Architecture and it’s Past – Part 2 – Brian Hatton – Wandering through the Museum’

Lecture date: 2010-05-21

Mark Cousins introduces Brian Hatton. While he begins to talk, a video made in the interior of John Soane museum is projected on the screen: he explains that for him, this museum is an early version of an hypertext museum.

Two main concerns about history in architecture schools are: it is too dependent on stylistic models on art history and second that it seems unpopular among students. It certainly has been neglected by design teachers, particularly from the 1960s. From 1966, with Aldo Rossi’s Architecture of the City and Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, a wave of historical revisions passed through the schools.

Around 1990, models where drawn again by natural history, with topics such as self organizing, complexity and chaos theory, fractal and topological geometry. A catalyst for all this was the computer, CAD techniques and other analogs of natural processes.

Parametric design techniques suggest that the wave is not yet down; very oddly, Patrick Schumacher declared parametricism to be the great new style in a recent manifesto that parodied the isms of 90 years ago. It there is a return to history at this point, it is possible to guess that there will be a revival of interest in George Kubler’s 1962 book, The shape of time, as his proposals for an evolutionary formalism are closer to a recent scientism.

Heinrich Hübsch’s 1828’s question In what style should we build? proposes (wrongly, in Hatton’s view) first that there is a question about how to design, second that the answer would be found in some kind of style and third, that the correct style would be developed rationally, according to historical models. Thus, the past is turned into history.

The study of history according to this vision, might induce to certain alienation in the students. In Stephen Dedalus’ conversation with Mr. Deasy (from Ulysses) he claims “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”. As the archeologies where organized and museums filled, the information overflow became entropic. And entropy, as testified from Piranesi to Robert Smithson, liberates an intoxicated imagination.

In art, to realize disorientation is to consider another possible direction, as in Breton’s first surrealist anthology, Les pas perdus; the lost steps. Why one has to do academic study when what he really wants to know is, who am I? No history of art works is traceable without the appreciation of the works in sich, in themselves. That is, description precedes explanation. A diagram, a tetrahedron, with its four tips: theory, architecture, criticism and history represents well how each practice relies in the other three, that is, the architect sits on the triangle of theory, criticism and history, the historian in the other three and so on. None can be practiced without the others.

I know of architects and artist who understand of art as well as a historian does, but their knowledge is as if it were synoptic rather than chronoptic. They see that history presents early, middle and late works, but not necessarily in that order to them, as they lean towards their own present height. We could imagine perhaps an open school, like Umberto Eco’s Opera Aperta, setting out not a stream, but a field of meaning, negotiated in multiple utterances and exchanges, but set out among certain stable forms.

As Robin Evans said in one of his essays, “today’s ubiquitous technique, including historical technique, provokes dreams of escape, that must stay as dreams, as a wish unfulfilled is a wish kept alive.”

Curriculum in a school is not to be a dogma, but a method. Exhibitions in museums may be like courses in disciplines, but critics of the conservative museum overlooked how visitors often treat fixed sequences of museum, rarely approaching them as a tome to be read from page 1 to that which says the end, but rather led by mood and open to detours of unexpected absorption.

To a visitor, the historical time might be a grid against where to fix other figures, which may become an intuition of a new Gestalt or constellation. Such seemed to be an aim in the montages of trans-cultural images made by Aby Warburg, which he called his atlas of mnemosyne, memory. Gerhard Richter too, named Atlas his archive of photographs, which he collected for his use in painting. If a school might be compared with a museum and the exhibition may be more like a course, I suggest that in a way what the students end with its simply like the wrong atlas.

Why do we make the course a re-course? Why in willing what we want to be, in the future, the recurrence to what it was? Why the museum at all? This questions are not to be thrown like a bomb to the academy, but considered, architecture is a mode of design, but many kinds of design are not studied t