Content and craft: what do we do when we do the history of architecture?



What do we do when we do the history of architecture?

David Theodore



In Built upon Love, Alberto Pérez-Gómez begins his chapter on the ­brothers Jean-Louis and Charles-François Viel with a reference to the work of another historian. He discusses Jean-Marie Pérouse de Montclos, who in 1966 marshaled evidence to argue that the brothers, active in post-revolutionary Paris, were indeed two distinct persons. For Pérez-Gómez, Pérouse de Montclos’s attribution was helpful, but his analysis was not, for it seemed “to miss the profound implications of the multiple layers of his [Charles-François’s] critique.”1 This is a curious but telling opening; it metes out praise for archival, documentary fact-finding research, while simultaneously denigrating it as secondary: what matters is whether the historian makes the right judgment, and the right interpretation. Pérez-Gómez’s own chapter brings no new evidence to bear on this historical incident; he sets out instead to offer a textual re-reading, searching in the past for a meaningful understanding of the present. Here, then, rhetorically, is a brilliant opening flourish that invites –perhaps compels – us to read what follows as a model for doing history. In miniature, it is a brief manifesto of what we should do when we do the history of architecture; namely, it is not enough to get the facts and the story right, we must also receptively grasp the problems raised by the text and which the text addresses.

This essay describes, compares, and elucidates what Pérez-Gómez does when he does history at two moments: in his first book, Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science (1983), and in the chapter on les frères Viel in Built upon Love (2006). I wish to comment briefly on how he uses documentary evidence, evaluates sources, enters into debates with other scholars and secondary scholarship, and constructs historical arguments. Rather than focus on his content and conclusions – his passionate exhortation to use history to orient ethical practices today – the essay seeks to understand his craft: how does his immersion in hermeneutics, history of science, and phenomenology constitute how he works as an historian?2

The question of Pérez-Gómez and historiography appears quite starkly today against the background of the recent transformation in the kinds of historical research undertaken in architecture schools. Contemporary architectural historians, liberated from the constraints of style-based art history, now aspire to the standards and procedures of research undertaken elsewhere in the academy.3 As an architecture-school-based holder of a doctorate, Pérez-Gómez was an influential exemplar in the development of this trend. He was part of an earlier second wave of university-trained historians who sought a history of architecture distinct from art history in terms of method, heuristics, and philosophical sophistication. And yet his approach to doing history, rooted in his education at the University of Essex, goes against many of the conventions and standards of professional history as practiced in the university today. He makes a crucial contribution, on the level of craftsmanship, to showing how one might practice an alternative or oppositional model of historical writing, one free from the technocratic and formalist trajectories characteristic of the specialist historian.

One way to introduce the issue of method and technique in architectural history is to look at this “history of history.” We can start by recounting the story about how “architectural” history emerged as an academic department after World War II, taking on institutional forms distinct from both professional programs and art history departments. The celebrated program at the University of Essex, led by Dalibor Vesely and Joseph Rykwert, was but one graduate architecture program focused on history and theory as the proper subjects of advanced degrees.4 While Essex was famously nomadic and peripatetic (sometimes by choice), early programs in the United States had stronger institutional homes in architecture schools. Historians in programs at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton, as well as slightly later ones at UC Berkeley and MIT, experimented with how history might be written.5

Architectural historians were not alone in the desire to create new histories and new academic departments. Historians of science and of medicine, too, also split off from their close associations with professional training and began to incorporate concepts and goals from social and intellectual history. Relying on arguments and strategies from anthropology, sociology, and philosophy, historians across the university aligned their work with the interpretive social sciences, and away from questions of connoisseurship and fact-finding. They worked assiduously to specialize and ­professionalize, changing the ways they assessed evidence and positioned themselves within the academy. Cultural and social historians especially sought to better understand the ways that people, whether ordinary citizens, philosophers, or architects, made sense of the world in distant historical periods.6

While there are problems specific to the writing of professional architectural history (e.g. the structure of the peer-review publication system or the opposition between avant-garde and social history), it is the character of Pérez-Gómez’s craft within the broader view of the professionalization of history that concerns me here.7 To that end, I want to discuss three key features of Pérez-Gómez’s historiography he promotes that go against the conventions of specialist historical research. First, his interpretive practices are bounded by an understanding of meaning given by twentieth-century phenomenology. Second, he understands history as marked by metaphysical changes more strongly than economic, political, or social changes. Third, he reads the long tradition of writing architectural theory, especially since the rediscovery of Vitruvius in the Renaissance, as internally coherent. Each of these three parts provides, in circular fashion, the grounding for the other. For the sake of clarity I will discuss each part individually, pointing out only the obvious ways in which they connect to each other, but bear in mind that both conceptually and as a matter of prose style they are deeply intertwined.8

For Pérez-Gómez, phenomenology is not just a theoretical framework chosen from among rivals; consequently, he does not, as part of writing history, include any argument for adopting this way of thinking. He simply opens Crisis with a declarative, apodictic paragraph about perception, experience, and meaning.9 Rigorously following phenomenological thinkers, he argues near the book’s end, allows historians to disengage from technocratic, instrumental, formalist, and dualist thinking.10 Indeed, Pérez-Gómez’s historical propositions will make sense only if the reader develops a sophisticated understanding of a wide range of phenomenological thinkers. Two distinctive characteristics of Pérez-Gómez’s work follow. First, there never arises an issue in the historical documents Pérez-Gómez examines that puts phenomenology to the test; history always reveals the truth of embodied meaning.11 Second, there is never cause to engage with other theories of meaning either to repudiate or rehabilitate them.12 But note also that Pérez-Gómez himself will not be the guide to understanding phenomenology. Pérez-Gómez’s approach obliges the interested reader to actively read Crisis alongside the thinkers he recapitulates but does not elucidate.13 This engagement with theory, strikingly distinct from other scholarly practices, is one of the most significant ways Pérez-Gómez’s working methods, and not just content, should be understood in opposition to the conventions of ­professional history.

A second feature of Pérez-Gómez’s craft is his insistence on ordering historical time into epochs. These epochs are mostly described by metaphysical distinctions, not social, cultural, political, or material changes. He derives them from historians of science, specifically, from Georges Gusdorf and Alexandre Koyré, adopting the forceful notion of a Galilean revolution.14 In Pérez-Gómez’s categories, a first fundamental change occurred in the seventeenth century with the scientific revolution and René Descartes’s influential emphasis on the difference between res extensa and res cogitans; a second occurred at the beginning of the nineteenth century with J.-N.-L. Durand’s combinatorialism and Gaspard de Monge’s descriptive geometry.15 Note that Pérez-Gómez’s periodization does not arise out of his close scrutiny of texts, but rather guides and precedes his reading.16 In Love, too, he explicitly and implicitly argues for the ongoing validity of a vocabulary of scientific crisis and epistemological revolution. By contrast, we can look at what happened in the history of science around the time Crisis was published. Historians of science had begun to question the schema of continuity and gaps, and, more profoundly, the coherence of “science.” The idea of a Galilean scientific revolution, especially a metaphysical one, was shedding its cogency.17 By 1998, the idea was thought of as a “zombie,” a lifeless construct that nevertheless manages to live on outside of professional history, revived for administrative or publicity functions, but no longer an active theme engaged by working historians.18

A third structural feature of Pérez-Gómez’s writing is his notion of hermeneutic continuity, or, the overlapping of cultural horizons throughout the history of architecture in the West. Despite using a framework of metaphysical epochs, Pérez-Gómez rejects the idea of incommensurable historical gaps or breaks. When reading a text, its meaning can be recovered (through hermeneutics).19 In particular, Pérez-Gómez sees the development of French architectural theory from roughly 1500 to 1900 as “normative for European culture during this period.”20

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Aug 9, 2021 | Posted by in Building and Construction | Comments Off on Content and craft: what do we do when we do the history of architecture?
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