Architecture and it’s Past – Part 1 – Martin Reinhold – ‘Professional Histories’

Lecture date: 2010-05-21

Reinhold Martin

Brett Steele inaugurates the symposium noting the AA has transformed teaching of the past in architecture in fundamental ways and the problem of architectural history is particularly interesting at this moment within the school. Many students have articulated the straightforward point which is they have a problem understanding what to do with history in relation to their work in the studio. Architecture strangely tends to obsess with the future. The irony is that it has only defined itself in relation to the past, and architects are hired regarding past achievements. The culture of history that figures like Banham, Summerson, Pevsner, consolidated years ago, made possible that experimentation could situate itself in relation to something.

Mark Cousins introduces the main aims of the conference, not concerned with history as it is taught in art history departments. It has a very precise focus: why for a long time the teaching of architectural history has been seen within the program as somewhat irrelevant. If one would like to be scholarly about this history of dissatisfaction, one would probably trace it back to the development of modernism itself. Modernism questioned the study the history of architecture, given the fact that it is the same thing you want to replace. The problem now is that modernism itself begins to have a history. The feeling of the irrelevance of history towards design practice together with the neglect of the history teacher dates from several decades ago and has been compounded by the introduction of the digital. It happens at an institutional level. It is not unfair to say that architecture history and its big narratives such as ‘from the Renaissance to the Baroque’ and so on, tend to be scholarly literature and have become very problematic. While teaching the Parthenon at the AA, we teach first of all an account of twentieth century architects’ reaction to the Parthenon. Cousins closes hoping that these issues would be discussed over the two days, knowing that the less we are concerned about the past, the less and less able we are to tackle the problems of architecture. At the AA there is a will to completely radicalize and transform the teaching of architectural history. He welcomes Reinhold Martin from Columbia.

Reinhold Martin starts reminding the audience what they already know: that there is only history and nothing else. Secondly, to belief that computerization or digitalization as one of the main distractors of students from historical matters is in a sense historically inaccurate, because in the wider world, historians were just as, if not quicker than architects when it came to computing. As early as 1958, the Annales historian Fernand Braudel (1902-1985) was testing the application of game theory and social mathematics to the practice of history. By 1973, the digital computation of demographic statistics was shaping the professional practice of social history. To the point that Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (1929-) could claim: “Tomorrow’s historian will be a computer program or it would no longer exist.” Although these unrelated developments have little influence on the writing of architectural history, they did influenced associated fields, such as urban and environmental history; palpable in the starring role that was played by the bankruptcy maps in William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis. The later offers a completely different, -but not entirely incompatible- picture of Chicago than that which is implied in the essay by Colin Rowe, Chicago Frame. Like digitalization more generally, early quantitative history was dominated by a characteristically mid-century desire to align historical knowledge to natural and social sciences. Though architecture is no stranger to this desire, the failure of architecture historians to take up the statistical methods pioneered with the help of computers by their colleagues in social history, correlates to the failure or refusal to render architectural history scientific. Historiographers have argued that social history’s incorporation to quantitative methods marks a zenith of century-long efforts to gain for history writing the authority of a science. This authority, a legacy of nineteenth century positivism, has been challenged since the 1960s on a number of grounds, to the extent that it is somehow an oxymoronic expression to say ‘history of science.’ Little history is taught in the science curricula, even more, the amount of PhD thesis on history in both architecture and science is ridiculously small when compared to the rest of the research developed. History, as a form of truth telling, partakes of the very same scientific authority it seems to relativize when it inserts science in the urban flow of contingency. The modern un