History and Design: Where to Next?

Originally published in , May 1979

In the mid-twentieth century there has probably been no more confusing and neglected issue in architectural education than what to do with history. The debate has gone on long enough (and the historians have been adamant enough) that the advisability of some inclusion of historic consciousness in any architect’s thinking seems beyond question. But what form that consciousness should take, what application it should have to workaday design, and how such consciousness might best be acquired are issues which draw about as much concurrence as a symposium on how to cure cancer.

In these days of shifting direction in architectural thinking, and tightened budgets for architectural training, these are questions which cannot be avoided. If history is, in fact, “fat” in the architectural curriculum – a luxury which, when put to its most practical application, serves only to provide fuel for cocktail party conversations spiked with tantalizing terms like gargoyle or ogee – then perhaps in demanding times (like the present) it should be dropped, or at least diminished in emphasis. If, on the other hand, a knowledge of the past and the progressive development of ideas and theories of architecture are essential to the continued vitality and pertinence of the field, then it is in “hard” times particularly that history should be mined to its depths. It should be emphasized as an indispensable aspect, not only of architects’ initial training, but of their continued development as well. In this latter direction (you may have already guessed) lies the inclination of this article.

If one believes in the value of the past in stimulating directions for the future, then perhaps in the case at hand it makes sense to begin by reviewing the recent history of architectural history and its relation to the field as a whole.

The earliest clearly defined attitude toward the role of history in relation to training for the practise of architecture which bears on our case is the rigorous Beaux Arts system developed in France and practised, in modified form, around the world well into the twentieth century. Under this scheme, history of architecture was a vital and practical aspect of design training. History, along with technical studies, drawing, and rendering, was part of a tightly coordinated program supporting design courses which were the focus of the curriculum. History was a means to the end of design. The “fundamentals” of classical orders and styles were studied for their direct applicability, and actual, tangible forms of the past were important and relevant. Mastery of both spirit and technique was acquired through painstaking hours of copywork drawing from handsome illustrated volumes ingraining for all times the qualities of composition, line, form, volume and texture which were the legacy of the past.

Resource material, collected and disseminated by an emerging cadre of architectural historians, was largely archaeological. The concern was more with what was done rather than with why or how. Artefacts pre-empted explanations or analysis. There was seldom any need to lecture architectural students (or practicing architects) on the relevance of a good, thorough, periodically resuscitated background in architectural history. It was simply a sensible, pragmatic part of the discipline.

In its latter stages of development, and particularly in its modified American form, Beaux Arts “lessons of the past” were extended well beyond traditional classical sources to more recent examples which had themselves been designed in an eclectic mode. The system began to evolve into a rather closed, inbred circle, both politically, in terms of the masters and leaders of academe, and formally in terms of the building solutions which were produced.

By the early 1920s the situation was ripe for revolution, and the Bauhaus provided the impetus. As with most revolutions, the prior regime received unqualified condemnation; its attitude towards the history of architecture being no exception. “Instruction was confined to observation and representation associations with any kind of ‘style’ were studiously avoided.”

Since the goal of an architect’s training was to “liberate the individual by breaking down conventional patterns of thought,” the formal study of building precedent was totally purged from the Bauhaus curriculum. Oskar Schlemmer’s dramatic cry of “death to the past” was the extreme expression of a movement which looked studiously forward to a future which would be so revolutionary in its make-up that it would prove both the forms and philosophies of the past to be irrelevant.

Despite its widespread publicity and influence, the comprehensive curriculum of the Bauhaus was never as pervasive in architectural education as had been the Beaux Arts system.

By the end of World War II, with the Bauhaus itself long since disbanded, a strange amalgam of Beaux Arts and Bauhaus educational attitudes characterized most schools of architecture. The contradictory views of the two systems concerning instruction in history led to a period of confusion and indecision as to its role and ultimate fate.

The “young turks” of the period regarded architectural history with suspicion because students might be tempted to draw inspiration from and make use of styles of the past. It was, at best, useless and, at worst, harmful. They wanted it abolished. The more seasoned veterans of such debates were loath to eliminate it. And yet they acknowledged, in general, its prior misapplication and found it difficult to rationalize a reasonable new application for history in the context of “modern” architecture which was, by now, in vogue. History and design became independent entities – history a sort of connoisseur’s hobby in which beauty, tradition and style could still be appreciated, and design a practical, real-world matter devoid of such sentimental aestheticism.

In schools of architecture, as well, the disciplines diverged and became parallel courses within the curriculum. More and more, history was taught by historians and design by designers. The grand chronology courses, “Ancient to Medieval” and “Renaissance to Modern”, developed along scholarly and academic lines, and could almost as easily have been electives in anthropology or French literature for all their application to the practice of architecture. They were historians’ histories – an admirable and high-minded world of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. They might spark an enjoyable avocation for the more intellectual student, but, for most, they were of questionable relevance and secondary importance.

The journals of the AIA in the United States and the RIBA in Britain during the early fifties are sprinkled with attempts to rationalize this split. It was a difficult period for historians, some of whom became very weary of constantly justifying their existence.

Work such as Space, Time and Architecture by Seigfried Giedion and Pioneers of Modern Design by Nikolaus Pevsner, which gained preeminence during this period, can be seen as curious contributions towards healing the rift between history and modern design. Here were histories of modern design – masterful works in which the past could be viewed through the blinkers of modern architecture. Leading contemporary attitudes could be seen to grow inevitable out of the past. History was used to confirm and validate the present.

The impact of such works is startling. If history could not contribute to modern design, at least it could be used to rationalize it, and in a world sceptical of such radical change, that was valuable. Even if the works did contain an element of distortion and bias, at least they got architects and historians talking again and seeking more vigorously a real integration of their disciplines.

By 1960 Henry-Russell Hitchcock could note that “the architects and the historian-critics of the early twentieth century… taught us to see all architecture, as it were, abstractly, false though such a limited vision probably is to the complex sensibilities that produced most of the great architecture of the past.” Hitchcock could see in this abstraction a means to design. He continues, “When we re-examine – or discover – this or that aspect of earlier building production today, it is with no idea of repeating its forms, but rather in the expectation of feeding more amply new sensibilities that are wholly the product of the present.”

The abstraction of architectural history into aspects or issues sparked a new era of analytical and evaluative history which, for the first time since the Beaux Arts, could make a clear, positive contribution to the formulation of design. Historical attitudes, philosophies and even approaches could be accepted as analogues for contemporary work. Why and how a particular building or cityscape developed began to receive as much emphasis as the actual artefacts themselves.

Historians sought issues and ideas which, when isolated from their period, bore relevance to contemporary design. Architectural history emerged once again as a potentially pragmatic part of the total curriculum – a source of parallels, models and metaphors which could improve abilities in everyday design.

Robert Venturi said that Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture dealt with “the present, and with the past in relation to the present.” Interplay between analysis of historical works and design of new ones stimulated provocative criteria and methods. But it also produced, as Hitchcock had warned, some alarming distortions. Sir John Summerson decried what he called the “mischievous analogy” which twentieth century architects had substituted for the eclectic imitation of their predecessors. We have reached the near-present.

I would suggest that current postures towards history reflect even less sureness and conviction than before. Among schools of architecture in Australia a great diversity exists in attitude towards the issue. In at least one school, no formal courses in history are offered at all. In other schools, thorough, traditional chronologies are adhered to conscientiously. Some faculties have loosened their concentration on the western tradition in architecture to emphasize the relatively short, but vital, history of architecture in Australia. Others have concentrated on histories of south-east Asia, China, India or Japan. Some schools prefer an academic approach, while others emphasize analytical lessons from the past. Such diversity can be stimulating and enriching, but it also indicates, perhaps a need for reassessment and redirection.

What current and near future role should architectural history play in design? How should we be training ourselves and the next generation of architects as regards the past? I suggest a seven-point programme:

• Do not neglect at least a peppering of good old academic architectural history – the sometimes dry, but generally broadening exposure to the progress of architecture through the ages. Stress the heritage of their profession. Demand rigorous scholarship (at least a little), fastidious research technique and clear, clean austere logic. The discipline of history has much to lend to architecture, and this may be the closest to real academic education that most architects will ever come. Do not overdo this point.

• Emphasize perspective of the inevitable flux of architecture. Strive to instil, through history, the flexibility of mind that saves the designer from the fallacy of considering time as static. This aspect of history has been most notably absent among leading designers trained in the Bauhaus and post-Bauhaus anti-historical tradition. The sage perception of this perspective is the surest protection against the error of rigid extremism.

• Emphasize, at the same time, those aspects of architecture which do not change and are common through all time. Aldo van Eyck observed that “modern architects have been harping continually on what is different in our time to such an extent that even they have lost touch with what is not different, with what is always essentially the same.” History should be employed to illustrate lessons about those simple, constant human traits which architects often forget in the myriad competing complexities of design. The richness in expression of human life which is evident in buildings of the past is impressive and inspiring.

• Underscore the utility of history as an important aid in developing an architect’s values, principles, philosophy or theory. The forming of values is a critical aspect of a designer’s development. History provides a means of vicarious experience in judging the relationship between values or directions and their resultant products or effects. As a testing ground, it can rescue designers from the pitfalls of trial and error.

• Utilize history as a means of sharpening skills in environmental evaluation and analysis. The skills in objective scrutiny of environmental quality that are required in historical analysis are exactly the same facilities necessary for constructive self-criticism in design. By developing an objective eye with which to probe extant work, an architect also cultivates greater capacity for self-criticism in creating felicitous new work. The essential analytical steps of architectural design are made more vivid and real by comparison.

• Enrich visual vocabularies by a flood of images from the past. Harold Bush-Brown is credited with the observation that new forms always emerge from their antecedents, even if in violent reaction to them. An architect without broad exposure to a wide range of forms, shapes, materials, colours, textures and scales is like a poet with an inadequate set of words. During the past generation, most architects have lived on a starvation diet in terms of visual vocabulary, largely because of the wholesale rejection of the past as a source. Early Australian settlers famished in the bush (while Aborigines survived) simply because they considered so much of the available plant life to be poisonous. Likewise, currently, many architects are famishing visually (and sometimes literally) simply because they have marked the rich vocabularies of the past as forbidden fruit.

• Acknowledge the increasing degree to which architecture involves the expansion and adaptation of environments built in the past. The sensitive placement of new work in an existing context requires appreciation of that context – its attitudes, intentions, methods and means. This is specific, practical historical knowledge to which most current practitioners find they have never been adequately exposed.

Comprehensive coverage of these seven points constitutes a more than full plate for any budding design student about to sit down to his first architectural history lecture. It likewise constitutes an overwhelming remedial effort for the practitioner attempting to sharpen his own developing design abilities. And it certainly could present some nightmares to instructors in architectural history who, after all, have only so many hours of class in which to cram all of that diverse information.

The solution to this dilemma lies, I think in the realization that the role of history in relation to architectural design is a complex bundle of functions, none of which can be singled out or allowed to preempt the others. Rather than pretending to train complete academic historians or complete analytical historians or complete eclectics, we should concentrate on preparing designers to use history in many ways as circumstances require. We should develop concurrently a broad set of historical applications, drawing from the past a diverse relevancy ranging from everyday and pragmatic applications to abstract and academic ones.

Thinking about Life as an Architect
Originally published in , May 1979