L’archéologie du savoir resonate through all Tafuri’s writings. The continuous reference to linguistic theory—in essence a “science” for Tafuri—is well-known. And it goes without saying that the publication of both Folie et déraison and Surveiller et punir formed the ground for the Venice School’s collective work on the institutional structures of modernity. Indeed, French theory was most immediately consequential on the selection of topics for study, and perhaps less on the tools of analysis. Thus, the research group formed by Bruno Fortier and others with Foucault, examining the hospital projects (the “machines à guérir”) and the ship-building ports of the late eighteenth century. And at the Architectural Association, Robin Evans was certainly alert to Foucault—and even ahead of the game when he published his first article on Bentham’s Panopticon in 1972.

Tafuri, while consistent in the way in which he explored the consequences of his own critique of operative criticism, nevertheless never proposed a positive and unified theory of history. He was, as he argued in the introduction to the The Sphere and the Labyrinth, always aware of the complete instability that was produced by the “interminable analysis” deployed to “undo the mass of threads artificially tangled together,” the “constant process of dismantling” that resulted from envisaging history as a “project of crisis.” The “historical space” that he demanded required an exploration, not of the formal relations—“the improbable links between diverse languages, between techniques that are distant from each other”—but the interrogation of this very distance, the complex interstices among languages. Tafuri was bound to constantly question limits, boundaries, and false consistencies between disciplines and their modes of expression, dedicated to making “an incision with a scalpel in a body whose scars do not disappear.” The historical constructions that emerge from this cut would, he admitted, be far from complete, for “unhealed scars already mar the compactness of historical constructions, rendering them problematic and preventing them from presenting themselves as the ‘truth.’”


Between 1978, the date of Tafuri’s goodbye to the US in “Les cendres de Jefferson,” and 1984, the date of the seminal conference organized by Jeffrey Kipnis in Chicago (published as Strategies in Architectural Thinking, under the editorship of John Whiteman), there arose what is now commonly referred to as the “theory moment” in US architectural culture. Swimming in the wake of the huge impact of Paul de Man and Derrida on literary studies, this moment was founded largely on the translation effects—though often belated and reflecting no significant order, neither in the chronology of European publications nor in those of individual authors. This is when theories of semiology, of “meaning in architecture,” which had already been bruted by critics like Charles Jencks and George Baird at the Architectural Association, gained traction, together with the more general influence of Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida, on reading the texts of architecture.

In Whiteman’s words, the papers delivered at Chicago, reflected “an emerging tendency to tie and untie [though he might as well have said unleash] architectural theory at the intersection of several issues at once cultural and architectural,” with “the idea that architecture and architectural thinking are inextricably cultural and in construction and effect. Or otherwise said, it is the idea that the once supposed autonomy of architecture is an illusion, at best a suspect quality, at worst a mask on a series of transactions and false stabilities that architecture ensures in a culture.” Whiteman concluded his introduction to the publication with Foucauldian resonance: “The shadow concern behind the various issues of the individual papers and strategies of their treatment is that of power, of the effects and constructions of power, in and through architecture.”8

The authors represented in the publication included emerging and already well-known critics: Ann Bergren, Jennifer Bloomer, Beatriz Colomina, Catherine Ingraham, Douglas Graf, K. Michael Hays, Jeff Kipnis, Mark Linder, Robert McAnulty, Mark Rakatansky, Robert Segrest, John Whiteman, and Mark Wigley. Their contributions were startlingly prescient with respect to their later mature works, each assaying an experiment in looking at architecture through the lenses of either Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, or Benjamin. Together, the collection had the effect establishing the grounds for theoretical work over the next two decades. The bibliography latent in the footnotes alone anticipates the content of many future courses, while the critical impulse bouyed Mark Wigley in his curation of the Deconstructivist Architecture exhibition at MoMA four years later.

In some way, this conference acted as a kind of reckoning with the previous generation of architects and critics who had brought the very notion of theory out of Europe and placed it into the New York of the 1970s, among them Peter Eisenman and his colleagues in the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies. Indeed, the first essay in the volume, by the late, brilliant classicist Ann Bergren reconstructed the Derridian theory of the “chora” in the perspective of its redolence in antiquity, providing the conceptual hinge between the philosopher and Eisenman in their project for a garden at Bernard Tschumi’s Parc de La Villette. What this and the other essays accomplished was the insertion of a scholarly base for the overtly “operative” work of this previous generation—a scholarship that allowed for the rapid integration of theory into the regular academic curriculum. Significantly enough, Bergren’s essay was entitled “Architecture, Gender, Philosophy,” thus setting the tone for the essays by Bloomer, Colomina, and Ingraham, and creating a platform for architectural theory to join with the larger social movement of women’s rights in progress. It is also no accident that many among the participants had, and still have, considerable influence in the management of theoretical discourse today in the intellectual administration of PhD programs within, as opposed to outside, architecture.


The legacies of the critical debates of the 60s and 70s are difficult to forget, and haunt contemporary historical practices. This is, in a sense, a good thing. No historical work should be undertaken today without their consideration; they are the historiographical objects of our present analyses. Nor should we cease to re-read their texts and trace their influences. In many instances the very selection of thesis topics, the form of their narratives and what Tafuri called “the instruments of criticism,” are dependent on these epistemological stances, now almost invisible and embedded in our present thinking.

But, since the 1990s, a new and urgent roster of subjects and objects has arisen, out of the struggles of gender identity, post-colonial resistance, and looming ecological catastrophe. Correspondingly, new topics for research, and new approaches to history and theory have been developing, from data mining to forensic analysis. But against any easy introduction of these as new “themes,” there stands the equally looming—and rapidly globalized—political and social crisis of democracy. In the context of the forces of denial and their massive economic backing, the careful historical tracings of prior crises and the apparently “minor” crises in the architectural domain might seem trivial. Yet while technologists insist on the potential of solutions that are purely in the realm of engineering, and economists are equally prone to invent “cap and trade” solutions, the field of architecture—always an “expanded” field in environmental and social terms—has a strong ideological and critical role to play, both in historical excavation and (especially now) in new forms of “operative” criticism.

While Tafuri warns against too close a relation between historical interpretation and its use as a support or project for future design, architectural criticism and reflections on history maintains an important role, both in the public realm and inside the discipline itself. The real lesson of Tafuri is that no history that sees itself as “entering a series of battles and takes on the characteristics of a struggle” can ever ignore its present context. History’s very instruments of criticism are drawn from the contemporary arsenal, from philology to forensics, and its objects and subjects are never innocently selected. With the once active presences of a Foucault, a Derrida, a Deleuze, and a Barthes having departed from the scene, rather than conclude that “theory” is over for history, the echoes of previous theories may serve to re-invigorate contemporary battles, as crucial, if not more so, than those of the past.


Manfredo Tafuri, L’archtettura del Manierismo nel Cinquecento europea (Rome: Officina, 1966).


Manfredo Tafuri, Teorie e storia dell’architettura (Rome: Laterza, 1968).


Manfredo Tafuri, Theories and History of Architecture (London: Granada, 1980), 141.


Manfredo Tafuri, La sfera e il labirinto (Turin: Einaudi, 1980).


Manfredo Tafuri, The Sphere and the Labyrinth (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987), 5.


Ibid., 9.


Andrew Leach, Choosing History: A Study of Manfredo Tafuri’s Theorisation of Architectural History and Architectural History Research (PhD Thesis, University of Ghent, 2005–2006).


John Whiteman, Jeffrey Kipnis, and Richard Burdett eds., Strategies in Architectural Thinking (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992), 7.

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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Anthony Vidler is Professor of Architecture, the Cooper Union, New York, and Vincent Scully Visiting Professor of Architecture at Yale University.


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